Interview: Aidan Moffat and Paul Fegan

Aidan on Ferry copy
This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on February 17, 2016.

There is this story that comes from The Bible, or from an old folk song, or maybe from Nick Cave’s album, The Boatman’s Call. It came to mind a few years back, as cult-pop swashbuckler Aidan Moffat sailed, and gruffly serenaded, a party of us up the Clyde. It’s a tale about a life done living, how it passes on to death, as the river meets the sea.

And it seemed an odd myth to recall that night, with all the beer and laughter flowing, but then, amid Moffat’s bawdy laments, he sang a reinterpretation of The Parting Glass / The Parting Song. It’s a bygone folk hymn popularised by our pre-eminent travelling balladeer, Sheila Stewart, whose version plays out like an earthly farewell (“My ship lies in harbour / she’s ready to sail”), and is one of several old Scottish songs Moffat re-wrote against a modern backdrop, for a musical road trip – and film by Paul Fegan – entitled Where You’re Meant To Be.

The film premieres at the Barrowland this week, almost two years since Moffat and Fegan launched their adventure at Finnieston Quay. It’s a beautiful, quietly funny film that explores life, loss, music and (unreliable) memory. And if Moffat’s bawdy raconteur makes for a righteous protagonist, then so too does folk matriarch Stewart, who unexpectedly sang and harangued her way into the very heart of the film. After an early encounter, wherein the septuagenarian firebrand chastened Moffat for daring to upset her folk traditions, (“You’ve taken the context and blootered it”), Stewart took the wheel.

“Sheila was the obvious story to be told,” says former Arab Strap frontman Moffat. “We knew it as soon as we met her, as soon as she ticked me off. And regardless about how she felt about me, she clearly loved being in front of the camera and wanted to be a part of the film – in fact, her attitude was more that it wasn’t going to happen without her.”

Stewart comes across as formidable and wonderful on-screen – deadpan, in charge, hard to impress, and capable of provoking highly uncharacteristic hand-wringing in Moffat. That she also waxes lyrical on her life, and songs, and family – at one point she walks us to their gravestones – is prescient, and profound: only a few months later, in December 2014, Stewart died. She was the last in line of a centuries-old folk tradition that found friends, and fans, in Hamish Henderson and Ewan MacColl. Where You’re Meant To Be features her final interview and performance footage. This is her parting song.

Did Sheila know she was ill when they met her? “I don’t think she sensed it for a moment,” offers Fegan. “I certainly never got that impression. A lot of that stuff – like the graveyard scene, or Sheila’s stance on her songs and stories about her family – it fitted with the story that we were already trying to tell, which was about the conflict between Aidan and Sheila, over loss, of her culture, of her songs.”

Fegan’s previous work includes the multiple award-winning Pouters (2012) – a short documentary about two doo fleein (pigeon flying) rivals in Glasgow – and the music video for Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells’ 2011 magnum opus, The Copper Top, in which Moffat and Wells take to a loch-side graveyard, clad in undertakers’ suits, to wave off a life lived over the water.

As with those films, Where You’re Meant to Be is warm, poetic and minimalist: birds feature as symbols of liberation and entrapment; water is a conduit for life, and death, and reflection; landscape (be it urban or rural) is cardinal – and sometimes breathtaking – but never indulgent. You could credit Fegan with impact by stealth, but he’s quick to shift the accolade. “The editor, David Arthur, is a massive part of this,” says Fegan. “He made sure we didn’t digress from the story, from the relationship between Aidan and Sheila, and never used a beat more of anything than we had to. He constantly kept everything moving along.” It is moving, indeed.

The film departs Glasgow via the Clyde, and charts Scotland’s remote parts, as Moffat and his band (The Twilight Sad’s James Graham, Bdy_Prts’ Jenny Reeve, axeman-extraordinaire Stevie Jones, composer Michael John McCarthy) perform at folk clubs, kitchen tables and shoogly stages from Drumnadrochit to the Isle of Skye, before coming full circle, back to the Barrowlands.

It never strays far from Stewart’s voice, but there are colourful digressions along the way. They run into feuding monster hunters in Loch Ness, and a barrage of battle re-enactment warriors near Oban. That latter gig, in an ancient churchyard, was particularly memorable: they performed amid tombstones, flanked by a quad-biking crofter and kilt-clad Ramones fan, with mediaeval-costumed caterers serving up turnips, gruel and spit-roast fowl.

It was a late night – there was an ad-hoc ceilidh in a barn, there was 80s-fuelled moonwalking into the dawn – at which point, Moffat was called upon to shed his hangover, don full chain mail, and attend a hillside jousting lesson. “Oh, that was horrific,” Moffat recalls with a laugh. “I was walking away that morning. I was going home, I’d had enough. And then it got cut from the film. Gone.”

You can see him in said battle garb on the cover of the film’s accompanying live album. (He does not look like a happy man.) In another film scene, he’s flat on his back in Loch Ness in a dry-suit. All at sea. “In terms of a subject, Aidan’s the antithesis of the way your average pop star would want to be portrayed,” says Fegan. “I think that’s an important part of the film, Aidan being like that – it allowed us to almost tell an anti-music documentary kind of story.”

“I don’t really care about how I’m portrayed, it never really bothered me,” Moffat shrugs. “The majority of concert footage in the film comes from the [worst] gigs, because they’re the most entertaining.”

They recorded the album live at Drumnadrochit Village Hall, and it features almost all the songs Moffat re-interpreted for Where You’re Meant To Be – including, of course, The Parting Song. “I’d dedicate this song to [Sheila] – indeed, I’d dedicate the whole album to her – but for the fact that she really, really didn’t like it,” Moffat writes in the liner notes. “So all I’ll say is, although I don’t believe in Heaven or spiritual nautical metaphors, I hope she had a calm and comfy voyage.”

He might not think that higher plains or maritime fables hold any water, but Moffat’s words elicit the lyrics to an old Arab Strap song, The Night Before The Funeral: “When I’m going, I’m going the Viking way … lay me in a boat … and kick me out to sea…” Stewart would surely have approved.

Where You’re Meant To Be premieres at Glasgow Barrowland, Feb 19, as part of Glasgow Film Festival, then tours Scotland. The album is released on March 25.

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