You wouldn’t have wanted to be backstage before a Beatles show. John Lennon and Ringo Starr both had such bad stage fright they’d throw up every time. I don’t throw up before I go onstage. Venues please have no fear. I’m not normally nervous before performing. If I have any fears about it, they may manifest in feeling unusually quiet, clammy-handed or even drowsy. But that’s the exception rather than the rule.
So why at the Bridge of Orchy weekend did I end my solo set shaking like a jelly, tripping over cables and almost running to get a beer and get outside? I’ve been wondering for a while. Perhaps after Erika Napolitani’s sweary and emotionally charged talk at CMA Live today I understand it a bit (That’s the Content Marketing Academy, not the Country Music Awards, a source of constant amusement during the day as the Twitter hashtags crossed over.).
She talked about how we censor ourselves out of opportunities to meet with and work with people who need us. For business customers here, read people who could be affected, amused, moved, inspired or just entertained by my music. I tell myself all those stories about why should anyone bother about a too-old singer, why would they care about my little dreams of playing in a band, why would they bother with me when there are real artists, better singers and writers and guitarists on every Edinburgh street let alone the country and YouTube. I am my own troll. Any bad reviews you could give me, I’ve given them myself already.
Erika talked about remembering what inspired you, why do you even put yourself through this? And I thought about the times as a young person and even later in life when I was ‘nailed’ by a song. A turn of phrase that cut into my heart, a chord change that took the floor from under me. I want to give that to people. Because it mattered so much to me. It broke the world for a few seconds. Robin Williamson singing The Circle Is Unbroken at Glasgow City Hall. The last verse of Pale Blue Eyes on the Velvet Underground’s third album. Cohen singing ‘That’s all, I don’t even think of you that often’ at the end of Chelsea Hotel. The slow fade-in of A Day In the Life. Nick Cave declaiming ‘Designed and directed by his Red Right Hand’. Any number of Richard Thompson lyrical bombshells.
In that solo set at Orchy it felt different from the usual set in which I think about craft, about delivery. About whether I’m doing justice to a song or throwing it away. And, usually, about whether people like it, or like us, or like me. Now I was playing songs I don’t usually play or had never played before, to a small audience who were listening closely and without hostility.
What seems to have happened is that I felt something in the songs, the spirit of them that made me feel they were worth finishing in the first place. And that took me away from concern with ‘me’ to just delivering what they were supposed to deliver, which they delivered to me there and then. That shook me, I wasn’t expecting it. If I’d known before I started I’d feel like that I’d really have messed up, but mercifully it was a surprise. I’ll be putting some of these recordings online soon so we’ll see whether this emotional connection actually led to a better performance or just a subjective shiver.
I’m often reluctant to share feelings online in a music context. I don’t want to be the guy who sits beside you on the train and pours out his life story. I value dignity as much as authenticity. In a way it’s all marketing in that I’m trying to reach people who might like this music and offer it to them.
But then whose posts do I remember? The ones who write about their lives, not the ones who post adverts or gig reminders or politics or meals or drinks. So maybe – MAYBE – there’s a place for me to write stuff like this for people who MAY be interested. Tentatively. If you disagree don’t worry about trolling – I’ve already done it in my head!
The last few posts I’ve been reminiscing over decades. Today I’ll talk about something I expect to be reminiscing about for decades!
The Orchy Sessions
On the May bank holiday weekend I was part of a group of songwriters and musos who took over the Bridge of Orchy Ski Lodge for a recording weekend. There were two bands – my Heaven Sent and Edinburgh Americana band The Heartbreak Diet, each doing a set. We were joined by solo performers Gerry Callaghan, Liz Jones and Ross Arthur and a jazz duet of guitarist Ged Brockie and singer Ronnie Ireland. Finally there were solo sets by Fiona Thom, James Whyte, Suzy Cargill and me. Ronnie, a skilled artist, sketched the performers and the environment, while Ged’s son Euan and Liz’s wife Lou took photos. Euan filmed the performances and interviewed some of us.
The weekend was the brainchild of Gerry Callaghan, one of several notions he had to bring together performers he’d recorded or worked with at The Listening Room. The idea was to have an intimate performance – sitting in a room with friends – recorded with top quality equipment and post-production. Gerry and Ross, a studio engineer, spent Friday setting up the equipment as the early arrivals basked in the sun outside. Eventually the combination of midges outdoors and pizza indoors brought us inside to enjoy the first two sets by Ross Arthur and Heartbreak Diet. It took a lot of work to set up all the mics for the Heartbreak Diet, especially as the band swap instruments and lead vocals for different songs.
Saturday saw sets by Liz Jones with Suzy on percussion and Lou on bass, Ronnie Ireland, Ged and Gerry. Simpler to record than the band! Ged, a professional player and composer, gave us a short workshop on chord construction and composition. Some of our party fled to the nearby hotel to watch the Scottish Cup Final. Suzy oversaw the making of two huge pots of chilli.
Sunday had more solo sets, from me, Fiona Thom and James Whyte, followed by a band set by the Heaven Sent. By 10 the planned sessions were all completed and we relaxed into some jams, but not before we quickly arranged and recorded a new version of Ross’s single Amethyst. Gerry and Liz did some luxurious versions of JJ Cale and Van Morrison songs. Eventually James, Gerry and I closed proceedings at 3 o’clock on Monday morning.
It was a memorable weekend – the sun, some new friendships, hearing new songs and playing in new lineups. We were all brimming with gratitude to Gerry and Ross for making it happen. The videos and photos will appear over the next few weeks at http://orchysessions.com
The Heaven Sent album is in the final stage of mixing – Gerry and I are having a last tweak tomorrow, then it’ll go off to a top mastering studio.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the cover art. I’ve always done my own cover art, sometimes using artwork provided by others (like Andy McFarlane for Roadblock). This time I thought I’d find someone new to collaborate with. I started by commissioning a few design ideas from designers on Fiverr.com. From that I got three designs, which were interesting, but they weren’t quite there. I have some new photos of me, plus a good ‘vintage’ photo which I like. But I’m resistant to fronting a band album with a picture of me on my own. I’m now going to work with Liz Jones, who is a graphic designer as well as songwriter and cafe manager, on some new ideas. We may end up using me, we may not.
I’ve used photos from my session at the Captain’s Bar with Philippe Monthoux on the homepage and Facebook. Here’s another.
Does anyone love the CD booklet these days?
With Wolf, and with Roadblock, I wanted them to be pleasing visual objects as well as music, and designed full multi-page lyric booklets to go on with them. I don’t see many people doing that nowadays, and the message seems to be that most people will listen on streaming services or download it. Only a small minority will want a CD and those who do will probably only open it once to digitise it! So a big booklet production is a waste of effort.
Is that right? If you have an opinion on this please email me on email@example.com!
(And before you suggest it, I can’t afford to make a vinyl album and don’t think I’d sell more than a handful if I did.)