Shetland is a place of extremes. From the long dark nights in winter to the almost endless summer days, life is battling against the wind and hastily grabbing the sun.
People must take their opportunities and recognise despair as an enemy to be fought with activities and skill. Musicianship here is almost a religion, an indispensable part of the social fabric. This is a good place to pick up a scratch band.
So that’s what Éamonn and I have done. The music is a collection of things we didn’t record on the last album, waifs and strays from our own repertoires and a selection of tunes from the eminent Shetland Fiddler Maurice Henderson.
Maurice and I have long talked about doing some recordings together both in Orkney and Shetland, and the feeling at least from my view is that probably one day we’ll repeat the trick.
Ewen Thomson makes some of the most beautiful and highly sought after violins in the country, two of which feature throughout this recording. As if being an internationally acclaimed luthier wasn’t enough he is also a wonderful fiddler, guitarist and banjoist.
He’s also my band mate, Martin Greens’ (Lau), brother-in-law. It’s a small country.
This process started in my kitchen in Quarff, with Tim Matthew (Lau’s tour manager, sound Engineer, guardian angel and fellow Shetland resident) setting up a small portable studio. I tracked the guitar and drums for Wintermoon and The Moving On Song here so that we’d have more microphone time over the weekend for our guests. Also, I am very fond of the sound in that kitchen.
The remainder of the recording was done at Mareel. On Friday the 13th of June Éamonn and I got in at around 10am to meet Tim and his partner Floortje Robertson (thanks to her for all of the beautiful photos of the process) to set up and to begin tracking The Jigs and the Isles Tunes. The day went well and we got everything done that we’d hoped to. All on schedule and excited for the real building of a band to begin, we miraculously avoided the pub and headed for home.
Only two days prior to the beginning of proceedings a chance glance askance at my Facebook page told me that the ace fiddler (and snare drummer, it turns out) Ross Couper happened to be back on his home turf for a few days for a wedding. It also just so happened that he was able and willing to come and help us with our recording project, and a tremendous addition he was to our team too.
So Éamonn, Maurice, Ross, Ewen and I all piled in to the studio with Tim and Floortje and began the days recording, in a circle in the session style in the auditorium.
It’s a wonderful carefree way to record and oftentimes it’s the best way to get a piece of music to move convincingly and naturally, because any variations in tempo are picked up by everyone simultaneously. It’s like the music breathes in a way that’s harder to create when isolating everyone.
The next day saw the arrival of Mr Graham Malcolmson on double bass. He played beautifully throughout and, aware that we also had to get all the vocals done that day, he had clearly prepared extremely well.
So we tore through all four bass tracks at breakneck speed pausing only to allow me to try and explain various accents using only my lengthy form and the medium of interpretative dance.
After Graham had nailed everything we took a quick lunch break and then moved on to our singers.
There was me:
Louise Thomason and Freda Leask:
They were fantastic, working hard at getting all my unsociable phrasing just right and singing beautifully, in tune, with soul and, in Freda’s case, through a bad case of laryngitis. (Don’t worry, medical types, she had fulfilled all six weeks’ rest).
This was wrapped up with just enough time left for Eamonn to lay down some wobbly tenor guitar and for us to get a kebab supper. It’s glamorous stuff. For some reason Floortje didn’t photograph the kebabs so you’ll just have to imagine them.
Before we went to mix there was one final guest to record, the magnificent Margaret Scollay (Ross’s mum). We knew she wasn’t going to be able to come to the studio because she had been busy marshalling a Shetlandic fiddle army for the Edinburgh Tattoo so we took Tim and his mics and went to her hoose in Tingwall. She had at it big styles too, let me tell you. It was an absolute pleasure to watch, she is a musician I have admired for many years. (We could only watch her cos we only had one set of headphones and she needed them for technical reasons.) There was a brief chat about charts – I suspect mine are somewhat more rudimentary than what she’s used to – and then off she went.
With all of the music thusly in place we moved to Edinburgh for the mixing. Basically that’s turning things up and down until it sounds good. We think it sounds good now and so here you are reading this.
Eamonn and I would like to thank expressly all of the wonderful people who played on this recording and it made it such a sociable and musical experience (recording music isn’t always). Also to Tim and to Stuart Hamilton at Castle Sound for the Mastering and to Floortje for the photos. Thanks too to Rory Tallack for the loan of the drums, and to Louise Thomason for letting us use the hoose to record for the first couple of days.
Enjoy our recording and come and see us play whenever you like.