THE INTERVIEW –
KAREN MATHESON & SPECIAL GUESTS –
CREAR, 18 MAY 2011
On 18 May 2011, Karen Matheson, together with some of her favourite musicians, performed at Crear. After the concert, Karen and the rest of the band agreed to be interviewed.
• James Grant (Guitar & Vocals)
• Ewen Vernal (Bass & Vocal)
• Brendan Power (Harmonica)
• Ed Boyd (Guitar)
• Donald Shaw (Piano, Accordion, & Harmonium)
• Karen Matheson (Vocals)
James, you’re a Glasgow guy?
JG: That’s right, yeah.
What part of Glasgow are you from?
JG: Brigton, initially, and then Castlemilk, but I stay in the West End now. So, in many ways, I’m a typical victim of my own social mobility.
You’ve seen contrasts in these areas?
JG: I’ve seen contrasts, yeah.
You’re well known as a songwriter. What is the most difficult thing about writing songs?
JG: I would say just the work. Generally, it’s writing. And sometimes, it’s very easy, and sometimes it’s very hard. Anyone who writes will tell you this. Things don’t write themselves. Some weeks, I’ll be writing something and it’s just not a very pleasant occupation. Other weeks, everything comes, and it’s good, but you sometimes have to wade through the mire to get something good. But it would be wrong, or disingenuous, of me to say that it’s hard compared with people who do hard work – y’know miners, firemen, or whatever, nurses. It just…..for writers, or people who have a sedentary profession, I think people imagine – that don’t do it – that it just all flows all the time. Well, for me it doesn’t, and I have to really work at it. So, I guess that’s the hardest part. But, when you nail it, and when you say something that you want to say, which is what it’s all about, or you write a good tune, then you want to cast a thankful glance skyward. You know, that still happens, and it’s a great feeling. So, it’s worth the hassle.
Have you any particular advice for people who’re starting out – young folk, particularly, who’re starting to write songs?
JG: There was a book a couple of years ago – and again it’s maybe not what people want to hear. I mean, I teach a bit, and there are two pieces of advice I give to my songwriting students that I tell them, before I give them (the advice), that they’ll absolutely hate. One is: Listen to all different kinds of music. And the other is: Read books. That’s it. These two things will help you if you want to be a songwriter. But the other thing, going back to what I was saying initially; there was a book written a few years ago by a guy called Malcolm Gladwell, and he looked at the idea of genius – looked at people like The Beatles, looked at guys like Bill Gates, or whatever. Now the amount of man-hours that they actually put into practising was really quite phenomenal. Yes, they were born in the right place at the right time; these were factors. But they worked very, very hard for what they did. I think The Beatles had three gigs a day for two years in Hamburg. And they just got really, really good through working at it. I think if you want something enough, you’ll be prepared to do that. But this idea that it will just happen in a kind of effortless way – maybe, maybe to one or two people, but……?
Do you think that some popular television programmes nowadays could be giving youngsters the wrong impression?
JG: I don’t think they give the wrong impression. I think they are what they are. There’ve always been shows like that, and there’ve always been people who are desperate to be famous. But, to be honest, if you look at, well, the worst of what the press is in this country, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to put themselves in that position of being famous. To me, that would be anathema. I would like to be very successful, and I would like the money that goes with it, but I would not want people camped on my doorstep; that would be horrific. That loss of privacy would be abhorrent to me. But I don’t think that’s really a consideration for people who are interested in what these programmes are about.
You’ve had your share of fame with Love and Money – a huge band, and you’ve a strong following still, I imagine, for that band?
JG: We have, aye.
Do you miss the buzz of those early days with the band?
JG: I do, but we’re doing some concerts this year. We played at Celtic Connections in January; it was very popular. And I guess it sort of recaptured that thing that you talk about, but I don’t miss going to America for three or four months in a tour bus, sloggin’ round the country and having to do idents at radio stations every day. And then go and play at a record store, and meet people from the record company, and then go and do a gig that night. I don’t miss that – at all. And I have a good working relationship with people that I work with now. But, as far as the Love and Money thing goes, we’re making a record. We enjoyed being together again and history doesn’t set a good precedent for these things, and people don’t tend to produce their best work when they’re fifty years old. But I’m not the judge of these things, and I’m prepared to be wrong.
You were playing two or three guitars. Have you a favourite amongst them?
JG: My J200’s probably my favourite – the Gibson. A record company bought me that years ago. It’s had its neck broken twice, but it’s just one of these guitars…. you would know if you played it. It’s just a beautiful thing. And it always sounds great, always.
I was interested in what you said, when we spoke earlier, about counterpoint, etc. Some of what I heard you play tonight was quite delicate.
JG: Yeah, I try and make a difference to the overall sound, I guess – to move things in a good way.
You certainly achieved that tonight. Thanks, James.
Ewen, you’re from Glasgow too. Is that right?
EV: I am, yeah. I was born and brought up for the most part in the north of Glasgow – Springburn, actually – and I spent my whole formative years growing up in the city, until the age of 20, when you start to get itchy feet. And even then, when I started to move into flats, and going into education and stuff like that, I still stayed in the West End of Glasgow. Yeah, I always consider it home – despite the fact that I have spent the last six years living in Holland. I’m back regularly enough to kind of not miss the place too much.
And do you find that living on the Continent is convenient for your work?
EV: It is, it is. As long as you have enough notice for what you’re doing, and can organise flights and find out what your schedule is. It’s basically the same distance away on a flight as somewhere like Heathrow would be for getting back to Glasgow – I mean, from Amsterdam it’s taking you an hour and a half on a flight – if you know in enough time in advance.
I’d like to hear about playing the bass, but, before that…. Before you joined Capercaillie, you were with Deacon Blue for what, about six years?
EV: A bit more than that – eight years.
That must have been some experience.
EV: It was.
Deacon Blue were going places at the time, weren’t they?
EV: I was part of the band from ’86 to ’94. And, in the beginning, it was just six people that, for the first time, were involved in a band that seemed to be attracting a lot of interest from various quarters. It was the first time, for example, that the six of us – we were all in our early twenties at that point – spent a lot of time down in London, recording in quite a legendary studio – AIR Studios – in the middle of Oxford Circus. And that was the start of an amazing period; it was eight years of ups and downs, like everything else.
And a lot of hard work?
EV: A lot of hard work, and a lot of time away from home. It was a kind of extended family, if you like, being involved in that.
But, presumably, there was a huge buzz from being in front of big audiences and getting the response you got.
EV: Yeah, absolutely. We played at a thing, I think it might have been round about 1990, on Glasgow Green, and it was part of a kind of Channel 4 charity event called The Big Day. We played on Glasgow Green, and it was part of a free concert, and we were the main act playing after people like Sheena Easton – who was greeted with a kind of mixed response. I do remember coming on stage and standing there and just looking, and you couldn’t see the back of the amount of people that were there. The idea of playing in your home town, at that level, to that amount of people, was quite awe-inspiring. And I do remember spending the first song just standing, leaning up against the bass amp, actually telling myself “right, you’re playing this song, but you need to breathe as well”. I was thinking “I’ve never experienced anything like this”. And that’s an amazing thing – to get from that point of being at the age of 15 or 16, spending a lot of hours at home just practising your stuff, what you did on your bass, being inspired by records that you listened to. And all that stuff was going through my head in that situation, and I’m thinking “how did it get to this point?” Where you know logically the gradual steps, but then it gets to a point where you’re thinking “this is madness”.
Now, electric bass isn’t usually the first choice for youngsters. They want their Stratocaster or their Telecaster, or whatever. Why should they take up the bass, why will they get enjoyment out of it if they actually give it a go, and how should they address their practising?
EV: My father had an old acoustic guitar that was up in the loft in our family home, and it only had the two low strings left on it. And it was just out of necessity – at that time, I was listening to punk records; we’re talking about 1977 or 78 or something like that – that I started to pick out the low (notes), ‘cos that was all that was available to me. It was a six-string guitar but with only the two low strings on it. It’s quite a musical family that I come from – harmony and that kind of thing. My father was a choirmaster and my mother was a church organist, so it was always floating around, that kind of stuff. Why would kids want to get into the bass? I’ve no idea! If you get into it and you start to root chords and start to root the structure of a song with a drummer rhythmically, then it’s a very satisfying thing just to do something very, very simple. Simple and effective is a very difficult thing to get a grasp of, especially when you’re a young person getting into it. It’s horses for courses.
I sometimes feel that the bassist is the backdrop of a band, with the drummer, and that a band couldn’t do without the bassist.
EV: Yeah, that’s right. They function together. When it’s at its best, it’s quite unobtrusive; but it’s also very noticeable, when it’s at its best. And it doesn’t always work. The main function for me as a bass player is to make a bigger picture, something that works.
Well, it certainly worked tonight with your upright bass.
EV: It’s a very responsive room to play in, this place here.
Was your bass miked up tonight?
EV: There’s a little pick-up thing that was just as a little boost in the PA, in the speakers. But, having said that, it’s one of those rooms that you could just about get away without having that. I’ve got this idea of what the bass sounds like, in my head. It sounds best in my kitchen, in a little corner that’s got a lot of wooden surfaces round about it. It’s quite reflective, but it’s got enough definition about it. And, as soon as you start to amplify the bass beyond its natural acoustic sound, you start to get into a kind of compromise situation.
Okay, Ewen, it’s been a pleasure speaking to you. I hope we’ll see you back at Crear before too long.
Brendan, you’re from New Zealand, I believe.
BP: I am, yes. I’ve been living in the UK about 20 years now, but that’s where I grew up – New Zealand.
So, what brought you over to the UK?
BP: A woman. I met an Englishwoman in New Zealand, and she’d been travelling round the world for many years and was ready to come home. I hadn’t really been out of New Zealand, so it worked out well. So we moved to London, and spent about ten years there, and now I live in Kent – in Canterbury.
Your speciality is the harmonica. How long have you been playing it – since you were a kid?
BP: No, I started a bit later, when I was twenty. Yeah, I’m 55 now, so 35 years.
What made you take up the harmonica, and what was it about it that interested you?
BP: It was the blues, really. I heard the great blues player Sonny Terry, and I was mad into blues. That was my initial impulse. But then, as I got playing, I got interested in Irish music. I’ve got Irish roots, you know – the name Brendan Power, my grandfather was from Ireland – so I tried playing some of the Irish music. And when I came over here, it was really the Irish playing that got me noticed or got things happening. And I went over to Ireland quite a bit and recorded with some great Irish musicians and ended up in the Riverdance show. And, later on, I started coming up to Scotland as well and, of course, the music’s quite related in many ways. And I also love jazz, gypsy jazz, Django Reinhardt, and Bulgarian music. Lately, I’m getting into Indian music. So, I’m just a magpie, really. I just hear things and want to try and play them.
Was there a particular person who brought you to jazz?
BP: I heard Django Reinhardt a long time ago and thought it was beyond me to try and play that kind of style, but, as I got a bit better and more sophisticated with my listening, I tried to play it. But Django was one of the people that I heard early on that really inspired me to try and play jazz.
And you design your own harmonicas?
BP: I do, yeah.
What’s the background to that?
BP: Well, basically the harmonica only comes in a couple of stock tunings that are churned out by the factories, but, if you want to get inside them, you can actually tune them to an infinite number of other scales. And what I find is that, if I re-tune them – say for Irish music, or Bulgarian music, or whatever – if I re-tune the harmonica, you can get a more authentic flow going with the different style. So I have quite a few different tunings that I use for different styles, like a jazz one and an Irish one. Or a Celtic one, I should say – Irish and Scottish. And so, basically, you can alter the scales and also I do other things to make them perform better, and I sell them, as well – on my website. Other people are interested in that kind of thing.
What’s the name of your website?
BP: It’s www.brendan-power.com.
So people can actually order your harmonicas?
BP: Yes, they can.
You’ve recorded with some pretty prominent musicians, including James Galway, Paul Brady, John Williams, Sting, and Van Morrison. Have you any special memories of playing with such artists?
BP: Sure! The Sting experience was amazing, ‘cause I played on a record called Ten Summoner’s Tales which he was promoting at that time; so I spent about a month with his musicians, in his house, doing videos, promotion, going on Top of the Pops, going over to Paris. I suppose most recently I’ve played on a new album which Kate Bush has just released. I played on a couple of songs of that. That was really lovely; she’s a great person and I’d a fantastic time working with her. These things come out of the blue, really, and you go and do them. You couldn’t rely on them to make a living, but it’s really nice when they do happen.
Have you any forthcoming projects that you can tell us about?
BP: Well, I do want to record an album – I’ve been getting interested in Chinese and Indian music, and creating special harmonicas for it, so that’s probably going to be one of my next projects. I also write songs, and I’ve got a few quirky, humorous songs that I’ve been recording, actually, some of them, with Donald and some of the guys in this band. So those two would be the next projects that will be coming out – a songs album and a Chinese/Indian album.
Finally, what about ambitions that you’ve still to fulfil in your music?
BP: I guess one thing that I’ve always thought I might do at some stage is go and live in Nashville for a year or two – y’know, just hang out there. I have actually recorded on an album in Nashville with some guys there and it was just such an amazing experience. The musicians there are so brilliant. So, yeah, that would be one ambition I’d like to achieve.
Okay, Brendan, thank you very much.
Ed, you’re a guitarist. You’re a stranger to these parts. Where were you actually brought up?
EB: I was brought up in Bath, down in Somerset, and I still live there.
I know you’re heading off from here shortly. Are you going back down to Bath tonight?
EB: Not tonight. Unfortunately, I’ve got to leave because I’ve got to get an early flight from Glasgow down to Bristol and then drive down to Cornwall for a concert tomorrow night.
And the concert tomorrow night. Would that be Cara Dillon – at Fowey?
Is playing with Cara a fairly new association?
EB: No, I’ve been playing with Cara for about four years now, so I’ve done loads and loads of work with her.
Well, setting off from here tonight, and playing down there 24 hours from now certainly shows your commitment.
EB: Yeah, I’ll probably be on my way home in 24 hours.
Can we talk about your early influences in music?
EB: Please do, yeah.
Overall, how long have you been playing?
EB: I started playing the piano. My dad plays the piano – and the guitar. So we – I’ve got three brothers – all went for piano lessons. I probably started about nine years old, and I started playing the guitar when I was about 10 or 11. And then I had a really good deputy head at the secondary school I went to, and he was really into Bob Dylan and fingerpicking – American guitar, really. So that’s where I started doing that sort of stuff.
Scottish and Irish stuff, though; you don’t normally associate that with Somerset and the West Country.
EB: No, what happened was, a friend of my dad’s actually gave me a tape of John Renbourn and Bert Jansch when I was at school, and I really liked that. And then, I went up to university in Manchester and I studied languages. But then, when I was in Manchester, I wanted to do some music for fun, so I saw a sign for an Irish session. So I started going along to sessions, and that’s how I got involved in the whole tunes world, really.
And, of course, once you’re involved with Irish stuff, it’s an easy step to get involved with Scottish stuff.
EB: Well, that’s right. One of the guys that I met in Manchester was Mike McGoldrick, so I ended up doing lots of playing with Mike. And then, of course, he joined Capercaillie. Then he started a band involving Donald and Ewen.
It’s a successful network, isn’t it – the fact that it feeds so many different ways and that it encourages people to play together and try things?
EB: Yeah. That’s right.
How many guitars do you normally use at any particular point?
EB: Well, I’ve just got one today, because I always find that, flying, (a) you’ve got to carry it and (b) you know what airlines are like; they charge you for every bit. But, ideally, it’d be good to have two guitars. I mean, James had three tonight, but they were quite different. He had a Dobro, and he had an old Gibson – different sounds.
But there’s another reason why you would want two or three guitars with you, isn’t there?
EB: It’s for tunings, that’s right.
And you’re quite interested in those?
EB: I’m into tunings, yeah. In fact, another thing I’ve been doing is playing the bouzouki. I’ve just been playing the bouzouki with Kate Rusby, so I’ve had to get my bouzouki out, which I’ve never ever played really.
But well worth it, to play with someone who sings like that.
EB: Well, yeah. She’s fantastic. So, the bouzouki’s come out of its case recently, and it has done a load of concerts with her, and there’s a few more.
If I was to ask you for an interesting tuning – one that isn’t too challenging – what would you suggest?
EB: If you’ve tried DADGAD already, one I really like is a C tuning. It’s even lower. So, it’s CGCGCD, and that’s going from the bottom. So, your bottom string’s going right down. Your A string’s going down. Your D string’s going down. Your G stays the same. Your B string goes up one, so you’ve got to do it quite slowly ‘cause it might snap. And then your E string goes down a tone. And that’s really interesting, because you can play major or minor then, so you’re not stuck in C major. A guy called Chris Wood uses it a lot. He’s a very fine musician.
Thank you. Finally, The Scoville Units. A new band?
EB: Yeah, a couple of years. Two years ago, we got the set together because Donald (Shaw) asked Leon (Hunt), who’s the main man, the banjo player. And then, since then, because we put such a lot of work into it, we haven’t done loads of gigs but the ones we’ve done have been all enjoyable. And it’s – how do I describe it – not a hobby band, but it’s a nice band. Because we don’t do it loads, we don’t get sick of it. It’s a local band as well, because everyone lives in Bath – well, Gina (Griffin) lives in Bristol, but that’s only 10 miles down the road. In fact, I’ve got a gig with them on Friday in Bath – Bath Bluegrass Festival.
Okay, Ed. Thanks very much.
Donald, can you tell me, first of all, about how you came to be into music? Did you start on the accordion?
DS: Actually, no. I was a bit of a late starter on accordion. I started on piano, and was taught piano at an early age. And then, obviously there was traditional music in my house all the time, because my parents played. My father played the accordion, my mother played the piano, and they had a dance band, and there was always musicians dropping by at the house in Taynuilt, and ceilidhs going on at the weekends. So – I think it was kind of inevitable – eventually I picked up my dad’s accordion one day, but not till I was probably about twelve. And then, I got the bug, and that was me; I just played the accordion all day and every day for a few years.
That’s how it’s done, then? Just keep playing?
DS: Keep playing, yeah. I was very lucky to have support. My mother used to take me to a great teacher in Perth, and I learnt classical accordion there as well. So, I was constantly looking for ways to enjoy myself playing the box, and it was just part of my life really.
And Capercaillie – as a band – when did that really start?
DS: That would be 1983, so the best part of 28 years ago. Originally, we were all at school together, and I guess, back then, it wasn’t that common for people to be playing traditional music in schools. So, we just kind of found each other – the band – at Oban High School. We were all at Oban High School originally, and we shared an interest in playing traditional music and a love of it. And that’s how the band started. We didn’t have any aspirations to be professional, or make a living from it; it was just a bit of fun and to play a few tunes together, and it took off from there.
Nowadays, you’re a composer, and you’ve written some music for film scores. Also, you’ve a position with Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, and for the last few years you’ve been doing some work with them in a very crucial role. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
DS: Yeah, this is my sixth year now working for the festival as Artistic Director, so I’m basically programming the shows and booking the bands, and deciding what music goes on at the festival. So, it has its pressures, but I do enjoy it. It’s great. It was a real challenge the first couple of years, just getting into that environment, but I guess the positive side of it for me is it’s like a kid in a sweet shop, because I’ll pick all my favourite musicians and bands, and I love listening to what’s going on out there. So, I love doing that. It’s great.
I can imagine so. It’s a festival which goes from strength to strength, and has a great reputation. You’re entitled to be proud of that.
DS: Thanks very much. But, having said that, there’s a great team there, the office that works in the hall, some guys with great experience of working over the festival. So, I tend to take the plaudits, but there’s a lot of people in the backrooms as well. But, no, it’s a great festival.
And are there any exciting new developments in Celtic Connections 2012 that you can reveal at this stage?
DS: I’d probably have to kill you afterwards! No, to be honest, it’s still a bit early. I usually have the big names sorted out by the autumn, and we launch it in October.
Okay. Finally, film scores. You’ve done some great work with these, and you’ve been involved with some very successful films. Would you like to do more of that?
DS: Yeah, I think that’s one of the difficulties, just spreading yourself thin. I felt like I couldn’t say no to the Celtic Connections job because it was the kind of thing I wanted to do, but the downside of that is obviously I have a very limited amount of time to work on bigger projects like film music, which I had been doing a lot of before that. In fact, just before I took on Celtic Connections, I had worked on a film, American Cousins, which had won the Milan Film Festival – the music on that – so, I was getting to a better place with doing films, but I am still doing the odd project when I have time. I love doing that work. Just, you need to set aside a bit of time to make that work.
Okay, Donald. Thanks very much.
Karen, we all know you’re a Taynuilt girl, originally.
KM: I am indeed, yes.
Where are you based these days?
KM: Based in Glasgow. In Bearsden. We’ve been there for about seven years.
Do you still miss Argyll when you’re down there?
KM: Absolutely miss Argyll. I would love to come back here at some point. I think that’s probably what we will do eventually. But, for now, it works, because our little boy’s at school there.
And you actually sang a song about your wee boy tonight. Little Gun, I think it was?
Who was it written by?
KM: It was written by James – James Grant. He had written a song for his own little girl, years ago, called Evangeline. She’s got a very exotic name. And I recorded it. So, I’d been harping on to him, saying would he write one for my wee boy. But his name’s Hector – it’s not quite so exotic – but it’s a gorgeous song, Little Gun.
I agree. There’s a lot of Gaelic influence in your music, and you sing a lot of Gaelic. Where does that come from?
KM: That comes from both sides, really. My mother was from Barra, and my father from Skye – well, my father’s parents were both from Skye – and also Argyllshire Gaelic, growing up in Taynuilt. We had a teacher from Strontian who taught us Argyllshire Gaelic, taught us loads of songs. So I was steeped in it from an early age.
And do you have a future direction that you see your music going in, such as new experimentations, new projects?
KM: I don’t make any plans, to be honest. I like things to just evolve naturally – organically – and I think that’s the way it’s been happening over the last few years; especially with my own solo material. I think you’re influenced by all the people you meet along the way. We travel an awful lot, and we do a lot of festivals. And we’re involved in a lot of different projects, so you soak all that up and, before you know it, it’s just a melting pot of stuff and it just comes out of you. So, I don’t like to think about it too hard; I like it to just be a natural thing.
You have a summer tour with Capercaillie?
KM: We’ve got lots of festivals over the summer – European festivals, which we do every summer – so that’ll be good fun. And then I’ve got a solo album which is about three-quarters of the way finished, so maybe I’ll get that finished over the next few months and get it out by the end of the year.
Finally, what’s it like playing at Crear?
KM: Fantastic. I absolutely love it. I was just saying tonight that Kate (Lithgow) is going to have to kick us out tomorrow, ‘cause we would just stay here if we got the chance! It’s brilliant. It’s obviously lovely to sing in that room; it’s quite magical. And the whole ambience of the place is just really special.
Okay, Karen. Thanks very much.
Interview © Mid-Argyll & Kintyre News 2011
Images © Crear – Space to Create 2011
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