Interview: Norrie McCulloch on picking up his 12-string guitar and pledging his time

Scottish songwriter Norrie McCulloch comes from stout Ayrshire stock, the same soil that nurtured the likes of Bill Shankly and two of Scotland’s finest writers, the brothers William and Hugh McIlvanney. And just as this trio left Ayrshire to achieve acclaim in their respective fields while never letting anyone forget about their roots, McCulloch, despite working in an Americana folk/country vein, has held on to his roots. He sings without any American pretence, his record label, Black Dust, is so named as a memorial to his grandfather and others, victims of the deadly coal dust which filled their lungs. More importantly, over the course of three albums, he has become one of Scotland’s foremost singer songwriters, fusing the melancholic beauty of Townes Van Zandt’s Texas with Scotland’s proud heritage, from Robert Burns to Bert Jansch and beyond.

Each of McCullloch’s three albums has its own personality. ‘Old Lover’s Junkyard’ was steeped in country music with pedal steel, banjo and Dobro all employed. Its successor, ‘These Mountain Blues’, centred around stately grand piano (played by long time McCulloch collaborator, Dave McGowan of Belle And Sebastian and Teenage Fanclub fame), with the music conjuring up memories of the folk and jazz influences which permeated the music of Pentangle and John Martyn. ‘Bare Along The Branches’ then moved on to skirt with a Caledonia soul sound with organ added to the mix. While his song writing is at the heart of all three discs, McCulloch, an avid record collector, is happy to admit that his albums often reflect the types of music he was listening to at the time. And so it is with his latest release, ‘Compass’, due out on Friday 31st May. Here, McCulloch condenses lessons learned from listening to classic American artists such as Tim Buckley and Fred Neil as he delivers what is perhaps his most complex and deeply textured album so far. Americana UK took the opportunity to have a chat with him regarding the album and the Kickstarter campaign which has allowed him to release the album in his beloved vinyl format.

I’ve really enjoyed listening to Compass. It sounds much fuller in its sound than the earlier albums.
Well, the guys who play on the album see it as something very different from what we’ve done before. For myself I see it as being influenced by what I’ve been listening to recently. There are the usual country and folk influences but over the past year or so I’ve been listening a lot more to the likes of Tim Buckley and Fred Neil and also a guy called Ted Lucas, I really got into the one album he recorded back in 1975. I wasn’t trying to write songs that sounded exactly like them but listening to them it certainly encourages you to get out the 12-string and play around with it. You know, just noodling about and eventually coming up with something that sounds a bit like something Fred Neil would have come up with and before you know it, you’re writing your own song. So there’s lots of 12-string guitar on the album and these guys’ influences are in there. In addition,  the album kind of has two halves to it, not in the sense of side one and side two but in the way we recorded. Some of the songs are quite spontaneous and free as Davey McGowan and I have been listening to the Grateful Dead recently and we thought, let’s just let our inspiration flow here. We weren’t thinking, oh, this is going to be like a folk number or this is more country psychedelic, we just recorded things as they came out, we didn’t rehearse or anything. We just got the instruments out and played away and that accounts for about half the album. We actually got most of those down in just a day, the bare bones of the songs, and we went back and added other stuff to them later. The other half of the songs were done in a more standard fashion, quite planned and thought out, we knew exactly where we were going with them.

Aside from Dave McGowan, there’s your usual studio crew of Marco Rea and Stuart Kidd but you’ve added some new names to the studio band.
Davey has been a long time collaborator. I like to record with people I’m comfortable with and Davey is always the first guy I go to. He’s a busy man, out on the road with his bands, but if he has the time he’ll help out. We’ll catch up, play some songs to find out which ones work and then we’ll just go and record it, that’s what we have always done. Iain Thomson is relatively new on my recordings, he played on one of the songs on the ‘Towne’s Blues’ EP. He lives in Nashville these days and does live sound for Phosphorescent and he’s well known as a great live sound guy but I’ve known him for years. I’ve always known him as a guitarist and mandolin player and one of the main differences between ‘Compass’ and my other albums is that Iain’s all over it. His electric guitar is upfront on a lot of the songs and then he has a beautiful old Gibson mandolin and we thought it would be a shame if we didn’t use it as well. Going back to the idea of having two halves to the album, we have Stuart Kidd on drums on several songs but we also have Shane Connolly from Alistair Roberts’ band. And again I’ve known Shane for a long time and when he came in, things just sounded a bit different, a bit looser, that sort of percussion that has a Pentangle folk feel, a more freewheeling sixties like swing.

I know that you’re a staunch advocate of analogue recording, getting the sounds down on tape but it sounds like that the songs you and Dave recorded had to go some through some process if you were continually adding other parts.
Well, again, half of it was done that way and that was to do with timing. I like using analogue, it makes you make choices, puts a bit of pressure on you to get it right, so when a bunch of us were all together for just  a couple of days, Davey, Iain, Shane and myself, we recorded live to tape. That’s about half of the songs,  but on other days when the guys weren’t in Davey and I just recorded live, Davey on bass and me playing and singing and then we added the other instruments digitally. If you can capture a performance live on tape then I think that’s much better but digital does open it up so you can send a song over the internet and get it back with Iain’s mandolin on it.

Ok, why is the album called Compass?
It’s kind of funny how that came about. I had a few ideas for a title in my head and we had a whole bunch of songs recorded. Even then I was thinking that if I want to release the album on vinyl then I need to cut it down to about 40 minutes worth of music. So I had to go through everything and choose which songs would fit on a vinyl album and in which order they would fit together. So when I had done that I put them on my iPod to listen to on some long walks and listening to them it seemed to me that all of the songs I’d picked had something to do with direction, going places or where you’ve come from. That notion of coming and going, not just geographically, but also in your life, things that are good and not so good, regrets and hopes. And of course one of the songs I’d picked was called ‘Compass’. It’s actually the oldest song on the album. I wrote it about nine years ago and I remember playing it live back then but it’s a song that I’ve always wanted to have a specific sound to it on record and this was the opportunity to do that. There were lines and even specific words in the song that I could hear being sung with other voices backing mine and I wanted certain types of percussion playing, so I had a real good idea of how I wanted the song to sound and we captured it. Going back to the title of the album, the fact that the song had been in my head for so long, it seemed appropriate, as it seemed like almost a journey to get that song down exactly as I had imagined it.

You had a Kickstarter fundraiser to help get the album out.
I worried about whether I should do that for a long time but then I thought, well, what have I got to lose? The worst was that not enough folk would join in but the album would still get made and people would eventually buy it. I don’t buy CDs any more but I’ll buy a record on vinyl and I reckon that the best way to support an artist is to buy their records. For me, the best format is vinyl and I’ll search it out, so the Kickstarter was really a way for me to release the record on vinyl. So, I just thought I’ll see if people will back it. I’d already put my money into recording it and the the guys gave their time so I didn’t want to take the piss and ask for ten grand to record an album. I said, look, I’ve recorded this album of songs that I’m really proud of and if we can raise x amount I can put it out on CD, download and vinyl. And, happily, people did back it allowing me to do that. I know some people don’t agree with it but it does cost money to release an album so I went for it hoping that I could make enough money just to offer it in various formats. I’m just happy with that and I’m overwhelmed by the support for the Kickstarter, that folk were prepared to join in and help out.

It was a very modest amount, only £2000.
I’d seen people ask for lots more money and as I said,  I had my doubts,  but I’m glad I did it. I wondered, what can I offer that might be a bit different from the usual T-shirt or something as a reward? I come from a visual arts background and so I used that to help with the Kickstarter, offering up paintings and such and if anyone buys one then they are getting a one off item. It’s sad to see some of them go but if it helps me get the album out on vinyl then it’s a no brainer. I really tried to offer up something that’s a part of me, stuff that’s a bit different from the usual, in fact someone has paid for a personalised portrait, we’ve been in touch, and I’m really looking forward to doing that. I’m also doing a couple of house concerts for backers and I’d love to do more of those.  I mean, I don’t want to plug in my acoustic guitar, it sounds so much better just played into a microphone. Look at videos of Buckley and Neil and those guys and they’re playing into a microphone. I’m not so interested in volume, I want the guitar to sound like a guitar so a house concert is a perfect arena to play in, unplugged, there’s a great vibe to them.

The album’s out on Friday and you’ve a few shows lined up.
I’m playing The Blue Lamp in Aberdeen, then Hawick, Nottingham and Keswick and then I’m at the Belladrum Festival in August plus those house concerts I mentioned. I’m looking forward to hearing what people think of the album. I think there’s been a development through each album I’ve done but this is certainly the most “out there” one. It’s really reaching for something and I didn’t know where half of it was going to go as Davey and I were really pushing what we thought should be in there. I think it’s great but then I really love that free flowing Fred Neil type of thing,  but whether other folk will like it we’ll have to wait and see. I don’t really know where I sit in the scene, is it folk or country or that thing that people call Americana? I just hope people will like it. What I can say is that it sounds fantastic on headphones.

About Paul Kerr 416 Articles
Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.
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Jim Finnie

I never thought I’d see the McIlvanney brothers and Bill Shankly mentioned on an Americana UK article. Kudos!