Dougie MacLean is one of Scotland's foremost singer-songwriters. Born in Perthshire in 1954, he started playing music at school with Andy Stewart and Martin Hadden, who went on to create the legendary Silly Wizard. In 1974, while busking on the street with his fiddle, Dougie was recruited by guitarist Roy Gullane of the Tannahill Weavers. He played all over Europe and North America with the Tannahills on and off until 1981 when he went solo and launched his record label. Since then he has enjoyed international success as a singer and songwriter and has seen his music used in television dramas, stage productions and major motion pictures.
(This interview was recorded at Butterstone Studios 2006.)
So here we are, once again, in the heart of Perthshire with Dougie MacLean, and usually when I meet up with you we're here to talk about a new collection of songs, and we talk a little bit about your songwriting and what you've been up to.
But this time we have met up because we want to talk about quite a different album. Your new album is a departure in some ways I suppose from the collections of songs, although you've had instrumental albums in the past. It's Perthshire Amber and it's an instrumental album largely, although we're going to hear a song from it a wee bit later on.
Tell us how this album came about, what was the inspiration behind it, and what caused you to want to do an album like this?
Em, well it's always something I've wanted to do, 'cause I write lots of instrumental music and I've never had the opportunity to do it with a proper classical string section and I've always been a wee bit scared of it actually and the differences between the two disciplines, I don't read music or write music, and it's all by ear.
But I was commissioned to do this by the Perth Arts Festival, it was a great opportunity to have a sort of wee podium on which to work on this project, and I have a friend, Kevin McCrae, who plays cello with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and we've done a couple of things before together and so we actually got together.
I had written all the music and then we got together in this conservatory here exactly where we're sitting and spent two or three days -- he helped score the whole thing out for the string sections. He would have the piano and I had my guitar and my fiddle and we just worked our way through it -- "that sounds nice" or "that doesn't sound nice" or "what if we did that?" -- so it was a nice way to do it.
Kevin comes from a kind of rural background like myself, from Aberdeenshire, so we got on like a house on fire and after every wee sort of session of working on it here we'd go down to the pub and have a few tunes and it really happened quite easily and all my fears about that were completely dispelled. It was great fun and it all seemed to happen quite easily and naturally from something I was quite apprehensive about in the beginning.
You said when you were talking a bit about "I'd never had the chance to work before with a proper string section" and the word "proper" is quite a weighted word there. "Proper" in the sense that these people have been trained in music and read and write in music notation, but also proper in terms of the presentation style that we usually associate with classical music as opposed to more traditional and acoustic forms of music.
Did you find that that was a leap for you, going from something that, you know, for you, music is always something that is very intimate and quite communal, into something that, growing up with your sense of what classical music was all about, be seeing as more "proper"?
That's right, it's, eh..."posh music" (laughter). But it wasn't like that at all once I actually got into it and got to work with the classical players, and the two disciplines are quite different and one of the tricks was to try and get it so that the Celtic side of it, you know the Scottish side that I come from, mixed with the classical thing seamlessly in that we coached the classical players a little bit in how to deal with what we were doing and that we understood a little bit enough about the classical thing so we were not trying to do things that the classical people couldn't do.
And this is where Kevin was great because he was in-between me and them. And in fact some of the very first rehearsals were in that room next door there and it was amazing because we had this fifteen piece string section and our little five piece Celtic band playing away, and I just wanted to have them in the house all the time.
I felt like saying to them "Can you not just stay here?" because the sound was absolutely amazing and their quality of playing, because they are trained, they have a beautiful discipline with their violins and their cellos, the beautiful sounds that they get compared to, well, if you're self-taught on the fiddle like me, you don't have the beautiful vibratos and you can't go away up the neck and do all those clever things. So being able to combine those two things was like, great fun and there's quite a lot of that on the record.
The trade-off with the wonderful disciplined technique when you're comparing classical music to more traditional, if you like folk-type music, can be a loss of spirit and joy in playing and I think my sense of Perthshire Amber, which we are about to hear, is that it was all about retaining the spirit of the music, even when it was arranged in a more formal way.
And it seems to me that you had the string ensemble move more over in to your world whilst making sure that it would work in a classical form as well. Would that be one way of looking at it?
Yes, I think one of the reasons that it worked so well was because I decided to pick a little group of traditional players from my village, from Dunkeld. I didn't want to go looking all over Scotland, I wanted to have a bunch of local people to play the Celtic part of it.
Pete Clark who plays the fiddle in the whole project has also a classical background, so although he plays fiddle and he plays great fiddle he understood the classical disciplines too, so that was another wee bridge. If I had used one of the more straight fiddle players they might not have understood the classical thing, so having Pete there brought the classical people in a little bit more.
I used my son, Jamie, to provide the percussion thing, which, when you don't have a conductor to try bring the classical people in you need to have something for everybody to focus around, and that worked really well as well. Because Jamie plays tunes with us down in the pub his rhythm is very much our rhythm so the classical people had something to follow, with the rhythm setting a tempo without getting too stilted and stiff.
And I remember in the first rehearsals it was a wee bit stiff some times and we had to go "no, no, no -- swing it a wee bit". But the BT ensemble are a bunch of young classical players and they were really up for it. They wanted to be able to contribute.
So much so that the violinists and Pete would go away in a corner and they'd say to Pete "How do you do that?" because Pete would be playing a tune and they'd be playing very staccato and Pete would be much more smooth. So there was a great exchange of ideas during the whole making of it. It was really lucky to have the opportunity to work that closely with them and I learned a lot.
We've been talking about "the classical people" and referring to them as "the classical people," but they are actually the BT Scottish Ensemble, which is a group of string players, and what is interesting about this group is that they've shown a desire to meet and mingle with musicians from other disciplines, most notably probably for listeners to this program, with Aly Bain, on a project called "Follow the Moonstone" which brought together Scottish, Shetland and Scandinavian fiddle music into that similar string setting.
So they have shown a real willingness and desire to mix it up a bit. So it must have been fun to play with this group, a group in whom you wouldn't have found any resistance, quite the contrary, they've come in and want to learn and be a part of it too?
Yes, they're a young bunch of musicians and they are doing great shows. They go on and do the standard Beethoven and Mozart concerts that they do, but they are prepared to got out and accompany singers and do session work.
So they were a good bunch of people to get on board to do this project. Something else I also realized though is that you never get the same musicians twice because the musicians move around within the classical field. We've done a couple of shows now and we've had different cello players, so it's more working out the formula by which you'll deal with eleven classical players. Which I think we've found with the bunch of Celtic guys that we've got, and with Kevin because he has a great way of explaining to the classical people the timings of it.
Also, the first violinist, Cleo, she has a Stradivarius, so it was a big thrill to be standing there on stage, and on the record she plays a Strad and it's lovely that other level of it all. You take something which is basically rural music, and in former times would be played in the village halls in the rural part of Scotland and the other part would be played in the fine theatres and the fine ballrooms and you can take the two things together and play around with it -- it's great fun.
You talked about the challenges of performing the piece, and it makes me want to talk about the performance of it, because, in its essence it's a live piece of music, it was created to be a live performance, though we're listening to a recording of it and talking about the recording.
I think people who have come to your concerts in the past and who have enjoyed seeing you perform, would get a real kick out of seeing you up there, because you are sort of "Here I am on stage with a whole lot of new toys" and it's like it has shifted up the joy level musically. Can you talk about what it's like to perform live and some of the responses you've had to the live performances of Perthshire Amber?
In the last few years most of the shows I've done have been just me and my acoustic guitar. Very intense, one man to his audience, while this is a stage full of about twenty people, and it's quite nerve-racking because there are so many things that can go wrong.
And one of the things that we learned very early, working with a written score, unlike when I worked with the Tannahills (Tannahill Weavers) for many years and you came to an instrumental part and you decided to play it an extra time, you all looked at each other and you played it an extra time, or if someone didn't come in on the beat where they were supposed to, you might play a few more bars and then they would come back in.
But when you're working with a classical section where they are reading it from "dots" you can't afford to do any of that. If you might leave out a few bars they'd be behind you because they're following the dots exactly, and they have to do that so the parts they're all playing fit together. So we had to get a discipline, the five of us Celtic guys, where when that was the way the music was written there was no room for somebody not coming in on time for their solos.
It all had to be precise and that added a wee bit of tension to the local lads. But it was great once we all got in to it, in Glasgow at the Celtic Connections, by the end, the BT lot were jigging about and dancing themselves and I don't think I've ever seen them, you know, get off on a thing on stage. If they're playing a bit of Beethoven they can't jump about, and it gives them the opportunity to let go a bit.
And I think they learned that the classical thing that they do and more restrained can have a more relaxed, energetic and physical part to it. It's great for me because I don't play a lot of fiddle on my show so I'm getting to play fiddle with Pete, so I basically, kind of conduct the whole thing, in a funny kind of way, from the front of the stage, moving about and so it's just great fun.
When the cellos come in and the big double bass comes in you have this wonderful palette of colours to work with, a unique palette. In all the bands I've played in we never had that amount of colour and that amount of dynamic that you could use. There is only so much dynamic you can create with only four instruments but when you have all these cellos doing big sort of Beatle-y kind of runs, you know, George Martin kind of runs, it was great.
I suppose one of the other things the classical musicians have to get used to is taking applause between movements as well, which leads me to want to talk about the different movements.
If you can talk us through it a little bit, it would be quite nice for people to be able to anticipate what's coming up in each of the movements, and maybe understand a little bit why they were named as they're named and what you were thinking of when you put together a piece of music like this, that's, I suppose, I imagine, trying to evoke many of the colours and textures of and the spirit of the place that's your home.
Yes, well I've grown up in Perthshire, and for those of you who don't know where it is, it's the main big area, slap bang in the middle of Scotland. It's wonderful because it has a very diverse landscape. It goes from the mountains in the north with some very wild and rugged countryside to the Strathmore Valley and the plains of the lowlands.
We have a lot of trees here in the southern part and there are no trees in the northern part, it has a great combination of all that. So when the Perth Arts Festival approached me, I said I would love to make something that Perthshire could have forever as a piece of music and try and make it have a feeling of all the various moods of the county which is very diverse.
It was very easy for me because I write that kind of thing anyway and I'm very connected to my own landscape in what I write. I really think that's something, that if you're a creative musician, you tend to do. So it's not as if I had to go out and get inspired, I am inspired all the time by the place -- so the tunes were fine and easy to make.
I have a very good picture of where I live, in my head and in my inside, in my heart. So the first movement is more jaunty. I tried to see if I could make this something that was almost a tune and almost a classical thing and it's not quite a tune and not quite a classical thing, and tried to invent a different kind of melody that would work with the strings and work with us, and actually work as a song later on in the thing.
I am actually a singer and songwriter and wanted to have a little part of that pop up somewhere through the whole thing. So I was trying to find something that would work on all these levels. Then the second movement is just a slow movement. Perthshire in particular is famous for its slow airs.
Neil Gow grew up here and lived in our village, and many of the slow melodies that have been used by Burns for his songs originated in Perthshire because there was a big fiddle tradition and writing of airs tradition. So it's in the tradition of airs that were written in Perthshire.
Then there's a little bits of pieces, which capture -- there's a tune called "The Butterstone Puddock." A puddock is a big frog. I don't know why we called it that, the tune appeared. Me and Pete were playing it down in the pub and it just felt like a puddock, we don't know why! It's a very typical thing of this area.
So it's not just the scenery, there's a wee bit of humour in there as well. It's called Perthshire Amber and somebody said that also describes the whisky that's made here. In the autumn it's a very beautiful fall you get here with beautiful orange colours on the trees and with the sunsets here it's just a very "ambery" kind of place.
And these are the images, feelings that are evoked by the instrumental music, but then at the end, when you come in with a song, you actually speak about it in that way of the things we love.
Yes, the little bit of lyric that is there is just saying that, because it's not a rational thing -- why you love a place, or what it is that moves you, what is it that makes it larger than life for you. But then it's quite simple, the lyric is just the things we love -- we just love being here! I love being here.
It's all the little simple things that you would see wandering around here, in themselves they are no huge earth-shattering things, but you have no reason to explain that, it's just what we all love about the place. I tried to finish it off with a wee bit of lyric that would give the listener a verbal way of understanding what the four movements were about.
That was another wee challenge too, to find a couple of verses so people could say " I know why this guy has written this piece of music," and then we go in to some wild tunes. We all grew up dancing in the village halls around here. I wasn't wanting to make it too "tuney", there are bits of tunes and some other things.
It's my first attempt at something like this and I would like to do more of it. It's always a big learning process of what you can use and what you can't use, what works and what doesn't work, it's quite a complicated thing, and to rehearse it well enough. We kept it to quite a small group, the string players and the five of us who are John Moran, who plays with a group called Deaf Shepherd, and he lives just outside Dunkeld, my son Jamie, plays percussion, Pete Clark who plays the fiddle and Graham Mulholland, who's from Dunkeld, who plays the highland pipes, the small pipes and the big silver whistle.
So it was a nice wee intimate group of people, we know each other and so the idea of keeping it small was so we could rehearse it and get it very tight, so that when we did present it on a stage, rather than it being something that wasn't quite working, and because classical people are very limited in the time they have available to rehearse.
When we did do it live it was very tight, and when it's very tight you don't have to think about it as much and you can start to enjoy it. I think that's what happened at Celtic Connections -- everybody felt very comfortable with it, it was well rehearsed, we knew what we were doing with it and then could put the magical edges to it and even, you know, have a wee bit of a laugh in the middle of it, which is great.
Congratulations on a landmark piece of music in your career -- as you say, maybe the beginning and opening up of a new area for you in collaborations with other types of musicians. It's Perthshire Amber composed by Dougie MacLean and arranged for strings by Kevin McCrae, with the BT Scottish Ensemble and all the wonderful local musicians you listed.
We're really enjoying listening to it and thanks a lot for taking the time to chat with us here in Perthshire, from the heart of the places that you love. We look forward to catching up with you again with the next project.
Thanks very much Fiona.