Elaine Lennon releases her debut album on January 24th. Unless you knew the background, you wouldn’t know it was a debut album. Findlay Napier has produced it, the songs – almost all written by Lennon – are engaging, and Lennon’s voice is enthralling. The background is that Lennon’s lifelong passion had been music. When the youngest of her two children went to school in 2018, she sat down to work out whether she could be a professional musician. In less than two years, she has been named as “one to watch” by the Nashville Songwriters’ Association International and is about to release the self-titled album, Elaine Lennon.
Lennon’s vocals and piano are at the core of the album, with the band adding a nicely judged depth without being intrusive. My favourite track is ‘Fear (Breakup Song)’ which is delicately played and merges the images of relationship break up into a lyric about fighting and defeating Fear, as affirmative (for the Sci-Fi buffs) as Frank Herbert’s Litany Against Fear. It’s also a great tune, beautifully sung.
The link below is to ‘Trouble’ where you can hear for yourself the interplay between piano and vocal, in this case for a lyric about being in trouble because “love was not in my plan”. Lennon’s website has more detail on the origins of the song. Elsewhere ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ both rises to the glories of love which can “make you fly above the clouds” and also captures the ruefulness of “Only love can softly pull the seams apart/Only love can break your heart”. There’s a tenderness to the vocal which is simply delightful. ‘You and Me’ feels like it’s from the same song-writing seam, this time the unchallenged contentment of being in love.
The only cover on the album is “She’s Got You”, the Hank Cochran masterpiece which was a hit for Patsy Cline in the early 60’s. Lennon’s version is less country, but doesn’t half tug at the heartstrings; it’s a great cover which makes the song sound bang up to date despite its nearly sixty years age.
The album will be launched on January 20th at The Glad Café as part of Celtic Connections. From what I’ve heard on this album and what I’ve flicked through on YouTube of Lennon’s live performances, if you’re up in Glasgow it will be worth your while finding time for this.
Simon And The Astronauts is something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing or, more accurately, disguised as a cat video. The titular Simon is poet Simon Wells who co-wrote the songs and alongside him are Boo Hewerdine and Chris Pepper who drums and was responsible for most of the recording. Tucked away are Boo’s son Ben, Darden Smith, Findlay Napier and Karine Polwart – mostly on just one or two numbers.
The opening track, ‘Astronauts’, is reminiscent of early Pink Floyd which may not be not be a coincidence as the second song is ‘Grantchester Meadows’ but not the Roger Waters song although that would have fitted in perfectly. The first two cuts are quite pastoral and then the mood changes. ‘Zinc’ is our first chance to hear Simon, speaking his lyrics, and I couldn’t help thinking of Marc Bolan at this point. Yes, I am that old. The track is decorated by Svetlana Alexievich’s theremin following Boo’s piano.
‘Bridge’ and ‘Airmail’ are both love songs, each in their way, and by now the album is getting entertainingly quirky. Karine Polwart, assisted by Findlay Napier, adopts her broadest Scots accent for ‘Love Is’ which she co-wrote with Simon. Although it sounds jokey, it’s actually quite serious and a very clever song. ‘I’m Just A Cat’ features Simon on saxophone and may go some way to explaining the cover design Or not. By this time Simon And The Astronauts is getting under your skin.
‘Oscar (Looking At The Stars)’ is Darden Smith’s solo and he backs Simon on ‘Tightly Wrapped Jackets’. Ben Hewerdine takes ‘Trampoline’ as a solo and his dad does the same with ‘Box Of Tears’ and then we get Simon’s final appearance on ‘Patti’, in part a paean to Patti Smith, more prose than poetry, spoken over Boo’s throbbing guitar.
As the styles and instrumentation mix you begin to suspect that the participants had a heap of fun making this album. The lyric booklet is one big joke but Simon’s words are deadly earnest. You really should hear this record.
Simon And The Astronauts really is a fascinating project. Simon Wells is a writer who had attended several of Boo Hewerdine’s song-writing workshops. Over the course of a year together Simon and Boo have made this superb album. Enlisting such talents as Karine Polwart, Darden Smith, Findlay Napier, Ben Hewerdine and Chris Pepper they worked in a very unusual way. Simon would bring a lyrical concept to the studio and together with these musicians would spontaneously write and record each track. Simon himself is a fine performance poet and also leads three of the tracks. There is spontaneity to this album that means you hear new music at the moment of its creation. Stylistically it moves between dream-pop, indie-electronica, delicate acoustics and edgy poetry. It was a chance for these musicians to work outside their comfort zones. Simon’s vision makes it all hang together in a deeply cohesive way.
When looking at tracks on the album, the album opener ‘Astronauts’ was the first track Simon and Boo recorded, at the end of the day, playing back this track that was both eccentric and accessible, they knew they were onto something special. ‘Grantchester Meadows’ follows, co-written with Ben Hewerdine, Boo’s son, who is also a very talented songwriter who has had songs recorded by, among others, Eddi Reader and Dan Whitehouse. Ben took Simon’s lyrics and made this sweetly unsettling recording. ‘Zinc’, which talks about the war in Afghanistan, is augmented by archive recordings of Leon Therimin playing his new invention. The song ‘Bridge’ was also written on day one and is the true story of a bridge in Sheffield, sung by Boo, this was the last track to be finished. Airmail is another Boo song, where he and Simon were remembering those ultra-thin letters people used to send abroad, this recording using a high strung guitar. ‘Love Is’, features Karine Polwart, a joyous take on Simon’s words, recorded with Findlay Napier and other attendees at a workshop. A personal favourite for me, ‘I’m Just A Cat’ is a blissful song, sung by Boo, about, well, being a cat. “Without Simon I would never have a written a song like this” says Boo. Chris Pepper’s production work is just fantastic on this track. ‘Oscar’ is a track where Darden Smith took Simon’s lyric about Oscar Wilde and made this beautiful piano ballad. Tight Metal Jackets features fiery poetry by Simon set against Darden’s rootsy Americana. ‘Trampoline’ is Ben’s jerky indie take on Simon’s concept and ‘Box Of Tears’ which is basically where Simon’s wonderful lyric led Boo to write this tender ballad, the track recorded as soon as it was written. The album closes with ‘Patti’, a simple yet heartfelt tribute to Patti Smith.
Findlay Napier doesn’t look like his publicity photographs. That is to say, he does but that dour, unsmiling image you see above isn’t him. In person he’s affable, chatty to the point of indiscretion and often very funny but also thoughtful, considering some of his answers carefully. He was born in Glasgow where he again lives but his parents moved to Grantown on Spey when he was very young.
“My parents and my grandparents bought a house there. I couldn’t have been a month old and they took all safety precautions – wrapped me in a blanket and put me in a wash basin in the passenger foot-well – and drove me up the road. Nowadays you’re not even allowed to leave hospital without a baby seat! I didn’t come back to Glasgow until I was seventeen for college and spent my childhood and teens in Grantown.”
Of the two places I know where I’d prefer to live but, from a musical perspective more was going to happen in Glasgow.
“That was the problem with Strathspey. There was stuff going on but not like there was in Glasgow. I was going to university and went to Glasgow to study traditional music. It was the first year of their traditional music degree course at the RSAMD, which is now the RCS [Royal Conservatoire of Scotland]. I’d love to live in Grantown but I don’t know how it would work. The interesting thing is that my brother, Hamish, has just moved back.”
Clearly, the Napiers are a very musical family. Hamish plays piano and flute and composes music of a rather more pastoral style than Findlay’s songs.
“My mum went to music school in Edinburgh, then to Glasgow University to study music and ended up with Scottish Opera. It was when Scottish Opera first went full time and you probably think of opera with grand sets but they went round in a small bus and would do schools during the day and an opera in a venue about the size of this. It was before Scottish Opera became a huge behemoth – it was like a little folk band that sang opera.”
Findlay’s first band was Back Of The Moon which also had brother Hamish in its ranks.
“That started because I met my wife, Gillian Frame, at the RSAMD. She entered the Young Tradition Award and she, Hamish and Simon McKerrell also entered the Radio 2 Folk Awards and got through to the finals. They didn’t win but we’re not bitter and by that point I had joined Back Of The Moon.”
Gillian’s prize for winning the Young Tradition Musician of the Year competition was to make an album. That was Gillian Frame And Back Of The Moon, the band’s first record.
“The band went on to be pretty successful but, strangely enough, it was successful north of the border, a tiny handful of gigs in England but we were busy in Germany, America and Canada and that was enough to keep us going. We did so little in England, which I was always really disappointed about. We never made it across the border and I’m not sure why – the band was a good folk club band; would have been a good festival band. There were four people singing, and tunes, so we were always very confused about that.
“One of the things we found out at the end was that we were a band that needed a manager. The reason we broke up was because Gillian and I were managing the band on the hoof and, actually, we needed professional help and we didn’t understand that we needed it. Hamish left and instead of replacing him we folded the band. We decided that we couldn’t do it [without Hamish] and couldn’t agree on how to do it. He probably didn’t need to leave but he wanted to study music. We could have worked round it, had we had a manager to give us advice.
“Just before the band broke up I started writing with a guy called Nick Turner of Watercolour Music. I’d written since I was 14 or 15 but I’d hit a dry patch probably because I was so busy trying to manage and be in a band. On the first night together we wrote three songs and another two the next day so I went back to Glasgow with five songs and we kept writing and I realised that was what I needed to do.”
Together, Findlay and Nick were Queen Anne’s Revenge, a name later appropriated by a new England rock band, and released two albums. While Back Of The Moon were a traditional band, Queen Anne’s Revenge was essentially a song-writing vehicle.
“I needed an outlet and Nick, who was in the recording studio, also needed an outlet so we found each other at the perfect time. Nick had the studio and access to a lot of musicians so it worked out really well. We were able to put together the project and it was a lot of fun. We couldn’t get Queen Anne’s Revenge to work as a band but I could get some of the songs to work and that’s why I started The Bar Room Mountaineers.”
The Mountaineers saw Findlay performing again with his wife plus Douglas Miller and Euan Burton together with a selection of drummers. “It was grand idea that almost worked. We released the CD, paid a lot of money for publicity and got absolutely nothing. I think I know the reason – we were too folky for the indie/singer-songwriter crowd and too indie/singer-songwriter for the folky crowd and fell smack-bang in the middle. Some people got into it and we had more success with the second album because we were a lot clearer about what it was we were doing.
“The solo thing happened because Simon Thoumire said ‘What are you going to do to follow up File Under Fiction?’ and I put my head in my hands. I hadn’t a clue; I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have anyone who was particularly interested and I was all for packing it in.”
Simon pointed out that Findlay’s situation wasn’t unique and suggested that he should apply for a mentoring grant from Creative Scotland. He was successful and was looking for a singer-songwriter who could also teach. Boo Hewerdine’s name came up.
“We supported him at a gig in Edinburgh once and it was one of the best gigs I’ve been too. We’d arranged to go to the pub for a session after we’d played and decided to stay for one or two songs – the next thing we knew it was the encore. We went up to the merch table and bought everything. It took me a while to settle on Boo as a mentor but there couldn’t have been a better person.
“We wrung every last penny out of the funding and that’s how VIP came about and the new album, Glasgow, came about through working with Boo. He sets constraints and the constraint about VIP is that it’s all songs about real people and we said that we would record them live in the studio. On one song we multi-tracked guitar and vocal but apart from that it’s like a gig. There is one note we had to tune on my voice which is something I’m quite proud of. We used autotune the way it’s supposed to me used and the rest of the album is out of tune!”
By now there is more laughter than the sensible answering of questions. “One of my mates called up about Glasgow and said ‘It’s a really great album. A brave album, I would never leave all those out-of-tune notes on it’. I was like ‘what out-of-tune notes?’. ‘Oh, sorry, man.’ I can’t hear them but his pitch is perfect.
“I guess Boo wanted to set my stall out as a guy who can write songs and the idea of Glasgow was ‘this is a guy who can sing and play guitar’. In between times I went out gigging and the purpose of that was going to the wider folk audience – this is a guy who can stand up in front of a group of people and entertain them. We have to decide what we’re going to do with the third album; we haven’t planned that yet although I’ve got lots of songs. I like the idea of themed albums but I’m starting to think that the audience might start to think that it’s wearing a little thin.”
With an album like Glasgow in front of us I had to ask whether, as a song-writer, Findlay feels that location is important. There was a long silence.
“It depends what kind of stuff you’re writing. I don’t really like writing songs about me so most of my songs will probably be rooted in a place because they are stories. They’re not musing on my sad, boring life. There is this whole ‘sense of place’ thing but every time I think I’ve grasped what that means, it’s away. I’m a massive fan of Michael Marra and there’s Dundee in some of his songs but not all of them. There’s definitely Scotland in there but my favourite song of his is ‘Schenectady Calling Peerie Willie Johnson’ and that’s full of Shetland words. So sense of place is important but more important than that is having a clear story to the song.”
With Glasgow, Findlay seems to have encompassed every aspect of the city from the bawdy to the poetic. “There’s a song called ‘More To Building Ships’ and when people write songs about Glasgow shipbuilding is a place that they touch on but it’s not a particularly old industry in Glasgow. There’s a lot more to the city and there’s a lot more than Rangers and Celtic and Billy Connolly and I wanted to make sure it was all in there. That’s why I covered the Blue Nile song, ‘A Walk Across The Rooftops’, which I think is just beautiful and conjures up a very specific set of images which Paul Buchanan probably has no connection with at all. There’s a chunk of my life in Glasgow in that song.
“We wanted to do covers and I think that was a very good idea and it was part of Boo’s thing. That was fun because I had to choose them and then I had to work them out and that was a really interesting exercise. I’d run an open mic with Louis Abbott [Admiral Fallow] and I’d been doing lots of covers so I know how to interpret a song and I learned a lot from listening to The Blue Nile.
“It wasn’t until I started doing solo gigs that I got as brave as I am now with being on stage. One of the things I did was an eight-week stand-up comedy course at Strathclyde University because I knew that there must be tricks that I hadn’t learned just by osmosis and that made a massive difference to my confidence It was scary having to stand on stage for five minutes trying to make people laugh – a lot harder than I thought it would be – and it gave me massive respect for anyone who does it.”
Findlay isn’t going to morph into Jasper Carrott any time soon but…insomniacs with access to BBC Alba can see him in a show called Fonn! Fonn! Fonn! which I watch in fascinated disbelief whenever I catch it. I hoped to learn some of the show’s mysteries.
“One night at the Traditional Music Awards a friend told me he was doing this show and wanted someone to play lots of bits of songs. It was going to be a bit like Never Mind The Buzzcocks, an irreverent Gaelic panel show. I said ‘I’ll do that’ so I did.”
Findlay never says a word during a show and puts on his stern face communicating with the host via shrugs and raised eyebrows. I began to suspect that it was covering the fact that he doesn’t speak Gaelic.
“That’s exactly what it’s doing and that’s why I don’t laugh. I didn’t know what was going on most of the time but it got tricky when we started series two because I started to laugh at the jokes. I was picking up little bits and I also heard them writing the jokes the night before. If someone tells a joke really well you don’t have to know what language it’s in because it has all the rhythmic information to make you laugh.”
For southerners the show is subtitled but I’m convinced that the subtitles don’t tell the whole story and for Gaelic speakers the joke is in trying to translate into Gaelic words that have no business being there.
“I loved it and we wanted a third season. It was Marmite TV – absolutely hated by some people and some absolutely loved it and one group who really loved it were people learning to speak Gaelic because they knew what it was about; they knew about music and modern culture.”
So there you have him. Findlay Napier: singer, songwriter, performer, TV straight man and possibly a future stand-up comic. And he played Katy Morag’s uncle Sven, too, but only in one episode. If he comes to perform anywhere near you I urge you go and hear him. It will be a great night out.
A sense of place is a wondrous, nebulous thing; it’s very personal and can be tricky to evoke meaningfully. Findlay Napier’s homage to his own Glasgow (there must be a clue in the name…) succeeds in bringing alive a sense of the diverse aspects of the city. Snippets of on-location audio in between songs give a vivid impression of walking the streets, eavesdropping on other lives.
Our auditory tour bus sets off from the Necropolis, to a funereal toll of bells, where teen Satanists sweetly fail to summon up demons in ‘Young Goths In The Necropolis’. Hanging out a little while longer in the graveyard, we meet the patron saint of gravediggers in ‘St. Anthony’s Digging A Hole’. These songs, along with the simmering anger of ‘There’s More To Building Ships’ (a stunning song written for the Shake The Chains project, and happily reprised here), are all written by Napier, his solo songwriting characterised by a slight edge, a rumbling abrasive humour.
The songs co-written with the prolific Hewerdine feel somewhat more lyrical, but still have that tart bite of dark humour. The bleak, heartfelt ‘Wire Burners’, a tale of homeless scrap-metal collectors is warmed by a loping blues. A fuzzily nostalgic glow surrounds ‘The Locarno, Sauchiehall St 1928’, offsetting its bittersweet tale of dancehalls and disappointment. ‘The Blue Lagoon’ hints at old school crooners, whilst telling of “unrequited love in a Glasgow chip shop”. It must also be one of the most lushly ornamented songs on an otherwise leanly arranged album. Napier’s vocals and guitar are supplemented only by Hewerdine on guitar/piano and Donna Maciocia’s backing vocals.
Of the sensitively chosen covers, ‘Marchtown’ is a kind of psychogeographic timeslip, whilst the boisterous ‘Glasgow’ celebrates the serious “party town” in all its incarnations. This is continued in the deliberate and proud Scots dialect of ‘Cod Liver Oil And The Orange Juice’ sung in lusty homage to Hamish Imlach. By contrast, a Blue Nile song, ‘A Walk Across The Rooftops’ expresses a relaxed joyfulness, as does Michael Marra’s deliciously surreal ‘King Kong’s Visit To Glasgow’.
The gorgeous cover art deserves a mention, too. The bubblegum pink of images and typography, the ragamuffin kids and the red sandstone blocks sum up this album’s refusal to sentimentalise its subject, whilst allowing warmth, affection and humour to show through loud and clear.