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.
Artist’s website: http://www.findlaynapier.com/
‘Young Goths In The Necropolis’ – live: