Erland Cooper was getting ready to head to the studio to continue work on his latest record when I called, but happy to hang back and discuss another hectic year.
This talented singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and composer from Scotland’s Northern Isles has seen his stock rise of late, not least through collaborations with Paul Weller on his True Meanings album last year. But it’s in his own right that Erland’s turning heads right now, leading a multi-instrumentalist ensemble, recent London and Edinburgh sell-out performances inspiring his first solo headline tour.
The tour is in support of his second solo album, Sule Skerry, the second in ‘a triptych shaped by his childhood home, the Orkney Islands and, in particular, by the air, the sea and the land’. And if his first solo album, Solan Goose, was seen as an ode to escapism, written to ease personal anxiety working in a busy city through soothing piano, electronics, strings and wild bird calls, Sule Skerry takes the concept further, Erland this time turning his attention to the North Sea.
What’s more, the new album has been followed by another, Seachange, which Erland describes as an ‘ambient companion’ to that LP, split over three movements, or tides, a collaboration with producer, artist and guitarist Leo Abrahams, who also guests on Sule Skerry. That followed a similar working model for Solan Goose, which was accompanied by Murmuration, a collaboration with William Doyle. And both companion albums include covers by Bermondsey-based artist Norman Ackroyd, Erland telling me, ‘I find Norman’s work very inspiring’. So how best to describe Seachange? Apparently, it’s a ‘seamless sonic poem, evoking the place and memory of the record that came before it’. Tell us more, Erland.
“It’s just a different perspective, or way of seeing. I imagine this music being created by placing recyclable source material into the North Sea, watching it become torn, pulled apart, diluted, stretched, weathered and then reassembled in an Orkney Geo. It creates a different form, with dissolved and overlapping melodies that eventually disappear into granules like plankton. This record is an upcycling of sounds, themes and layers into a new collaborative work.”
It’s been three years since I last saw him play live, in the impressive setting of Liverpool’s Central Library with The Magnetic North, alongside bandmates Hannah Peel (most recently Emmy-nominated for her Game of Thrones score) and Simon Tong (Blur, The Verve, and more recently The Good, The Bad and the Queen). Memories that night in Merseyside (with the full review here) included Erland offering tots of whisky to the audience from a bottle on the band’s rider – an Orcadian tradition, he suggested. Is that something he’s carried into his solo career?
“Well, firstly, I didn’t intend to do any solo career. That was quite by accident. But I think I’ll definitely bring a bottle of whisky. It’ll be mid-afternoon, but just for tradition I’ll put it at the front of the stage, just for you. What do you think? Someone has to break that seal. If that could be you, I’ll do it. It could be our little pact!”
He’s talking about his 2.30pm seven-date UK tour opener at Lancaster Library this Sunday, November 17th, with the second date not far off, a midweek happening in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, at the Band on the Wall. And ticket sales for the tour are going well, his Bristol and Brighton dates already sold out.
I got the impression Simon Tong was keeping him and Hannah in line in Liverpool at times, I suggested, the two of them seemingly more giddy from the experience, having far too much fun on stage for the image.
“Ah, that’s just how he likes to present it. I’m always keeping that boy in order!”
According to Simon in our 2016 interview (see link below), they first met in London, Erland having initially approached renowned producer, Youth (ex-Killing Joke, and who also produced The Verve), wanting to do some demos. Youth was looking for young artists, and Erland, then in his early 20s, turned up on his doorstep, saying, ‘I want to be a singer, can you help me?’
Simon told me the pair met a few years later at a folk night he was putting on with Youth, chatting about music and realising they were both fans of Jackson C. Frank, starting to write together, making demos and forming a band, the debut Erland & The Carnival record in 2009 including a cover of Frank’s My Name is Carnival.
After a couple of albums and through a friend in common, Hannah Peel ended up supporting the band – also including drummer and engineer David Nock (The Orb, The Cult, Fireman) – and having just started talking about their Orkney project, feeling they needed someone else involved and envisaging it as a lot more orchestral and cinematic, they approached Hannah to join. And as Simon put it, “She was perfect – she played trombone, she sang, did string arrangements and played violin. Hannah was a perfect fit, we got on really well, and it grew from there really.”
As well as this imminent autumn tour, Erland is set to head next June to the Barbican Hall in London for An Orkney Triptych, ‘an evocative mix of music, words and imagery’, taking place not so far in the scheme of things from his East London studio, which he describes as ‘the polar opposite of the Orkney islands, but a wonderfully creative, private space … like a secret bunker!’ So does he see London as home these days?
“Partly, but I’m all over the place. I try to get back to Scotland, and I’ve been working a lot in Ireland. I’ll probably keep migrating. I like to see myself a bit more like a bird. I keep coming and going.”
At the risk of sounding Hitchcockian, not least with Solan Goose in mind, the birds keep coming back into your life, don’t they?
“Consistently! Constantly! I was wondering why, and I just think birds are probably the one creature that even as a kid and a middle-aged man and as an old man, they’re just as majestic. It’s flight really. You can’t explain it, but you try. The older you get you think you know more about it, but you don’t. It’s incredible when you think how far some of these birds have travelled. That kind of blows your mind a bit.”
“Yeah, it’s about taking flight and exploration really, and people say, ‘You grew up in Orkney, that must that been idyllic’. It was, but my teens were quite difficult for various reasons and you want to leave. Someone in Ireland asked the best and the worst thing about Orkney. In one sentence, it’s a rock surrounded by the North Sea, and that’s both the best, the majestic and the highlight but also something that makes it the worst thing as a kid.”
When it comes to his Orkney triptych, of which we’ve heard two-thirds so far, Erland insists he ‘didn’t mean to release it’. Was this writing as a cure for homesickness or some form of self-therapy maybe?
“Well, as I say, I didn’t mean to release it or even make it. I wrote it in between the cracks of all the other projects I was doing. For me it was like a tool to just ease a busy mind. Let’s say, if you’re on the sweaty London Underground for example, rushing around … I won’t get into intricacies of stress, because that’s relative in what you’re going through compared to anyone else, but I would just put this on. I’d get to the studio and make these layers to kind of counteract what I’d just experienced, and I would then travel with it.
“So instead of frowning on the Underground, when I hear this Orcadian accent, I’d be beaming. I think that’s what music and other people’s art does for me – it transports me to a place, whether that’s real or imaginary. Even if it’s just for a minute or 10 seconds, three minutes or 40 minutes of a record, that’s fine, and that’s all I’m ever trying to do, to get an essence of something that transports me somewhere else.
“I think we did that in Skem (referencing The Magnetic North’s second LP, Prospect of Skelmersdale), and we did that in Orkney with the first Magnetic North record, and I think that’s just what I do. And it’s probably that little boy or that kid who wanted to leave in his 20s. I can’t stop writing the same song.”
From The Magnetic North to Public Service Broadcasting and also King Creosote’s 2014 soundtrack to the From Scotland With Love documentary film, I seem to have experienced this wondrous new wave of filmic music, one that has taken me across various music genres, from classical to electronica.
“Well, there are no rules. Anything that evokes memories – good or bad – is okay. One person can look at a piece of footage and feel one thing, another can feel the other. I felt like I was scoring a film that didn’t really exist, apart from that it was my Orkney in my head. And I was ok with that.
“But I played it to my publisher, who said, ‘What the hell’s that in the background?’ I said, ‘It’s Solan Goose, and all the tracks are named after birds. I think I’m going to write three of them, because they’re keeping me company’. She said, ‘You’ve got to release that!’ And before I knew it, it was flapping around, and still is, which is quite remarkable.”
To a point where I believe there could be a theatrical production now. Is that right?
“Ha! A friend of mine is doing a stage production of Kes, a great thing to do.”
That rather than your Orkney story?
“Oh, I’d love to do the story of Betty Corrigall or something like that.”
Betty was the subject of a song on Orkney: Symphony of The Magnetic North, the trio paying tribute to a late 18th century woman from Hoy who fell pregnant and took her own life, aged 27, after her lover deserted her and ran away to sea, the castigation of the locals and trauma and shame of the situation proving too much.
Actually, what I was really driving at there was that Erland is set to take on a collaboration with the Young Vic next year, for a six-week production of Portia Coughlan from mid-September, following an invite from director Carolyn Byrne, composing the score to Marina Car’s play, with Academy Award nominee Ruth Negga in the title role.
“I’m quite excited about that and think she asked me because I don’t do music for theatre. She felt when she listened to my records in her own space that it would take her somewhere else, and she wondered, ‘Could you try and make a world for me with this theatre production?’”
Is there an irony that the success of his songwriting about home is ultimately keeping him away from Orkney?
“Believe it or not, it gets me there! Radio 4 flew me up, and I did this other thing the other day. It’s brilliant, I get to go there more! I kind of feel like I work for the Tourist Board. And I don’t mind that, I want people to go there.
“This had never happened before and never since, but I was sat outside my house in Stromness with a fucking film crew – embarrassing in itself – telling them anecdotes about jumping off the pier as a kid, when this group of Americans came up and said, ‘Oh, my God, are you Erland Cooper?’ It was like I’d pay them to ask me! That wouldn’t happen anywhere else, but it happened outside my door, this group of people recognising me, saying, ‘We came to the Orkney Islands, with you ‘soundtracking’ our trip. Are you sat on this doorstep all the time?’”
It sounds like a new spin on the wonderful Local Hero.
“I love that film! Yeah!”
As a writer, I have to do lots of extra jobs to pay bills and the mortgage, and guess you’re the same, although your extra projects seem far more glamorous, such as TV and film scoring, advertisements and various multi-arts projects, including gallery, film and installations, most recently scoring Nest, a giant, kinetic light and sound installation opening London’s first borough of culture. Is that something that helps fund your albums?
“Well, I don’t do corporate work anymore, which is great. But I tell you what I love doing – these multi-art projects. It’s so rewarding, and I get to work with real artists. Simon Tong taught me that. People like landscape artists, directors, and people I think do an incredibly evocative job of making something lasting, they inspire me.
“I didn’t expect to be doing galleries or large screen installations until I was much older, when I was retiring. The fact that I’m doing it now is such a joy. It’s so great, getting to score these installations. It’s so rewarding to see people react in different ways. I was speaking to Bill Drummond the other day – and that’s not me name-dropping – and he’s a provocateur but also incredibly wise and said a good idea should stand alone without its creator. That’s so brilliant and right in the sense of a big light installation, for example, when you’re just walking around as a punter.
“I was walking around this Nest installation, and 70,000 people came to see it over this weekend, and I could hear kids and mums and dads talking about it. One Mum had a tear in her eye by this 4D spirograph. This boy said, ‘Mum, it’s like sitting underneath fireworks, but without the bangs. Instead of bangs, you’ve got this music’. Such a lovely way of putting it.
“Then I saw two fellas looking at each other, cans of beer in hands, one saying, ‘It’s like tripping off your tits!’ That’s perfect, and both of those reactions were great. They didn’t know me from Adam, yet I’m stood behind them, thinking, ‘I helped put this together!’ That’s really satisfying.”
The Nest installation involved a three-night event in North London, Erland adding, ‘I’d love to take the Nest to the Orkney Islands.’ Watch this space. But with Seachange out now, following the Sule Skerry album, Erland is currently working on the final record in his trilogy, revealing to me that its companion record is to be called Landforms.
“Once that’s done, that’s the whole Orkney project done. I think that will be it. I can’t see me writing as overtly about Orkney again.”
How about moving on to the next archipelago as your subject matter, starting again?
“Well, I’d love to do that anyway!”
All of which leads me to wonder when you’ll get around to a third Magnetic North album. I understood that you were on the case some time ago, according to Hannah Peel last time we spoke. But with Hannah busy with her Emmy-nominated Game of Thrones score and various other projects, and Simon recording and touring with The Good, the Bad and the Queen of late, the project seems to be on hold.
“We have this habit – I think Simon would back me up on this, Hannah maybe less so – of making a record then ditching it, then making another. I think a lot of folk do that. Simon would call it pruning a tree, getting rid of dead wood.
“The Magnetic North is a process of a few things, but most important is to have one local and two other heads that are outsiders. That’s vital and that balance has to be right. At the moment, it’s not there as that local is too busy.
“You could argue that the outsiders have written too much, and that’s not fair. It’s quite normal to ditch it. That’s how it works. It’s great, although ruthless. It’s got to come from her. She’s got to drive that. Maybe it’ll come in 10 years … or maybe it won’t come at all.”
As I understand it, that third Magnetic North album will be written in Northern Ireland, reflecting a key part of Hannah’s past, with yourself and Simon doing the groundwork.
“There’s no rules, but you’ve highlighted one of the main issues. You’ve got to go there, collect sounds and stories and see how you react to it in different spaces. That’s always part of it. But to be frank, they’re both so busy that I’ve ended up releasing my own stuff! And that was unintentional, as I said. But I just keep going and I’ve always found I write between the cracks, doing my own stuff between other projects.”
Hannah is based mostly across the Irish Sea now, rather than London, but Erland and Simon remain in the capital, although Erland’s spending more time back in Scotland, adding, ‘But that’s okay. It’s like a cycle of the seasons. We’ll see what happens’.
Erland also gets over to Ireland a fair bit, to ‘a beautiful studio in Donegal’ where he mixes his Orkney records, adding, ‘I love taking stuff from Orkney to my basement in East London, and then on to the wide-open glens of Donegal. This idea that you have to be surrounded by the landscape to write about it is nonsense. You come back from there with it in your head, in your books, or your phone, then see what you’ve got. I call it critical distance. You need to be away from something to realise what it is.”
Remind me how the Paul Weller link come about. He was a fan of Erland and the Carnival, wasn’t he?
“My band, The Carnival, were the best unknown band in Britain, along with all the others! While we didn’t have many fans, we had some hardcore fans, and Paul was one of them. He took me and the guys on tour, we went to America, and we played some incredible venues, including the Royal Albert Hall in London, becoming really good mates. And I didn’t realise he’d never co-written, in a sense, lyrics before.”
Are there songs you wrote together still to see the light of day?
“Yeah. And I brought Hannah in. I’m the one that kind of joins the dots. I don’t like to be in any way the centre of attention, but I’m behind a lot of things or you’ll see my name associated somewhere. He’s a big fan of Hannah now, and she’s just scored his latest record.
“He’s a good, honest bloke, a very genuine and humble guy, and like you and I, he just believes in interesting, creative energy. He doesn’t give a shit about ego!”
You’ve done so much in a relatively short period of time, and it’s fair to say you’ve come from a different place, in more ways than one. You’ve toyed with folk, electronica, classical, prog and pop. Did you come to Paul’s work late, or were you always a fan?
“I’ll say this in earnest, I remember getting bullied because I took a fucking CD of Wild Wood into school. And do you know what I’d say to that fucking bully now? ‘Fuck you!’
“The thing with Paul is that he’s a force and does what he feels and wants to do, based on what he’s just done last. I came to his music quite early on, while I was learning, breaking down how to figure out how songs were written, like Nirvana and everybody else …”
At this point, Erland’s multi-tasking, putting his jacket on, heading for the door but too polite to tell me to piss off, carrying that thread on.
“I’m always interested in what Paul does next. I find that really interesting, and I really mean this – he’s got more energy, charisma, ideas and creative force than most people I meet in their 20s. And I mean musicians. And he’s in his 60s now!”
There are some grand venues on this tour, including a Charles Rennie Mackintosh late-1890s church in Glasgow. What made you choose Lancaster Library as your starting point?
“I just like the acoustic of spaces, and was told it was interesting. You’ve probably noticed that just when people think they’ve got me clocked, they haven’t. It’s like, ‘Why are you playing there?’ Because you don’t expect me to!”
At this point we briefly compare notes on that venue, this punter having previously seen Robert Forster of Go-Betweens fame, The Thrills, and then Iain Broudie and Starsailor frontman James Walsh on the same bill there.
“I didn’t expect to be touring, let alone … I’m playing the fricking Barbican Hall, and a library! And that’s the whole point, right?”
And who’s he with on these dates?
“It’s a small ensemble. I think a middle-aged white man with a quartet is boring and it’s what everybody does. My band is exactly that – you could think it’s a quartet, but they’re multi-instrumentalists and artists in their own right, they move around on the stage, and it’s interesting for me. It just inspires me, playing with great people. I won’t name names, but if I see another white guy with a quartet, it’s just like, ‘Come on!’”
Erland Cooper has shared an excerpt from Seachange – the ambient companion to his acclaimed LP, Sule Skerry – with a link here, accompanied by recycled visual cut-ups from collaborator Alex Kozobolis, shot in Orkney.
UK dates (with support from AVA): Sunday, November 17th – Lancaster Library (2.30pm); Wednesday, November 20th – Manchester Band on The Wall; Thursday, November 21st – Bristol Arnolfini (sold out); Friday, November 22nd – Brighton Unitarian Church (sold out); Sunday, November 24th – Leeds Brudenell Social Club; Saturday, November 30th – Glasgow Mackintosh Queen’s Cross Church; Monday, December 2nd – Gateshead Sage. For ticket details of Erland’s An Orkney Triptych show with the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Barbican Centre in London on June 13th, 2020, head here.