Return to Orkney – back in touch with Erland Cooper

We’ll have to wait a while before we see acclaimed Scottish singer-songwriter, composer and multi-instrumentalist Erland Cooper and his ensemble live again, but can at least transport ourselves to his spiritual neck of the woods in our imaginations through latest long-playing record, Hether Blether.

Featuring poetry by John Burnside, written after a trip to Orkney with the man himself (as documented on BBC Radio 4’s Wild Music), spoken word from the award-winning Kathryn Joseph, and ambient tape and modular synth work from Hiroshi Ebina, the final part of Erland’s Orkney trilogy follows on where the wondrous Solan Goose (2018) and Sule Skerry (2019) left off.

And this time, we move on from songs inspired by the archipelago’s birdlife and surrounding waters, our guide looking to the land and its people, the LP title name-checking a hidden island in folklore, said to rise green and fertile from time to time from the foam. Inspired in essence by Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown, filmmaker Margaret Tait and composer Peter Maxwell Davies, it’s described as a celebration of memories held in timeless landscape, community, myth and mythology, weaving in elements of its predecessors, bringing them together in a full circle around the cycles of the changing seasons.

Throughout the triptych, Erland explores a restorative path in the rhythm and poetry of the everyday, deep within a land and community at the edge of the world, and on Hether Blether, as before, song titles are taken from local dialect and acknowledge the places and stories of the island.

We’re soon in its spell, opening track ‘Noup Head’ introducing us to the title track’s hidden island via a young girl that goes missing one day, her family finding her in a storm – on an island emerging from the fog – grown up, with children of her own. The girl reappears, ‘as memories do’, as the album ebbs and flows, first in the swell of the Arco string quartet on ‘Rousay’, named after the island where she was born; then on the atmospheric ‘Longhope’, where we discover ‘The echo of a child, suspended in a web of kelp and feathers, a long-lost sister waiting for the tide to guide her home’.

I was hooked after barely a couple of listens, captivated as soon as we reached the mournful yet uplifting fourth track ‘Skreevar’, a moment of pure beauty totally in keeping with the finest moments of the first two records. And Erland’s voice comes through more (‘a point of strength and vulnerability’) on this final part of the trilogy, first on mesmeric third track, ‘Peedie Breeks’ (which translates as ‘children’).

Where Solan Goose didn’t feature his vocals at all, and Sule Skerry only featured his vocals briefly, this time his vocals are given room to breathe, inviting us down new paths of discovery and exploration. We also hear him – after the colourful, stirring ‘Linga Holm’ takes us further on from ‘Longhope’ – on the slow-building ‘Hildaland’, where we discover inhabitants that were said to retreat to a secret undersea kingdom every winter, ‘just as our guide retreated from the real world through the soft waves of his music’.

And there he is again on the beautiful title track, ‘Hether Blether’, reflecting on times past, whether he’s back to his subject matter or reminiscing about loved ones, familiar landscapes, cherished memories or all of those, confiding how ‘You gave me all the best days of my life; Even though I didn’t know it then; But I know now’.

Then, beyond the similarly-evocative ‘Hamnavoe’, we end with Erland delivering a lyric borrowed from celebrated film composer Clint Mansell, ‘Where I Am Is Here’ exploring time and memory, its repeated phrase ‘Love now more than ever’ sounding like an urgent demand for our times, described as ‘a natural end-point for a project that began with one man needing to retreat from the chaos of everyday life, to return to where he came from, taking all of us with him, to the very roots of ourselves’.

Closing line, ‘Time will show you how’ certainly resonates, reminding us how past and present always connect in our lives, bringing our experiences full circle. Yet Erland stresses this is far from the end of the story, saying of Orkney, ‘I’m only just coming to terms with where it’s taken me – from a place of necessary escape, to a very different world’. And when I called him, I enquired first where he was answering his phone, wondering if he’d managed to spend the lockdown back in his beloved islands.

“Oh, I wish I was in Orkney. I managed to get my folks back before the ferries stopped, as they live in England sometimes. I was supposed to be there now, travelling to the island of Sule Skerry … which sounds very whimsical … travelling there this week with Amy Liptrot. Instead I’ve been burrowed – like a puffin – in my studio.”

That’s in East London, yeah?

“It is, and I suppose the life of a musician, producer, writer … whatever … involves a lot of solitude, so I’m kind of used to it. The creative side hasn’t been hindered.”

You’re back in Orkney in your imagination, no doubt, and so are we after being introduced to your records about the Magnetic North of the British Isles, capturing something of the magical spirit of those surroundings you grew up among.

“That’s a lovely thing to say, and I guess it is transportation – that’s all I’m ever trying to do.”

I used that very word when posting a clip of ‘Peedie Breeks’ this very morning. We tend to associate transportation with convicts being carted off and dumped Down Under, the dark days of Van Diemen’s Land and all that. But in this case it’s nothing but positive.

“I was talking to Rob (co-artistic director Robert Ames) at the London Contemporary Orchestra, and the thing we both had in common when we first spoke – and working with the LCO is a big privilege for me, although obviously the mid-June show we were going to be doing at the Barbican is not happening yet – and what really resonated was that idea of being transported to a place for an hour or two, whether it’s in a concert hall or on a record. We both share that idea.”

At this stage, Erland’s kettle boiled, so he breaks briefly off to do the most important prep work needed for our interview, while I ask if he has everything he needs at his home studio (including biscuits, of course) to see him through this COVID-19 lockdown, not least in terms of recording and instruments.

“Yeah – I’ve got all my Moogs! It’s a real haven here, I call it my sea haven, and it’s exactly that. I spend hours, days, months in here.”

Before I know it, Erland’s turned the mic. on me, so to speak, asking how my lockdown’s going, how my eldest daughter – who he met at his Band on the Wall show in Manchester’s Northern Quarter last November – was doing, and what I miss most right now, confessing that he always tends to end up interviewing his interviewers.

In response to his enquiry I tell him the value of family and close friends and places I love has truly sunk in, with an increased desire to see those people and locations again as soon as it’s safe to do so.

That’s something that appeals to Erland too, but for now it seems he’s happy with his lot most of the time.

“I call it the magic of the everyday, and that can even be enjoying the process of making your coffee … even though that sounds insane. I’m delighted that every day I get messages from folks asking if I’ve noticed the bird song. I get sent a lot of that, and love that, and just noticing those smaller details is one thing I think everybody’s enjoying.”

I can’t fully work out if that’s just down to us listening that little bit harder, or the fact that we’re not about so much is making those birds sing louder and be more open around us.

“Noise pollution is a big factor in terms of the fact you can hear further in the distance, but also they’re wondering why we’re inside and enjoying it all.”

It’s all a bit odd, isn’t it, and I can’t believe it’s only five months since I saw you in your ‘mad sea captain’ guise, guiding us across choppy seas to Orkney with your ensemble at the Band on the Wall on a truly memorable night.

“Ha! Er, wait … what? Mad sea captain?”

That’s the expression I used in my review, with you there at the helm, the electronic equipment shaking and band members busy at their work, as if we were being picked up on the quayside at Scrabster, taken aboard and off on a journey to your beloved archipelago.

“I love it. I’ll take that. I like mad sea captain. That feels good, because the rest of the crew don’t know whether to trust the captain or not.”

There were elements of that. They clearly knew what they were about, but you seemed somewhat fussy around them, making sure they were doing what you wanted from them, as if you were altering your route every few nautical miles, cables or fathoms, twiddling knobs on stage as if to let them know, ‘This is how we do it’. You weren’t patronising their abilities, just eager to express your own inner vision.

“Ha! Good, because it’s not a lack of confidence. If anything, it’s taking you out of that feeling of knowing what you’re doing. Does that make sense? It’s not about going through the mechanics and the routine. I wanted everyone to get a sense that, ‘He might just change this!’ What that means is that you all enjoy it as if it’s your last performance of your life. And whether that’s good or bad or the reaction is good or bad, there’s a feeling of uncertainty but also absolute trust in each other.

“That’s the thing when you’ve got an ensemble of folk, and to me that’s such a joy. I trust them all implicitly, and know that if I throw something on the stage – not physically, but metaphorically – they’ll react to it, even just as simple as me walking off stage, going to the back and watching, with them thinking, ‘My God, what’s he doing?’”

One moment that fell into that category was when you had the houselights turned down and sound-deck consoles briefly turned off to re-enact a spell-binding Orcadian sunrise, mid-song.

“Kind of simple pyrotechnics. You see, I’d rather pay for musicians than all the glitz and glam. I always make sure everyone’s adaptive, and we had to come up with some creative way … it’s more like theatre, isn’t it?”

Do you think there’s a good chance of this new album tour going ahead this autumn? I’m hoping to see you on the first night (Thursday, September 24th) at Halle St Peter’s, Manchester, but I’m guessing the dates you’ve announced are all just pencilled in for now, depending where we go next with this virus.

“I think the reality is that nobody knows the shape if it – whether people will sit six metres apart, all these things. But I felt this determination to make sure we released the record as planned, the messages I get from folk inspiring me to carry on. Playing live is a rare bird for me anyway. That side of things will either happen or not. And if it doesn’t, we’ll find a way to do something else or do it another time. It’s more important that people are healthy and safe.”

In the meantime, we have the final part of your Orkney triptych to savour. I’m only a few listens in, but I was very quickly hooked, already instinctively knowing I’ll love it as much as the first two parts. And your vocal is more prominent this time, something you’ve built up album by album.

“I’m glad you’ve noticed. Narrative is really important to me in everything I do creatively, whether it’s guiding me or shaping what I’m doing. And each of those voices tells a story of what’s happening. You don’t need to know that story, but to me I almost don’t hear me singing.

“For example, with ‘Peedie Breeks’ I wrote that with King Creosote in my head. I went to ask him about it, but it was too late. So I left my vocal on, played it to a few folk, and got people saying, ‘You should leave it like that’. Even though I know I recorded it with a couple of drams of whisky in me, it was late, and it’s not really singing. I tried to sing it, and it was crap, so I just left the original vocal on.

“Each of the voices I kind of feel are people within this mythical island, part of the stories. The first record was about air, the second sea, and this one land, but it’s about more – it’s about community and it’s about people. So what better way than to have the voice tell that story?”

Strangely enough, getting back to your original idea for ‘Peedie Breeks,’ the last live show I caught before the lockdown, at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, involved King Creosote and his band scoring the wondrous From Scotland with Love film, taking my youngest daughter, experiencing more or less socially-distanced circumstances, seeing as barely a third of those that bought tickets turned up, restrictions about to kick in.

“Ah, you’re kidding! And it’s interesting you remember that fondly as ‘the last show’. It’s a surreal thing to say. Actually, I asked KT Tunstall, as I figured she knew Kenny (Anderson, aka King Creosote), but the email went to junk. I only found out recently that he’d replied … and it was too late by then.”

Well, much as I like the original concept, the track as it is proves pretty much perfect, and you’ll have to bear with me on this, but the first thing I wrote on an early listen was ‘Echo and the Bunnymen’ …

“Oh, that’s a nice thought!”

But there was also something else I couldn’t place, realising after much brain-mashing it was arguably reminiscent of Peter, Paul and Mary’s ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’. Not convinced though, I played it to my better half, expecting her to say U2 or just agree, but she mentioned Cliff Richard’s ‘In the Country’. And I get that too.

“Ah, Jeez! Wow! That’s something I didn’t expect, but I love it all the same. It’s probably something the wonky sounds of Benge’s analogue synth and my slightly drunken voice trying to do King Creosote has!

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that. And as you know, I wrote Solan Goose (the first album of the trilogy) as a tool, and these subsequent records are tools in themselves, finishing this record in around November then sitting on it. But now it’s out there in your world, it lives its own life.”

Well, I’m loving it, and was gone by the time we reached ‘Skreevar’ and ‘Longhope’, both clearly proof that we’re continuing on that same epic journey into the imagination we set out on for the first two records, part of the same set but pushing on into different areas.

“I’m glad you feel that way, and hope it feels like full circle to you. I tried to borrow all the elements. A keen ear will not only hear similar key signatures but repeated motifs from the first album.”

Agreed, and there’s also a point on ‘Hildaland’ where I was taken back …

“D’you know, sorry to interrupt, but its great hearing you say the titles. I get a real kick out of that. These are almost lost words. Hildaland – just listen to that word!”

Absolutely. It takes me back, musically, to childhood holidays on long sandy expanses of St Ives Bay, or maybe South Devon or the Isle of Wight. The way you add what you primarily saw as more of a guide vocal, that’s me back then, writing lots of fantastic songs at the water’s edge. The difference is that mine were very quickly lost in time, probably by the time I got back up the beach, whereas you’ve recorded yours, turned those initial melodies and ideas into songs of wonder, a master musician with the means, vision and determination to get them down on tape and truly realised.

“Jack of all trades, master of none! I just try and work hard, and among my peers and colleagues I feel like an under-dog … constantly. I just try and do as much as I can in the short time I have.”

Typical understatement, but I let it go, instead asking Erland about the title track, ‘Hether Blether’. I know the official explanation but get the feeling it’s also your tribute to past and present loves, or a sense of belonging to the place you love. Or all of those.

“Erm … yeah, it’s complex, but it’s also not difficult at all, telling the story of the myth itself. It’s both of those things as well though. I was curious as to how that would be read. For all intents and purposes, it sounds like I’m singing about a person, but really I’m singing about Orkney, about a home, about a memory and a place and how a place can be almost human-like. Does that make sense?”

Definitely. That’s what I get from it.

“Equally it could be about various people in my life. But it’s an interesting myth, a story about how to deal with grief. What a lovely thought – a grieving family over decades are still grieving, and so over those painful years create a story that a person’s probably happy somewhere. Madeleine McCann’s quite a good comparison. We like to think hopefully to deal with grief sometimes. If you don’t get closure, you make up a story. And I like to think that’s where that myth has come from, maybe on a small island.”

In the song’s delivery, I think there’s something of the spirit of Bryan Ferry too. I’d be interested to hear him cover that.

“Ha! People keep asking me to do remixes of their music. I did that Nightflight EP as an experiment, and a lot of my inbox now reflects that. It’s interesting, although I haven’t replied to half of them.”

Talking of collaborations and suchlike, having featured on the last one, are you on the soon to be released new Paul Weller LP?

“I’m not, but I feature in spirit. I got to listen to a bunch of tracks and funnily enough was messaging him as you were calling. He’s so great – he’s already thinking about the record after the one he’s putting out now!”

I heard the single, ‘Village’ for the first time today, and was saying on Facebook, there’s not much we can be sure of right now, but a new Weller LP comes into that category. I reckon I’d say the same about your records too.

“Ah, that’s kind, and I’d tell you to look out for the string arrangements on Weller’s new record, done by Hannah.”

That’s Hannah Peel, who has worked with Erland on several projects, notably joining forces with Simon Tong for two albums and tie-in-shows as The Magnetic North, that project title itself a nod to Erland’s Orkney roots.

“She collaborated again with him, quite extensively, so keep a keen ear out for them. Yes, the very talented Miss Peel!”

At this point the cadence of his voice is followed by a quick burst of electric piano, and I ask if that’s his equivalent of the old ‘b’dum-t’sh’ response from drummers to corny jokes.

“Yeah, when I walk around and a good line comes out, that just happens! This wee guy on piano just comes in with this melancholic minor chord!”

I thought that might be the case. Meanwhile, when I should have been working on questions this morning and several other things I should be doing, instead I mapped out a route to Orkney, and internet tools suggests I’m eight hours off by road to Scrabster. And I guess I’d be happy to wait a bit at the harbourside for a connecting ferry from there.

“Really? Well, maybe you should explore that, post-lockdown, that bit of the UK, going off that way. Go for it!”

That’s another thing I’ve missed – travel and seeking out new places to explore. And I think in that instance, if travelling by road between my patch and Orkney, it’d be rude not to drop by to visit Edwyn Collins in Helmsdale en route.

“Ah, he’s a keen birder is Edwyn. I’m a big fan of his work, going back to Orange Juice. I know his music intimately, but I’ve not met.”

Well, I think you should. That’d be something down the line for us all to savour, the two of you working together.

“That’s a nice thought.”

I was running out of time by this point but asked him next about working with poet John Burnside on this record.

“Ah! John was an absolute joy, and I was gobsmacked not just to have him write words for me – it felt like a true collaboration. We travelled around Orkney together in gale-force, horrific, nasty wind and rain that comes from the ground. We retired for the evening with a tea and got under the fingernails of our stories to each other, then went our separate ways. Then these words came into my inbox in floods!

“He’s a very prolific writer anyway, and we were there to do a Radio 4 programme, but I felt it important not to say we’d be collaborating on the new record as well. It made for a more natural way of collaborating – all the dots joined.

“Normally, Will Burns would do the poetry on the records, and I asked, but he was doing the record I helped put together with him and Hannah (Peel), Chalk Hill Blues. He was off touring for the first time – a poet on tour, he had no idea what was to come! – so instead I got John, which was an incredible honour.

“When you listen to music, new things present themselves in the layers within the piece, and his words are doing the same – I hear them in a different way. I was also fortunate enough to get Kathryn (Joseph) to read them. And hearing them read is another thing – such a joy.”

How about that wonderful voice on the record – is that Kalliopi Mitropoulou, who was with you for the live shows late last year, or Lottie Greenhow, who featured on the previous records?

“It was really important that the voice of Solan Goose threads all the way through, and that was Lottie’s. She wasn’t going to do it, because she was pregnant – she’s heavily pregnant now, which is great news – but I’d built a digital version of her, creating an instrument of her, told her about it, and she said that was cool but felt, ‘No, I’ll come – just tell me where and when!’ So she did, we did it in a day, had a cup of tea, and that was it. And it felt like full circle to me.

“Kalliopi is also a wonderful singer. They’re very different performers – both incredibly talented – but it felt right to have Lottie finish the record.”

First Footing: The Magnetic North’s debut album, from 2012

I recall you saying this Orkney trilogy was something you never planned to fly with publicly. Are you glad you did? I hope it’s not spoiled it for you, having to share your personal project with the wider world.

“Quite the opposite. It’s opened up a world of joy and opportunity and hope, and connections with people like yourself and other folk that connect with something I never thought possible. Actually, I’d go as far as say it’s changed my musical career in a way I simply didn’t expect.

“I’m able to work and collaborate with incredibly-talented folk and nothing excites me more than scribbling these notes down, giving them to someone in a studio, them making your work sound so much better.

“Collaborating isn’t just being sat in a room together. To me, it’s that last 20 per cent, so everything I do I leave 20 per cent open for a bit of magic to walk in the door. That comes through learning from people I admire and working with people I admire, and it’s changed my career, opening up a whole world of exploration. I was just recording clarinet remotely yesterday for this new piece, and what a joy – I’d never written for a clarinet!”

As we mentioned Hannah Peel, how about your fellow Magnetic North (and also Erland and the Carnival) collaborator, Simon Tong – are you still in regular touch?

“I texted him yesterday. Sadly he recently lost a close friend, Tony Allen …”

I was about to mention Tony, who as well as his many other acclaimed projects, such as his work with Fela Kuti and Afrobeat, worked alongside Simon, Damon Albarn and Paul Simonon with The Good, The Bad and The Queen. A sad loss.

“Yeah, and it’s been on my mind post-lockdown to get back together and catch up with Simon. We’ve all been so busy. I’m really looking forward to that. I miss him greatly.”

And now we’ve reached part three of your Orkney project, we also need part three of the Magnetic North trilogy, surely.

“It feels like a trilogy needs to be completed.”

Tidal Journey: Erland Cooper, the ‘mad sea captain’ takes overall charge on last year’s Sule Skerry UK tour

Agreed, although it shouldn’t necessarily stop there. I recall, after all, that Douglas Adams presented So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish as ‘the fourth book of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy’.

“I like that!”

And finally, what’s the first thing you’ll do once the shutters are up, when this crisis is officially over and it’s deemed safe for you to go back to everything you’ve wanted to do during the lockdown? I’m guessing you’ll be heading North.

“You’ve got it. A ferry to the Orkneys, heading north, and going to visit the North Sea.”

To revisit this website’s previous interview with Erland Cooper, from November 2019, head here. And for the WriteWyattUK verdict on Erland and his ensemble at Band on the Wall in Manchester in late 2019, head here.

You can also find this website’s review of The Magnetic North at Liverpool Central Library from October 2016 here, feature-interviews with Hannah Peel from November 2016 here and September 2017 here, and one with Simon Tong from April 2016 here.

For details of how to pre-order Erland Cooper’s Hether Blether, released on Friday, May 29th, and his scheduled tour dates, pencilled in for autumn, head to his website  and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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1 Response to Return to Orkney – back in touch with Erland Cooper

  1. Pingback: How we got there – talking Together with The Vapors’ Dave Fenton | writewyattuk

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