Thursday, 2 January 2014

EWAN McLENNAN

Interview

Ewan McLennan talks about his music, the Transatlantic Sessions and his new album

When you witness Scottish singer/songwriter Ewan McLennan performing, and marvel at the precise way his hands glide with expert ease up and down the neck of one of only two guitars he owns, it’s hard to believe this is not his first instrument.
Singer/songwriter Ewan McLennan
“I came very late to the guitar when I was about 17. I had been playing the piano for about 12 or 13 years and up until then the piano was my main instrument, but then I began to play the guitar much more and at about aged 18 or 19 I went hell for leather with it.
“I did some classical music and formal training on piano and got my grades. I did jazz and that kind of thing and a lot of improvisation and blues piano so it was kind of a mixed bag.
“I don’t even own a piano now. It’s a kind of weakness where if I am not going to put the full time in then I don’t bother at all. So since I have been playing, singing and writing for the guitar the piano has kind of gone by the wayside.”
Growing up in Edinburgh, music has been very much a part of his life and while none of his family played musical instruments or were musicians in the traditional sense they were, nonetheless, a big factor in shaping Ewan’s interest in all things musical.
“I come from a relatively musical background, a lot of musicians have come from incredible musical backgrounds and they come from families of professional musicians where they played all kinds of instruments but in that sense my family weren’t musical.
“But they did have a big appreciation of music and they sang a lot, which I guess is more of a common thing in Scotland. There was certainly a tradition of singing either at family events or just sitting down and having a sing song, so in that sense I grew up with a lot of music around me. But there was certainly no trained musical background, no.
“It was both for family gatherings and for entertainment, my grandparents dated back before the TV age and they did do a lot of singing so it was sort of passed on.”
With Ewan the music came first it was only later when he was a young man that the notion of making a living from what he was doing came along.
“I played music from a very young age and was always keen on listening to it, playing it was always a big part of my life. I never really felt like playing music professionally was an option, or that it was something I thought about too much until I was well into my teens. Then I began to play more and more, and in front of audiences, so it was at that point I thought maybe I will give this a go.
“The transition was gradual. However, there was a definite point where I was able to look at my calendar and see that for the next six months there was an income that I could support myself on. In a sense it was then I said ‘right I am quitting the job I had at the time and I am jumping in professionally’ and I could see that I had a good bit of time ahead of me where I would be earning a living.
“I'm 27 now and I turned professional at about 23."
Considering he has only been a professional for four years he has made a big impression winning acclaim and awards for both for his live performances and for his first two albums Rags & Robes and The Last Bird To Sing.
“Being comfortable on stage is a craft you learn over years and I am still learning that, but I have never really been one of those people who have suffered from nerves or felt uncomfortable or terrified at the thought of getting up and singing in front of people. As time goes on I feel more and more comfortable and enjoy it more and more.”
Apart from his distinctive almost flamenco-style, classical guitar pose Ewan has an extremely recognisable voice.
“My voice is something that came on naturally, I am not a true singer and I have never studied it in that technical sense. It was just the voice which I kind of developed.”
He is among that strand of folk musicians such as Andy Irvine, Christy Moore and Kate Rusby that from the first note they utter you can tell who it is not least because of how he retains his strong Scottish accent while singing.
“It always irked me, whether you were a folk singer or a singer/songwriter to put on or feign an American accent. I think, thankfully, that’s something which is changing now and there seems to be more who are using regional accents. It was never really a considered thing, it was that I sang like I spoke. And obviously a lot of the songs I am singing lend themselves to a Scottish accent and have a lot dialect in them too.
“A lot of people I was listening to when I was really getting into folk music and Scottish folk musicians had strong accents so it was just a kind of natural thing to follow on from that.”
“I am proud of singing music from below, folk songs and so on. I tend to sing mostly Scottish songs because that’s where I grew up and that was what was around me first of all when I was young and because of that they are the songs which resonate most with me.
“I was surrounded by music growing up and one record I remember well is the Common Man by a Scottish group called The Lagan. They were around for quite a few years. They did some fantastic stuff, I don’t think they were that well known south of the border but in Scotland they were.
“They were recording in the 70s and 80s and some of their stuff was certainly an influence. Archie Fisher was a huge influence and Dick Gaughan, especially latterly. As I began to hone my style a little bit I came across him and was then blown away by his music. He is fantastic and he is a big idol.
Dick Gaughan one of McLennan's musical influences
“In terms of the guitar Martin Simpson has been a big influence and there are classical guitarist too who have been a wider influence such as Ralph Towner. I have been influenced by a variety of people.”
McLennan’s guitar technique however, is a different kettle of fish. This he owes more to a studious process.
“It’s a technique which has come from the classical guitar and studying and playing classical guitar and so you pick up the trick from that way of playing. It always seemed to me not so much the vertical but pointing up so you hand can come right the way round the finger board and your thumb can stay behind it. Techniques like just seem to make much more sense. It’s the idea of economy of movement which is a big part of classical guitar and that has always been a big part of how I look at playing. When I analyse my playing I try and make sure I am doing it in the most efficient way so you can get the best speed, comfort and accuracy.
“The technique I play with is something I have thought about a lot and certainly other musicians who have similar techniques have given an awful lot of thought to.
“There is a distinction between the classical and folk guitar. I began playing folk in a very untrained way but then went over to playing much more classical. I began with a nylon string guitar and then threw myself into the classical guitar. Then once again decided to go to the steel string guitar and go back towards the folk style. It was a step in step out kind of thing.”
He may have only being playing professionally for four years but it is certainly testament to McLennan’s reputation and talent that he was one of the musicians who was invited to be part of the latest Transatlantic Sessions which are recorded on the banks of Loch Lomond and features some of the biggest contemporary and legendary names of folk and acoustic music collected together by Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas.
“I would have to have been doing something a lot more serious than washing my hair to have turned them down. The producer got in touch and asked me if I was available and then a few months later it all happened and then a few more months and it was on TV.
“I certainly felt incredibly pleased to be asked to be part of the TS and I was also surprised to be honest. I was surrounded by who I, and many other people, consider to be the best folk musicians in the world, it was a pretty incredible experience, to be amongst those people and have them accompanying my own songs and to be playing with them really felt like a hell of a privilege .
“It’s split into two groups, they have the sessions band which is the musicians most of whom have been on the TS for years and they form the kind of backbone of the whole show. They record their own songs but they are kind of the house band, the backing band or whatever you want to call them.
“Most of them are there for the whole two weeks, which is how long the filming lasts, and the solo musicians like myself are there for a much shorter period. I was there for about 3 or 4 days along with other solo musicians such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Karen Matheson, Cara Dillon and Tim O’Brien. So people who are there to do the songs are brought in and then they leave."
Cara Dillon - Transatlantic sessions
McLennan is the first to admit the experience has left a deep and lasting impression on him.
“I am sure it will stick my mind for a long time, it was fantastic. It was a really magic few days of being there; of music and company. The level of musicianship was immense, but also the passion for the music and depth of feeling for it that was there as well. That was an incredible thing to experience and really memorable."
Being something of a newcomer to the sessions which have been running more than two decades could easily be intimidating and often in situations like this you have to find your place in the pecking order but it seems there were none of the egos associated with the rock and pop music.
“The other thing which I wasn’t expecting, was the comfortable and laid back atmosphere of the thing, there were no egos. No pretence everyone was very friendly, laid back and really into the music they were playing. In that sense it makes it a perfect environment in which to record and make the music happen.
“It was really relaxed, I certainly was one of the new lads and one of the lesser known faces around, and one of the newer for performing music. A lot of those guys are old hands. However, nobody at any point was anything but encouraging and complimentary and kind and so it was a very easy going atmosphere.
“Of course every now and again people like myself would defer to the musical directors. I was surprised at how much leeway I had over it. I said originally these are the kind of songs I would like to do for the series and they came back to me and said OK but we want these out of those you have chosen and they wanted about five or six and then they picked three.
“Then when I turned up I was given a sheet of suggested musicians who they thought would work well with that kind of music. It was very much suggestion and they said if at any point you think that musician or that instrument doesn’t work well or the other way round where you feel there should be someone else on that track then say so.
“It was quite a participatory approach to putting music together rather than being told what to do, what to play and who was playing with you. Which again was an ideal environment.
“We did have some time before filming, to sit down and play it through. There was a huge common room where everyone could go in and find a corner, grab the musicians they would be playing with and sit down together and play it and sometimes others would drift across and play along and sometimes it would click into place and sometimes not.
“There was a busy schedule so there wasn’t a huge amount of time for just sitting down and jamming, it was quite focused but casual. There was lots of social time around meals where people would sit around drinking and eating and that was lovely.
“I found playing and speaking to those musicians about how they approached music and just watching them very inspiring and felt it pushed me on and made me feel even more I want to continue what I’m doing; to try and take it to another level.”
“The surroundings were beautiful and I am sure they did no harm to the music whatsoever but I am not, so far in my life at least, the kind of person who gets inspired by scenery and rural landscapes. I know a lot of people are inspired by that. Maybe at a later point in my life but in terms of where we were I didn’t find that it prompted songs but the experience as a whole was definitely inspiring.”
So how did he think his part went in what has become the stuff of folk legend is more than a feather in any folk musician’s cap?
“I haven’t watched all of it yet. I was pleased with my performances and watching some of it reminded me of how lovely it was, but also to have five or six great musicians playing my songs. I often don’t enjoy watching my own performances, I don’t know many musicians who do to be honest. But that time I did because the other guys around me kind of rekindled how nice we sounded together.
“I think my family and friends and proud, but a lot of them aren’t hard-wired into the folk scene. I don’t think there was quite the understanding when I first got asked to do it and I was over the moon. But of course a lot them were pleased including my girlfriend but I don’t think a lot of them quite understand how nice it is and I don’t think they still do.”
McLennan, who now lives south of the border, is now in the process of putting his third album together which he hopes will be finished later this year.
“I will start to record my third album in February and I should be finishing off the album about April. There’s not going to be any huge departure but I have dug a bit deeper.
“There are a few songs on the album which I have been singing for years or have been huge favourites of mine for years and I have either plucked up the courage to play them more or they fit in nicely with the material and there are other songs which I have dug down into the traditional repertoire, so there has been a bit more work in terms of excavating material which I hope will make for a more interesting album.
“And there will be a little bit more of my own songs and I have yet to decide which tracks are going to be on the album. I have about 15 at the moment in varying stages of completion. That’s the way I want to play it this time, go into the studio with a bunch of material, record it all and then see.
“I begin by looking up more material, by writing more and collect songs together and a year later or so of going through that process I begin to have enough material to record an album. Then I go into another stage where I’ve got the songs more or less that I want for that album and then I spend a lot of time just working on them. During that period I am usually gigging too and I try to structure my time to fit in work on an album.”
McLennan's second album
So where does he find the inspiration to keep expanding his repertoire?
“Lots of things inspire me. What gives me food for thought in terms of writing songs? It’s people, much more than anything else their stories and accounts of people’s lives. It can be things I hear from people, what I hear from the news whatever. Ordinary people’s lives give me ideas to write and inspire me to write.”
It’s extremely difficult to be inspired by the plights of ordinary people and not start to move into the political realm and while McLennan may now be down among the Sassenachs, he is acutely aware that his homeland is facing the biggest political decision he will probably ever witness in his lifetime but does he have time for politics in his singing and song writing.
“I am a political singer. First and foremost call myself a folk singer but to me the idea of a folk singer invokes the idea of politics. Folk music is the music of the people, music that tells the tales of ordinary people and everyday life and ordinary people who are often very extraordinary.
“Inevitably politics is going to be part of that, whether it’s talking about their work conditions or about how they would like to change those conditions. It’s not the only part but it’s by all means a part of the folk family.
“Music is hugely important and it’s a great way of getting people to question things you often can’t do in other ways. Activism of whatever kind is essential if we want to try and change the things around us which are bad.
“Ultimately it’s a question for the people who live in Scotland to decide for themselves. My personal view is I am broadly in favour of it. I am no Nationalist never have been, for me the idea of Scottish independence, the good parts of it are mostly practical. I just keep coming back to the idea that the Scottish people haven’t voted in the people who have ruled them for decades.
“There is a clear lack of democracy in that and I think an independent Scotland would go some way to rectifying that I think.”
With the prestige of the Transatlantic Sessions under his belt, 2014 just a few days old, and a new album on the horizon how does McLennan see things panning out for the New Year.
“I will just carry on doing what I am doing. I think there is such a range and depth of incredible folk music out there and a lot of it is untapped and hasn’t been recorded that has something to say about our political and social history and about our culture. I am loving what I am doing and I feel it’s a privilege to do what I am doing and hopefully it will continue.”