Ballads of the Book
- Doug Johnstone
- 27 February 2007
WORDS & MUSIC
Projects like Ballads of the Book don’t come along very often. And, looking at the roll call of writers and musicians involved, it is easy to see why. It must have been a logistical nightmare getting 54 of Scotland’s finest writers and musicians together
Projects like Ballads of the Book don’t come along very often. And, looking at the roll call of writers and musicians involved, it is easy to see why. It must have been a logistical nightmare getting 54 of Scotland’s finest writers and musicians together to collaborate on a compilation album. The idea was simple: the author provides the words and the musicians transform them into a song. The resulting 18-track album covers everything from plaintive folk and scuffed pop to epic rock and rattling lo-fi.
The brainchild of Idlewild singer Roddy Woomble, the idea for Ballads of the Book came to him five years ago when his band collaborated with Scotland’s national poet Edwin Morgan on their The Remote Part album. Inspired, Woomble began getting in touch with some of his other favourite writers and musicians, and as the project grew and secured Scottish Arts Council funding, the process was taken over by indie label Chemikal Underground. Doug Johnstone gets the inside story on how the album evolved.
The Sixth Stone
Ian Rankin (collaborated with Aidan Moffat)
‘Chemikal Underground decided to hook me up with Aidan, and I was immediately daunted, as he is a great lyricist. The lyrics to ‘The Sixth Stone’ came to me one sleepless night. I sat at the kitchen table, and wrote about three drafts in the space of half an hour. I wish all writing was that straightforward.
‘The great thing about this project is that it’s part of a growing sense that Scotland is a community of creative people, and that we should kick down the walls between the various disciplines.’
Aidan Moffat (as above)
Ian offered me two different options for lyrics and I liked both but decided to choose the one that wasn’t really what you’d expect from him. He basically told me to go and do as I pleased, which I was very happy with, as I would’ve just been nervous and self-conscious if he’d been in the studio. I think that’s why our collaboration worked; I felt he trusted me to do it and that gave me the confidence to record the song exactly as I wanted.
‘I think writers are far more disciplined than musicians. I like to leave songwriting to the fates.’
The Rebel On His Own Tonight
Alan Bissett (collaborated with Malcolm Middleton)
‘Malcolm and I first met in about 1993 in Falkirk, so working with him felt quite natural. He wrote the music and sent it to me, then I stuck the lyrics on top and went round to his house to show him how I wanted them to fit.
‘I feared it would just sound like Arab Strap - as though we’d replaced one Falkirk bloke in his 30s doing spoken word - Aidan - with another, me. But I think it sounds like a really good Malcolm Middleton song with some weedy guest vocalist in the middle. I was disappointed when I saw how professionally musicians behave in the studio. I turned up with a bottle of vodka and nobody touched it - what’s that all about?’
The War on Love Song
Adele Bethel of Sons and Daughters (collaborated with AL Kennedy)
‘Alison Kennedy sent two ideas to Roddy and I chose my favourite and the one I felt could be adapted into a song. I feel privileged that Alison chose to collaborate with us. But I felt slightly apprehensive about the results, as I doctored her poem a little to fit the music and I felt guilty, like I was destroying her work.
‘On reflection when I listen to the words I can see how the music coincides. It reminds me a lot of ‘Riders on the Storm’ by The Doors which seems quite fitting as it was in Apocalypse Now, and Alison’s
poem is about war and death.’
AL Kennedy (as above)
‘It's always interesting to work in other media, almost like getting out of the house and having a life, so I was happy to have a go. I’ve written songs occasionally but they’ve always been for use in pieces of theatre and quite often I’ve relied on existing melodies. It was very different to know that whatever words I was going to put together would go to proper musicians and have to exist as a free-standing song. And to assume that the music will generally win hands down in a song). Sons and Daughters did a cracking job, just the right atmosphere and very kind to the lyrics.
A Sentimental Song
Alasdair Gray (collaborated with Lord Cut Glass, aka Alun Woodward,
formerly of The Delgados and designed the cover art)
‘Musicians and writers are drawn to each other. Before the invention of the printing press, most poems were sung or chanted. Most poets would still like their words to be made popular by being widely sung, as has often happened in the past.
‘Most ambitious composers want to write oratorios or operas on great themes in literature, hence Handel’s Messiah, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Schiller’s Ode to Joy. That this initial idea is amounting to a commercial record involving so many very different writers and musical groups shows an unusual degree of intelligent co-operation.’
A Calvinist Narrowly Avoids Pleasure
Bill Duncan (collaborated with James Yorkston)
‘I was fairly open-minded about the result. I’m familiar with The Fence Collective, though I don’t know James Yorkston’s work that well, but I’m really pleased with what he’s done.
‘I’m really looking forward to the inevitable cross-fertilisation the release of the album will inspire. Writing does tend to be a solitary experience and anything that gets me oot the hoose in the winter months has to be good.’
Steam Comes Off Our House
Michel Faber (collaborated with De Rosa)
‘My tastes in music tend towards the avant-garde, so I didn’t expect to like the results. I thought my lyrics would probably be performed by some sensitive singer/songwriter type wailing earnestly like a busker in an underpass. I was pleasantly surprised by how good De Rosa’s song was - a multi-layered sound, quite mysterious and atmospheric and swirly. And the words weren’t given undue prominence; they were almost swallowed up in the music. I like that.’
Jesus on the Cross
Emma Pollock (collaborated with Louise Welsh)
‘I think artists, whether it’s prose or music or whatever, have a tendency to lock themselves away, and never really share the process of writing with anyone else, because you feel like a dick doing it, to be honest.
‘I’m absolutely beside myself with excitement that Chemikal Underground are putting it out. The idea was inspired, and the willingness of everyone to make it happen is indicative of a very strong creative arts scene in Scotland.’
Louise Welsh (as above)
‘My song is a light-heartedly blasphemous ditty. I guess I was worried Emma Pollock wouldn’t get the joke, but my worries were needless. I laughed and laughed when I heard it. I certainly don’t want to be a rock star, I have a recurring nightmare where I’m helicoptered into an outdoor stadium to sing ‘Bad Moon Rising’ and I’ve forgotten the words. All the same, musicians get exposed to free drugs, groupies and wild parties - not part of your average literary festival, so perhaps writers do envy musicians a bit.’
The Good Years
Karine Polwart (collaborated with Edwin Morgan)
‘Roddy sent through a cracking narrative by AL Kennedy and more minimalist lyrics by Edwin Morgan. I guess I fell for the stark simplicity of Edwin’s words. I love how the song’s worked out, it’s one of the most popular songs in my live set.
‘As a songwriter I’m obsessed most of all with lyrics. I’ve always felt that my lyrical leanings eclipsed any musical ability I might have. Normally I don’t feel too confident as a musician. But working with someone else’s lyrics has made me realise that though what I do musically is really, really simple, it’s totally appropriate to the words I have, which was really reassuring.’
If You Love Me You’d Destroy Me
Hal Duncan (collaborated with Aereogramme)
‘When I found out Aereogramme had picked my words, I was stoked. They seemed more worried than me about how it would work out, but when I went into the studio to hear the song, I was blown away. This whole collaboration pisses on that high art/low art distinction you find in certain circles, where popular music is not seen as serious, or where writers are divided into literati and hacks. Truth is, if you look at indie music, everything from Belle and Sebastian to Idlewild, it’s clear this is an art form capable of just as much maturity and intelligence as any Booker-winning novelist.’
Ballads of the Book is released on Chemikal Underground, Mon 5 Mar. There is an album launch event at CCA, Glasgow, Fri 9 Mar and a Triptych show at Tramway, Glasgow, Sun 29 Apr. A documentary about the album is on STV on Thu 1 Mar, 11.30pm.