Burnsong - Songhouse

Nuala Kennedy

Nuala Kennedy

Burning pass

As Burnsong gets ready to celebrate Scotland’s songwriting talent Karin Goodwin talks to participants in Songhouse, an intense musical version of Big Brother

When it comes to songwriting, only the brave or the stupid would be prepared to take him on. In just a couple of decades Robert Burns wrote over 360 songs that cover the whole gamut of human emotion from love and lust to loss and longing. Weighty issues – human rights, religion, the environment – take their place alongside humour and high jinx, laughter and tears.

Since his death in 1796, Burns’ songs have resonated down the centuries. And they still offer as much of an inspiration as ever, according to the participants of Burnsong, a national project dedicated to promoting and nurturing songwriting in Scotland in the run up to the 250th anniversary of the Bard’s birth in 2009.

Now in its third year, Burnsong 2007 features songwriting workshops for school children and adults, open mic nights, a reading from music journalist Will Hodgkinson and an open competition for unsigned songwriters across Scotland, known as The Gathering. But at its beating heart is Songhouse, a kind of musical version of Big Brother in which eight of the country’s finest songwriters are locked away in a beautiful art deco house on the Solway Firth with just one week to create new material which they will then perform at the Festival of Song.

Previous ‘housemates’ have included jazz singer Niki King, King Creosote, Geoff Martyn of Travis, and Emma Pollock. A concert on Saturday 1 December will showcase the Best of the Songhouse in 2005 and 2006, featuring Sophie Bancroft, Niki King and Davey Scott among others. Taking part in this year’s Songhouse are Scottish rocker Midge Ure, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, Roddy Woomble of Idlewild, folk-inspired musicians Jo Mango and Nuala Kennedy, Louise Quinn of A Band Called Quinn, soul singer L-Marie and Found’s Ziggy Campbell. So what will they come up with?

‘I have no idea,’ laughs Midge Ure, who early this year became Burnsong’s first patron. ‘And frankly I’m petrified. When I think of it, it’s like one of those dreams where you’re walking down the street naked.’

Despite his nerves, Ure believes whole-heartedly in the project. As the man who, along with Bob Geldof, was the brains behind Live 8 and the co-writer of Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas’, Ure knows the potential power of a song. But while he may have decades of experience under his belt, he is hoping the Songhouse will help him recharge his creative batteries. ‘We are all creatures of habit,’ Ure explains. ‘I sit locked away in my little studio for most of the day and I don’t usually involve other people until the songs are very close to completion. So I’m hoping this will rattle my cage somewhat.’

Ronnie Gurr, the producer turned music business guru who came up with the Songhouse concept, says, ‘I think most of the individuals going into the house do so with great trepidation but as soon as they realise they can work together that fear fades,’ he says. ‘In past years the output has been phenomenal.’

Songwriters are given no rules or boundaries, the idea being to take the core qualities and elements of Burns’ songs and create new ones that continue to resonate for centuries to come.

‘They can write about anything from politics to toothache,’ says Gurr. ‘We’ve had songs about all sorts of things from the cash for honours scandals to a Bretchian railing against death.’

It is not just the subject matter that’s wide open – the collaborative element, which involves hip hop artists working with folk musicians or indie guitarists jamming with soul singers – also creates some unique sounds.

Last year’s group produced 24 songs – one from each co-writing session – and performed them not only at the end of the week, but also undertook a Tune Up tour of Scotland in January. They will play again as part of this year’s Burnsong Festival, and many of the songs have been recorded for the songwriters’ individual albums.

Not only has Burnsong helped develop established artists, it has launched new ones, like Kim Edgar, one of 17 unsigned winning songwriters from the Gathering’s 800 plus submissions in 2005. The following year she was given a place in the Songhouse, where she wrote tracks with Emma Pollock, Sushil K Dade, Chris Difford and Katrina Polworth, a number of which will feature on her debut album, Butterflies and Broken Glass, due for release early next year.

‘The passion of Burns is so inspiring,’ says Louise Quinn. ‘I don’t know anyone who can listen to ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’ or ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ without being moved. It taps into such a primal place inside of you, the sentiment is so universal and pure. And that is what every songwriter is trying to achieve.’

The Burnsong Festival, Fri 30 Nov–Sun 2 Dec. See www.burnsong.com for details

Best of Songhouse

Each year Burnsong invites writers from the worlds of jazz, pop, rock, folk and traditional music to live and write together in a remote country house in Dumfries & Galloway. Here they perform the songs they created from the 2005 and 2006 sessions.


The results of this year's Burnsong, Songhouse initiative including Midge Ure, Norman Blake and Roddy Woomble.

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