Pairing original songs with archive footage to tell the story of Scotland was a labour of love for Kenny Anderson and Virginia Heath, finds David Pollock
DURING the opening minutes of From Scotland With Love, Scots and those with Scottish blood in their families may feel a certain pang of inherited nostalgia well up inside them. Kenny “King Creosote” Anderson sings with the blend of resoluteness and regret that he musters like few others over mostly monochrome footage of Scotland in the last century: the old industrial banks of the Clyde and trams making their way through the heart of the city to Scotstoun and Partick; milkmen trudging sunlit streets and cranes rising high in the heat-hazed distance above Victorian terraces; the dead landmark of Ravenscraig steel works.
Nostalgia, of course, is the point, with this film having come together to coincide with the international focus on Scotland this summer as a result of Glasgow hosting the Commonwealth Games (Creative Scotland, BBC Scotland and the Scottish Screen Archive all share production credits). Yet something about the narrative intentions of the film raises it above the status of a misty-eyed trip down memory lane.
Partly it’s the quality of the source material, so fastidiously pulled together by director Virginia Heath from hours of Scottish Screen Archive footage, but in large part it’s Anderson’s definitively, unavoidably Scottish muse coming into play. His music is sad without feeling sorry for itself, wry in its humour and influenced by a folk tradition which seems to have seeped into its fabric rather than been used as window dressing. Amid an ever more exciting Scottish music scene, his is still the voice which speaks most clearly of the nation’s character without affectation or self-consciousness. “We’ve all seen a lot of footage with this flavour before,” he says of a project which he first got involved with last year and collaborated on through the sourcing and editing of the material, “but seeing it in this context reinforces certain things. It really struck me that we used to have a skilled outdoor life, that jobs were done together and people weren’t constantly commenting on everything they were doing through their phone. I know a lot of that’s staged, but it looked like we had more fun back in the day. It reminded me of my dad telling stories of his band, they all seemed more free and easy than ours, and better.”
Heath is effusive in her praise of Anderson’s work on the project, having pitched alongside her partner Grant Keir for the project in response to an open call for submissions. The pair took inspiration from the similar combination of archive footage and live scoring by a contemporary artist (in this case the Brighton group British Sea Power) on Penny Woolcock’s 2012 Sheffield Doc/Fest film From The Sea To The Land Beyond: Britain’s Coast On Film. “We came to Kenny because we felt he had a great storytelling ability in his lyrics,” she says. “We knew that to get across some of the complexity of the sequences we wanted, we needed someone who could translate feelings and stories into song.”
Heath says she and a researcher spent many hours watching hundreds of films in the archive, and then stuck “dozens of Post-it notes on the wall of my flat” to try to corral all the clips into some sort of order. “The themes are broadly love and loss, work and leisure, resistance and immigration, fighting for justice,” she says. “The big themes of the 20th century, mixed with a bit of fun and lightheartedness. It’s a universal story but with a strongly Scottish flavour, although we did try and avoid the usual clichés about the country.”
Affectionate but not sentimental is how Heath describes the tone of her film, pointing out that the harsh working conditions and the different treatments of women aren’t cheery relics from the good old days that we’d like to go back to. “I tried to bring the characters in the sequences alive as much as I could,” she says. “They’re in there, and when the lyrics work with the people in the images and what they’re doing, it gives the film real spirit.”
The collaborative process between Heath, Anderson and the band he assembled was intensive throughout the project, with Heath at first just showing clips she’d found and Anderson sending her sample lyrics (“he’s a great lover of all things analogue,” she says, “so I’d get them written on sheets of paper through the post”), then the band taking themselves off to a studio near Loch Fyne for a composing session, and finally recording the finished soundtrack at Chem19 studios in Blantyre with producer Paul Savage and music supervisor David McAulay. Among the musicians enlisted were The Leg’s Pete Harvey on strings, Kevin Brolly of Admiral Fallow on clarinet and Jill O’Sullivan of Sparrow and the Workshop on additional vocals.
Anderson says he hadn’t even considered doing the project when he’d first been asked, having had a busy year (including a serious leg injury and the impending birth of his child) and precious little luck with successfully collaborating on soundtracks when he’d tried to suggest some of his own songs for them before.
“I’d never really written to order before,” he says, “and in the end it came down to me asking Dave [McAulay], ‘Seriously, do you think I can do this?’ As I explained to Virginia, the best songs have their own little internal story that leads on from the line before as you write it, so once you start you don’t really know where they’re going to end up. They come from the ether and just land somewhere, but I was really impressed with how she cut in so close to the lyrics with a lot of the images she found.”
The result is one of his best and most complete records, and a film which is compelling as a slice of social history brought to life. The hope, says Heath, is for a piece which will draw attention to itself at film festivals and with repeat viewers some way down the line, while forthcoming live score versions in Glasgow and London may well be repeated, despite Anderson’s nerves about synchronising everything.
What does he think of the film, now he’s seen the end result? “It makes me feel pride,” he says, “not so much in a nationalistic sense, but in a nostalgic way. You know, what have we done? What have we given away? I know heavy industry was a grim job and lives were shorter, but you look at that footage and it’s busy. There are people in it. They were together.”
Over that opening montage, the line he keeps repeating softly is “you promised me a feeling / something to believe in”. With From Scotland With Love, Anderson, Heath and their collaborators have done just that.
King Creosote’s album From Scotland With Love is released on 21 July. The film of the same name will be screened with live musical accompaniment on Glasgow Green on 31 July as part of the city’s Culture 2014 celebration