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Obituary: Michael Marra, singer–songwriter

Michael Marra

Michael Marra

Born: 1952, in Dundee. Died: 23 October, 2012, in Dundee, aged 60

Scotland has no shortage of fine songwriters, but the passing of Michael Marra means that someone else will now have to take on the mantle of great.

His death at the age of 60 – news of which came on the day of the launch of the 20th Celtic Connections festival, a celebration of Scottish music which saw some of his best performances in the past – came after a battle against throat cancer, and prompted an outpouring of love and appreciation from the musical community for a man described as peerless by so many who worked with him.

He was raised in Lochee in Dundee – a city he described as “a rich, dark, healthy place for art and artists and a beautifully lit vantage point from which to look at the world” – and his home town shaped his views, as did his love of football, with Hamish the Goalie, his musical tribute to Dundee United’s famous shot-stopper McAlpine, showcasing his lyrical skills and passion for the city.

He left school at 14 and tried a variety of trades – electrician, baker and builder – before heading for the folk clubs of London and played in the band Hen’s Teeth with fellow Scottish songwriter Dougie MacLean, before forming Skeets Boliver with his brother Chris.

But it was as a solo artist – releasing his first album Midas Touch in 1980 – that he found fame.

His ability to capture the essence of a city wasn’t confined to Tayside. Hue and Cry made Mother Glasgow famous, but it was Marra’s song, and was embraced by the “second city of the Empire” as an anthem.

His talent for capturing a distinct Scottish slant on the world, and the nation itself, without mawkishness, and without fear to take on the things which he saw as limiting Scotland, was particularly evident in Chain Up The Swings, a plea for a more secular approach to life in Scotland.

But a routine fingerprinting with US Customs as he travelled to Washington DC for Tartan Week in 2006 made him turn his eye on the notorious Shirley McKie fingerprint case. He did not miss his target in I Am Shirley McKie, with a lyric warning any First Minister that honesty can only be encouraged by example.

This social conscience – which carries on in his family with niece Jenny Marra last year elected a Labour MSP – informed much of Marra’s work, and he provided original songs for Chris Rattray’s The Mill Lavvies, a slice of life in Dundee’s jute mills of the 1960s, with If Dundee Was Africa showing a songwriter more than confident with using language to create quirky, but apt, comparisons.

Quirkiness and an undemanding persona – outwith rider requests for Smarties, with the red ones removed in a distinctly low-key twist on rock and roll excess – made Marra a significant presence in a variety of arts.

Theatre proved a rich outlet for him, collaborating with Graham McLaren for Theatre Babel‘s The Demon Barber and Liz Lochhead’s Beauty and the Beast.

He also worked with Lochhead on In Flagrant Delicht. He wrote the operetta If The Moon Can Be Believed and the play St Catherine’s Day and worked with choreographer Frank McConnell’s dance Company Plan B.

While called upon to duet with many famous Scottish names such as Karen Matheson, Eddi Reader and Karine Polwart, he was also in demand outside the folk world, and worked with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Scottish National Orchestra. His unofficial title of “Bard of Dundee” was in effect made official in 2007 when Dundee University recognised his contribution to his city’s cultural life and awarded him an honorary doctorate. Glasgow Caledonian followed suit in 2011.

But live performances at gigs up and down the country – by a man described as “an incredible presence on stage” – were what cemented his reputation as a musician, leading to the Herald Angel award in 2010 for his The Acoustic Music Centre during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

His children Alice and Matthew are members of The Hazey Janes, and Marra performed with them.

Celtic Connections director Donald Shaw said: “He was just one of the great humanist people. Very soft spoken and great to be around. His songs have so much heart and he had so much insight into the Scottish psyche.

“I think he’s played a big part of the renaissance of music in this country.

“He just went along, did his thing, turned up, sang his songs. In 20 years people are going to say, ‘Why didn’t people give him his credit when he was alive?’ People will realise what a legend he was musically.”

Pat Kane of Hue and Cry said: “Marra was one of Scotland’s greatest ever songwriters and performers. It’s rare to have an artist who can move you to tears, make you think, and explode you with laughter – often in the one song.”

Glasgow songwriter James Grant, of Love and Money, said: “Michael was a brilliant song writer – he was Scotland’s Tom Waits or Shane MacGowan and that’s possibly the highest praise you could give. A great craftsman, very self-effacing and unassuming.”

Marra’s Hermless is often cited as a possible alternative anthem for Scotland, but in some ways was an autobiographical song – “Hermless, hermless, There’s never nae bother fae me.”

DANNY COYLE

 

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