THE past year has had its ups and downs for Colin MacIntyre, the one-man band that makes up the Mull Historical Society. On the down side, he was dropped by his record label Warners. On the up side, he is about to release the best album of his career on his new label b-unique.
MacIntyre’s first two albums Loss and last year’s Us gave a reasonable account of themselves in terms of sales, but the record industry is pleading poverty at the moment and Mull Historical Society was one of many to be erased from Warners’ books.
"To be honest, it was a good thing," says MacIntyre. "It’s a shame that they couldn’t push the last album or give it the attention that it maybe deserved. At the same time, there’s no bitterness. I’m not one of these people that leaves a record company and takes a cab back to Mull from London on their tab. For five minutes it was a bit worrying and then, thankfully, other offers came in."
Warners may well be less philosophical about it when This is Hope comes out in July, just after MHS’ fourth consecutive T in the Park appearance. An experimental, exuberant body of songs, it blows raspberries at the notion that intelligent pop is an oxymoron and deserves to make serious dents in the charts. It is a concept record, with songs exploring the meaning of hope and how it impacts on real lives.
MacIntyre has a noble aim: to create art. He is writing a novel and many of his songs started life as short stories. They contain characters and twisty narratives rather than clichs about boys meeting girls. "If I ever do boy meets girl, I would probably do boy meets girl then meets sheep," he says. "I’ve always thought in terms of pictures and stories and I’ve always been drawn to trying to create stories with little snippets of people’s lives. It has to be real or interesting and everybody has a different idea of what that is. I’m sure Westlife think they are singing about real and interesting things."
That is a charitable assumption, but MacIntyre puts his lyrics where his mouth is. This is Hope finds him musing on the people he grew up with, battling with how to help a friend with an addiction and imagining Dr David Kelly looking down on events after his suicide. It’s also about cloning, scientific progress and the ethical issues surrounding them. It grapples with the big questions of life, but rather than being dry or theoretical is as heartfelt as Johnny Cash aching his way through ‘Hurt’.
In all three of his albums, MacIntyre has been keen to use found sounds. It’s a legacy of his very first steps in music-making when he didn’t have all the tools of a well-equipped studio at his disposal. Instead, he would use a four-track recorder to tape himself banging a beer keg, capturing the whistle of the wind, fragments of speech, the hum of a motorway or whatever it was he needed to produce a certain sound. "I like finding sounds, and if it sounds right then it is in there," is his no-nonsense approach.
‘In the Next Life (A Requiem)’ is the final song on This is Hope. MacIntyre wrote it after the death of his grandmother last year. It contains a number of found sounds, some of which were more easily found than others. It starts with three gospel-singing sisters who MacIntyre stumbled across in New Orleans, uses a recording of the crowd at an MHS gig and incorporates MacIntyre’s surviving grandmother finishing a soliloquy with the words "This is hope". It ends with MacIntyre echoing the words of the gospel singers and crooning: "At the end we will meet again". It is a genuinely moving song that is tinged with melancholy but is also comforting and optimistic. It teases out one of the main themes of the album, exploring what hope is and what it means to people.
"I wanted the last song to be uplifting," he says. "You can begin to be quite depressed about losing people but I actually quite liked the fact that it has a positive message."
The singer spent a couple of months at the end of last year driving through America’s Deep South, tuning in to the religious radio stations as the car cruised through Alabama and Mississippi. It was Christmas and all the Baptist churches sported billboards bearing slogans such as "Now is the season for believing". While acknowledging that Mull may not have quite the same religious fervour of some of the Outer Hebrides, he felt a connection between the Bible Belt of the Deep South and the religious landscape of his own home.
The album starts with different voices saying: "I am hope. You are hope. We are hope. This is hope." MacIntyre borrowed it from one of the church billboards. He says he is not religious in terms of organised religion but that he feels as though those who are important to him are near him. The billboard slogans appealed more for the language they used and the questions they threw up rather than the answers they offered. "Driving through those areas, it was almost as though it was God for sale," says MacIntyre. "I quite liked that theme."
MacIntyre reckons that Us, his second album, was all about him looking internally whereas This is Hope is him looking out. He has spent the past three years touring hard while writing and producing two albums. This is Hope came from having some downtime and the chance to look around rather than at the next urgent project.
"I moved back to Glasgow, bought a flat there and unpacked all the stuff that had been in my brother’s garage. I got married last summer and gradually found a bit more of a base for myself."
Not that having a base meant MacIntyre was going to take things easy. He gets fidgety if he doesn’t have a number of projects on the go at once, and a musical is simmering on the backburner. Before he wrote Loss, he was demo-ing songs for record companies that they had no idea how to handle. "They didn’t know what to make of them," says MacIntyre. "Now I realise that they were like songs for musicals. Since then I’ve written more songs like that and I want to fashion them into a story. A musical is the ultimate way of putting a story to music. I’d love to think that at some point, even if it is just in Mull or wherever, it would get on to a stage. I’m thinking about setting it on a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry."
If the musical ever gets off the ground MacIntyre will have no qualms about performing in costume. Alex Smith, who directed Coldplay’s Yellow video, shot the video for How ’Bout I Love You More, the first single from This is Hope. Smith thought it might be a wheeze to film MacIntyre dressed as an astronaut whose giant dog-shaped rocket touches down in the English Channel.
The only problem is MacIntyre can’t swim and wearing a bulky spacesuit didn’t help. He accepts the idea of making sacrifices for his work but there are limits. "I don’t remember Chris Martin having to do that," he says.
Mull Historical Society plays Aros Hall, Tobermory on June 23, and T in the Park on July 11. How ’Bout I Love You More is released on July 12. The album follows on July 19