As the nights draw in and the end of the year is nigh, those of a music-loving list-making persuasion might just be considering their album highlights of 2018. For this writer, Modern Studies’ Welcome Strangers is up there among the cream of the year, a soft swaddling blanket of an album to keep you warm through the winter with its seamless, sophisticated and sumptuous blend of folk, prog, jazz and pop reflecting the diverse tastes and backgrounds of the four band members, all of whom have been involved in different music projects for some time.
Lancashire-based singer/guitarist Rob St John works in environmental and sound art and has collaborated with a number of Scottish acts, including Edinburgh’s self-styled “lethargic pop band” eagleowl; drummer Joe Smillie runs Glasgow’s Glad Café, a vibrant not-for-profit hangout and artistic hub on the southside of the city; and composer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist Pete Harvey runs his own Pumpkinfield studio in Perthshire. And right at the heart of the band are the songs and voice of Emily Scott, also classically trained and a veteran of Edinburgh’s singer/songwriter circuit where she first made the connections which were to lead to Modern Studies.
Their 2016 debut album, Swell to Great, was written and recorded around a decrepit Victorian harmonium which Scott donated to Harvey when she no longer had the space for it. “I thought I’d like to make a record on it before I said goodbye,” she says. “It was only meant to be a project for that one record but it just worked so well that we can’t stop ourselves now.”
Swell to Great, named after the organ stops, was instantly embraced on its release by Edinburgh’s recently defunct Song, By Toad Records, exceeding the group’s modest expectations by making the longlist for the Scottish Album of the Year Award. Not a bad introduction for perennial musical singleton Scott to the wonderful world of collaboration.
“I actually don’t know why it took me so long to form a band but I think it was partly imagining that nobody would want to be in it,” says Scott. “It’s just that self-reliant thing; I’ve always felt like I just need to do that myself. If I could take it all back now I probably would have joined a band straight away at 13 like you should.”
Scott was a relative latecomer to music, only picking up her first instrument, the double bass, aged 15, then playing catch-up to gain a place at Glasgow’s RSAMD (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland). “After that you’re on a trajectory to a classical music career cos that’s what’s expected when you go to music college,” says Scott. “There was no suggestion that other bass playing is available, so it never occurred to me that that was a path. I didn’t really start writing until much, much later.”
After graduation, Scott moved to the US to work in early years education, before returning to Scotland where she eventually got a job tutoring bass for the music education charity Sistema Scotland. But in the interim, she had begun writing her own songs and singing for the first time.
“It was absolutely excruciating because I’m quite a shy person and that idea of getting up on a stage to sing was unbearable,” she says, “but that was the first time I experienced that drive to think that what I really want to do with my life is to create and write.”
Scott cannot help but bring her classical background to bear on her songwriting, traversing those distinct traditions with care. “It’s like a whole other paintbox that you can have at your disposal but it needs measured in the pop world,” she says. “I certainly feel like I have to edit myself a lot so I don’t come across as an arsehole. I could totally write an album for 14 violas – but nobody really wants to hear that.”
Don’t count that out though – with Harvey’s classical background and St John’s experimental tendencies, Modern Studies represent an untapped host of collective possibilities, and they have already spearheaded two projects; the multi-media concert presentation Sounding and improv workshop/festival Spectral Verses, born of their appetite for education, exploration and collaboration.
“We do have complex, disparate influences and experiences and we want to put as much of it into this music as possible because it’s not really honest to leave it out,” says Scott. “My approach is absolutely sound-based. I’m not going to sit down and say I’m going to write a song about ‘x’. The lyrics and the music are completely interdependent. But it has to lie within what sounds organic, and it can’t ever become the point of what we do. So if we’re going to do something in an awkward time signature, we don’t do it just to annoy people so they can’t tap their feet, we would only ever do that because it makes a certain lyric sound more beautiful and have more flow. To abandon that side of what we do in favour of writing accessible pop wouldn’t be being true to ourselves.”
Although scattered across three locations and myriad responsibilities, the band members have already carved out time to begin working on a third album which they will record, like Welcome Strangers, in their Pumpkinfield HQ. “It’s so cosy, like a home from home,” says Scott. “Speaking personally, it’s a really comfortable place for me to sing in, which not everywhere is.”
But lest they get too comfortable, the plan is to introduce some new elements to their armoury of sound. “We’re very led by our instruments and we’ll probably buy a couple of new bits of gear before recording – hopefully a bit of a change-up in the instrumentation that is going to influence the overall tone,” says Scott. “I like that spontaneous way of generating something new. It keeps it interesting if you’ve got something new to play with and explore all the time.”
Modern Studies play Summerhall, Edinburgh, 23 November, Perth Theatre, 26 November and Glad Café, Glasgow, 30 November. Welcome Strangers is out now on Fire Records.