A little help from my friends

A selection of those involved in the project. Andrew Eaton-Lewis is second right. Picture: Stephanie Gibson
A selection of those involved in the project. Andrew Eaton-Lewis is second right. Picture: Stephanie Gibson
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CORA Bissett’s epic new project features almost 30 writers and musicians. Andrew Eaton-Lewis offers an insider’s view

Big things have small beginnings, as Michael Fassbender’s sinister robot says in Prometheus. In the case of Whatever Gets You Through The Night, the big (but hopefully not sinister) thing is an epic new project involving 16 Scottish bands and singer-songwriters (including Emma Pollock, Errors, Eugene Kelly and Meursault), and, at the last count, 11 writers (including David Greig, Annie Griffin and Alan Bissett), and taking in a film, an album, a book and a theatre show directed by Cora Bissett, her first since the multi-award winning Roadkill. And the small beginning – that would be a phone call I received from Cora back in November 2010.

Why did Cora call me? To answer that, I need to go back ten more years. Back then, Cora had pink hair and was singing and playing cello in Swelling Meg, a sort of demonically possessed gypsy trio. I went to the launch of their debut album, and spent the next week raving about this fantastic new Glasgow band and what a promising future they had. Weeks later Swelling Meg split up, and Cora decided to quit music and focus on acting.

I thought this was a bad idea, and spent years trying to change her mind. I got her to sing on two songs by my band, Swimmer One. Later, we coaxed her into a recording studio with a view to her making a solo album. But Cora’s mind was elsewhere. The acting thing was working out – a TV drama called High Times, a regular role in Rab C Nesbitt, then a big theatre hit called Midsummer. She had started directing too, and set up her own company to make a show about sex trafficking. That all sounds grand, I told her, but don’t forget to keep writing songs. Then Roadkill premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe, got five-star reviews and transferred to the Barbican. Fair enough, I thought. Stick with the acting and directing thing then.

‘As it turned out, though, Cora wasn’t quite done with music and, possibly because I had spent a decade pestering her about it, phoned

me up with an idea. She had been invited to apply for a Creative Scotland Vital Spark award - which funds unusual cross-artform collaborations like David Shrigley’s Pass the Spoon. Inspired by projects like Chemikal Underground’s Ballads of the Book album, Cora wanted to make a show that combined the talents of lots of different Scottish theatre-makers and indie musicians. Arches director Jackie Wylie was excited by the idea, as was playwright David Greig, who Cora had worked with on Midsummer. Would Swimmer One like to be on board too?’

Yes we would. What hadn’t been figured out yet was what the show would actually be about, so we kicked some ideas around for a while, eventually deciding – possibly because it was quite late by this point – to pitch a show set across Scotland between the hours of midnight and 4am, that would explore all the exciting, poignant, tragic and transforming things that happen in the night. To our surprise we got the money, and suddenly had to make this big, unwieldy idea work.

We started by writing down long lists of playwrights, poets and novelists we liked – along with suggestions from David and (on the music side) bloggers, critics and DJs. Then Cora, David and the three members of Swimmer One (me, Laura Cameron-Lewis and Hamish Brown) sat round a table in Leith and compared lists. We made ground rules. We wouldn’t approach “stars” for the sake of it – only if we genuinely loved what they did. And we wouldn’t try to make “cool” choices either – we’d just follow our instincts.

Looking back, the list of people we decided to approach in spring 2011 is very close to the list of people who ended up taking part. Singer-songwriter Dan Willson, aka Withered Hand, was one of the first names we all thought of – and, as it turns out, is quite a good actor. Ricky Ross, in our opinion, is Scotland’s Bruce Springsteen, and was asked as much because of his underrated solo albums as because of Deacon Blue. Cora ran into Eugene Kelly in a pub, chanced her arm, and he said yes. To our delight, he wrote us a song called Chips And Cheese.

What we weren’t sure of, for a long time, was what to do with all this material. We didn’t want to make a musical, or even a “play with songs” like Midsummer – we wanted something that felt like a cross between a theatre show and a gig, combining the best of both worlds. In April 2011, we did a development week. We made Dan Willson write songs on the hoof, much to his discomfort. The actors learned how to play Ricky Ross’s song. We discovered, quite by accident, that the beatboxer Bigg Taj and the experimental folk musician Wounded Knee sounded great together, and ended up with a whole scene in which they created a club night using only their voices.

Then the project grew again. Creative Scotland was keen for us to tour, but touring a show with at least five or six bands was proving prohibitively pricey, so we suggested we make a film, and tour that instead. We hired director Daniel Warren and he set off across Scotland, filming Withered Hand on an Orkney ferry, Eugene Kelly in a Glasgow taxi and Rachel Sermanni in the Highlands. As we’d hoped, it quickly became a project in its own right – not a stage version of the show but something else entirely.

As I write this it’s three weeks until the show’s opening night and, because I’ve mostly been focused on working with the book designers, and on the album (which has swelled from ten songs to 16), I still have no idea what the show will look like. Cora fills me in by email, so I know all the songs will be used in some way, with about a third of the musicians who wrote them playing live. At some point I’ll be playing piano while someone does a pole dance. I may also be doing the Ricky Ross song on the nights when he’s not performing. Gulp. «

• Whatever Gets You Through The Night is at the Arches, Glasgow, 26-29 June (www.thearches.co.uk); the album and book can be purchased along with show tickets, or separately via www.throughthenight.net. The film premieres at Summerhall, Edinburgh, on 23 August, as part of the Fringe (www.summerhall.co.uk)