Music interview: Colin MacLeod on getting back to his island roots on new album Bloodlines

Colin MacLeod is performing in Glasgow on 1 February as part of Celtic Connections
Colin MacLeod is performing in Glasgow on 1 February as part of Celtic Connections
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The artist formerly known as The Boy Who Trapped the Sun has returned to his own name and to his native Lewis, where reconnecting with island life and lore have inspired a different musical direction, finds Fiona Shepherd

A couple of years ago, The Boy Who Trapped The Sun, purveyor of the confessional 2010 album, Fireplace, became the more elusive/official C. MacLeod. But now he prefers to go for full disclosure as Colin MacLeod, crofting native of the Isle of Lewis, who wrote his forthcoming album, Bloodlines, on the green gamekeeper’s bus which is parked on the machair every summer to keep watch over the salmon run.

“I can’t drag myself away from it. I’ll probably be back this summer. It’s such a good spot,” he says. Having lived in London during his sun-trapping days, MacLeod has lately come to an even greater appreciation of Lewis and its history, which has found musical expression in a set of songs steeped in the storytelling tradition of his home and delivered as engaging indie folk-flavoured productions.

“When I made the last album it was all about me,” he says. “That’s fine, that’s what a lot of people write about. But I got really into people like Bruce Springsteen writing almost his entire life about his hometown and its characters. It really appealed to me to not sing about myself, but to sing about things I’ve heard, and the obvious thing was home – it seemed silly to be writing about it from afar, so I made the plan to move back.”

But a couple of months off from music turned into a couple of years as MacLeod returned to civilian life, married and got a proper island job.

“I’d never really found a way to directly connect how being at home inspired me and to apply it to my music – being a crofter and having sheep, and hanging out with all these old guys and being in amongst it all. In my head, it always seemed like the two worlds – indie music and stories from home – couldn’t meet, but then it started happening naturally, and it feels like I’ve stuck a hole in an oil well and the floodgates opened. People were telling me all these incredible, outrageous stories that were so great.”

The pacey, appropriately testifying Shake the Walls was inspired by tales of the Lewis revival of the late 1940s and early 1950s, while Homesick Daughter concerns the mass bereavement on Lewis following the Iolaire disaster on New Year’s Day 1919, when a boat bringing soldiers home from the First World War sank within sight of Stornoway harbour. Some 205 men of the estimated 284 on board died. “It was so raw that, all this time on, it still casts a shadow,” says MacLeod. “There was only one village on the whole of Lewis which didn’t lose any men.”

He adds: “Most of the stories on the album, I’ve not particularly researched them, it’s just what I’ve been told, warts and all.”

MacLeod’s principle source for these stories inspired a song himself. Old Fire is a thoughtful tribute to his elderly uncle, who died 18 months ago. “He was as strong as an ox and used to go poaching and get in trouble all the time. He had massive hands. All the old guys up here have over-developed hands and feet from working. We don’t have that anymore because we’re not shovelling shingle on the beach, filling tractor loads on our own. That was the last generation who didn’t have things to make their lives easier.”

But in digging deep into Hebridean heritage, MacLeod hasn’t entirely written himself out of the picture. His recent single Kicks In is inspired by his own island experiences as a teenager discovering music and the restless pull of the wider world.

“We were at that age and generation that were rebelling against the traditional scene, so our thing was we wanted to play in bands and make a racket,” he says. “Everyone had a little shed or barn behind their house and we would take it in turns as to which parents had to put up with the noise. There was never much gear here so we used to have to beg, borrow and steal. We’d invent mic stands and [use] guitars that you’d found in a loft and try not to electrocute yourself. It quickly went from a pastime to a complete obsession.

“There seemed to be a black and white thing about the island; you loved it or hated it; you were going to be here forever or you were never coming back. I was adamant I was going to stay because I loved it. But there was a real push-and-pull thing – can you have a life on an island? At that time, it was all doom and gloom with people moving away and no opportunities.”

MacLeod has returned to find an island rejuvenated by proactive new residents and a surge in tourism. “Most people I know now have come here to live. It’s like a shot of adrenalin and it feels quite vibrant now.”

For his part, MacLeod has overcome a childhood aversion to sheep and embarked on a happy hybrid life as a crofter-musician. “That wasn’t a decision, that was always meant to be!” he says. “Crofting and that way of life is a wholly different way of farming and something that will be lost if no-one gets involved in it, but there’s been a bit of a resurgence in self-sufficiency and growing your own veg, people have really embraced it.”

But just as MacLeod has put down island roots once more, he is preparing to spend time away again. Firstly, there’s a brief foray to Celtic Connections, followed by the release of Bloodlines in May with all the attendant touring and promotional commitments, including an invitation from host James Corden to perform on The Late Late Show in the US. But at least this time, MacLeod can depart without angst.

“When I was younger I had this horrible feeling that I would come back one day and the island would be gone,” he says, “but it’s not going anywhere, and I can take it with me anywhere.” ■

Colin MacLeod plays St Lukes, Glasgow on 1 February as part of Celtic Connections. Bloodlines is released by Country Punk Records on 18 May