New album “a reaffirmation of Scotland’s drive to become independent”

Producer Kevin Brown with bagpiper and composer Matt Seattle and reggae singer Brina Murray
Producer Kevin Brown with bagpiper and composer Matt Seattle and reggae singer Brina Murray
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Knock on an anonymous-looking door, tucked away amid dreichly inauspicious surroundings in Edinburgh’s West Granton area, and you suddenly find yourself in the state-of-the-art recording suite of Chamber Studio. Such renowned Scottish bands as Biffy Clyro, Idlewild and Mogwai have recorded here, but on this occasion it is occupied by the string players of the ever-adventurous Mr McFall’s Chamber, accompanying Selkirk traditional singer Jackie McGuckian and Border piper Matt Seattle.

They’re recording Theme for the Early Days of a Better Nation, a song co-written by Seattle in 2014 with the Hawick singer-songwriter David Finnie. It is inspired, of course, by the famous exhortation of author and artist Alasdair Gray: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation,” and is part of a project which on the one hand will produce a downloadable album, Songs for Scotland 2 – a follow up to the first one released amid the fervour of the 2014 IndyRef campaign – but will also honour Gray, who is currently wheelchair-bound following a severe fall last year, and initiate a scholarship in his name to support emerging young musicians.

On its website, the Songs For Scotland 2 project is described as “a celebration of pro independence Scottish musical genius; a reaffirmation of Scotland’s drive to become an independent nation within the EU; and an homage to Scotland’s magus and a leading European cultural figure, our own Alasdair Gray.”As the McFall’s players, Seattle and McGuckian run through sections of the song under the eyes and ears of the studio’s proprietor, Graeme Young, the new album’s producer, Kevin Brown, explains that Songs for Scotland 2, prompted by the renewal of interest in a possible second independence referendum following the Brexit debacle, while repeating the pro-independence or generally inspirational nature of the songs on the first album, will also have a certain international flavour.

Artists contributing tracks range from such established Scottish folk names as piper Allan MacDonald and cellist Neil Johnstone, Dick Gaughan, Capercaillie’s Karen Matheson, Shona Donaldson and Kathleen MacInnes, to hip-hop and rap from Stanley Odd and Loki. But as well as the album’s songs in Scots, Gaelic and English, the Edinburgh-based Senegalese singer Samba Sene will contribute a song in his native Wolof language, while the Stirling-based world-roots musicians Brina and Keiran Murray will sing Warmongers By Name, a reggae take on Robert Burns’s Ye Jacobites By Name which emerged from an intriguing project in Kingston, Jamaica, to record Burns’s songs on the island to which the poet very nearly emigrated (the album Jamaica Sings Burns is due out later this year).

A crowdfunding project for Songs for Scotland 2 was launched on Indiegogo last month with a target of £8,500, and is due to finish on 17 October. The commitment is that, once core recording costs are met, a quarter of the funds raised will go to towards establishing the Alasdair Gray Scholarship Trust, to which the author of Lanark and all-round Glasgow Renaissance man has given his support as well as his name, also donating some signed, limited edition prints of his artwork towards the fundraising campaign, and commenting that: “Music and art, by helping us transcend the mundane, can also help us to imagine and build a better world.”

The trust will be administered by Hands Up for Trad, the organisation that runs the annual Scots Trad Music Awards and much else.

Should the fundraising project go sufficiently over target, the plan is to hold a concert by the musicians involved at Glasgow’s Òran Mór venue – under Gray’s glowing, “alternative Sistine Chapel” ceiling mural, one of the largest examples of public art in Scotland. The first Songs for Scotland event, at Òran Mór in September 2014, sold out.

It was during the 2014 project that Brown got to know Gray: “He’s an extraordinary man,” he says. “I don’t think I need to say any more on that. He’s been helping us with this project and, of course, he had a bad accident last year. So in a way, this new album is being created to honour him.

“For me personally, this is all about living Alasdair’s dictum, ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.’” ■

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