Ivor Cutler tribute to take centre stage at Celtic Connections

When the idea of a new album reinterpreting the work of Ivor Cutler was mooted, the late songwriter and storyteller’s many fans in the Scottish music industry turned out to help, writes Fiona Shepherd

Ivor Cutler PIC: Graham Jepson
Ivor Cutler PIC: Graham Jepson

Welcome to Y’Hup – an obscure island realm which first sprang from the singular imagination of the late storyteller and songwriter Ivor Cutler in the late 1950s, but which has recently been repopulated by a host of luminaries from the worlds of Scottish folk, indie and jazz, many of whom will be on hand later this month to usher visitors into Cutler’s beautiful cosmos at one of Celtic Connections’ signature tribute concerts.

The Glasgow-born, London-based oddball poet philosopher, who passed away in 2006, was a Celtic Connections alumnus himself, performing once in the late 1990s. Celtic Connections director Donald Shaw owns Cutler’s trusty harmonium, having liberated it from storage after Cutler abandoned it in a fit of pique after a show at the Glasgow Pavilion.

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But the world of Y’Hup has been conjured anew by four players from Glasgow’s intertwining indie, electronic and avant-garde scenes – musician and academic Matt Brennan, saxophonist and composer Raymond MacDonald, guitarist Malcolm Benzie and engineer Andy Monaghan. Between them, they have helmed or performed with the likes of Frightened Rabbit, Withered Hand, Zoey Van Goey and the Glasgow Improvisers’ Orchestra – and all are adherents to the cult of Cutler.

“As soon as you mention the name Ivor Cutler to an artist in Scotland, suddenly it forms this glue-like bond,” says Brennan. “There’s so much love for him and it assumes its own gravitational pull very quickly.”

There are many paths to Cutler – some may know him as lugubrious bus conductor Buster Bloodvessel in The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour; others for his late night BBC appearances or his many John Peel sessions (only The Fall recorded more), others still through word of mouth or the advocacy of famous fans such as Billy Connolly, Stephen Fry and Elvis Costello. Cutler is the kind of knowledge you want to clutch close yet also pass on.

“He has a sense of fun in his work but also this depth to it,” says Benzie. “He draws you into this surreal world and his voice is so hypnotic. I was hooked from there.”

Cutler’s catalogue of songs and writings is vast and varied. In resolving to pay tribute to this unlikely renaissance man, Brennan and co took a deep dive into his works, beginning with his debut EP, Ivor Cutler of Y’Hup. They were smitten from the start and Return to Y’Hup: The World of Ivor Cutler began to take shape.

“He produces work like no other Scottish artist – or any artist,” says Brennan. “He came to public life quite late – he was already in his 40s in the late 1950s and when he decides to enter the public sphere as an entertainer, he claims not to be from Scotland or England but from this island that he invented.

“We thought ‘wouldn’t it be great to populate this island with inhabitants?’ And to have a lot of different voices who might be Cutler’s cultural descendants in a way. Even though we were all listening very deeply to his whole discography, artists would say ‘have you thought about doing this song?’ and we hadn’t. That kind of heterogeneous approach to becoming a fan of Ivor Cutler is part of the pleasure of it.”

The album features voices as varied as Karine Polwart, Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch and experimental musician Kapil Seshasayee beside longtime fans such as Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand, whose hit Jacqueline was inspired by an encounter between one of their friends and a flirty Mr Cutler, and BMX Bandit Duglas T Stewart, who has said that hearing Cutler “gave me a license to be an adult-child and not to do the done thing”.

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Appropriately for an artist with all-ages appeal, Return to Y’Hup spans the generations, featuring upcoming singers such as Zoe Graham and Megan Airlie as well as special guest appearances from two of Cutler’s contemporaries and confidantes – the equally distinctive Robert Wyatt, reading sage words Cutler wrote in his 70s, and Phyllis King, who was Cutler’s partner in later life, reciting some introductory welcome lines on Y’Hup. King has now heard the finished album and given her and, by proxy, Cutler’s blessing to the project, much to the relief of its creators who were conscious that their noisier renditions might not have met with the approval of an artist who was a keen supporter of the Noise Abatement Society, and would request that his audiences applaud at half-volume.

“Reassuringly she said that in her view Ivor would have enjoyed it very much ‘despite his sensitive ears’,” says Brennan.

The musical backdrop to Return to Y’Hup is very much in the playful and whimsical spirit of Cutler – Shaw even loaned out Cutler’s harmonium for the recording – but these new versions flesh out the original brutally minimal arrangements to encompass such aural profligacy as Latin rhythms and electric instruments.

“There was a nice freedom there,” says Benzie, “because Ivor Cutler has already done the definitive version of these songs so we didn’t necessarily feel like we needed to stick too closely to them.”

“When Cutler gets written about, it’s often as an outsider, a humourist or surrealist but he is underrated as a melodist,” says Brennan. “He consistently has such strong signature melodies, it’s like a solid tree trunk from which the branches can grow in different directions.”

Many of the artists who guested on the album will also appear at the Celtic Connections launch gig, including Murdoch, Polwart, Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite, James Yorkston, Kris Drever and Emma Pollock, backed by a band comprising Brennan, Benzie and MacDonald with Tuff Love’s Suse Bear on drums, Admiral Fallow’s Sarah Hayes on keyboards and Signy Jakobsdottir on percussion, in what looks set to be the kind of joyous celebration which might have bemused the man who once sang “I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy – and I’ll punch the man who says I’m not.”

“We really didn’t think the project would develop the way it has,” says MacDonald. “We had quite modest expectations to record an album and collaborate and do the best we could and have some fun, but it’s grown arms and legs in a very Cutleresque way.” 

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Return to Y’Hup: The World of Ivor Cutler is at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 29 January as part of Celtic Connections. The album of the same name is released by Chemikal Underground on 24 January