andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Tag Archives: tribute to venus carmichael

Back On Song(writing)

Ferguson Common Good LawA strange weight lifted off me the other day. I finished writing the second edition of my law book, and felt this overwhelming sense of release when I pressed ‘send’ to my publisher with the manuscript.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I feel deeply, deeply grateful that I’ve been given an opportunity to write not one, but two editions of Common Good Law. I have supportive colleagues in Scottish local authorities up and down the land encouraging me; a wonderful editor/publisher, Margaret, at Avizandum; and generous organisations who have agreed to give the necessary financial backing to such a niche venture.

More, I still feel slightly stunned that the first edition sold so well – 300 copies for such a, well, really niche area of the law is pretty good going, and, given the topic is mainly of interest to councils and there are only 32 of them, about 268 more than I expected.

Back in 2006, when the first edition came out, I was as pleased as punch; and next February/March, which is the scheduled publication date for what I’m trying to persuade Margaret she should call Common Good II: Revenge of the Sith, I’ll warrant I’ll be pretty much as the dog with two tails, too.

But things have changed since 2006.

First and most obviously to me, I’m 12 years older. Going over the original manuscript, I was struck at how… jocular the tone was, in as much as a legal textbook can be. In the original preface, I talk about title deeds having an aura of ‘mystery and romance;’ I even speculate whether I was asleep in the lecture that the subject of the book came up in at University, since I’d never heard of it before I joined a local authority.

These don’t constitute a bundle of bellylaughs, I appreciate, but even they struck me as a bit on the … well, racy side for a law book. Some of the other bits of jollity I found myself editing out this time round: maybe the intervening years have made me more of an Eeyore than a Tigger. Although I kept the line in about the Luftwaffe carrying out environmental improvements to Scotland’s urban landscape.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s not just me. Maybe Western culture, with its 24/7 Twitter spats, increasingly polarised positions and a whole new level of political correctness, is just a little bit grimmer than it was in 2006. I can now imagine someone taking offence at the Luftwaffe gag.

Anyhoo. The whole thing for me was, much as there was some level of intellectual stimulation in rewriting the original book to take account of 12 years’ worth of cases and legislation, I resented the couple of months’ spare time it took, because it meant my music had to take a back seat.

And, leaving aside the big life events in those intervening years (like losing both parents), that’s one change I didn’t anticipate.

Back in 2006, years spent in the Boondocks of Fife had meant I’d focused on writing, at first on my own, and then increasingly in collaboration with others. I’d already had a co-written history book published, not to mention the dozens of short stories and poems that had flowered, briefly, in various magazines and anthologies. Since the early 2000s, I’d taken to performance spoken word with my buddies in Writers’ Bloc. But still…

Despite all those years of it being firmly kicked to the back of the dream cupboard, my dream of being a singer-songwriter in the Bruce Dylansteen mould kept finding its way to the front. 2008, my first Free Fringe shows, saw the emergence of that mysterious alter ego, Venus Carmichael. Various combinations of music and words followed – I remember an Unbound night at the Book Festival in particular as a key moment of realisation that, actually, the standing on stage with a guitar and other musicians bit was far more fun than the spoken word bit – and then, a couple of years further on, I got my chance to join that merry band of country punkers Isaac Brutal, and the music bug bit hard.

But those of you who know me, or have read blogs of mine in a similar vein, will know this already. What’s news to me is that there’s no way back now. The dream of being a writer has reached a plateau I’m happy to be on (ironically enough, after Revenge of the Sith there might be another, history-based, book in the offing, as a publisher has shown an interest) and the only way forward for me is combining words with music.

So, for the next couple of weeks before I’m due to turn in the history-based thing (fortunately something else I prepared earlier, years ago) the only writing you’ll be seeing from me will be right here. Otherwise, I intend to spend as much of my free time as I can performing, practising, collaborating on, and most of all making, music. The computer keyboard I’m typing on right now will once more assume its rightful place – perched atop a proper Korg keyboard, so that I can, at all times, fire up some synth sounds and dive right in, headphones on, clumsily splaying untutored hands across the black and whites.

I also intend to spend more time with my guitars the same way politicians plan to spend more time with their families: cradling them, lavishing attention on them, tugging at their heart strings (that analogy could have gone so wrong there…). My most recently adopted baby, the Telecaster copy, has been sulking in the corner of the dining room mostly since I acquired her, but I know that even my limited abilities can coax great sounds from her.

Where will it take me? I’ve no idea. I’m no longer the 19-year-old kid in his first band at University, dreaming of super-sized stadia and all the attendant perks of a rock n’ roll lifestyle. I’m realistic. I may play no more glamorous venues than Henry’s, the Edinburgh dive bar where the excellent sound people are slightly offset by the furniture that is well, frankly, sticky. And don’t even mention the toilets they share with the Chinese restaurant upstairs…

However it turns out, you can count on me blathering on about it here. It may be the only type of writing I do beyond songwriting from here on in. Stay tuned!

Image may contain: 2 people, people on stage, people standing and indoor

Tribute to Venus Carmichael in full flow, Wednesday, 7th November (pic: manicpopthrills)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Microphone that turned into a Guitar: or, ten years a slave to acoustic

I had a microphone that turned into a guitar the other day. No, it’s true I tell you! Selling a surplus to requirements Røde M2, the only offer I got was from my old mucker Jeff Sniper, the epnonymous organiser of Jeffest: he had a Telecaster, and did I fancy a swap?

Did I not just! The last electric guitar I’d owned was ten years back, and it was a CMI (anyone heard of them?) Stratocaster  copy that I disposed of shortly after Tribute to Venus Carmichael got going. There were three key reasons why I’d got rid:

1. It wasn’t very good. The whammy bar was long gone. Some of the pickup positions didn’t work at all: I’d bought it off a guy in Dundee in the 80s for £40, and occasional attempts to get its electrics repaired had foundered;

2. Most obviously, the whole Venus Carmichael schtick was going to be built around plangent acoustic sounds, not soaring Hendrix style fuzz-soaked soloing (even if I’d been good enough to do that);

3. Tony Blair.

This last one perhaps needs more explanation: around that time, Blair had made it known by the usual media that he’d bought himself a red Strat. Now, in the interests of political balance, I should stress it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been Blair, Alex Salmond, Paddy Ashdown or Iain Duncan Smith who’d made that announcement: it would still have pushed the poor old Strat out of any realms of cool it had once inhabited into the distinctly tepid. And yes, I know Blair had actually played in a band at Oxford, another fact he was somewhat desperately keen to play up. It was called Ugly Rumours, apparently. Yeah, I know.

To be fair, it wasn’t all about Blair. Although the Sainted Jimi had played one, other former guitar heroes who did had kind of gone down in my estimation in recent years: step forward Eric Clapton, who may have the status of deity to some, but whom I’d seen during his heroin years at Edinburgh’s Playhouse, and was sorely disappointed. Step forward, also, one Mark Knopfler, although I keep saying his reputation’s due a reappraisal. Then I listen to one of his solo albums.

(I should stress that some very fine guitar work has been, and continues to be, done, on Strats, including by Isaac Brutal’s lead guitarist, Graham Crawford. If you want a proper considered comparison between these two legends of Fender you could do worse than this one.)

The Telecaster, on the other hand, is espoused by Keith Richards and Bruce Springsteen. And, on my trip to Nashville in 2011, if I was in any doubt about its prominence in country music, the massive Tele in front of the Grand Ole Opry’s radio HQ was a bit of a clue.

And then, of course, there’s Dylan. I knew he’d favoured Telecasters on that fateful 1966 tour when he went electric: I’d even been moved to poetry about it:

 

 

 

Pictures with Meaning: Bob Dylan with Liverpool kids, 14 May 1966

Tiny rock jockey

coming up on the rails

the zeitgeist

riding his coattails

cup final afternoon in Liverpool

parents watching

Everton come back in black and white

the kids drawn

to the big car

the man

in a floppy hat

Feinstein fusses: at last they settle

suddenly still

jammed in a doorway

 

Pic: Barry Feinstein

Dylan stares

dead centre

of this grubby maelstrom

the kids

one hiding his laugh

one serious, buttoned up

one snot-sweet girl, mostly smile

 

two streets along,

a brick falls

worked loose on a bombsite

 

in three days

Dylan will die

when the folkies crucify him

then rise again

new electric god

playing it fucking loud

while the kids, oblivious

use jumpers for goalposts.

 

What I didn’t know until recently was that the one the Bobster used was, instead of the classic cream, black with a white pickguard, at Robbie Robertson’s request. The same guitar was up for auction this year, apparently. Robertson ended up owning it and playing it till the paint fell off and he had it sanded down to the wood: it sold at the auction for $490,000. Probably Tony Bloody Blair bought it, come to think of it.

Anyway, my guitar isn’t a Fender, and it ain’t going up for auction any time soon. Here she is: isn’t she a beaut? She’s a Harley Benton copy, and she’s even got the previous owner’s iconic Sniper logo on it. I’m not taking that off: I really like that she’s already had a history with another player, and I’m not wanting to wipe that history out.

 

Pic: Jeff Sniper

And yep, purely by chance it’s black with a white pickguard.

Anyhoo. How much will I play her? Not as much as the acoustics, unless Mr Brutal decides the third guitarist in the band needs to go electric any time soon. Venus Carmichael will still be founded on plangent acoustic backing, so you can hold back those shouts of ‘Judas!’ But…

When Jeff handed her over, he mentioned that she was a good guitar to write songs on, and one advantage of owning her for me is kind of the opposite of what you’d expect. Because already, I’ve had reason to crawl out of bed before the rest of the household with a song idea (most of these critters come to me first thing in the morning, and if I don’t tie them down in some way they just keep on going) and play the chords through unamplified, on the Tele. Much quieter than the acoustic if you don’t plug her in!

2008, which is kind of the year that this whole journey of changing from a fiction and poetry writer to a songwriter began, seems a long time ago in many ways. I do believe that people – and guitars – come into your life sometimes for good reason. I’m never going to be the next Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, or Robbie Robertson for that matter. But I’m still going strongly in that musical direction I set off on in 2008 (or, to be more accurate, a journey I restarted then) and I reckon being tooled up with a Tele isn’t going to do any harm.

So thank you, Jeff, and may the Røde be with you, and serve you well. We’re both travelling the same road (see what I did there) so, for us and other dreamers who find stuff gets in the way of that dream, here’s an inspirational story from Mr Robertson about that 1966 tour, when a black and white Telecaster guitar was all that stood between them and the uncomprehending world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Three Weekends in May (1) – ReimagiNation: Three Days in Glenrothes

As I said in my previous post, May was quite a month of weekends (the working week was pretty average, thanks for asking).

Let’s talk first, non-sequentially, about ReimagiNation, the Edinburgh Book Festival’s residency in our own New Town. It ran from Thursday 17th to Saturday 19th: and the Friday for me consisted of doing a reading from the The Wrong Box in the Rothes Halls at lunch time, and providing the music (with Venus Carmichael) at night for the ‘Whisky, Words and Music’ event.

As well as meeting lots of new people who said very nice things about my work, at the ‘Glenrothes: A New Day?’ event the next day I encountered one of my Mum’s best pals, 90 years old and still sharp as anything!

It’s always great to promote my book and get a gig, of course. However, to do it as part of a festival in the home town I’ve now spent most of my life in, and which has been so important to my family in so many ways, was, well, intense! It was particularly important to me to hear my Dad still being venerated as the town’s historian by so many people. In fact, that was what made it for me. Glenrothes has its critics, and it’s by no means perfect. But to hear so many of its residents talk about its good bits in positive terms – the garden city design, the sense of community, the remarkable collection of town art (currently sporting, somewhat mysteriously, purple ribbons) was really heartening.

I never meant to live here as long as I have, and I still plan to move to Edinburgh some day not too far away. The Festival did make me think though, what would the 17-year old me, the one who longed to bust out of town Springsteen-style, think of what I’d achieved?

Well, he might have been impressed I’d actually got a novel published, and I was playing in not one, but two, gigging bands that play original material. Of course, he was an ambitious little bugger, so he’d have probably been expecting me to be playing the Albert Hall by now… and he would’ve been disgusted that, in amongst all of this, I had to be in the office on Saturday morning, clearing through the emails.

And the fact I was still in Glenrothes, at the tender age of 55? I’ll take the Fifth on that one. Meantime, here’s a piece I did as part of the Glenrothes Digital Storytelling project earlier in the year, a really fantastic thing that was helmed by the endlessly affable and patient Dan Brown (no, not that Dan Brown…)

 

 I’d love to hear back from you if you have your own thoughts about that sort of thing. What would the 17 year old you have thought of where you are now? Could they have even imagined it?

 

Tribute to Venus Carmichael with, right, our spoken word reader for the night, Jayne Russell. Pic courtesy of Edinburgh International Book Festival

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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New Album Frenzy at Casa Ardross

Some reviews in for Songs in a Scottish Accent:

‘Everyone should listen to Andrew C Ferguson’s new album. Awesome down to earth Scots tunes. Well worth your time guys.’ Charlotte Halton

‘I can see the Springsteen and Dylan influences in the arrangements but that made it all the more enjoyable for me and the lyrics are real-life and insightful. I particularly liked ‘Never Forget’ which is far bolder than anything I would do.’ Norman Lamont

‘Poetic’ Kelly Brooks

‘Production is excellent… everything crystal clear. Musicianship top notch as well.’ Mark Allan

Ok, ok, so these aren’t ‘official’ like reviews, they’re nice things my mates have said about it. However, they are all talented musicians, so I must be getting something right!

Remember, I will send – or hand – you this album absolutely free, and all you have to do is donate something to a refugee charity (or have it on your conscience). There are suggestions on the album page, or there’s always good old Oxfam.

And, in case one album featuring me isn’t enough for you, another two are due along shortly!

First of all, as Venus Carmichael watchers will know, the first full Venus album is currently in post-production, and we’re racing to get it ready for our album launch on 14th December. The track listing will be:

Icarus Wings

All I Can Think Of Is You

Heartlands

Highway Tonight

Coming Around Again

Katerin

Old School

Spider Arpeggio

Running Song

Rose Tattoo

What’s more, it features the beautiful singing voice of Kelly Brooks on it, rather than mine!

But that’s not all. While recording has started on its sequel, the Isaac Brutal album ‘Dawn of the Trailer Trash,’ featuring my, ahem, multi-instrumental skills, has been ready for some time now, and just needs the cover art nailed down. I can’t wait for this one either, as it features some really strong material in the classic Brutal mould.

Keep the dial here for more news…

o43tfmw

First Bands and Badly-Judged Bandanas: Reflections on Lost in Music

I read Giles Smith’s Lost in Music recently: got it second hand in Leith Walk’s excellent music and bookshop, Elvis Shakespeare. A  journalist of some repute as well as, apparently, ghost writer for Tom Jones and Rod Stewart, Smith is the same age as me, so part of the appeal of his book was the bit about growing up and having your formative experiences in pop music filtered through that particular time period. Like me, he had older siblings,  whose record collections allowed access to a slightly more sophisticated set of tastes than, say, T Rex.

I also enjoyed his often extremely funny tales of first bands and the travails of wanting to be a pop star, only to find you and your best mates have neither the connections nor, necessarily, the talent to make it. Of course, part of the charm of the book is it’s related with typical British self-deprecation: Smith did, briefly, nearly make it with a band called Cleaners from Venus, being signed to RCA’s German division. (If you think that name’s dodgy, try those of Smith’s previous bands: Pony, and Orphans of Babylon).

Unfortunately for Smith, what should have been a triumphant promotional tour of Germany was slightly marred by the lead singer and leading light’s philosophical aversion to touring, leading to a tour with no lead singer. For an excellent  – and, looking back now, poignant – review of the book, go to John Peel’s piece in the Independent.

Anyways. It got me thinking about my own early forays into the world of music, all those years ago. I came late to guitar playing, after discouraging parent-inspired forays into violin and piano. At about sixteen, I first started painfully acquiring the muscle memory to play basic chords on my brother’s nylon-string guitar: this led to a birthday present of a Kiso-Suzuki J200 copy. I embarked on mastering this, fired by the conviction that I could be the Next Big Thing in Rock. Specifically, I saw myself becoming the New Dylan – this was the early Eighties, bear in mind, when the Old Dylan was finding Jesus and tearing up his back catalogue.

At about the age of nineteen, I responded to an advert in a music shop in Edinburgh, and the Rob Long Band was formed. The band, at least in that incarnation, consisted of just me and the eponymous Rob,who was, I think, the same age, possessed of a red Stratocaster, (before Tony Blair made such an instrument terminally uncool) and of immeasurably greater guitar-playing experience and ability than me. Rehearsing solidly in Rob’s student flat above the Southsider, we quickly assembled a set of what might now be described as ‘classic rock.’ I sang, played harmonica and rhythm guitar; Rob did all the clever guitar bits.

We did ‘Shakin’ All Over,’ because Rob could do the riff. I can’t remember if we did ‘Message in a Bottle,’ live, but he could do the riff for that, too. He really was a pretty good guitar player, looking back. There was one original song in the set, a jointly-penned effort with a twelve-bar blues structure. The lyrics were something about Maggie Thatcher and nuclear war, which back then was about as original as using a twelve-bar blues structure for the music.

Our first – and in many ways best – gig was in the University Union in Chambers Street. All our friends came along to cheer: the folk in the flat below Rob’s, who had had to endure the solid rehearsals, came along to boo. I dedicated ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ to them: not a Judas moment, exactly, but it did shut them up for the full five minutes it took for all four verses plus verse-long harmonica solo. I also encountered my first example of the live-performance brain freeze known as Temporary Fretboard Amnesia, making a complete bourach of my one guitar solo (Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here.’)

In retrospect, we must have been pretty awful. Rob could have been Eric Bloody Clapton for all it mattered: my guitar playing was basic to say the least, and I had home-schooled myself in the Dylan/Mark Knopfler nasal whine, to the extent that it was pretty much croak-perfect. But our friends were kind, and most of them weren’t in bands so maybe didn’t know any better, so the long march to musical stardom wasn’t stopped in its tracks then and there.

For our second, and, in many ways, worst gig, Rob enlisted a bass player pal, one Andy Robb. I think we had one rehearsal with him before unleashing ourselves on the unsuspecting punters in Sneaky Pete’s in the Cowgate. However, one rehearsal was quite obviously going to be enough for Andy, who was one of that breed of musician you meet from time to time in bands: the self-proclaimed virtuoso. Andy played double bass in the Uni orchestra, didn’t you know, so he was basically doing us (or, at least Rob) a Massive Favour by slumming it in the Rob Long Band.

Encouraged by the band’s two-gig longevity, I splashed out on some performance gear. This took the form of a bandana (I know, but I repeat, this was the early Eighties) which was white, but with a Japanese – style rising sun in the middle. With this and (if I remember right) a grandad shirt with vertical stripes, I was good to go stage-gear wise, I felt.

Needless to say the gig didn’t live up to the lead singer’s outfit. Most of the punters moved away to the other bar as soon as we got started; Andy chose to tell me half way through that I wasn’t playing in time with him (it couldn’t have been, of course, that he wasn’t playing in time with me). There were no encores.

After we finished, a girl I vaguely knew came up to me.

‘What’s that on your head?’

‘It’s a bandana. It’s got the Rising Sun on it.’

‘Oh, right. I thought it was a bandage and you’d cut yourself.’

That summed it up, really. There was no third gig. I stayed friendly with Rob, but I suppose we both realised we needed something more than a virtuoso bass player to get us to the next level.

After that, my musical career kind of went on the back burner. I rehearsed with another band at Uni, but the other guitarist was too spaced out for us ever to get a gig organised. After I started work there was a disastrous solo gig in the Lundin Links Hotel when the receptionist, as part of the deal that got me the gig in the first place, got to play her own set first, which basically consisted of my set list, for reasons which I have never quite managed to work out.

There were the rehearsals with a couple of blokes in Dundee who mainly wanted to play Whitesnake covers. There were the couple of rehearsals with a friend of a friend, also in Dundee, which came to an end when he brought in another self-proclaimed virtuoso, a guitarist, who calmly announced that neither I nor Barry, the friend of a friend, were good enough guitarists to make it as a duo (Barry, when I last heard, is still playing and still gigging. I do hope the self-proclaimed virtuoso isn’t in the band).

Then, other than solo home noodling, nothing for years. I threw my creative energies into writing fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, with mixed success. It wasn’t until 2008, when I formed Tribute to Venus Carmichael with Kelly as a musical interlude in the Free Fringe spoken word gigs I did that year, that the fire was lit under my musical muse again. Another key collaboration was at the Book Festival Unbound gig in 2010, when I did a spoken word and music number with Kelly, Charlotte Halton on sax, and one Mark Allan, my future Isaac Brutal band leader, on the other guitar.

What would the nineteen year old me make of how things have turned out? He’d probably be pretty disappointed my main source of income isn’t as the new Dylan, if not exactly surprised. (He’d be secretly impressed, I reckon, I married a beautiful woman and have stayed married to her.) Would he settle for being in two bands with fantastic people, with songwriting duties in both? An album from each as well as a self-produced solo album coming out in the next few months, not to mention the novel?

No idea. The nineteen year old me was terribly ambitious about his creative endeavours.

Would he want me to write a song titled Fuck Off Andy Robb?

Yes. Yes, I think he would.

Image result for mark knopfler

Incidentally, if any of you have war stories of disastrous band relationships or gigs, feel free to contribute – I might write a song based on them!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Songwriters on Songwriting: Martin McGroarty

Second up in the series on songwriting is my friend and musical collaborator Martin McGroarty. I’d known Martin through work for about 25 years before I knew he was a singer-songwriter: and boy, can he write a ditty or two! Here’s how he describes himself:

I’ve dabbled with music and songwriting on and off (family commitments and life situation permitting!) over the last 30 years or so. It’s only in the last 6 months or so that I’ve really got in touch with playing gigs and thinking about music again properly – marriage break-ups are hard, but they give you so much time for music! Also coincided with my first ever successfully adhered to New Year’s Resolution – to grab 2015 by the nads and kick the shit out of it.

On with the questions:

Music or words first? Or a bit of both?

I have to admit that I find the whole process of songwriting tortuous. I am definitely not a natural. [ACF: Yes, you are. Get on with it.] I have added words to chord sequences I’ve come up with first, but it’s usually about what I want to say in a song first – so it usually starts with the words for me. And it’s usually words about some great drama in my life that I feel compelled to write about – my way of processing pain or telling someone how much I feel for them. I’m going to have to learn to write stuff when I’m not in the midst of some personal crisis or other….

Do you use a particular instrument to compose with, e.g. a favourite guitar; if you use piano/keyboard and guitar for different songs, do they produce different results?

My favourite songwriting tools are a pen and a bit of paper. As I said, it’s usually the words that come from how I’m feeling about something or someone that arrive in the old grey matter first. When I get round to thinking about the music part of it, I’ll be bashing about on the acoustic until I get something I like, then try and match the words to it. When I used to play in a band in my younger days however, I did write a few songs on the bass guitar (words and music) – principally because I couldn’t play acoustic guitar then and the bass was my job in the band.

Some songwriters talk about the process as if it’s like catching something that was there already, out there in the ether – as if the song was just waiting to be pulled in. Does it ever feel like that to you, or is the process much more mechanical for you?

As I said, I’m not a natural at this songwriting business. [I’ve warned you about that already. ACF]

I love the idea of my songs existing as wee gems of beautifully structured, musical, melodic, literary works of art floating about in the ether, just waiting to be captured and crystallised over a can of lager. But it’s just not the case unfortunately – the reality is much less romantic than that (Lager? Romantic?).

I’m a bit of a wordsmith – always have been and always enjoyed word play – but the musical part of it is work for me, often quite hard work, getting the two parts of the song, lyrics and music, to meld together. So my songs start off life in two completely separate places – the words side, the easy bit for me and which therefore gets all the attention and is spoiled rotten; and the music side, which is very much the poor relation and has to live in the attic until I need to reluctantly let it out and feed it.

I usually start with one line of a song that can appear in my head from nowhere. That then gets expanded into a storyline (I’ve always liked songs that tell a story – though the danger with that is that it can get very literal, so I try to be clever and obscure the message a bit). That’s the part of the process I enjoy the most. I suppose that where the ethereal part of it can kick in for me is when I finally try to put the words and the music together….the melody seems to come from absolutely nowhere and, if I overthink it, it just doesn’t work.

I think that some people are so good musically that they can write brilliant songs that have random words or phrases in them, rather than beautifully crafted story-telling lyrics. The strength of my songs, I think, is in the lyrical side and as long as I can get something musically competent enough to be the vehicle for that I’m happy with it.

Name an influence on your songs that maybe wouldn’t be obvious to most of your fans.

Kevin Taylor is a name that will not be familiar to many people. Kevin and I have been friends since we were toddlers (so that’s a shade over 21 years…..) and it was Kevin who gave me my first taste of music and playing in a band when we were at High School. I was utterly fascinated by the way that he could come up with all these brilliant ideas for songs and then we’d work out bass and lead parts for them, and he’d come up with a few lines of lyrics and a melody appeared, and there it was… a song.

Many of the chord shapes I play and the chord patterns I use to this day come from how Kevin played/plays guitar. He’s been a huge influence on me musically. And when I write now, I’m never happy until I know Kevin’s heard my song and hasn’t told me “it’s pish”.

Do you always write with your own (or your lead singer’s) voice in mind, or have you ever written for someone else? How did it turn out?

Now, I write for me and for what I know I can deal with vocally. When I played bass in the band however, I did write songs (lyrics) for Kevin and our lead singer, Paul Smith – often again from a single line that Kevin or Paul would have in their heads that magically re-appeared as a Pulitzer Prize winning novella after a McGroarty writing session. It worked a treat, because the music was already so strong that a decent story-line lyric added to the song, rather than “made” the song.

Do you ever revise your songs after you’ve started performing them, or are they pretty much fixed?

Yip. Usually when I can’t remember the words, or where I am in the song, so you can get a Club Mix, an album version or a 12” single mix of the song depending on what night I’m playing and how drunk I am…..

Name three favourite songwriters of yours.

Apart from the aforementioned Mr Taylor, among my favourite songwriters ( and it’s hard limiting to three, but I enjoy the intellectual challenge of it) are Neil Finn, James Grant and Neil Young.

Martin is playing at the Eagle Inn, Coatbridge, supporting Gerry Cinnamon, on Friday 24th April. Then, as winner of the Texas Scots Talent Competition 2015, he’s playing at the Texas Scottish Festival in Arlington, Texas on May 8th and 9th.

For those of you who don’t know him, Andrew C Ferguson is one half of Tribute to Venus Carmichael, who also play a gig on 24th April, at the White Horse, Canongate, Edinburgh

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Songwriters on Songwriting: Norman Lamont

For the first of a short series on songwriters in the Edinburgh area, here’s an interview with Norman Lamont. First up, here’s how he introduces himself:

Despite being described by friends on the Edinburgh scene as ‘a legend’ or ‘the king of Edinburgh songwriters’, Norman Lamont is growing comfortable with obscurity. He continues to gig with his band The Heaven Sent, and produce albums, the most recent being last year’s All The Time in Heaven.

And now for the questions:

Music or words first? Or a bit of both?

Almost always a bit of both, that is, a line or two complete with a melody and tempo. That suggests what the rest will be, which is work. The music is easier than the words. I’ve had melodies with a few lines hang round for twelve years waiting for me to knuckle down and write more words. Some are still waiting. (Gravestone ‘He never did finish that —-ing song’)

I do write words on their own, but never as embryo songs; they’re just scraps of stuff I keep for when I’m scrabbling around trying to finish something. When I write them I think they’re rubbish; years later when I find them I think they’re brilliant compared to the rubbish I’m writing now. My room is full of notebooks.

Do you use a particular instrument to compose with, e.g. a favourite guitar; if you use piano/keyboard and guitar for different songs, do they produce different results?

Usually I write in my head, and then work out the guitar chords afterwards from the completed stadium version I hear the E Street Band playing in my head.

Some songwriters talk about the process as if it’s like catching something that was there already, out there in the ether – as if the song was just waiting to be pulled in. Does it ever feel like that to you, or is the process much more mechanical for you?

I’ve had that experience a few times. Driving or walking along the street I just open my mouth and start singing a completely new song I haven’t planned. It certainly clears the pavement. When I examine it, it’s often linked to something I’ve been listening to earlier in the day so it’s not that magical, but it feels that way at the time. But that’s just the start – the rest is work and anticlimax.

Name an influence on your songs that maybe wouldn’t be obvious to most of your fans.

A semi-retired Edinburgh singer called Dave Christopher, not known by many. He let me join his band in Glasgow in the 70s and it was the first time I’d actually met someone whose songs astonished me. He has a McCartney-like gift for melody.

Do you always write with your own (or your lead singer’s) voice in mind, or have you ever written for someone else? How did it turn out?

I’ve never tried to write for someone else, as no-one has ever requested such a service. I often ‘hear’ a new song with someone else’s voice, but when I play it to people they don’t often recognise my mangled interpretation of that person, which avoids charges of plagiarism.

Do you ever revise your songs after you’ve started performing them, or are they pretty much fixed?

Structure stays the same, but every time I sing in front of an audience I find new ways to sing them, often with new melodies. Somehow there has to be an audience for that to happen.

Name three favourite songwriters of yours.

Rennie and Brett Sparks (The Handsome Family)
Paul Simon
Brian Eno
Leonard Cohen (you did say four favourite songwriters, didn’t you?)

Norman is doing one night at the Acoustic Music Centre @ St Brides on August 16th, by which time a new, more light-hearted album may be complete, probably to be called Gurus At The Bar. New songs appear with startling regularity on his site, normanlamont.com.

For those of you who don’t know, Andrew C Ferguson is one half of Tribute to Venus Carmichael, the only known tribute band of the legendary – some dare to say imaginary – singer-songwriter from the L.A Canyons via Arbroath. You can catch more of her story, in words and music, at the White Horse, Canongate, on Friday 24th April. Facebook event is here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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12 things I’ve learned (or relearned) this year

It’s been a bumpy 12 months, both for me personally, for many of my friends and colleagues, and perhaps most of all, for my country of origin. Which is not to say there’s not been a few good bits too.

 
January: Everything people say to you about losing a parent is true.

 
Statistically, it’s more than likely that your parents will die before you; all the same, you don’t understand how awful the reality is before it happens. Only other people that have experienced it can really know how you feel; however much all the kind words from everyone are a help. Life is never the same, though.

 
February: Music is a great healer.

 
I didn’t really know what to expect of a gig at the 02 Academy, Glasgow, featuring Foals and Cage the Elephant, having never been to the venue, and only had a hurried catch up on the main act. I certainly wasn’t expecting what might well have been The Greatest Gig Ever (although a subsequent outing to Temples in December ran it pretty damn close – see Daughter and Heiress’s Liquid Rooms review).

 
March: Collaboration really is the best policy.

 
Although I took a step back from Writers’ Bloc this year, there were still some really exciting and fruitful bits of partnership working, to use the cooncil terminology. Step forward, in no particular order, Gavin Inglis, Kelly Brooks, Halsted Bernard, Harky and Kenny Mackay… I hope to do much more of the same in the coming year, as well as with other long term collaborators like Mark Allan and Lara Matthews.

 
April: Until they find the lost race of six foot, red-bearded conquistadores, I’m always going to stand out in Spain.

 
Granada was gorgeous and Malaga, at the end of our Spanish trip this year, a real undiscovered gem of a place – those of you who only experience the airport are missing out on a great, lively place to spend a few days. In between these two cities, we went (at the suggestion of our Spanish cousin, Guillermo) to Ubeda, a smaller town heading up into the sierras and surrounded by olive-clad hills. It was lovely, and well worth a visit, but it was clear they’re not used to Vikings.

 
May: Exams are just as awful as they always were. Especially Maths.

 
Daughter & Heiress sat her National 5s in May – that’s O Grades, O Levels, Standard Grades, or something else to the rest of you. Despite being a member of the guinea pig generation for the new exams, she did really well; but although the new curriculum was sold as a clever way to extend the length of time the kids have to take in the Higher course (for non-Scots amongst you, they’re the ones you sit aged 16 or 17 that more or less dictate if you get into University) it looks like they’ll have exactly the same amount of time to struggle through as their parents did.

 
In other words, a few desultory weeks in June, and then the whole of fifth year when they’re not actually being tested to near-destruction. The difference being D & H is working a lot harder than I ever remember doing.

 
June: Guitars matter.

 
My post about the mysterious origins of my semi-acoustic garnered some interesting comments. Mind you, easily the top post in terms of hits I’ve ever done is a review of an acoustic guitar amp, so I’m not sure what that proves.

 
July: Being a Festival Dad isn’t all bad.

 
I blogged pretty extensively about our Latitude experience, so I won’t go on about it again; but now, as we approach the longest night of the winter, it’s just a happy blur of sunshine, hot weather, great music, spectacular lightning storms, and polite queues for drinking water. I’m reliably informed we’re going back next year.

 
August: The Fringe isn’t just for watching.

 
With one thing and another, I was late booking a couple of slots in the Free Fringe for Tribute to Venus Carmichael; and I confess to being a bit more nervous than usual. This was a good thing, because it made me practice every day for a fortnight. And practice makes much less imperfect.

 
September: You can breach the EU Working Time Regulations several times over and live to tell the tale.

 
At the end of a 25 hour shift of work on the administration of the indyref, I lay on the couch at home and watched the results coming in, eating cereal when my body clock didn’t know if it was Tuesday or a biscuit. A strange end to a seismic day.

 
What made me, as a Scot, proudest, wasn’t the 84% turnout – frankly, what on earth did the other 16% have on that day that was more important? But the fact that, in all the fevered atmosphere, hints, allegations and conspiracy theories, there was not one criticism of the 16 and 17 year olds who, voting for the first time, conducted themselves with every kind of decorum and seriousness at the polls when their elders were, in some cases, doing the opposite.

 
They and their English, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts won’t get a vote in May 2015 for the Westminster election. Can anyone explain to me why not?

 
October: Kinsale is a nice place to visit.

 
Fly to Cork, take a bus from the airport, and you’re there. Great food, music, Guinness, and craic. Thoroughly recommended.

 
November: You can totally book the Old Observatory on Calton Hill to stay in.

 
I know this because my sister did it for a Big Birthday celebration in November and it was absolutely fab. One of the best cityscape views in the world from every window; all mod cons, done tastefully to blend in with the historic building; it’s even well heated, somewhat to our surprise. The room which used to be the observation chamber has the most amazing acoustics of anywhere I’ve ever been. Some day, I’m going to do a gig there.

 
December: Edinburgh is the place to be for Xmas

 
We leave tomorrow. Byee!!

Next week, the Surrealist Year Ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

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Forthcoming Abstractions

Now that Stevenson Unbound is finally done and dusted, I plan to do a couple of pieces for this blog. First of all, a bit of chat around the preparations for the gig – I really began to think someone up there didn’t want the show to happen, to the extent I had a word with Louis one day I was in the car… provisional title Taking a Red Pen to RLS.

Tomorrow night, I slope, in a louche kind of manner, to the Cool Cat Club, to hear Luna Webster, Wozniak and Tuff Love make interesting noises, so that might lead to a review.

And the recent consignment of my cricket gear to the charity shop is slated to produce a piece called Farewell to a Flanneled Fool.

But wait! What’s this? Another cassette tape has mysteriously appeared at Kelly’s house? Featuring loads of previously-unheard Venus Carmichael songs? Keep the dial here…

Back on the Horse

A late-summer wasp, heady with its own venom, banks round for yet another bombing mission on unsuspecting giant bipeds. In external wall crevices, hunter spiders flex their chitinous legs and begin the long autumnal march indoors. The biomass plant facility tolls the knell of parting day, and leaves the world to darkness, and to me. The nights, as they say round these parts, are fair drawing in.

Those of you who know me best know why I’ve been quiet on the performance front this year so far. However, the two Tribute to Venus Carmichael gigs at the Free Fringe have revived my interest in not making a complete fool of myself in public again; and like the buses, I’ve a few things coming up rather than a single one.

The first thing isn’t actually a live performance: it’s a release on Soundcloud which, for reasons which will become obvious, I’m not releasing till 19th September. Watch this space for that one!

Then, on 2nd October, I don my spangly jacket for MC duties at Slam Factor Fife II. A stellar line up of judges – Miko Berry, Kevin Cadwallender and Rachel McCrum – will be performing as well as judging, and I might squeeze a couple of my own in. If you’re in some loose way associated with Fife, and fancy giving it a go, follow the link for an application form.

Then, I have an event to promote my Dad’s last book, A Huntly Loon Goes To War, at the Huntly Book Festival, on Saturday 4th October at 4.This event will be quite special for me, and I hope you can make it if you live locally.

On 3rd October, just before heading up to Huntly, we’re going to see Randolph’s Leap in Dundee, supported by St Kilda Mailboat and Blood Indians (for the syntactically acute, that’s Randolph’s Leap they’re supporting, not us: I don’t think we could squeeze them all in the back of the car). I plan to review Blood Indians’ excellent EP in advance, so keep the dial here for that.

Also in early October, or maybe late September, Kelly and I will be doing a session at Leith FM as Tribute to Venus Carmichael, on Ralph on the Radio. We’re really excited about this – more news soon!

Finally, on 15th November, I’m putting on a show called Stevenson Unbound. More details soon, but in the meantime, this is the spiel:

Spoken word performer Andrew C Ferguson (Writers’ Bloc, Illicit Ink) presents an atmospheric new show in back room of the White Horse, in the Canongate. On a darkening November afternoon, immerse yourself in classic RLS supernatural stories ‘Markheim,’ and ‘Thrawn Janet,’ as sound effects swirl through the half-lit space.
In the final segment, hear Ferguson’s own Stevenson-inspired poetry and prose, including Hyde’s Last Words, where Henry Jekyll’s worse half finally has his say. Do you dare to stay the afternoon?
With special guest. Part of the Edinburgh City of Literature RLS Day programme.
Stevenson Unbound, White Horse, 266 Canongate, 14:00 – 17:00 Saturday 15th November 14+
£5/contribution

Things are starting to return, slowly, as autumn advances on us, although it’s still more music-based than fiction. On the Venus Carmichael front, the old girl has been busy writing new songs; I’ve a feeling she might have more to tell us of her life story soon too. I still have high hopes of another musical project I’m collaborating on, although it has a missing component at the moment. I even started a poem the other day. There’s a fair chance I might finish it.

In the meantime, like almost every other Scot, I have strong views on a certain question needing an answer on 18th September. However, the necessities of the day job mean I’m not able to express a view, so unlike almost every other Scot, you won’t be getting the benefit of my opinions.

I’m sure the rest of them will make up for me.