This year Dougie MacLean celebrates 40 years as a professional musician. From his early days with The Tannahill Weavers and Silly Wizard in the 1970’s he’s forged a hugely successful solo career that’s seen him create his own record label, Dunkeld Records, release dozens of acclaimed solo albums and receive a wide range of awards; including an OBE in 2011 and a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting at the BBC Radio 2 Folk awards in 2013. He is, without a doubt, one of the country’s most accomplished and admired singer-songwriters. In June Dougie released a landmark CD in collaboration with The Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Till Tomorrow (read our review here), which revisited some of his best loved songs in an orchestral setting.
Despite a busy touring schedule, preparing for his extremely popular Perthshire Amber festival and, we’ve just learned, an appearance at the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games; Dougie found time to chat to Folk Radio UK about his career; an early love of the drums and the joy of singing.
In the early years of your solo career traditional music was going through something of a renaissance. Now it’s positively flourishing. Has the music moved on in ways you never expected?
Yes – when I started playing there were only half a dozen of us playing fiddle in Scotland that weren’t in fiddle & accordion clubs or Scottish Country Dance bands. There was me, Johnny Cunningham, and a few others. Nowadays, though, there are fiddle players everywhere.
There’s a whole new generation of people playing the fiddle and that’s great. The problem is that the actual business side of it probably hasn’t kept up to speed, so being able to make a job out of it is probably harder now than it would have been then. When we all started, we were able to learn the trade of being a professional musician. It’s one thing learning an instrument, but now it’s harder for young musicians to actually learn that trade.
The tradition has always been a major source of inspiration to you. Is it important to you to keep developing that body of work, to contribute to its timelessness?
My parents are from Argyllshire, my Mum played the melodeon and my Dad played some fiddle. So it wasn’t unknown in our house for the chairs and tables to get pushed back for a wee party. My Mum would play these lovely Gaelic waltzes on her melodeon, and my Grandfather used to sing Gaelic songs. So I grew up in a house where I was hearing this in a normal way.
And I’m still drawing on those early years. Even though my song-writing is contemporary, it’s important to me that those songs have the same melodic qualities as the culture that they carried. I’m a huge fan of Burns and there was plenty of his work sung and played in the house. My parents used to go around the village halls to hear the Scottish Country Dance Bands. When I was six I wanted to be a drummer in one of those bands, I used to sit up on stage beside the drummer with a pair of drumsticks and play along.
Other than traditional music itself; Land, life and family are main influences – sometimes they all combine and an amazing song like Turning Away or Talking With my Father or Eternity comes out. Has that Trinity been with you since the early days?
I think it’s always been with me- and if you’re writing for the real reasons, and writing for yourself, it naturally comes out in the songs. I still live where I grew up, I live in the old school that I went to and my grandfather was a shepherd on the hills around here. If you’re writing for the right reasons, if you’re not going into a studio specifically to write ten new songs for a new album; songs happening as a natural diary of life will reflect your life and the place you live in.
This great love and respect for the land that’s in your song writing – this communion with the land. Is that partly what fuels your desire for promoting music, art and humanitarian causes at a local level?
That’s one of the reasons we started the festival (Perthshire Amber) here. I spent 20 years travelling around Europe and America singing about this place and I thought it was a great idea to let all the people who enjoy the music come and see the countryside that inspired so many songs. You get great venues like Blair Castle and Dunkeld Cathedral; so visitors get a feeling of what it’s like to be around Perthshire – not just through the music but through the buildings and the people themselves.
I owned a pub for a while in Dunkeld (The Taybank), and the whole point was to have a place in the town where people could just come and play music. It didn’t matter what kind of music it was – it’s the spirit of it that was important. It wasn’t a music business thing, it was about enriching life.
You played Holding Back at the lifetime Achievement Award from BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. That came across as a very emotional performance. Was that performance a big moment for you?
Yes – it’s good to be recognized. This is my 40th year as a professional musician, I joined the Tannahill Weavers when I was 20 – travelling all over Europe, sleeping in sleeping bags on people’s floors and going through some real hard times. Traditional music still doesn’t get the same level of recognition as things like The X Factor. Longevity is one of the hardest things to achieve as a musician; you might be fashionable for a few years and then it gets harder to keep the public interest going year in year out – but I’ve been very lucky, I think I have a CD for every year. I was telling the kids – if you want to get to know your old man, just have a listen to that pile of CDs – my whole life’s in those songs.
Holding back is a song about contentment and I think that’s one of the great things about being an older musician – you can feel content with your place in the greater scheme of things. That’s a great place to be, and I think my shows these days benefit from that contentment, I think I’m singing and writing better songs as a result of it.
Developing this album with RSNO must have been a huge undertaking, but you’re no stranger to big projects. Do you approach these events with relish?
The orchestra thing was such a special opportunity – to be able to do that with your own national orchestra, and to be able to do that with Linn Records… when I started my own independent record company (Dunkeld Records) 30 odd years ago, the only way we could get an independent vinyl cut was to travel to London. Then Linn installed a cutting deck in their Glasgow offices so they could cut their own vinyl. I think I was one of the first people to get their vinyl cut in Scotland – which was brilliant. So I’ve had this long relationship with Linn and it’s great that it’s their label Til Tomorrow is coming out on. Phil Hobbs was the engineer on that first vinyl cutting and he recorded Till Tomorrow – so there are all these back stories going on with the making of this record.
Have you left time in that busy schedule before Perthshire Amber in October for a big party at the end of September. Any special events planned associated with that?
Well, it’s my birthday in September and I’ll be 60. So we’re hoping to have an event at the village hall here… the same one I went to with my drumsticks as a six year old. It’s a big year for all of us – so I hope we all get to the end of it happily.
I’m unsure when I started thinking of you more often as a singer songwriter than a fiddle player. Is there a divide between the two disciplines?
From the age of 20 until about 28 I spent all my time playing the fiddle, and I had to stop playing fiddle to get people to take my songs seriously. In people’s eyes you’re either a fiddle player or a song writer, it was difficult to combine them. It’s only in recent years that I’ve started playing the fiddle again and feeling comfortable with it on stage. So now, people know me as a song-writer but I can say “well, actually, I play the fiddle too!”.
I really love playing the fiddle, but I love singing – that’s my big thing, singing. It’s great to play an instrument but singing’s the high end of the art. There’s something lovely when you’re in good voice and the situation’s just right, you can really just lose yourself in the whole process of singing.
Have you ever considered contrasting the orchestra collaboration with a sessions album? There are so many potential collaborations from all around the world.
Oh yes – there are all kinds of things we’re planning to do. We have a subscription web site called Butterstone TV; we film with four cameras and broadcast live online in HD. Part of that whole thing is getting guests in. It’s great for recording collaborations like that, and I think that’s one of the things I can do now that I’m an older musician – we can get people in and experiment without the record company worrying about me taking gambles. Whether it sells or not becomes irrelevant because it’s all about capturing the moment. I was doing some things with Tim Edey recently; Tim has this uncanny ability to capture the essence of a song, it’s great when someone just connects.
I’ve got all kinds of plans… I want to make a musical! I have all these songs that are tried and tested, so to make a musical with these songs would be tremendous. There are so many fantastic young musicians out there it would be great to get them involved in the project and get themselves out there – so maybe that’s one of the things an older musician can do.
We’re doing another show with the orchestra at the Perth Concert Hall on the last weekend of the Perthshire Amber festival. At the Glasgow concert I didn’t know if we’d be able to avoid making it too formal, but after a couple of songs I could feel the orchestra sitting back in their chairs and I thought ‘this is working’. It was difficult to stop smiling through the whole show. I was talking to John Logan, the conductor, and we’re hoping to set something up with some American orchestras over there.
The album itself hasn’t had a lot of exposure – it’s nice the way it’s coming out gently, not had too much hype around it. That’s what’s good about being an independent musician and having Linn, who aren’t one of the big London companies. It feels more organic and I’m always happier when things are like that because they tend to last longer.
Interview by: Neil McFadyen
2014 continues to be a busy year for Dougie – with live dates around Scotland stretching into September, a visit to the Milwaukee Irish Festival this month and regular Butterstone TV sessions. And, of course, there’s the Perthshire Amber Festival in October which features, among many others; Eddi Reader Rachel Sermanni, Duncan Chisholm, Emily Smith and The Mischa MacPherson Trio. After forty years in the business, Dougie MacLean is going from strength to strength.
Dougie MacLean – Live Dates
01 – The Queens Hall, Edinburgh
06 – Deeside Theatre, Aboyne
15 – 17: Milwaukee Irish Festival (USA)
29 – Lanark Memorial Hall, Lanark
12 – The Corran Halls, Oban
14 – Aberdeen Music Hall
24 Oct – 02 Nov: Perthshire Amber Festival – The Dougie MacLean Festival