When I hook up with Ross Wilson, or as he’s known, Blue Rose Code in Brockley in south east London, the first thing he does is press a copy of the new LP into my hand. Here is The Ballads Of Peckham Rye (review here), with a brand new sleeve, but in all of its musical glory pressed up on 180 gm vinyl and a joyous thing to behold. Jeff Tweedy has just written a timely and impassioned piece in The Guardian about the joys of vinyl records, as commentators line up to tell us the album format is dead, there is something about records, their size, their significance and their sound that can hold the attention, if we let them. I’m thrilled to receive my copy of this excellent record, in my own preferred format and Ross is clearly happy with it too.
The CD was originally launched back in June and Ross explains, “I got some funding form the Arts Council to help make the record and one of the conditions of their help was that the record had to come out within a certain time frame.” That condition satisfied, he’s now set up a distribution deal with Proper in order to hook up with the wider world of record retail and has re-launched the release on vinyl and CD and of course on digital download. Ross is quick to add, “proper have been very supportive and it’s great that the record will get proper distribution, if you’ll pardon the pun.”
To coincide with the release Ross has a short tour and has been busy over the days preceding our meeting in the studio rehearsing a new band to take on the road. The original idea was to tour with Danny Thompson, but circumstances have made that impossible, although Ross is pleased with how things have turned out. He tells me, “I’m working with a new singer called Wrenne, who I’ve known for about 11 years having first met her on the open mic scene in London. I saw her playing a nylon strung guitar, barefoot at the Secret Garden Party and we struck up a firm friendship. I’ve been working on some new songs and her voice came to mind and so she’s agreed to come out on this tour.”
There are one or two other names, some familiar and some not and Ross continues with the introductions, “I’ve got this great double bassist, Nico Bruce, the nephew of Jack who was in the Proclaimers touring band for many years. His last gig was playing at the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games and he’s gone from that to playing the Glad Café and the Voodoo Rooms with me.” I venture that I’m sure he’ll be looking forward to it and Ross laughs, “He’d better be!” But quickly adds, “No, I’m sure he is Nico’s a really great guy a really strong person.” He continues “Then there’s this young guy we’ve taken to calling ‘Wild’ Lyle Watt. He’s like a young John McLaughlin, a really amazing guitarist who seems to be able to play anything.” Again he laughs as he confesses, “He makes me sound really good,” but explains, “I’ve asked him to play mandolin on a couple of songs and he plays resonator and acoustic lead. He can do it all.”
MG Boulter, a fine songwriter in his own right is support and Ross admits, “Of course the person I’ve forgotten is MG, who’ll be playing pedal steel with me as well as doing all of the support slots.” He pauses for a moment before explaining, “When I made The Ballads Of Peckham Rye it was really important to surround myself with talented professional musicians, and I achieved that. I think it’s also really important to work with people that you can really connect with and I think with this band we’re doing that.” Then he adds a surprise telling me, “This is the band that I’m going to take into the studio, because I’m going to record a new album soon.”
There’s another moment’s pause and another confession as he adds, “There’s someone else that I really need to give credit too, Alex Pilkington. I’ve loved working with AP on both North Ten and The Ballads Of Peckham Rye, together we shaped the Blue Rose Code sound that you hear on record. He’s always been great to work with and he understands my shorthand so I often don’t need to explain what I want, he just has a sixth sense of it. He has great ideas sonically too, thinking about music in an audiophile way that my unrefined ears don’t do. He’ll be involved with the next project, I’m sure.” I can only concur, as I think both albums sound really good and the closer you listen the more so, which is surely what good production is all about.
Still it takes me a minute or two for the news to sink in and I ask Ross about the time he’s been spending in the studio recently, which I’d presumed was for tour rehearsals. He confirms, “Yes that’s right but I’ve also been trying out ideas.” He expands the point, “Im trying to connect with different people and I recorded some live stuff with an engineer, a guy called Andy Ramsey, who’s the drummer from Sterolab, in a small studio in Bermondsey. It’s about 10 minutes away from where I live, which is a real boon. Through Andy I met a guy called Sean O’Hagan, who was in Microdisney and the High Llamas. We’re just exploring some creative avenues.”
He pauses again and changes tack, “I think the conventional wisdom is that you do an album every 18 months or two years. But then I also think that the rule book was probably ripped up a couple of years ago.” There’s another pause and he confides, “Besides I’m into my 30s and although I’ve had two records out, it’s involved four deals and I’m not sure that they’ve suited me at all. If there was a record company involved now they’d be telling me, ‘X, Y and Z,’ but that’s not what I need. I’m just going to do what I feel is right. I can’t be told what to do creatively”. There’s a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his lips as he says this, but you sense that he’s being honest and also has a serious point about the way that the music industry is forced to adapt and think on its feet. I started this piece with my own predilections for LPs as complete works, but that isn’t necessarily how the rest of the world thinks about music anymore.
I ask Ross if he’s on something of a creative roll and whether his inspiration is consistent or comes in fits and starts. I think he’s aiming somewhere in between as he explains, “It comes in fits and starts and I’m not the sort of person who can force myself to write songs. I don’t write to order, but that said, as I’ve got older I’ve recognised the situations and circumstances that can get me into a creative state of mind and I’m able to create that environment more often.” He also admits, “I don’t really understand it all and I’m quite happy to be agnostic about it, to let things happen and then let them go.”
I ask Ross whether his inspirations and reasons for writing have changed between making the debut album and now. He acknowledges, “Of course, they do say that you spend your life up until you record your debut album writing it, and that’s absolutely true. But if I look at my new songs, I have a batch of about 14 and I’ll take them out on the road and that’s where they’ll have the space to grow.” Again he smiles before revealing, “I’m actually doing a songwriting workshop at a school in Glasgow while I’m up there. But of course all I can tell them is how I write songs and not how they can do it themselves.” He qualifies that and says, “Perhaps the best advice is to get out there and try the open mic nights, because the audience will quickly let you know if your stuff isn’t any good. A wise friend told me that if you ever feel one of your songs is going on for too long, then you can guarantee that the audience had worked that out two minute ago”
He changes direction again and tells me, “I guess what I’m trying to say was that just about all of the songs on the debut had been kicking around for years, whereas all but Where The Westlin’ Winds Do Carry Me on the second album where written to take into the studio and I’m only learning about them and how to play them now.” He pauses again with a thoughtful expression and continues, “Of course the flipside of all of this is that there are some songs that you think are great and nailed on for the record, but end up as stinkers on the cutting room floor. Others like Skin And Bones surprise you in the other way. That was the last song that I wanted to or intended to record, but then it’s a song of mine that people often request.”
We spend some time discussing performance and how that shapes and reshapes songs and Ross sums it up, “I guess it comes down to that the songs have to be interesting for me to be able to put myself into them and give people an honest performance. Don’t get me wrong I’ve no objection to playing the songs that people want to hear, but if I feel I have to change the tempo, extend something or change the instrumentation in order to inspire myself then I will. I don’t want to give people a staid recital. I understand that some people have bought the record, like it and that’s what they want to hear, but then we’ve just done three sold out nights at the Edinburgh Fringe and a surprising number of people came to all of the shows. They don’t want to see the same thing every night.” You sense it’s a dilemma that he feels keenly, not wanting to disappoint anybody.
Ross clearly is on a roll, however, as he confides, “I actually have another project in mind although it’s on the back burner for now. The latest EP leads with True Ways Of Knowing, which is my adaptation of a poem by Norman McCaig. Now I didn’t do well at school and so came to things like literature and poetry quite late and on my own terms. No one told me what I was supposed to like, but I discovered McCaig along with others like the arch polemicist Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley Maclean and then found this portrait in the Scottish national Portrait Gallery of several poets who used to meet in a couple of pubs and drink whiskey and talk and argue (see below). I had this idea of setting a poem by each of them to music as an introduction.” Again he smiles and says, “Well see what happens.”
Ross is on good form and when he’s like this it’s easy to talk for hours, but to return to the job in hand and immediate concerns as Ross acknowledges, “The focus for the tour and the immediate future will mostly be The Ballads Of Peckham Rye. We will drop about five or six new songs into the set and workshop them live if you like, plus there’s about the same again from the first album, but we have a 20 song set list, because you get me on stage it’s hard to shut me up,” he laughs, “so it’s mostly from the current record.”
That seems a good place to pause for now, as I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more from Ross as projects unfold and connections are made. It ends up a good couple of hours after he first pressed that vinyl record into my hand that I’m finally wishing him well on this latest tour and heading home. And as for the record, well, there’s a unique pleasure to slipping a heavyweight slab of the black stuff from its sleeve and dropping the needle into the groove. And yes, it sounds fabulous but then you probably didn’t doubt that for a minute.
Interview by: Simon Holland
Edina Remix By Hiatus
‘Edina’ from The Ballads Of Peckham Rye is a response to the call of ‘Ghosts Of Leith’ from Blue Rose Code’s debut, North Ten. A song asking for forgiveness from Wilson’s birthplace, Edinburgh. The band comprises a stellar line up of musicians; Danny Thompson, Karine Polwart, Aidan O’Rourke (Lau), Rachel Newton and Dave Milligan.
This remix by critically acclaimed London producer and co-conspirator Hiatus was championed by BBC Radio 2’s Bob Harris and released on the lead single ‘One Day At A Time’ EP and is available here – https://bluerosecode.bandcamp.com/
The Ballads of Peckham Rye
The Ballads Of Peckham Rye is avaialble now on 180g VINYL. Order it here: https://bluerosecode.bandcamp.com/album/the-ballads-of-peckham-rye-180g-vinyl
As our Artist of the Month for October we’ll have more from Blue Rose Code soon including video premieres.