Fraser Anderson has just played a short set at a bar very close to New Broadcasting House right in the heart of London. It’s a place often favoured for getting the ear of radio producers and other BBC types, but can as tonight be filled with an unsympathetic crowd. Everyone seems to be here for another reason, apart form a small cluster of us who edge closer to the two microphones set up in front of a sofa. Fraser sits and patiently plays, despite the constant background of chatter and the fact that the bulk of the room is totally ignoring him. It’s a real shame too, because even in the stripped back format of man and guitar, joined a couple of songs in by his partner Bex Marshall to add harmony he’s really very good.
His soulful voice is the sort that makes hairs stand proud as it slips through a surprising range into a tremulous falsetto at times, while the songs, including a selection from the current Little Glass Box, are strong enough to stand being pared back to the basics of voice and acoustic guitar.
Admittedly it would be great to hear them done as per the album, but as that was originally recorded three years ago and with a cast of highly regarded veteran players including Danny Thompson, the prospect is a little unlikely as Fraser will later confirm. But the main reason I’m at the night is to talk to Fraser about the record and fill out the story of the man himself, the making of the record and the intervention of the German label Membran, which finally sees the wonderful Little Glass Box get the attention it deserves.
I start by asking Fraser about when the record was made and what his life was like back then and he tells me, “Well, I was married then and we had three small children, which of course I still do. But at the time I was constantly under pressure form my wife, because we met when I was 17 and she was 22 and had been together for 20 years. When we met I was at music college and in a band and we had this guy approach us claiming to be working for Universal saying he wanted to sign us. We all thought, ‘This is it, the big times have arrived,’ but it all turned out to be bullshit and he led us on for weeks and weeks. It was both the start of my disillusionment with the record industry, but also the start of my now ex-wife expecting a big extravagant lifestyle.”
He has a rueful smile as he recalls, “She would say to me fairly regularly, ‘You’ve got six months to get your music career on track or this is all over.’ But then that paints picture of her that’s really quite unfair because it had been a really tough, tough trip and life was hard.” He pauses to gather his thoughts, “I recorded the album in Bessiere, near the Med coast about 10 minutes from the beach. At the time we lived in a place near Mirepoix, about 45 minute west of Carcassonne and an hour or so south of Toulouse. It was this very remote village and we had so little money. I would go off to record and leave them at home and I came back one day to find that the kids had set up a table at the front of the house to sell plums that had fallen from the trees in the garden, so that they could raise money to buy something to eat.”
The pain of his situation is obvious and also makes its presence felt across the record, but I’m curious as to quite how Fraser and Family ended up in France. He explains, “I think it was for similar reasons, that life in Scotland just wasn’t working out. I’d recorded my first album with my friend Adam called …and the girl with the strawberry…. We’d made it in his bedroom, it was all very DIY and homegrown. It was done on a shoestring and so even when we’d made it, we had no money for promotion. All the people who did get to hear it were raving about it and so once again I thought we’re up and running, but it just didn’t really take off. I guess you have to have a certain mindset to plan things like records from a business perspective and my head has just never really worked that way. So, it was actually my wife who said we should get out and we sold up everything we’d built up in Scotland and headed off on this wild adventure. We could have ended up anywhere, but somehow found this remote spot in France.”
I’m curious as to whether there was already a budding Francophile there, but Fraser assures me not. He’s equally straight with a simple, “No,” when I ask if he spoke French. Having known a little of this story, although not the details, before we met I must confess I carried this somewhat romantic notion into the interview. It’s been properly punctured by the tales of hardship, but none the less I suggest that sometimes art and music thrive where risks are taken. Fraser reveals, “We had this mantra which we lived by, of leap and the net will appear. It did and it didn’t, but I don’t regret any of it.”
We turn our focus to the making of the record and Fraser explains, “Through sheer desperation I drew up a sign saying, “Concert here on Saturday night,” and put it outside the house. I had no idea what would happen, but we managed to borrow about 40 chairs from the local mayor and squeezed them into our living room next to the piano and we sold out. In fact we were sold out every Saturday night through the whole summer season and it turned into a real local following.”
One thing led to another it seems and Fraser tells me, “People started asking me the obvious questions like, ‘What record is this song on,’ and I’d have to explain that the songs hadn’t been recorded yet. People started asking, ‘Why not?’ So I had to explain that it actually cost a lot of money to make a record. There was this nucleus amongst the local community who decided to put some money together that would allow me to make the record.”
You can see from his face the delight that he takes from this act of kindness, but at the time and obviously buoyed by this injection of funds, Fraser set to work. He recalls, “Having finally got some money I started to think perhaps I can afford to hire my dream bass player, which of course was Danny Thompson. I was feeling a little bit tipsy with it all and braver than normal and went onto his website. Lo and behold there’s a button there that takes you direct to Danny, so I emailed him and sent him an MP3 of the tile track of Little Glass Box and amazingly enough, he emailed me back the very next day saying, ‘Love the song let’s work together.’ It started a beautiful friendship. Danny is one of the loveliest guys I’ve ever met”
The story picks up pace and Fraser reveals, “As for the studio, someone started a blog about the gigs that I was doing and this Canadian guy read it and came to one of the gigs. He was living down near the studio and was friends with Paul Lilly who ran it and asked me whether I’d like to go down there to record. It was Paul then who knew the other musicians who are on the record, except my very good pal Paul Tiernan, who’s from Dublin originally, but was then living down in the area. It all came together very quickly and quite organically.”
I ask Fraser if he had a clear idea of the sound he was after, or whether the players shaped the results and he admits, “My original idea was to make something quite electronic, somewhere between Portishead and Pink Floyd. But the truth is that I’ve met control freaks in my life and I’ve never got on with them, I’d much rather let things go with the flow. So when Paul started saying I know this guy and this guy and I’m sure they’d like to be in on it, we started to come up with this plan to record very much in the way the record might have been made back in the 70s, with players who were around back then.” He laughs, “The cumulative age of the record was something like 473. I was by far and away the youngest person on the album.”
The sound of Little Glass Box is quite brilliant, in no small part down to the musicians involved and I tell Fraser about my own pleasure in the instrumental mix and the little details that light up the record. He replies, “It’s funny because I’ve no idea what it sounds like in that way. For me all of the sound came out of the friendships and bonds that we formed as musicians in the studio. When I hear it I just have these little memories of things that happened at the time.”
Fraser admits that his touchstones are from that classic 70s era like Joni, John Martyn, James Taylor who have made their presence felt in the warm tones and the classic mix of Max Middleton’s Rhodes piano, Danny’s double bass, with the overlay of a sublime horn from former Ronnie Scott sideman Dick Pearce, with the underlay of Martin Ditcham’s subtle percussion. It really is a superb sound, but one that Fraser admits is too expensive to tour.
Instead he has a new line up and new material in the works as he reveals, “The next album is written and I have a gig in Edinburgh next week that’s already sold out, but it’s with the new band who I hope will be on the recording. It’s great because there are a couple of old pals of mine that I went to music college with in Perth.” He reminisces, “I actually made my first start with Dougie McLean and at the time I probably didn’t appreciate just how good that was and how good the musicians I had around me were. We did some huge gigs and we travelled all over the world and now I’ve come to realise that those guys were as good as anyone out there. So it’s really lovely to be able to go full circle and get back to playing with some of those guys”
Finally Fraser acknowledges that he learnt a lot from that time and it was also the start of the dream for him as he tells me, “I used to stand next to him on stage and imagine what it would be like to be standing in his place.”
It’s been an extraordinary journey that Fraser has been on and one that has obviously been fraught with difficulties. The pains and the pleasures of it are what make the songs on Little Glass Box so vivid. But as he said above, there are no regrets and nor should there be. It’s a wonderful record that is finally getting the support it needs, a classic awaiting your discovery and a small triumph for the best of intentions. Don’t let any of that slip away.
Interview by: Simon Holland
Out Now via Membran