Reviewing the first solo album from Gerda Stevenson last week left me wondering about a few points. For someone so immersed in theatre, and with a flourishing career as a writer, writing and recording an album is such a wide departure that it raises a few questions about the influences behind such a venture. Fortunately, Gerda was happy to provide an insight and I was able to interview her about the different paths along which her career has taken her, and where they might lead in the future.
That broad expanse of musical genres on Night Touches Day is one of the most intriguing things about the album. A collection of songs like this doesn’t develop overnight, and I was keen to know whether the idea to write and record an album developed recently, or had it been a long-held ambition?
“I was brought up in a household steeped in music. As a child, the last sound I’d hear every night, going to sleep, would be my father playing the piano downstairs. I’ve always been a singer, and remember my father setting the words of many poets to music. When I was 15 I saved up to buy a guitar and used to sing Joan Baez songs. I loved Joni Mitchell too, and the traveller singers – Jeannie Robertson, Lizzie Higgins – Dad had LPs of their singing.
“As a professional actor, I’ve sung in many theatre productions, at Burns suppers, and poetry readings and writers’ events. I also sang on a Burns TV programme with my sister, Savourna Stevenson, and Dick Gaughan. Despite being asked, I didn’t have any desire to record an album until I started writing my own songs.”
Gerda went on to explain how, after being invited to join her father in the writing of a song to celebrate her local school’s centenary, she eventually took on the task single-handed, and caught the song writing bug.
“I discovered I absolutely loved the song writing process, and I haven’t stopped since!
Once I had a body of songs, I began to think about making a CD. At the same time, while I was writing my songs, I could hear in my mind the sound of potential accompanying instruments. I wanted to create a musical vocabulary that would lend cohesion to the eclectic nature of the songs, and invited musicians I’d worked with before in theatre (Konrad Wiszniewski, Seylan Baxter, James Ross, Rob MacNeacail and Kyrre Slind). All of them are natural collaborators, brilliant musicians and lovely people. As a director, I’m keenly aware of how crucial it is to select a group of people who will blend and communicate creatively, with generosity of spirit. And Inge Thompson just happened to be in Castlesound Studios when I needed some Parisian magic on the first track! With producer Mattie Foulds, Castlesound was the obvious place to record my album – home-from-home, having recorded many BBC Radio drama productions there in the safe hands of the excellent Stuart Hamilton. I was lucky enough to be given some financial support by Creative Scotland.”
With such a varied group of collaborators, the album’s eclecticism would seem to be a foregone conclusion. Gerda, however, doesn’t strike me as someone who will leave things to chance. It’s clear she doesn’t like boundaries, and in her work as an actor, poet, playwright, singer, musician, she seems to embrace as many art forms as she can muster. In Night Touches Day she slips effortlessly between swing, musical theatre and trad. So I wanted to ask her just where the boundaries are in her work?
“I don’t really think about boundaries much in my work. In fact, I get impatient when people insist on boxing things in. All the art forms I practice have always felt to me to be elements of the same process. As children, my brother, sister and I were exposed to many art forms – music, theatre, literature, and painting. I drew and painted, wrote stories and poetry, and I sang and acted in the local amateur dramatics club. My parents made a beautiful puppet theatre for us one Christmas – an adapted clothes-horse, and a whole cast of home made papier mache puppets. Thrilling. I wrote puppet plays, and performed them with a pal at children’s parties locally. So, from childhood, creativity was happening in all directions. In my work the boundaries will be mostly to do with aesthetic choices, and also in working out what the form might be e.g. would this theme be best addressed as a poem, a play, a short story, or a song? Although I’m not sure I tend to ask myself that question quite as consciously as that in the initial stages.”
This, of course, begs the question of whether there’s always an element of clarity about which direction your art (written or performed) will take you, or if there are usually surprises along the way?
“One of my radio plays, ‘The Apple Tree’, started out as a poem, ‘How To Tell Him’, which I then developed into a short story, which in turn became that radio play. I didn’t plan this when I wrote the poem. The story and the theme just seemed to develop naturally into several incarnations. I have an idea at the moment (well, I’ve got lots!), which started out as a short story, and became a play, and I think it might become a song, or a series of songs… and I have another idea that’s forming at the back of my mind, partly because of the musicians I’ve been working with, and partly because of a monologue I wrote a while ago that has a rhyming kind of rap structure – a political/environmental theme – and I’m imagining that it could be part of a bigger song/poem cycle, which could combine spoken word and song, as well as instrumental sections… but at this stage of such an idea, I always feel like an animal picking up a scent, not entirely sure what it is, but I have to follow it. So, yes – there will definitely be surprises on the journey! That’s the way art works – it’s unpredictable. Of course, you have to hone your technique, but the imagination takes you deep down into extraordinary, unforeseen places. This is why the artist’s practice is incompatible with the business model, despite what many politicians and arts consultants frequently preach.”
Your song writing is rich with poetry, which makes sense given your work as a poet. When you’re writing, do you specifically set out to write songs or poetry, or is it more a case of the words forming in your mind as either?
“That’s a really interesting question. I think I usually know quite soon whether it’s a poem or a song that’s on its way. One of my songs, ‘Auld Wumman’s Sang’, started out as a poem, and when I was finalising my poetry collection for publication, I just couldn’t get that poem to work – it seemed unformed, struggling to find itself, and I suddenly realized that it wasn’t a poem at all, it was a song. So I rewrote it as the song it is now, and didn’t include it as part of my poetry collection.
“I recall an instance when I sang ‘I Come To You’ at an event, and someone in the audience asked me if he could include that song in a poetry collection he was editing. I was delighted, but warned him that it was never a poem, had always been a song, and that it might not work on the page, without the melody. Some months later he e-mailed me to say that in looking over the anthology, ‘I Come To You’ was not as he’d remembered it, and he’d decided not to include it. He was right, of course – it certainly wasn’t as he’d remembered it, with half its heart cut out!
“I know that many musicians have set poets’ words to music, and in those cases, the text was written as a poem, and intended to be just that, before it ever became a song. Sorley MacLean, the late, great Gaelic poet, used to say that the finest ballads feel as if the music and the words have been spontaneously created together, in the same moment. And I know what he meant. Robert Burns sometimes used to hear a great tune, and then would write the words to it. With me, I usually write the words of my songs first, and then create a melody. But there are a few songs on my album where I created the words and music at the same time, they just seemed to come together – ‘Astronaut’s Waltz’, ‘It’s Ower’, and ‘Aye the Gean’.”
Which brings us neatly to the matter of the themes that inspire Gerda’s song writing. Travel and nature are recurring themes in her songs, does the same apply to her poetry?
“Yes, but not entirely. I do write a lot about nature in both my poetry and my songs. I come from a very rural part of the Scottish Borders, the beautiful Pentland Hills, and spent most of my childhood in that landscape, in those hills, the woods, plowtering about in burns. I’ve lived in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London, but have returned to live in the area where I grew up. I’ve written more about travel in my songs and my stage plays than I have in my poetry. Other countries do appear in my poetry, though, particularly in those poems which deal with the theme of war. I’ve written quite a lot about war in my poetry and drama.
“The travel theme in my songs so far actually stemmed from a deliberate idea to create a little triptych of travel songs – travelling in my imagination, not actually getting to those places, and I wanted them to be playful, with that Cole Porter kind of delicious playfulness. Porter was such a brilliant wordsmith – the way his lyrics and melodies twist and swirl and coalesce in the most exquisite little eddies has always thrilled me.”
I wanted to return to the topic of those musical connections in Gerda’s theatrical career. Recently In GRIT – The Martyn Bennett Story, Gerda delivered memorable performances as (among others) Martyn’s mother, Margaret, and Sheila Stewart. There was a passion in that performance that said far more than the lines in the script. I wondered if Gerda was familiar with Martyn and his work before the show came along?
“Yes – I knew Martyn when he was a student, when I got to know Margaret Bennett (sadly, I never met Sheila Stewart). I was invited to sing at the School of Scottish Studies, Edinburgh University, where Margaret was working. Also, Margaret comes from the same village on the Isle of Skye as my husband – Uig – and he and Margaret have known each other for a very long time. I employed Martyn when he was a student, to accompany Rod Paterson and me in a radio programme for BBC Radio Scotland – ‘The Story and the Song’. It was a story-telling series, and the music was as much a part of the story-telling as the actual words, which were spoken by actors. I got the idea of how to approach the series from the great traveller tradition bearer, Stanley Robertson (Jeannie Robertson’s nephew). Stanley told me that, as a wee lad, when his own mother sang the ballad ‘Tam Lin’ to him, she would sing a few verses, then speak the next bit of the story, then sing a few more verses, then tell more of the story, and so on, until the end. He said it was great, that this variety made it very dynamic. And Stanley was right – a great way of story-telling. So that’s how I produced the series – I chose 25 songs from all over Scotland – supernatural songs, work songs, street songs, etc, commissioned wonderful writers to write the stories, terrific actors tell them, and fine musicians like Sheena Wellington, Jim Sutherland, The Easy Club, Peter Nardini, Dick Lee, Hamish Moor, Sileas, Arthur Cormack, oh, so many, and Martyn. He accompanied Rod and me, with viola and keyboards, on the Orcadian song ‘The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry’. And Rod said: “Who is that lad, Gerda? He’s brilliant!” My brother, the violin maker and restorer Gordon Stevenson, who for years ran the Eclectic record label, produced Martyn’s first album.”
So, with music such an important aspect of her career, it’s no great surprise to learn that Night Touches Day isn’t Gerda’s only musical outlet. She also performs with Patsy Seddon and Kathy Stewart as The Madge Wildfire Trio. Is the music in a similar vein?
“With Madge Wildfire Trio we do some of Kathy Stewart’s songs, a few of my own, and the rest are covers – a wide variety, very eclectic, including Davy Steele, Andy M. Stewart, and some really funny, entertaining material, by the wonderful Adam McNaughton, and that great unsung Scots singer/songwriter heroine of mine, Nancy Nicolson. Kathy’s a New Yorker, and comes from a kind of country/Americana tradition, with her own beautifully crafted, highly individual, subtle twist to everything she writes – she’s currently making her third album. We do a lot of three part harmony, great fun!, and back each other on various songs.”
All this fascinating background information does a lot to help explain the variety of styles, themes and moods that come together so successfully in Night Touches Day. All that’s left to find out, really, is whether there are any plans to take the album to a Live audience?
“Yes – I have a few gigs lined up with the wonderful musicians who play on the album (see dates below).
“There’s may be a gig for Penicuik Arts Association at the end of March, and I’m also hoping to do some gigs on the Edinburgh Fringe this year.
“And Kyrre Slind, the wonderful Norwegian multi-instrumentalist on the album has plans to get us a gig at an amazing midsummer festival high in the mountains of Norway, above a fjord. Which sounds like the ultimate performance location to me!”
Interview by: Neil McFadyen
Thursday 22nd January at The Acoustic Music Club, Kirkaldy (in the Polish Club), 7.30pm www.kirkcaldyacousticmusicclub.co.uk/forthcoming-attractions
Saturday 24th January: St. Boswell’s Live, 7.30pm stboswellslive.wordpress.com
Wednesday 28th January, supporting Bonnie Dobson at Celtic Connections, National Piping Centre, 8.00pm https://www.list.co.uk/event/442680-bonnie-dobson-and-gerda-stevenson/
And Friday 13th February, 7.30pm, at Sabhal Mor Ostaig on the Isle of Skye, organized by Seal. www.seall.co.uk