There are few bands who would consider The Internationale as suitable fare for a debut album, fewer still who would consider that it might benefit from a new tune. In fact the number quickly whittles down to one and that band is Clype, the newly formed partnership between Salsa Celtica’s piano maestro Simon Gall and fiddler Jonny Hardie, of Old Blind Dog repute. But then it just works and furthermore, fits so well into their eponymous debut album that it looks less like a simple chin-out stance and more like the kind of strategic feint that will draw you in, before leaving you floored with clever counterpunches of high ideals married to sweeping melody, as part of a highly developed credo, built solidly enough to withstand robust examination. Once you get onto the wavelength, you realise it’s also at heart of some of the smartest, sharpest songwriting you could wish for. Clype’s debut album is, therefore, a feel-good record in more ways than one.
Having already interviewed Simon Gall, I find myself on the phone to him again to flesh out the story of Clype. “We’ve know each other for quite some time as we’re both from the north east and Aberdeen, or Aberdeenshire,” Simon explains, “So our paths have often crossed. I wanted to do something that was folky, but also with that North East character and the only person I could think of who had combined that with the accomplishment that I was after was Jonny.” It all sounds quite straightforward, but Simon continues, “But what actually got us together was a grant from Aberdeen City Council.”
The Council do indeed get a credit on the CD and Simon explains more, “Each year the Council give out five bursaries under the banner of Made In Aberdeen and I successfully applied for one. As part of the application process they ask how it will help develop you as an artist and I told them I intended to tap Jonny’s extensive knowledge of local folk styles, song formats, ornaments and so forth. But when we got together and I played Jonny the demos, he was really into it and more than happy to get involved in the project.”
I’m actually talking to Simon as he’s waiting for the artist catering to serve his meal at the HebCelt Festival on Lewis. He’s there with Salsa Celtica, for whom he has played piano and sung backing vocals for some years, certainly his main band until his hook up with Jonny. There’s method here though, as anyone who knows Salsa Celtica will appreciate their main function is to give people a good time, which they do very well. With Clype, however, Simon is after something else, a chance to revive his songwriting skills and integrate them with his wider philosophy of music and politics.
Having taken to the fiddle as a child Jonny Hardie eventually studied viola at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester. On completing his studies he returned to Aberdeenshire and formed the much-feted Old Blind Dogs, who have maintained a unique North Eastern voice in the Scottish folk scene for the best part of 25 years. Their songs have drawn from the local Doric dialect, from which the name Clype, meaning ‘tell-tale’ is plucked, but also included influences from around the wider world of musical styles and rhythms. Jonny is also the man with the home studio set up, enabling the recording to take place fairly easily.
Simon admits that most of the songs were already shaped by the time Jonny got involved and that in part comes from a workshop at Aberdeen University under the watchful eye and highly attuned ear of Richard Thompson. Coincidentally, I’ve just interviewed Richard about his latest album and he remembers them well, having readily offered up a quotable endorsement in an email exchange with Simon after the event. Simon attended the sessions with Clype’s significant other, Jenny Sturgeon, who guests on vocals and Shruti box on three songs, one of which she has written with Simon. The only other player is Ross Ainslee, who plays low whistle on one track.
Simon has already explained his modus operandi thus, “I suppose I should say that first and foremost I’m really interested in taking big intellectual ideas and putting them into music, or art in general and making them more digestible for people, who perhaps don’t have the time to read all of those big long books.” He lives up to that promise with the opener, which distils one of the central tenets of Edward Said’s Orientalism into a wonderful song. The words echo the point that our Western civilisation actually has a poor understanding of the Middle East and beyond. In these media driven days especially, The Brush That Paints Us All, does so in broad strokes and without subtlety. It’s a clever piece of writing nonetheless as Simon captures a highly evocative image himself in the lines, “Why do I look angry? And why do my clothes look old? Was there a pitchfork in the corner and there a shotgun on the wall?”
There are hints too of the unusual chord voicing, the so called ‘So What’ chords and the ambiguous voicings that he talked about in our last interview. That said the intro has a lovely minor melancholy about it that Jonny’s fiddle picks up with a lilting line. The two instruments work brilliantly well together and you quickly get the sense of Simon’s remarkable musical feel to match the political and philosophical perception.
Other things are less obviously derived from source material but there’s still plenty to get your teeth into. “Down, down, down with May and onto June,” goes the refrain of Down With May. It’s unlikely that Simon has anything against the month and is urging on the season, however, as the verses delight in painting a picture of a wicked, “Old grey May.” The track skips along with Simon’s left hand providing the drive and his right a steady pulsing chord on piano, while the fiddle cavorts in and around and Jenny adds harmony. The target is our Home Secretary as Simon sings, “Her old hook nose can smell tenderness from miles, She was a wiper of smiles,” He has good reason too. Theresa May has come between Simon and his Venezuelan born wife, who had to return to her homeland, because the Home office has deemed earnings the measure of couple’s right to live together in the UK. The injustice is palpable and my eyes filled as my blood boiled, as Simon explained their story.
Red Tide is another immediately evocative title, it has a heavier, weightier pace too. The opening image of, “A weightless body drifting, On a red tide far from home, As turquoise turns to black,” however, turns the focus from the McCarthyite threat to thoughts of the slave trade and the bodies thrown overboard, often for the insurance. There is also a hint of something that threatens an Armageddon in there, sucking the very life and poisoning land and sea. Imperial Zeal is an equally loaded title, but is actually more about the ways that dominant cultures hold sway. Why, for example, do Scots and English artists often sing with American accents?
As well as songs of dislocation and distorted visions, however, there are songs of home and more fundamentally love. Far Drawin’ In is co-written by Jenny and Simon and is a beautiful song, with a misty and perhaps slightly sombre note of the swifts having parted with the weather on the turn. But with it comes a sense of place and also a promise, “But the morning light breaks through the haar,
The warmth negates the coldness.” The vibrant Now My Home is about the nurturing power of love and slips into Spanish to reflect the close bonds, sadly pulled apart, between Simon and his Venezuelan wife.
But then there are two further songs that draw directly from other’s texts. The album’s closing song is an adaptation of a Hilda Meers’ poem. She was a peace campaigner and political activist who lived to a ripe old 90 and kept campaigning all of her life and Simon met her and won her approval to adapt Double Trouble, which focuses on the Middle East, where we started the record, in the lines, “Tripoli and Benghazi, Names remembered from World War II, Resurface to remind me, As wartime’s wounds renew.” She heard and also thoroughly approved of the demo but sadly died before the final version was finished.
The other is where we came in, The Internationale. It’s interesting to hear Simon talk about deciding to rewrite the tune for it. He’s aware that as an anthem the song is an everyman rallying cry, adopted by the left wing around the world, worrying that adding a form of new authorship might detract from that. It displays a sensitivity that also comes across in the tune that Simon has written, this version comes across as a thoughtful, slightly romantic, sit down, listen and absorb song. As socialist ideals, at least in the UK, seem so thoroughly browbeaten it seems an appropriate response.
Perhaps a period of gentle simmering might be more purposeful than a constant, rolling boil. We can all rage, but those who shout have often run out of words, even though the fight should not be surrendered, in any way. The dominant ideologues of today are bloated with their own worth and wealth, so the more tin tacks the rest of us can pick up, the better the chance of a puncture. Clype can give you a pocketful. Moreover, I can see many rallying to the banner that this record holds aloft, simply because it’s such elegant, wonderfully played music, channelling well-formed rhetoric, of the sort that favours conversation over bloody-minded brandishment. Mind you, come the glorious day…
Review by: Simon Holland
Clype is released 24 July 2015
Order it via Bandcamp here
Don’t miss their Album Launch on 23 July 7.30pm at The Blue Lamp, Aberdeen (free entry).
Find out more here: http://www.clypemusic.com/