October this year saw the release of Breaking the Spell of Loneliness on Fellside Records, a collaboration between author and journalist George Monbiot and Scottish guitarist and balladeer Ewan McLennan.
In 2014 George Monbiot wrote an article for The Guardian in which he argued that humanity is entering an age where lives are governed by consumerism, social isolation is celebrated, and personal goals of wealth and power feed ambition. “’The age of loneliness is killing us’ inspired a BBC documentary on the subject and George received a number of offers to expand on the argument in print. His reaction, however, was to avoid the social oxymoron of a one-man crusade against isolation and find a way to combat the epidemic of loneliness with one of the most unifying forces known to humanity – music.”
The album was a Featured Album of the Month on FRUK (read the review here) and Neil’s summing up of that review was very telling in terms of the impact the album had on him, and many others who have since heard it.
The eloquence of both George Monbiot and Ewan McLennan in raising these issues says far more than any music critic can. Breaking the Spell of Loneliness doesn’t merely tackle the issues raised, it offers solutions; it offers hope. It’s a moving, thought-provoking work that has relevance for all of us.
Ewan and George have been busy touring the album and are due to perform at Kings Place in London on December 3rd as part of ‘Words and Music’, a three-day event curated by Nancy Kerr (details here). They both took some time out to talk to us in more detail about the album; you can read the interview below. For those that have not yet managed to catch them on tour, there are further dates in January and February 2017 (details are at the end of this article).
What first sparked your your interest in the subject of loneliness?
George Monbiot: I have suffered from loneliness at several periods in my life, but it hit me especially hard when I came back from six years working abroad. It took me a couple of years to reconnect and find people who, I felt, understood the person I had become. Since then, the fear of falling back into that state has never really left me. I am haunted by the thought that it might recur in old age. One of the peculiarities of loneliness is that, while you are suffering from it, you believe you are the only one in this position: that everyone else is having a great time and a brilliant family and social life. So when I began to discover that the affliction has reached epidemic proportions, it seemed to me to be important to document it and to assure people that they weren’t alone in their suffering, even if they felt alone in other ways.
How much of a problem is it in the UK?
GM: Britain has been described, drawing on government statistics, as the loneliness capital of Europe. There is a huge problem not just among older people, where it is best known, but now among young adults in particular. It appears to be closely associated with a wide range of mental health disorders, particularly anxiety and social phobias and depression. While there are some excellent NGOs and community groups working on the issue, in common with other aspects of mental health it has received far too little attention from the government. It’s time this changed. It’s time we started taking all aspects of mental health as seriously as we take physical health. After all, it’s not as if the two can be separated, and the level of suffering mental ill-health causes can be even greater than that caused by physical disorders.
How did this project first come about?
Ewan McLennan: The project first came about when George wrote an article for the Guardian on the issue of loneliness and it went viral. He was pretty surprised by the response and, after considering the somewhat isolating and lonely prospect of writing a book on the subject, decided he wanted to focus on the subject in a different way. He approached me with the idea of putting together a collaborative project – one of music and word – that had as its end goal both an album of songs and a tour and it went from there.
What did the collaborative process look like?
EM: The way the collaboration worked is that George would send me over a ‘sketch’ of a narrative that fitted into the overall theme, the age of loneliness. Sometimes these would be almost short stories that I would then distil down into lyrics and a melody; sometimes they would be tighter, in verse form, and I would rearrange them and set them to music. In a couple of cases, they were stories or instrumental pieces of music that I had come up with from scratch myself. But in each case, I would record what I had come up with and send them back to George. Sometimes we got it right pretty quickly, sometimes our narratives/songs would go back and forth between us several times before we were both happy with it.
Does music have a role in bringing social issues to light?
EM: We see this project as being part of a long and rich tradition of songs that touch on social issues and bring them to light. For many centuries folk songs have given a voice to the lives and experiences of ordinary people. As well as speaking of people’s experiences of work, love, community, drinking, and many more facets of ordinary life, the songs have spoken about the injustices people have witnessed and their struggles for a better life. So often these folk songs capture events and emotions that are absent from the scholarly histories we find in textbooks; ones that in fact simply can not be conveyed by these kind of histories. To this day song can and does continue to speak about the world around us, to document the undocumented, and to rail against the injustices of our time.
Breaking the Spell of Loneliness is released 14/10/16 via Fellside Records
Breaking the Spell of Loneliness Tour
3 December Kings Place, London (Ticket Link)
13 January North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford
2 February Eden Court, Inverness
3 February Celtic Connections, Glasgow
4 February The Reid Concert Hall, Edinburgh
5 February The Blue Lamp, Aberdeen
8 February MAC, Birmingham
11 February Aberystwyth Arts Centre
More details here: