In 2014, I started writing about the process of recording some songs with the intention of making an album. The project that I started documenting back then has grown arms and legs and morphed into a multi-headed beast (more about that some other time). I’ve taken several detours along the way, but the one that means the most is about to get a proper release on an actual record label, something I had barely even considered as a possibility when I started out.
My dad was born in 1940. In his early twenties, he was part of the Bob Dylan generation and his devotion to that cause is overwhelmingly reflected in his record collection, but he was also influenced by Scottish folk artists like Hamish Imlach and Matt McGinn. He played guitar and wrote his own songs and it’s clear that my interest and passion for music is inherited from him. He loved playing, but -apart from family parties- he never performed in public. His three kids, at some point or another, all ended up playing in bands, so I suppose we took his musical interests just a little bit further.
Having worked into his seventies, he had often seemed weighed down in recent years by the responsibilities of looking after our ailing mum. As she became more and more reluctant (and less able) to leave the house, it started to look like dad’s health and well-being would best be served by giving him opportunities to get out and about. From a selfish point of view, that allowed me to re-connect with him through music and our getting 'out and about’ involved taking in shows by the likes of Don McLean, Joan Armatrading, Paul Carrack, Ray Davies, Lucinda Williams and Sheryl Crow.
One night in the spring of 2016, he handed me a CD with some of his own songs on it. It came as a bit of a surprise, because, wrapped up in my own stuff, I had somehow overlooked the possibility that this quiet and unassuming man who looked after my mum might still feel the need to express himself through the medium of song. As a self-absorbed nitwit, it hadn’t occurred to me that dad might still be writing or thinking about music in his mid-70s. I took his CD home. I really, really wanted it to be good, but there was a small, cowardly part of me that dreaded the possibility that it might not be. How could I possibly have responded to that? What could I have said? But that small cowardly part was worrying for no good reason; the rational part of me knew that dad’s stuff would be good. I had, after all, heard him around the house often enough when I was a kid. I knew that he could write songs and he could sing. And, once I started working my way through his CD, I knew that we had to record his songs. We had to make an album together.
Like all great ideas, once it was out there it seemed so obvious that I cursed myself for not thinking of it sooner. When I ran it past him, his first response, as I expected, was to shy away from the possibility of being put in the spotlight. He seemed a bit reluctant and said: “I don’t know if I could do that”. My dad had been a musician since his teenage years, but had never played gigs or made a big deal out of his talent. His public performances extended only to strumming the guitar at gatherings with family and friends and I knew that it would take a bit of persuading to get him into a recording studio. Once he had warmed to the notion, we discussed whether it was going to be a singer-songwriter album, that is, him sitting in front of a microphone strumming his guitar, or whether it was going to be something else. I pushed gently for ‘something else’ because I felt that his songs deserved to sound much bigger and better than any of the home recordings he had made. His original demos had a charm of their own, but I knew that he had material that could comfortably thrive in a grander soundscape.
While working on the arrangements, I had to keep in mind that we had different tastes in music. I enjoy lush sounding recordings with interesting textures and love discovering hidden details and subtle layers in the mix; by contrast, my dad generally prefers things a bit simpler. He’s an old-school songwriter and he likes recordings and songs to be about performances but, as a ‘jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none’ kind of musician, I’m almost entirely dependent on studio manipulation and clever editing techniques. I could no more play a decent guitar solo than I could build a car from cutlery, but I’m reasonably au fait with the technology that makes it sound like I am getting away with it. I learned a lot from working on his material. Although some of the songs we recorded are more than fifty years old, the themes are still relevant, perhaps even topical, in 2018: prejudice, legal injustice, the follies of war, love and regret. My dad is a better writer than me in the sense that he’s got a purer sense of what a song is. My songs are often high on artifice, coquettish little creatures that flirt with my various musical influences; by contrast, his stuff goes directly to message central with an emotional heft that I don’t think I can match.
Once the recording process was underway, my brother got involved. Although he lives in London (as does his drum kit), we usually managed to arrange our sessions to coincide with his visits to Glasgow. Other musicians were recruited to the cause as we started to pull the collection together. Two of the songs on the album feature contributions from a man who has written an actual number one hit single. Danny Mitchell wrote ‘If I was’ for Midge Ure, which topped the charts in 1986. My brother knows Danny (who now runs a studio in Glasgow) and told him that we were working on this project. He expressed an interest in getting involved and, within a couple of weeks of being sent some rough mixes, he had recorded some lovely pedal steel guitar and mandolin. Through the miracle of electronic mail, he sent us the parts and we were able to drop his tasteful and appropriate contributions into our recordings.
During the dialogue about which songs we’d be recording for the album, I got used to the idea that my visits to the family house would occasionally feature some little moment when dad would pull an old cassette tape from a drawer and say something like: “do you think we could maybe do something with this one?”
On one such occasion, as the tape hiss gave way to the opening chords of another long-neglected tune, I was instantly returned to my childhood, anticipating the words and melody of something that I hadn’t heard for many years. He had written a song about the disaster that befell the village school at Aberfan and his opening lines summarise the story far better than I could ever do.
21st October 1966
A whole mountain moved, became unfixed
A whole mountain moved, it was made by man
Moved half a mile down on the school at Aberfan.
I hadn’t heard or thought about that song for such a long time, but I knew it entirely, a song that my dad had sung as he sat and strummed his guitar while his three kids probably ran around the house creating merry hell and knocking lumps out of each other. And that’s what made me a singer and a songwriter; my dad modelled that behaviour for me. Years later, I ended up doing the same thing, sitting strumming an acoustic guitar while my own kids painted murals on the furniture, dressed the baby in drag or built an alien ship out of chairs and tables (sometimes all at once). I still write songs and I still get something spiritual and uplifting from the process of making music. That is one of the things I’ve tried to explain as I’ve been writing about recording my own albums; working on music is soul food and, when I do it, I’m doing it for me; except, in this case, that’s only part of the story.
Towards the end of the recording process, we spoke about how we might promote the work. With typical modesty, dad insisted on not using his own name on the album cover, saying that it was “too much like blowing your own trumpet”. We eventually managed to reach a compromise by using his initials and surname. We also struggled to come up with an appropriate album title until, late in the day, while browsing through some photographs of post-war Glasgow, we came across a picture of two old ladies chatting in the street with the caption: ‘This has been me since yesterday’; we knew there and then that we had hit the jackpot. For those unfamiliar with the Glasgow vernacular, this is a phrase –once quoted in a sketch by Billy Connolly- that was formerly in common usage. It was the kind of line that might be used by two people (usually women) meeting on the street, each comparing notes on how busy they have been. “This has been me since yesterday” one might say, to be countered by “Aye, I’ve not sat down since I got up”.
The phrase tickled my dad and I think it spoke to his sense of being a proud Glaswegian.
During the time we spent recording this album, tragedy and trauma visited our family. After a long period of illness, our mother died in the summer of 2017 and so never got to hear the final fruit of our labours. I’m sure, however, that she would have been quietly pleased that -at the age of 77- dad’s music was finally getting a well-deserved public airing.
Her death had a big impact on him and, in the following weeks and months, we began to suspect that all was not well. Having devoted several years to being mum’s primary carer, it became apparent that the absence of the attendant daily routines had revealed issues with his mental health. No longer anchored by his caring duties, he became prone to lapses that appeared to signal something rather more significant than the forgetfulness one might normally expect from a man of his age. Towards the end of the recording process, it was obvious that he was adrift and that his abilities were diminished. After a number of distressing episodes, we discovered that he was succumbing to Lewy Body Dementia (LBD), a progressive brain disorder which impacts on behaviour, cognition, and movement. LBD presents itself through a range of symptoms, including problems with memory, thinking and visual hallucinations. One of its characteristics is that it can become rapidly debilitating and, just a few weeks after our last recording session in September 2017, he had deteriorated to the point where he required full-time nursing care.
After a few months concentrating on dad’s welfare and other family stuff, I started approaching record companies with a view to gauging interest in what I thought was an excellent album and a great story. How many times, after all, does someone make their recording debut at the age of 77? The fact that this story had an unfortunate sting in the tail made the prospect of an official release all the more poignant. When I told my dad that Ian Green at Greentrax Records had expressed a firm interest in releasing the album, he was chuffed. I know that when we started out, he would happily have settled for running off 30 or so copies to distribute among relatives and friends. He’s still inclined to hide his light under a bushel and I’m sure there is a part of him that can’t quite believe that anyone outside his immediate social circle could be interested in his songs.
My recording journey has been fulfilling and I hope it’s not over, but I doubt that I will find another highlight to match sitting in a recording studio with my dad, polishing up his songs, working out harmonies and considering whether that drum roll going into the second chorus is making too much of a statement.
He might not be in the best position to enjoy whatever interest will now be generated by his recording debut, but we know at least that our dad had a great time working on his album. It may have been half a century in the making, but some things are worth taking your time over.
‘This has been me since yesterday’ is released by Greentrax Records on 1st May.
You'll find some samples from the album here: https://soundcloud.com/acweir