Writing songs has not been much celebrated before in Shetland. Many of our best-known and best-loved artists have been interpreters of traditional tunes or of other people’s work. Now though, that seems to be changing.
More and more local acts are performing their own songs today, and a young generation of musicians has been particularly enthusiastic about playing original material.
Shetland Times reporter and occasional singer-songwriter Malachy Tallack has met with three of these young people – Chloe Robertson, Joe Watt and Hannah Hastings – to talk about music, writing and performance.
Growing older is mostly a steady and a subtle process, marked out by flashes of recognition – momentary reminders that time passes quickly, and cannot be regained. Among the most shocking of these reminders is the first time you find yourself uttering that terrible phrase: “When I was your age . . .”
I have spoken those words several times recently, and on each occasion I have cringed inside.
Once upon a time, I was referred to – when I was referred to at all – as “a young singer-songwriter”. Meeting with and speaking to three of today’s young singer-songwriters over the past few weeks, I have felt more like an old man.
When I was their age – 16 or 17, that is – songwriters were rather thin on the ground in Shetland. True, there were a small handful of musicians I knew of who played their own songs, such as Sheila Henderson and Donald Anderson, but as far as my own peers were concerned, writing was considered something of a waste of time. Why bother creating your own songs when you could learn Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit?
There were covers bands galore in the late 1990s. Grunge and then Britpop encouraged enough of my generation to pick up instruments that, for a few years at least, it was possible to hear young people playing live music almost every weekend – in country halls, or in JJ’s at the Herrislea. Not all of these bands were much good (I know, as I played in one myself) but they were there, and that was what mattered.
For more than a decade since then, however, live, contemporary music in Shetland seemed to be floundering. There were highlights, of course, but these were all the more conspicuous due to the lack of competition.
Today, something seems to have changed; contemporary music is thriving again. And at the heart of this reinvigorated music scene are some remarkably talented young people.
Among them are several superb and versatile musicians (Norman Willmore, Max Tyler and Hayden Hook come immediately to mind, but there are plenty more besides). Most excitingly for me, though, is the fact that many of these youngsters excel not just in performing but also in writing their own material. As well as a host of brilliant musicians, Shetland can now claim a growing number of truly excellent young songwriters.
While it would be foolish to try and pinpoint any single reason for this growth, the fact that there now exists a regular opportunity for singer-songwriters to play, listen to others and share ideas is definitely important. And the fact that that opportunity exists is thanks entirely to one of the ‘old guard’: Sheila Duncan née Henderson (I do hope she’ll forgive my use of the word ‘old’ there).
Back in 2011, Sheila launched the first of what was to become a regular ‘singers and songwriters’ event, in Islesburgh. There was considerable interest from the start, and that interest has continued to grow. Now held in Mareel’s cafe, there are usually enough performers at the monthly open-mic nights to provide non-stop music from 7pm until 11pm. Some of them are regulars, often trying out new material, but most months see at least one or two newcomers, sometimes playing for the first time in public.
For Sheila, the impetus to launch the event was pretty simple. “It was something that I had thought about for a while” she tells me, “and other people had mentioned too that there wasn’t something like that going on… Islesburgh was available at that point to get things started, and that kind of kicked it off.
“Since we moved in here [to Mareel] it’s become busier, and there’s more people obviously coming just to listen as well as to be part of it.”
Sheila is clearly delighted with the success of these evenings, and the fact that they now bring in significant number of both listeners and performers.
“I think it’s great to see the range of different people and different styles that come out” she says. “It’s particularly good to see the younger ones that are actually coming regularly and using it as an opportunity to get up there and not just sing their songs but also get a chance to be in front of people performing and honing that skill too.”
Sheila is quite right. One of the most exciting things about these events is the extraordinary mix of music on offer. As well as the ‘traditional’ singer-songwriters – guys and girls with guitars – there are occasional forays onto the cafe’s piano, too, plus well-known local bands playing acoustic sets and one-off collaborations between musicians.
But most refreshing of all has been the number of young people getting up to play their own material each month, and the sheer quality of that material. Chloe Robertson, Joe Watt and Keirryn Topp have all been regulars, and have stood out from the start; Hannah Hastings increasingly so. Others, such as Sarah Thomson, have appeared once in a while, and should do so more often.
These youngsters show not just a desire to go out and perform, but also to try and express themselves in words and music. Each of them is developing their own sound, their own style or styles, and each of them has a rare and a significant talent.
I was delighted these past few weeks to be able to speak to three of them – Chloe, Joe and Hannah – about music and about writing, about what they do and why they do it.
When I was their age, there seemed few chances to play your own songs in front of an audience in Shetland. Now that has changed. Today’s young singer-songwriters are lucky to have the opportunity to perform as regularly as they do; and we are also lucky to have the opportunity to hear them.
The full interviews can be read in The Shetland Times, 21.6.13.
“I don’t really write about negative things” Chloe tells me. “And I don’t really write love songs, or that kind of thing”. Her best known track, Fish Out of Water, which has had regular airplay on SIBC this year, is “more of an anti-love song”, she says.
“They’re all generally about me, because that’s easiest to write about. I don’t really write about set topics very often – just whatever comes to my head.”
Writing provides a way of processing thoughts and emotions, she explains, and of understanding herself more clearly. “Writing a song about something shows you what you think about it better than anything else would” she says. “So it doesn’t really matter what the topics are – it can be something happy or sad – but at least it shows you what you think about it.
“In your unconscious: I think that’s where songs come together”, he tells me. “Usually if I was writing lyrics then I would write them really quickly; but it’s almost as if I’m not writing them, I’m just letting stuff that’s in my subconscious pour out. That’s the way I look at it.”
Lyrics are “the most unconscious part of what I’m doing”, he continues. “The initial seed is an unconscious thing … but the actual development [of the song is conscious]. You don’t make a seed grow, but you do water it. The conscious element is me watering that seed, as you would with anything.”
“I think it’s easier to write a song when you’re in a bad mood or you’re not in a good place” Hannah tells me. “Happy songs are great, but I think songs come easier when you’re going through something. I write about my feelings, and trying to understand them; I write about things that make me angry; I write about people, sometimes. It’s usually stuff that moves me.
“Everybody feels sad sometimes, and I think it’s great if there’s a song that people can relate to and feel less alone when they listen to it. That’s something that’s really important to me.”
However, she continues, “I do sometimes write songs just about ideas. It’s not always just ‘me in a bad mood’”.