I first met Alan McClure over 10 years ago when I read a review of a CD from an upcoming trio called The Geese. I quickly bought a copy and was rewarded with a selection of songs that combined wit, insight and enthusiasm with great tunes and memorable choruses. The acoustic band was quickly booked for my infant Kirkmahoe Concerts series, where one spring evening they delighted a small but discerning audience in Dalswinton Hall. That evening I had a feeling much more would emerge from The Geese over time, and perhaps not least from their main songwriter – Alan himself.
Thereafter The Geese became The Razorbills. They went electric, played at festivals, opened shows for the iconic Trembling Bells and gained a measure of fame, whilst staying anchored in their day jobs. When I started a series of open-mic events at Kirkmahoe, Alan was an obvious choice for the invited second half, entertaining the enthusiastic crowd with his stories, poems, songs and gently probing humour.
Over the years Alan has widened his creative field of activity, as you can read here in his fascinating interview. This month also sees the launch of his latest, eagerly awaited, children’s novel, Callum and the Other. I hope you enjoy reading this in-depth account from a person of boundless energy and invention and if you don’t know his work already, take the opportunity to dig into his remarkable miscellany of songs, stories, poems, podcasts and much more!
1. Where were you born and raised – and was the creative spirit part of your family background, in the genes so to speak?
I grew up in Aberdeen with my folks and two older brothers. The house was (and still is) lined with books, reflecting my parents’ many interests and academic pursuits – they’re both intellectually curious people and we had books on history, travel, linguistics, geography, art, anything you can think of. The one room that wasn’t full of books was my brother Bruce’s – his was full of cassettes and LPs spanning a pretty decent swathe of 20th century popular music. If I ever heard a band on the radio that I liked, I could be pretty sure Bruce would have some of their albums and a wealth of fascinating facts about them! Bruce also blazed a trail in terms of performing music – he’s a good keyboard and bass player and was in bands as a teenager, writing and performing original material. Ewan, my middle brother, has been fascinated with art since he was about 12 – he started out experimenting with oil paints in the attic, then converted his room to a studio, and was quite willing to commandeer any space in the house in pursuit of his next masterpiece! He’s now a painter of repute, so his focus and dedication was entirely justified. I suppose I chose wordplay as my particular niche, albeit unconsciously, inspired by my uncles and my maternal grandfather, and later on combined this with music when the song-writing bug kicked in.
2. Teaching seems to have been an important aspect of your adult life. What sort of teacher are you and what do you enjoy most about it?
I’m the kind of teacher who clearly remembers being a kid. Not sure if that’s a huge advantage, but I think it’s helped me to avoid slipping into an overly authoritarian approach. The best days in class are the ones when it feels as if everyone is on a trip of discovery together, and there’s no question that my pupils have taught me more than I could have imagined. It’s an incredibly grounding job which has hugely increased my regard for the human race – you start to see the child in everyone, and recognise that no-one comes either to success or failure on their own. We’re all part of a continuum, the sum of our shared experiences, and we all start out with the potential for genuine goodness. I think this has largely cured me of being particularly judgemental, and it’s my sincere hope that my pupils recognise the fact that they’ll never run out of chances in my class.
3. I first got to know you through your involvement with a band called The Geese. When did your interest in song writing begin, and how has it developed over the years?
I was lucky to be a teenager in the mid 90s, when Britpop was ascendant and music looked like the best possible way to have fun with a bunch of pals. I had a nice circle of friends but they weren’t as obsessive about music as me: I had a habit of fixating on songs and bands, studying the influences of groups I liked and going back to the source. Oasis and Blur got me into the Beatles and the Kinks, and from there to Dylan, and from Dylan to Bert Jansch… I was the lad at parties sitting in the corner reading CD liner notes instead of dancing to Whigfield. My cousin Ross was the only person that shared this fascination, but he lived in Stranraer so comparing notes about our latest discoveries was confined to phone calls. Then, when I went to Aberdeen Uni, I met Ian Simpson, a friend-of-a-friend who had already started writing his own songs. He was completely different from most of my pals, very self-composed and unconcerned with fitting in. We had one of those lovely, instant connections – friends for life after our first meeting. I got my first guitar at seventeen, a Christmas present from my folks, and the only reason I wanted one was so I could write songs like Ian. He was incredibly encouraging, listening patiently to my first, fumbling two-chord dirges, and it went without saying that we would write and perform together. Pretty soon cousin Ross moved up to Aberdeen, along with his sister Victoria (herself a talented artist and music enthusiast), and he joined me and Ian to form The Beaker People. We were a ludicrously prolific and musically ambitious trio and composing and playing together set the standard for all my future musical endeavours.
I’ve had lovely musical adventures in Hull, where my wife Michelle is from. There’s a huge pool of talent there and a generosity of spirit which breeds collaborations and nights of wild hilarity. I’ve recorded a couple of albums down there with friends like Dave Gawthorpe and Andy Swift and I love the cross-fertilisation of styles that’s on offer – folk bands hang out with salsa bands, jazz sits comfortably with indie-rock, and everyone enjoys a good old shindig. There’s no fussiness or snobbery on show, just a love of music and camaraderie.
When I moved down to Galloway with Michelle and our firstborn, Fergus, we fell in with the Gatehouse session community which included some super songwriters and excellent, welcoming folk. Harry Thomson’s particular brand of cynical, singalong folk-punk chimed with where my head was at, and we formed The Geese, which became The Razorbills. Great times were had by all …
4. What are your major musical influences? What are you listening to at the moment?
My main influences are the friends I’ve mentioned here, because they’ve been the folk who’ve heard songs as they develop and who have helped to shape their direction. I listen to a lot of music but I very seldom actively try to emulate the bands I listen to. That said, I’m certainly inspired by The Beatles’ work ethic and reluctance to repeat themselves; Leonard Cohen’s brutal, self-eviscerating honesty; Dylan’s hallucinogenic wordplay; King Creosote’s spirit of collaboration and gentle good-humour; and The Incredible String Band’s joyful embrace of all things spiritual, mythic and magical.
Right now I’m listening to a King Crimson concert from 1982 and finding it compelling!
5. Alongside song, you also have an interest in poetry and story telling. Can you tell me the story of how that came about?
Poetry’s a funny one – I was just out a walk one day, taking a breather and gazing out across the Solway, when I was assailed by three poems which arrived fully formed from a space that was recognizably different from the source of my songs. Genuinely, from one minute to the next I remember thinking, “Oh, right, I’m a poet now.” I got a poem a day for the next few weeks, they just kept coming, and that was that. I’m nowhere near as confident in them as I am in my songs. Song writing is a craft I’ve properly worked on alongside people I love, while the poems just arrive, but they’re all the more exciting for that. I enjoy interspersing songs with poems at gigs, partly because it gives a show a bit of variety and partly because lyrics often get lost in a song while folk tend to lend a more attentive ear to a spoken word piece. They’re also a good way to smuggle jokes into a gig. I’m very lucky to live in Gatehouse, where The Bakehouse is a hotbed of poetic brilliance and I’ve heard work from some of the most inventive, scurrilous and hilarious poets working in Scots and English today.
Storytelling came with parenthood, really – bedtime stories for the boys. My folks gave us that gift when my brothers and I were wee and the chance to pass that on to my two was not to be missed. It’s such a beautiful way to close a day. I do think storytelling is quite primordial, it’s a human birthright, and no matter how tech-savvy and digitally-native kids are today I’ve never met a group who won’t sit entranced at a good tale. Not to get too mystical with it, but if a story’s going well the barrier between teller and listener dissolves, and everyone present is in thrall to the strange human compulsion to create meaning from the world around us.
6. You’ve written a successful children’s book and the sequel is on its way. what has drawn you to writing for children, and how do you go about it?
I’m not exactly sure: obviously having my own children and teaching kids have both played a part, and my youthful protagonists have tended to fall into the age group I’ve been teaching at the time. I don’t really write for children per se, I write stories which are best expressed with a child’s-eye view, where adventure is present in everyday circumstances and everything, from fear to delight to abject silliness, is deeply felt and important. I have set myself the challenge of writing books which can be enjoyed on a superficial level but which contain enough depth to linger long after they’re finished – only time will tell whether I’ve succeeded or not! There’s also the luxury of being able to create fantastical events which will be accepted at face-value – young readers don’t often over-think a story, what’s important is whether or not they’re enjoying it. That allows me to write an animistic world without the need for pages of exposition, whereby the landscape can become a character in the story and the young reader understands that without really worrying about why.
7. You’ve also become engaged with the world of podcast. What are the attractions of that medium and what skills have you had to learn to work in it?
I’ve loved audiobooks since I was very young. When I was about seven or eight, the Storyteller series was published by Marshall Cavendish. It was a fortnightly magazine and cassette featuring stories from around the world, read by folk like Derek Jacobi and Miriam Margolyes, and I absolutely loved it – I was completely transported and would sit listening and drawing quite happily for hours. The notion of creating a sonic world like that has been an ambition for a while, and when lockdown came along recording stories felt like a reasonable substitute for live performances. The first iteration of this came with my You Tube channel, Tales Fae the Shed, but then my pal Susi Briggs reminded me that we’d always planned to revive a storytelling partnership we’d enjoyed in the early 2010s, and a podcast seemed a good way to try it. So it’s a culmination of a few threads – it’s encouraged me to write a bunch of new tales, and Susi to adapt a lot of traditional stories; it’s mainly in accessible Scots, so I’ve had to brush-up on some childhood vocabulary and familiarise myself with the excellent contemporary canon; and I’ve had to hone my compositional and production skills as I create the incidental music and soundscapes. We intended to make one episode as a proof-of-concept, but it was instantly so much fun that we’ve just carried on. We’re currently working on Episode 10, though it’s harder to find the time as the world opens up again – each episode takes me over thirty hours to produce and we’re not funded, so it’s a labour of love which can’t always fit into an increasingly busy schedule. I do want it to continue – I’m really proud of what we’ve produced so far, all the more so for the fact that it’s entirely home-made and free for anyone who’d like to listen.
8. ‘Prolific’ is a word that hardly begins to describe you. Tell me about your creative world, where the energy comes from and what you are working towards.
I think the honest and not terribly honourable answer is that I have a certain need for affirmation, and creating and sharing work has always seemed the quickest way to get it. It so happens that I also have a fairly restless mind and I can lose interest in things I’ve done almost as soon as I’ve done them. This means that resting on my laurels, such as they are, isn’t really an option – I’ve got to get onto the next thing, get that finished and out there. I wish I could do this entirely for its own sake, and on good days I can, but I’ve a slightly depressive streak and when that rears its head my main feelings about my work are bitterness at a lack of recognition and frustration at never having done enough. I’m getting better at avoiding these pitfalls as I get older: I’m now more likely to approach a project with a view to seeing what I can learn from it, rather than with pipe-dreams of applause and rewards. It would be nice not to care at all about ever sharing an idea, but at the same time it can be cheering, on bleak days, to realise that there is a body of work there to be stumbled upon, and it’s not really like anyone else’s, as far as I know.
9. You have been living in Dumfries and Galloway for some time now. How important is ‘place’ to your creative life and your family life?
I feel at home in green spaces, wherever they may happen to be. There were tiny scraps of woodland near my house in Aberdeen, and they were the backdrop for my best childhood memories. I’ve lived in the Peruvian jungle and felt a complete sense of belonging. And Dumfries and Galloway is replete with swathes of wonderful, wide-open greenery, so it’s been a brilliant place to settle. In human terms, as soon as I connect with a place’s musicians I feel like I’ve plugged-in, and we hit a bit of a jackpot in Gatehouse. We’ve really missed the sessions over lockdown, but there are plans underway to get back to it, and I think it’ll be good for all of us. This is, of course, an amazing place to raise a family too. I expect both of my boys will go elsewhere to study, but I sincerely hope they always think of Galloway as home and consider returning here to work and settle.
10. Finally what’s your next venture going to look like?
Well, I’m open to offers! Whatever it is I’d love it to be collaborative – I’ve been on sabbatical for nearly two years and have had an absolute skinful of my own company. I still feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface with my various creative endeavours and that, frustrations aside, the possibilities are endless, so I’m excited to see what the future brings. I have about four novels underway, and at least two album’s worth of songs kicking about, but after COVID my main priority is getting out and performing for folk again. In-the-moment, never-to-be-repeated artistic happenings are magical, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for those are the opportunities.
To learn more about Alan and his many activities, visit his website at http://www.alanmcclure.co.uk/ and see also the links below:
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