The tale of Ross Wilson AKA Blue Rose Code is one of redemption. Several years ago his music career seemed to have gone down the plughole due to an ever-depending reliance on alcohol. Wilson has spoken candidly about this in several interviews along with his path to eventual sobriety leading to his current position as one of our most acclaimed writers and performer. His 2014 album The Ballads Of Peckham Rye was listed for the Scottish Album of the Year Award and live he has been described as "stunning," be it in a solo acoustic setting or in a variety of band line ups that have included up to nine musicians.
Often filed under "folk music" Wilson defies easy categorisation. He freewheels between folk and jazz in the manner of classic artists such as John Martyn and Pentangle (his relationship with the legendary bassist, Danny Thompson providing a link to both of them) while his Scottish roots shine through on several songs, vocally at times but more so in the images and emotions evoked by his vision of Celtic soul, a vision he shares with vintage Van Morrison and the late Jackie Leven. Wilson himself shrugs off these comparisons saying that his favourite description of his music was from a review that declared him a cross between The Proclaimers and Marvin Gaye! What can't be denied is the sheer humanity of his work. Wilson is one of those rare writers who, having plumbed the depths, grabs each day as a new beginning, sees beauty in the banal and rejoices in everyday goings on. He writes with a humility and grace that can astound, his hymn to his hometown Edinburgh on Edina, a case in point.
Currently Wilson is gearing up for the release of his third album, And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing, due to be released in January with a showcase concert at Glasgow's Celtic Connections. This week the first taster for the album was unveiled in the form of a single, Grateful. Recorded with American Gospel singers The McCrary Sisters, Grateful is a four minute distillation of Wilson's raison d'être, a song that could have sat comfortably on John Martyn's Solid Air. The accompanying video comprises a selection of fans' reasons to be grateful which proves to be a heart warming and emotional experience guaranteed to break down even a seasoned critic's defences. Grateful is released on a four song EP on 30th November and there are launch gigs in London on 2nd December at St. Pancras Old Church and in Glasgow on 3rd December at Drygate. In anticipation of these shows Americana UK spoke to Ross Wilson about the single and the forthcoming album.
Hi Ross. Can we talk about the new single, Grateful. It's a wonderful song, beautifully played and sung. Forgive me if I'm wrong but the lyrics I think can be seen as a sort of personal statement from yourself, your misgivings, your past and your current place in the world. Are you in a comfortable place right now?
Life is good, and when it’s not so good it’s a chance to learn and grow. I’m an enthusiast. I see many of my contemporaries wearing their angst like a badge, faces like smacked arses like it’s uncool to be happy. I choose to be happy, I’ve spent too many years of my adult life dousing my light. I’m not reluctant to say that I have experience; I mean real life experience of what it means to struggle with a variety of circumstances and situations. For me, pathos is not a yo-yo toy to be rolled up and down for amusement. I’m blessed and grateful to have a chance to write, to play, and chiefly to connect, that’s how I make my daily bread.
The backing vocals by The McCrary Sisters are wonderful. How did you get them to come onboard for the song? I read somewhere that it was via a mutual friend, Nico Bruce.
Having worked with two of my own influences on the last couple of records; Danny Thompson and Karine Polwart, I’ve learned that there’s no harm in asking. It was through Nico that I discovered the Tennessean tornado that is the McCrary's and you can’t help but be moved by their power and conviction. I was gigging up in Perth and the McCrary’s UK agent, Andy Shearer, and I got to chatting about when the Sisters would be back. I half-jokingly pitched to Andy that perhaps we could get the ladies in the studio on a rest day and Andy just looked at me, very seriously, in his unique inimitable style, and then said he’d “see what he could do”.
The video to accompany the song is quite moving allowing folk to record their own reasons to be grateful. Did you get a lot of submissions for the video and how did you go about choosing what to put in the video? There's a lot of family and relationships in there but also achievements and even a wee nod to Hibs.
We got over a hundred submissions and, of course we were just not able to feature all of them. The concept of gratitude is a genuine life preserver for me. The song itself took little more than a day to write. When they come that quickly there’s almost a Joycean grace and magic involved. I’m still getting messages and photos, most recently from a gent and his pal who’d just had a kidney transplant. I mean, to connect like that, to truly communicate on that level with an idea, a theme, it’s the unifying force that we all seek, surely?
The new album is called And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing which I believe is taken from The Rubayyat of Omar Khayyam. It refers to the fleetingness of life I believe so can you tell us why you chose it as the title?
Most of my teens and all of my twenties are a blur, waiting it seems like an eternity for the arrival of these halcyon days we’re all promised. I’ve lived so long in retrospect, yearning for something I’ve never known. The thing is, "this is it, yeah?" Now is happening, I mean, NOW IS HAPPENING. I am responsible for my choices and this idea from the Rubayyat “The bird of time has but a little way to fly, and, Lo! The bird is on the wing.” Well, we all just fucking better get on with it, right? It’s a strong thematic link that runs through a lot of the material. Impermanence, the brittle glimpses of contentment that we look to pin down but which in my experience can end up strangling you to death.
The album was recorded in Biggar as opposed to The Ballads Of Peckham Rye which you did over a period of time and several separate sessions. Has this made any difference to the way you recorded the album, how you feel about it or just the overall sense of it as a piece of art?
If one looks at the three albums together ‘North Ten’ was quite poppy as a piece and then its successor, ‘Ballads’, moved leftfield. ‘And Lo!’ is even farther to the left again. I think it’s challenging at points, it is precisely the album I wanted to make this time and, artistically, I couldn’t be happier with it.
It is an album, a cohesive body of songs, it’s a record for musicians and music fans. To be honest, I may have just cut my throat but, I love it. Neil Young famously said he makes music for himself. I think, particularly in light of Sandigate, we could all take a moment to reflect on that nugget of wisdom from Mr Young.
Over the past year or so you've been playing with an assortment of line ups, the full band set up and smaller variations of that. Can you tell us who is playing with you on the album? I presume Danny Thompson is in there and I've heard rumours of a guest slot for some actor guy.
Well, it is a privilege to welcome back big Danny, one of three bassists along with the aforementioned Nico Bruce and the amazing Euan Burton. Both Colin Steele and Dave Milligan return, playing much bigger parts, allowing me to tap into that thread of jazz crossover that I’d always dreamed of. From the folk world, the very talented Ms Lauren MacColl and my co-producer on the record, Angus Lyon, who plays box and a bit of piano. MG Boulter is on pedal steel. The McCray's we’ve mentioned and then there’s the small matter of a Hollywood a-lister, Ewan McGregor, who features on ‘Glasgow Rain’.
You're a Scot living in exile, well in London, but you've delivered some wonderful songs that capture aspects of Scotland or parts of it, Edina being a prime example. People have mentioned a "Caledonian" feel to your work and this year you mention that you have found a "spiritual home" in the Shetlands. How much of this has worked its way into the new album?
That’s an interesting question because, although a great deal of the material was hot housed on a croft in Culswick in Shetland, geographically this time fewer places in Scotland are name checked. There’s a song that I wrote, travelling from Glasgow to Edina, ‘Glasgow Rain’ and a couple of other references but I’ve spent a lot of time in Dorset this year that tells in my writing.
Continuing with the Scottish theme you recorded Norman McCaig's True Ways Of Knowing and live sang a MacDiarmid poem. Do you have any Scots' poetry on the album and are you still involved with the project by The Saltire Society you mentioned some time back?
Ewan McGregor’s involvement came from my asking him to read an Edwin Morgan poem at the conclusion of ‘Glasgow Rain’, the poem was called ‘Kiss Me’ and fitted the song perfectly but we didn’t receive permission in time and so Ewan agreed to read a poem of mine instead. It really sounds great. I am absolutely still working on the poetry project and the Saltire Society continue to be great supporters, I’m very grateful to them. I’ve been working on a Goodsir-Smith poem recently and we recorded McDiarmid’s ‘Scotland’ during the sessions but I want to save it for the poetry album.
Looking at the EPs you've released there's been several remixes of your songs on them. How do you decide on these, do you approach producers or do they approach you and what do you look for in a remix?
I love music, all types, from Taylor Swift to McCoy Tyner, via Ghetts. It's about the songs, only ever about the songs. I’m a fan of electronic music and it is a really exciting process to give over your song for reimagining by another artist. James Yuill and I used to play the open mic circuit in London together many years ago, in fact he remixed the 7” of ‘Whitechapel’, back in the day.
I work with people whose music I love and, I have to tell you, Ben DeVries just delivered me a remix of ‘Glasgow Rain’ which blew my mind. I mean it is great. It’ll be a bonus track on the next single, can’t wait to share it actually. Hiatus, who remixed ‘Edina’ so superbly will return with a remix and I’ve been in the studio with him singing on a couple of songs for his mighty new record.
It really is only about the songs.
Finally, you have two release shows for the EP, can you tell us who will be appearing with you at these?
Oh yes, cannot wait, London and Glasgow are my favourite gigs (sorry Edina). Quartet of Wrenne, John Lowrie and Wild Lyle Watt, with myself in London and for Glasgow we’re joined by Nico Bruce and Colin Steele, too. The tickets are almost gone, though, don’t mug yourself off.