In early 2020, good fortune carried poet Liz Lochhead and musician/producer, Andrew Wasylyk through the sleet and hailstones of a wintry Hebridean storm over the sea to the Isle of Mull. Absconded, but now trapped by ferry cancellations, the two artists, along with producer Gordon Maclean, battened down the hatches at An Tobar, Tobermory, to embark on this project, Still Life, Sweetheart. Liz Lochhead spoke with The Fountain about this project and the immediacy of it all, with the total joy for being in a position to be able to experiment like this on Mull.
TF: You’ve worked on a track out on Mull with Andrew Wasylyk, it sounds quite romantic that idea, how specifically did it come to be?
We’ve known each other for a while, I got to meet Andrew and the other members of The Hazey Jane, as he is a close friend of Michael Marra’s. So Alice Marra and Andrew have been people I have kinda known from when they were really quite young kids. They are the kids of my great friends. Also Michael liked to record up there in Mull with Gordon Maclean. So Gordon is just somebody that I have known forever, who my late husband and I were just very fond of. He’s a great person, he’s very bright. He’s just a lovely pal. It is good going to Mull. I was especially tired at the point I went and I was just about to go to Australia after that with a wee play. We did go. They were all leaving and we had been rehearsing that week with them and I’d been up at night. And Gordon said I’m coming up, Andrew’s coming up, I knew them both well just to think I haven’t a clue what we’ll do but I just took everything that I had that I thought I might want to record things for posterity because I really trust Gordon and his taste. And these days tape and stuff is cheap, it doesn’t cost. It’s not like film or something that’s expensive. I just knew that I had wanted to do that because we had made a wee record about four years ago nearly, it might be 2016, which was a more traditional kind of thing, which was turning a few poems into almost song like things because the whole Hazey Janes were there and we would make choruses out of the bits of poems.
Those were more like songs, it was a thing we did called And The Light Comes Back, it was done in the winter as well so it was a lovely experience to do that. One of the reasons why I really wanted to do it was because I had written a poem about Michael just after he died and I did want to record that with my friend Steve Ketley who plays saxophone on it together, we had wanted to do that, so he came up with me to Mull at that point and that was the whole Hazey Janes and I was terrified that first night. I had just thought they are all musicians and I get thrown out the school choir when I was eight (well, I got told to just do silent singing because I was putting everybody off). They are just the kind of people that encourage you and make you feel like oh, I’ll just try this and his attitude is that we’ll muck about. The worst that could happen is that we will have wasted a weekend, but I don’t think we will have he said. So I had no idea how these things were going to end up but I knew Andrew would be improvising quite a lot. First of all we recorded the poems and then we came up with some that we would like to do, make into things that Andrew would put music to. One of the things that I like best about this project is that it is not him accompanying me. Once he got going with the music, the music is just as important as me speaking in this hushed voice.
And there were some newish things that I hadn’t recorded before, that I hadn’t read much out loud in public so that was a good thing to do. One of them was quite long, they would respect things that I was interested in, so it was just literally trial and error. But when we went up there in the winter, I was completely knackered and I was determined to make the 8’o’clock bus up with my bus pass and meet Andrew on the moon ferry over to Mull. We nearly never made it; the bus was quite late getting into Oban. And I thought the ferry probably doesn’t wait for that so I had to sprint along the quayside and then we were then in Mull, I didn’t let on that I was so tired that I could hardly work but we did work hard.
We did work hard all that day, and then stayed in a house that Gordon MacLean has there in Mull. Going back early at breakfast time, and then we worked all day. We worked all day really from lunchtime on the Saturday until midnight nearly, all day the Sunday from breakfast and the Monday and then the Tuesday all the ferries had been cancelled and there were all these storms (hailstones as big as golf balls landing everywhere and not even melting), it was so stormy that we thought we weren’t going to be able to get back in enough time for Andrew’s girlfriend’s birthday which was on the Wednesday but he and I made it just back down on the Tuesday and the wee ferry (the big ferry was off but there was a wee ferry at the other bit of the island and they cancelled it just immediately after, we were on the last trip over) and we drove hell for leather. We drove to a completely isolated Glencoe with some dead cars off the roadside waiting. It was a long drive down and I got off at a hotel and had a cup of tea before the bus arrived to take me home. It was so wintry and so strange, but it had been great fun as it felt like an adventure. It did feel quite romantic, romantic in the adventurous sense. And it was very romantic to get Andrew back to Dundee in time for his lovely girlfriend, she’s a painter and I was determined that he was going to make it back for her birthday. It was just terrific, and after that, the following week, I went off to Australia. I am glad I went now as when I came back it was two days before lockdown and everything had changed.
TF: It seems like there is an overlap with the poetry and the music when it comes to the processes?
I just recorded these poems and Andrew started to make music. And then I re-recorded them to go with the music in a different way. When I had been recording them, I had been doing them in a sort of lively way as if to a big audience. Gordon, however, gave me this microphone that I practically had to whisper them into, and it was just like thinking them up for the first time. At first, I found that difficult but because I really trust Gordon and his taste so much, as does Andrew, we just kept going with what felt initially quite strange. We would leave at midnight; Gordon would work probably until 3am getting things done to show us the next morning. It was so much fun to do over two and a half to three days what Gordon would work on for weeks probably after we left. He is the creative glue for it all.
TF: Did you find that much of Mull came into your songs and your poetry?
No, not really, not what I know of Mull, which is Gordon’s Tobermory. The feeling of the place, yes. It is a place that you can’t help but feel very comfortable with. I am dying to get there. At the moment I think the ferries have only just started again, so I don’t know how I would get up to Oban, as I don’t drive. I don’t know if I would fancy getting the bus (I am 72). It’s something that I will do as soon as I can, get back to Mull, it’s just a very, very special place because it’s so beautiful. I’ve always loved the West Highlands, I need to get there, and it beats my soul, it really does. Not in terms of subject matter but in terms of feeling rooted. There were certainly some of the things that we did that have references to bits of Scotland. Mull is people to me, if you are there with people that are really rooted there, you have a great time. We have done the wee show about our previous record there, two or three times on different parts of the island. You know, it’s a big island. So I am determined to get back there as soon as I can, and it will just be so great to just be there.
TF: For potential listeners, how would you sum this project up?
Well I wouldn’t because that’s the thing. I have no idea what people will make of it. It’s a bit of a marmite project in that some people won’t get it. I had a hard time speaking in this very hushed voice and wondering if that will work. And whenever Gordon sent me them, which was a couple of months after we had done the work on them, I was quite taken with it. You hear it as if you didn’t do it yourself, if you know what I mean. I think I quite like this, but I think a lot of people wouldn’t much. It is certainly further out than the last thing we did together with the Hazeys who are really lovely pop musicians. I suppose how we would describe it is the workings on the press release, is it almost jazz, it’s not really like anything else. Some people will like that and some people won’t but I am old enough now to just realise that you can never please everybody all the time and it kind of intrigued me. I am just so chuffed to have been able to do something as strange as this, which some people will like and some people won’t, who knows. The poems are still poems, they are still stuck there in their books. They are still poems without the music, but what Gordon and Andrew have done to it really intrigued me. It was an experiment. It is lovely to be my age and be able to work with people that are younger than you. It’s the openness and the creativity that we all get off on.
TF: What else are you presently planning for the year Liz?
I was going to be having a really busy 2020. I was going to have my play Medea on at the Edinburgh International Festival, something that I never thought would happen in my lifetime, that I would get an official festival production. I was working on that very hard already with my friend, Sir Michael Boyd, who ran the RSC for the 80s I have known him since I was 19 so he is just Michael Boyd to me. I was going to do a wee show as part of the centenary of Edwin Morgan which has been scored out, so there are loads of things that have been scored out of my diary. I was going to be going to Pisa, a literary festival in Pisa. I never normally get to go abroad but I was going to be going to that and that was not postponed, it was cancelled and we don’t reckon it will happen next year either. I was working away and suddenly I’m not but I’m writing things and I’m painting pictures. I’m widowed so I live here alone but there’s Zoom meetings and all the usual stuff ya know and nowadays I can actually see my friend in her garden. But mostly it’s pretty isolating and I don’t always hate that as I’m used to working alone. Sometimes it’s got to me that I’ve not had the choice of escaping it. I was hoping to go to France later on this year, I had been invited by two different friends that have got great houses in the south of France but I now doubt that will happen. All the venues that I work in, will they have the money to reopen, but you can’t afford to think like that, you have to kind of just carry on. And nobody can stop you writing wee poems even if they just lie about under the bed.
Still Life, Sweetheart is out now, via Blackford Hill