Doug Johnstone is better known these days as a bestselling and prizewinning author, but he’s been a musician and songwriter for much longer. He’s drummed in bands for decades (currently for the crime-writing outfit Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers), released five albums with his lo-fi band Northern Alliance, and recently produced three acclaimed solo EPs. He’s back with his first solo album, titled Crow Hill and spoke with The Fountain about the influences for the LP and what has changed in his musical career.
TF: So you’ve a new album out, can you tell us what we can expect from Crow Hill?
Yes, sure. So this is the first full solo album, I’ve done a bunch of EPs on and off over the years. I’ve made full albums with previous bands of course. I sort of started towards the end of last year. I know a lot of writers (I’m a writer too) were struggling during lockdown to write but I was the opposite. I wrote a book very quickly and I made an album very quickly. I had a whole bunch of songs for a while just kicking around and actually I started to really take it more seriously. Until you start to take yourself more seriously, you never really start to do anything. At the same time I had a stroke weirdly in March 2020 when lockdown started so inevitably whenever I start to write music a lot of it is about my own personal experience. I’m not really a storyteller, it’s a lot of splurging out my own angst and this was obviously going to come up and it very quickly crystallised in several songs on the record there, the aftermath of my recovery and things like that. A lot of the songs are also about loneliness and isolation, we’ve all been in lockdown on and off for the last year and a half, so that is the kind of theme that is going on. And musically, it’s a different record for me. I wrote the songs kind of on acoustic guitar but it’s a full band where I’m sort of playing everything. What I tended to do was, I’d usually start recording like a guide vocal and an acoustic guitar and by the end of the song both of those very eliminated. There’s hardly any guitar in it, there’s some electric guitar but not really acoustic. It’s not an acoustic guitar record, it’s a kind of indie-pop record I would say is a way to describe it.
TF: So you mentioned some of your influences there with what you went through back in March 2020 and obviously what we have all been going through with the global crisis but you’ve titled it Crow Hill, how much did the summit in Edinburgh have an inspiration on the album?
Yeah, Crow Hill, so anyone who doesn’t know Edinburgh, Crow Hill is the hill that is not quite as big as Arthur’s Seat. I don’t think you can even see it from the centre of town. It’s around the back near Portobello, around the other side so it’s the nearest one to me and for years I have gone walking up it just for a bit of exercise. I always do that and not Arthur’s Seat because Arthur’s Seat feels almost like being on Princes Street, it’s always inundated with tourists. Fair enough, it’s a big hill in the middle of a city. I’ve always liked Crow Hill because it’s empty, no-one goes there because it is slightly smaller. And so, you can sit on there on your own for half an hour and look at all the people who look like ants crawling over Arthur’s Seat. It’s much more peaceful and much more calming. And so I’ve done this for years, and if you follow my Instagram account I post pictures of the top of the hill for years. And it was actually while walking up that hill that I had my stroke, I was half way up it, and it was just totally random I think. I started to feel dizzy and I was sick. I had to get an old guy who was passing to help me to a bench, and then I got my wife to come and pick me up. I was quite lucky with the stroke in that it could’ve been a lot worse. It took me a month or two to get back to normal, it was an incredible rate of recovery in comparison to a lot of people who have strokes. But part of that was getting exercise and going walking again, I started going back up Crow Hill which was quite weird going back past the bit where I had to lie down and collapse. It was a very big part of my recovery and I kind of feel a weird affinity to the place because I had a stroke there and it was part of my recovery. The views from the top are amazing, I can see my house and the beach. It is a bit of zen calm or mindfulness meditation just to be up there, and obviously it’s great to be on your own in the middle of a city.
TF: So we know you as a crime writer but what can you tell us about your musical background, you have been putting out music for some time through various aliases and what not?
Yeah, I’ve been a musician for much longer than I’ve been a writer. I say a musician but I was a drummer first so I don’t know if that counts. I grew up playing the drums, I wanted to be a musician, I taught myself the guitar, I was in bands at school and university, various grunge bands at the time. I’ve drummed for years in loads of bands, country bands, indie bands, lo-fi, rock, metal, everything, some of which almost got signed, some of which did get signed after I left. But then I started to make my own music with my friend Craig Smith, we formed a band called Northern Alliance, I was the drummer and h was the bassist. We both wrote songs, and I sang a bit and played some guitar, and it was kind of us giving up on the toilet circuit crappy indie-band type thing, and just going into the studio and writing stuff ourselves. And actually that’s when we really started to get some attention as we were actually enjoying doing what we were doing.
We put out four albums in the end as Northern Alliance, the highlight of which was we got four Ks from Kerrang Magazine and we got radio play and we did another album under a fictional band called The Ossians, which was related to one of my books. By then I was a published writer so those albums came out before my first novel came out. And so I was playing guitar and singing, we weren’t really a live act, we didn’t do live shows, it was a bit tricky with just three of us in the band, there was also my friend Viv, as it was a similar kind of thing of just recording everything ourselves and not really caring about how it was going to be live until we got offered to do live shows, which was mainly through folks like the Fence Collective and Kenny and Johnny there, we were on the outskirts of that scene for a while. We played a lot of the Homegame Festivals and stuff. We never really split up that band, we just kind of petered out like a lot of these things do but I wanted to keep making music so every now and then I put out a solo EP, which were a bit more singer/songwriter to begin with as I wasn’t sure how to really do everything. But I’ve expanded my musical palette so to speak and now I’ve created like a hi-fi version of Northern Alliance so a lot of the same influences maybe of Americana and indie lo-fi and that kind of stuff. I’m also a huge pop fan, melodies and harmonies and that kind of things so there’s hopefully some songs you can sing along to as well.
TF: We’ve touched upon how your style has evolved over the years, with the pop but still inclusion of indie lo-fi, how would you sum it up in one sentence if you had to?
It’s dream-pop, indie-rock, ambient, electronica, I’ve no idea something like that. I do listen to a lot of neo-classical electronica and ambient stuff mainly when I am writing but mostly my whole life. I love futuristic music that sounds retro, I think that’s such a skill as well. And there are elements of that seeping into the album, atmospheric sounds, there’s a lot of wobbly pianos on the record. And that was something we were very keen on in our old Northern Alliance days as well. Literally in those days it was just old analogue keyboards sitting around, casio tones that we would put through FX pedals and guitar. I did a lot of that with this record as well, thinking how can I mess this up a little bit.
TF: So you’re album’s available as of today, how can people get access to it?
It’s going to be on all streaming and download services from today so you can get it anywhere you want. And also, I’ve got a Bandcamp page, which is the best place for the struggling artist like myself. If you buy it direct from me, you can download it there, but you can also stream it. Also, if anyone wants me to play live I’m open to offers.
To download Crow Hill from Doug’s Bandcamp or to find out more click here
Photo courtesy of Duncan McGlynn