It’s hard to believe it’s been more than a week since HebCelt — but there was one person I made a point of catching up with, in the days after the festival, to hear how it had been for him.
That person was the artist known as Colin Macleod. I wondered, when you’ve played the Main Stage, realising a childhood ambition by doing so, how you come down from that?
Well, if you’re Colin, you go to ground, quite literally. You spend the night on the machair, go fishing in the morning and catch a salmon to share later on with your dad on the croft.
It’s not exactly rock n roll but it’s typical Colin. It’s completely normal, very ‘Lewis’ and decidedly unstarry.
I was talking with islander Colin at the Woodlands Centre the other day (snapped him below) about where he’s at just now. It’s certainly an exciting time as he recently signed to the massive label BMG in a three-album deal.
I’ve been meaning to blog about Colin for a long time. Partly because I know him through my husband — he also plays in the Dun Ringles with Jason and their standing joke is that Colin’s successful solo career is really his ‘side project’ — but also because I love his music.
I was a big fan of The Boy Who Trapped The Son, and Fireplace was an album we listened to often, but I also really enjoy his new sound too, under his own name.
I’ve got a direct plea to make here, to any friends reading this who haven’t heard of Colin or his music — please, please check him out. His stuff is great.
The actual sound is hard to describe — the Bruce Springsteen influence is there and it’s been described as hazy and windblown (as windblown as our landscapes, of course — yadda yadda yadda) although I think it’s also quite distinctively rock.
Whatever you call it, though, it is completely unique and special.
There are strong melodies, powerful instrumentals and Colin’s vocals are lovely. His lyrics are also remarkable and when I recently found out his granny had been a poet, I wasn’t surprised. These aren’t songs that fade into the background. They will make you pay attention.
There are all the signs that Colin — aged 32 and living in Point, Lewis, with wife Kathryn and collie Sparky, to give you the personal info — is about to make a major breakthrough in the music business, in terms of wider recognition, although his work has always been acclaimed.
He is about to release his second album, which will be called Bloodlines, and it will be going out under BMG although it was written — and then produced by Ethan Johns, no less — before Colin signed to them.
Colin had signed his publishing (as a writer and a producer) to BMG 18 months ago and they were “really, really interested” when they heard he was working on an album of his own with Ethan.
“When I told them what I was doing and who I was doing it with, they said, ‘come back when it’s done and let’s talk’ and they loved it. It was an easy conversation.”
A number of the tracks from it have already been released, including the phenomenal Shake the Walls, on the Old Fire EP.
Since I’m married to a Dun Ringle, I’ve heard an early version of the album – and I can confirm that it will be amazing. It’s very much a soundscape and is just as good if not better than Fireplace although the sound is quite different from The Boy Who Trapped The Sun’s.
This is mature, bluesy, gutsy music with emotional complexity. It is also — something I didn’t know until this week — a record all about stories from lewis.
Colin said Ethan had “really loved the idea of a modern folk thing, of collecting stories”. Eh?
“The whole thing is a concept album around island life,” he explained.
There are the famous ones, of course, such as the loss of the Iolaire, and Kicks In is about still being in the place of your childhood and wondering when adulthood is going to ‘kick in’.
My favourite one, though, has to be the story behind Shake the Walls. It’s an incredibly strong song but until now I had always thought it was about making (loud) rock music. Not so!
It’s about a story from the 1940s and the period of the Lewis Revival — when waves of people across the island were being converted in dramatic spiritual experiences.
The story goes that during a prayer meeting, or something gathering, in a house in Bragar (where Colin’s brother-in-law now lives) a man made a direct plea to God to make his presence felt to prove his existence.
Allegedly, the walls of the house started to shake.
When I listened to the song after hearing this, it physically gave me chills. It was almost eerie. Regardless of whether you think such experiences are all in the imagination, or could be real, Colin has certainly captured the passion and the power of that moment, for those who would have believed they were experiencing it.
The lyrics are something else. “Come shake the walls, come shake the walls down to the ground… Can you hear me now? Calling out your name? I’m taunting you! Show me what you can do!”
There is such a strong rhythm to the guitars and the drums that it also, to my mind anyway, portrays the physicality of this experience in a very dramatic and visceral way. Video here… you can thank me later…
This was one of the songs Colin and his band played at HebCelt, when they were on the Main Stage on Saturday.
It was an impressive performance which I’ve already written about in my round-up of the Saturday but the whole band seemed to be having a great time.
The band, by the way, are Murdo Mackenzie on drums, Scott Macleod on guitar, Colin’s brother Callum on bass and Gordon Skene from Fort William — the only one not from Lewis — on piano.
So did they enjoy themselves? “They loved it,” said Colin. “They had space — they could jump around like loons! They had a whale of a time.”
And how was it for Colin himself? “It was massive. A huge thing. We’ve all grown up with the festival. When we were in first year at school me and my pal David used to get a tenner and a free T-shirt to pick up the litter for three days.
“It was great fun. It was my summer job. I did it for a couple of years. It was really special. When you’re that age and looking at that, you think ‘that must be amazing, being up there’.”
Not that he was really imagining being up there himself. Not yet. “We were kind of excited at just being there and being up late. The thing that really sticks in my head about it is the excitement and everybody being really happy. It was just really exciting to be there in amongst it all. That was my first experience of festivals and it’s always stuck with me.”
Colin had a great HebCelt, from playing on the Islands Stage with Eleanor Nicolson to catching the Waterboys on Saturday night — “I thought the Waterboys were totally amazing. They smashed it. I’ve never seen people so excited to hear a song as when they played Fisherman’s Blues.”
I wondered, then, what did he do afterwards to wind down?
“I went to the bus in Barvas with the dog.” The bus, for those who don’t know, is an old green Galson Motors bus which belongs to Barvas Estate and gets driven down onto the machair every summer. For Colin, who works there as a watcher three or four nights a week during the season, it’s an absolute haven. A great antidote to London and the music scene.
“It’s really important to me, the whole thing,” he said. “When you’ve lots of people blowing smoke up your arse, I don’t really like it —so it’s good to come back and get slagged off by big Angus (Macleod, the keeper).
“He says things like, ‘don’t forget your real job; this music thing is only temporary’, and I wrote loads of the songs in the bus. That was kind of a nice spot to sit and write songs.”
As The Boy Who Trapped The Sun, Colin had been with Geffen’s Universal imprint but they parted company in 2011 and he came back to Lewis.
He was a bit burnt out and “made a conscious choice to take a bit of a step back from full-time music”. He wasn’t enjoyed living in London anymore and Geffen were wrapping up in the UK.
“I said I wanted to leave and they were happy with that. There was no animosity. I didn’t really want to be on the road anymore.”
“It was easy enough to put a pin in it and have a break,” he said – but that break turned out to be longer than expected as Colin didn’t play guitar for a year.
“I guess it happens to a lot of people. I wasn’t angry or upset or anything. I’d been on tour for two years on my own and it was like, ‘let’s chill out and do something else for a while’.”
That ‘something else’ ended up being a job with Gael Force Marine before Colin went to work for Barvas Estate. Presumably he no longer needs to, what with his big record deal an’ all — but somehow I get the feeling that he’d want to.
He’s had the famous moments — supporting Sheryl Crow on tour and playing the Viper Rooms in LA (and having pizza at the table next to the drummer from the Foo Fighters) — but Colin said he feels like “a constant tourist” there and, at the end of the day, it’s just stories to tell on the bus.
“I’ve never really had big starry-eyed goals,” he said. “It’s always just been things like making an album with Ethan Johns. The goal has always been, ‘can you play and make enough that you can go to the next gig and make the next album’.”
There are exciting times ahead, though. A tour is being planned for America, to promote the new album. And Colin is off to Belladrum this weekend (August 3 to 5) — they’re in for a treat.