1967, MANUEL CONTRERAS
THE MAKING OF THE ALBUM
The spirit of this album was born when I passed by a local guitar shop at the end of December, 2019, and sat staring back at me was a 1967 Manuel Contreras classical guitar. I fell in love with its natural resonance, and that old cedar smell of cigar boxes and ancient libraries captured my imagination from the minute I lifted the body towards my face. A piece of musical history; afterall cedar never dies.
I quickly parted with the most cash I had ever spent on an instrument, and the journey towards making this album began.
Perhaps it wasn’t such a spontaneous decision however, when I consider the hours I’ve spent in wonder at the sound of Leonard Cohen's old Conte Hermanos guitar on those early Columbia recordings, or at Chavela Vargas and her layers of classical guitar over her sweet Mexican ballads. To make music in which the centrepiece was the Spanish guitar, has always been my goal.
What a beauty of an instrument. Every time I bring him out his case I lift the body to my face and inhale that immortal wood.
ISLE OF MAY, CRAIL & OLD FRIENDS
Nestled in the Forth of Firth, just off the golden coast of Fife, lies the Isle of May. We used to take family holidays to the nearby town of Crail, myself, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, the dog, and my old friend and songwriting partner, Lewis.
Lewis and I seemed to creatively explode on these trips. Something about that bedroom we wrote in, the view across the fields, the smell of the house, the feeling of seclusion. It brought out the very best in us. Our young imaginations ran wild, especially after dark when that famous Fife har rolled in off the North Sea, and Crail was submerged. We would joke about how the Crailers had something to hide, at night the Grannies of Crail would hold secret round-table meetings, practise their combative skills, that sort of thing.
Our suspicions were fuelled even further by a discovery in the local museum that Crail has the highest percentage of Russian speakers anywhere in the UK. This is down to the fact during the war, it had a centre of code cracking, which continued into the cold war. In addition to this there is a not so “secret” bunker system below Crail, and all around the Fife coast, constructed in the 50s when the threat of nuclear war loomed. All around the East Neuk you’ll see suspicious looking farm ruins - these are simply ventilation shafts disguised as farm houses! Those Fifers have something to hide.
Notably, one blustery afternoon we took a trip across to the Isle of May, guitars slung over our shoulders, and attempted to write a song in her honor. We penned the first verse of this song on a wet piece of paper and headed back to dry land to finish it off.
The Isle of May was once a place of quiet retreat for pilgrims, as far back as the 7th century. Today, it is a bird sanctuary, home to a solitary lighthouse. Lewis and I were drawn to that pristine, untouched mystic the island has. It is detached in more ways than one from the evils of the world, and we attempted to capture that in this song. “Sail from, this hired land. Sail from, this tested command”.
To me, this song is like a postcard. Of old days, never to be relieved, but never forgotten. Lewis and I have lost contact, but the bond we shared over songs like this formed a huge part of who I am today. The sheer joy I got when we finished a song, and played it over for the first time, I will never recapture.
I imagine, one day, when the shit really goes down, I’ll head to the Isle of May to ride out the storm. I’ll probably see Lewis there too.
RECORDING IN IRELAND
Armed with my Spanish guitar, and a new Rode NTK microphone I had recently bought, I began to record the album. I had no real vision in mind, other than the fact I wanted to put together 8 or 9 of my songs, old and new. Largely perched on the end of my bed, microphone within the cupboard door to ensure maximum sound dampening, I recorded 3 or 4 songs in their entirety. Before heading to rural Ireland to complete the rest of the album.
Given the fact we are in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, going from a dirty, busy city like Glasgow, to the beautiful, rugged countryside in the West of Ireland was a welcome change. The fresh air filled my lungs. We swapped our one-bedroom flat, for a little wooden 'quarantine' cabin. Initially, I had envisaged this as the most romantic scenario for recording music- no noise, the sheer seclusion, the stillness… this couldn’t have been further from the truth. There were a couple of factors I didn’t consider. Firstly, it rains a lot in the west country, and our cabin had a tin roof, not a great combination for recording. If it wasn’t rain disturbing my recording, the constant farming in the field next door, or the noisy herd of cows did a pretty good job of spoiling many a decent take.
Finally, I conceded to nature when a bee infestation suddenly manifested in the loft. As a prayer to the bee gods that they wouldn’t somehow burst into the bedroom, I wrote the verse “I hear their voices in the attic, I hope they don’t come down. What started as a whisper, now is getting loud. I hope you will forgive me, I cannot make it out, I must obey their wishes, the voices in the attic of my house”. I guess it worked.
Undeterred by nature, I completed the album in Ireland, before working with producer Bill Shanley and engineer Andrew Holdsworth on the final mixes of the songs.
THROUGH THE YEARS & BETWEEN BROTHERS
The majority of my life have been decided to music, mostly live performance in bars, playing in bands and putting on shows.
I began performing around the age of 13, and wrote my first song in the same year. Together with my 3 best friends, we formed our band and set about the tall task of taking over the world. We played our first gig at the esteemed youth centre in our hometown, and considering other 14 year olds pretty much had nothing else on their plate, we attracted a pretty big crowd that Tuesday night. I have no recollection of the songs we played, or if we even played well at all, but a few girls in school began talking to me after that, so that was good enough for me. I mean, in all honesty, we were truly awful, but who cares it was rock n roll!
In a few years time we landed a weekly gig at a bar in Glasgow; with only the minor problem that we were all still 16. One of the guys had the cunning idea that we all dress in suits to bypass the bouncers and fool the bar staff. Of course, we just looked like spotty children in suits trying to look 18. In the end, the staff didn’t care, business is business I suppose, and that would be our home for around 2 years, playing every week for a shockingly small fee and free beers. What a deal. We were riding the great wave all the way to stardom.
In more recent years, I have played in bars, hosted open mics, sang in restaurants, sang in cafes, sang anywhere they would pay me to sing. It was at Bloc Open Mic, that I met my co-host Jamie. We quickly formed a strong bond, singing together every week and soon after began writing music together, as "Between Brothers".
Last year, we played sold out shows at Sofar Sounds, and Celtic Connections Festival, a real goal of mine, at the festival I attended regularly as a child. We also played a wild night of music at Southside Gathering. It was another sold out show. Packed into a living room with about 100 hippies, no space to breathe, we played our songs acoustically at the top of our lungs (see video attached).
On top of this we released a debut single "The Harbour" and have more music in the works. Jamie appears on the backing vocals on Isle of May on this album. Thank you Jamie! Old bastard.
A special thanks to Jenny, who rehearsed this song with me spontaneously, and then let me turn her parents beautiful house into a recording studio.
I wrote the first verse, and chorus of this song as a 16 year old, and it stuck with me till now. “In this room between me and hell the ringing drone of wedding bells”, alluding to the church we lived across from when I was a kid, and the constant wedding ceremonies in summer.
I dug it up again and began to dissect and rewrite it this year.
This song tells the story of a disenfranchised young man. Confused about his place in the world in the toxic, teenage, high school atmosphere. I suppose I am talking to myself, and trying to assure myself that being yourself is the only thing that matters. Staying true to that vision you have, and ignoring those who may tell you otherwise.
"Everything changes, nothing changes at all"