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‘Springsteen’ of Scotland coming to Bonnaroo 2018

Posted on Thursday, January 11, 2018 at 12:31 pm

Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival

Colin McLeod
Photo by Mike Guests

Ever wonder what the bands way down on the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival lineup are all about? The Manchester Times is reaching out to find out about these lesser-known bands – the 5-point type listed near the bottom of the lineup. Here is their story.

A farmer from the Isle of Lewis makes a debut album with the intensity of Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town. It may seem surprising, but Colin Macleod’s influences are the same: wide open spaces, hard physical work, and a love for his local community – though in this case, a community that goes back 600 years. Bloodlines is folk music, according to producer Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Kings Of Leon), but not as you’ve heard it before. Modern, moody and epic, the album owes more to The National or My Morning Jacket than Hebridean reels. Just don’t expect Colin to go on tour at lambing time.

In a former life, he was alt-folk artist The Boy Who Trapped The Sun, cutting his teeth on the same vibrant Glasgow scene as his friends Frightened Rabbit and Snow Patrol. But his love for the wild land he was raised on, 300 miles north of Glasgow, proved too strong and three years ago he made the move back to the Eye Peninsula, east of Stornoway, buying a small farm. Funnily enough, there couldn’t have been a better move for his music career.

“Growing up on Lewis, I was so far away from everything I never really thought you could make a career out of being a musician,” he says. “I thought it was one or the other – musician or islander. The older I got, the more I realised the two are inseparable.”

The Macleods go back five generations on Lewis. What with farm work, making lobster pots and taking groups of elderly English gents off on salmon fishing trips in the summer, he had his work cut out – “the aim was total self-sufficiency.” But his songs had always been inspired by the landscape and once he was home again, they came thick and fast. Not far from the salmon fishing site, there’s an abandoned green bus next to the ocean. After the old boys had gone home to bed, MacLeod sat there with his guitar getting the bones of an album together. 

Springsteen, and the clarity and beauty of the way he writes about home, were a huge inspiration. His influence can be heard in the album’s yearning opening track Kicks In, a moving tug of war between the desire to stay and the desire to leave delivered in Macleod’s tender, laconic manner. In the gossamer-gentle rock song Run (“What you want to say / Is not what I can hear,”) delicate melodic shifts conjure up a picture of dark clouds and sunlight moving over moorland. The glorious energy of Feels Like, with its sing-a-long West Coast chorus, sounds like a celebration of a life regained.

Macleod had always been inspired by American artists, as by all the Scottish rock bands who’ve embarked on that long-established musical trade route across the Atlantic. But it was producer Ethan Johns, whom he befriended on a short solo tour, who told him he was actually writing Scottish folk songs.

“Ethan said, these are really traditional Gallic songs,” he recalls. “You’re rewiring old stories of ghosts, seafarers. It wasn’t until he pointed it out that I realised that’s what it was!”

And that’s what’s unique about Bloodlines. Macleod’s music is folk music in its attitude rather than technique filled with ancient archetypes and an overwhelming sense of the landscape, all in a modern, cinematic setting.

Homesick Daughter was inspired by the Lolaire Disaster of 1919, the biggest peacetime maritime disaster in the UK, when 205 Lewis men were drowned in the harbour coming home from the war on New Year’s Eve. “They were so close that the women and children were watching,” Colin says. “It was brutal. They were nearly home. Everyone was stoic about it in the months to come; the community just had to get on with living.”

Told from the perspective of a daughter claiming her father’s body, the track has that stoicism at its core: it is abstract, beautifully restrained, practically whispered: “All the time I wait for you / It’s you I want.”

What Does It Mean To You imagines “A girl of 17 / older than she seems / but not the one she wants to be.” Inspired by a photograph in Colin’s mother’s house showing a group of old Lewis ladies lugging rocks on their backs and actually knitting at the same time, the song considers the life of a women on the island, married off young and put to hard physical work. It’s full of a brave melancholy, and like many of Macleod’s songs, wears its message lightly.

He interrogates his old-fashioned characters with his 21st-century psyche, probing at the lives of a community defined by its strength and resilience, and it reluctance to talk about feelings. Old Fire was written about his childhood neighbour, his father’s cousin, who died last year at 86. “He was a brute!” he recalls fondly. “Really rude most of the time, hands like shovels. The tractor trailer fell off one day, and he took his belt off and lifted it back on. He was strong, old-fashioned. A bachelor all his days…”

With its abstract plea to “Call me and let me know you made it home / I need to know,” the song is a hymn to an unknowable character. “I think I probably am that person to an extent,” Macleod laughs. “I could see a lot of myself in him.” There are shades of Neil Young there too, of course: Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you

Ethan Johns came to Lewis for a period to get a sense of the island’s atmosphere before he and MacLeod decamped to Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios in Bath. “He really understood the sense of scale I was after,” Macleod says. “It’s dark, it’s moody. I wanted that modern Americana feel, that precise, spacey, clean sound.”

Macleod’s band features brother Callum on bass, Scott MacLeod – no relation – on guitar, Murdo Mackenzie on drums, whom Colin’s been playing with since he was 12, doing Blink 182 covers at school, and Gordon Skein on piano, formerly of Frightened Rabbit.

So at the end of the day, what does it really mean to be a country boy?  “When you’re from a place that is really beautiful, you struggle to be anywhere else,” Macleod explains simply. “There is a Gallic phrase, a Lewis man would be homesick in heaven, and it’s true. When I was younger, I used to get stressed thinking the island would disappear. If I stayed away too long, I’d look back one day and it would be gone.”

Now, he finally has music and island life in balance. “Having my feet on the ground fuels my song-writing,” he says. “Everything I draw on from comes from being outside.”

Bloodlines is proof that folk music is really a way of seeing the world.