Wednesday, 14 September 2016

'It was an apology when I wrote it and it is now ... Back in the day, it was too raw so I never played it live'

From the brae above Crail harbour, Kenny Anderson leads the way into a rambling old house, then down a corridor cluttered with the detritus of building work. Finally, he throws open a door.
“This is it,” he says, “the nerve centre”.

The place looks like a high-end junk shop. What might, in estate agent-speak, be described as “a practical kitchen-dining room” has morphed into a monument to his own musical life, and to King Creosote, his alter ego.

An ancient LC Smith typewriter is at the centre of a neatly-organised, crowded desk. Every shelf and cupboard groans under a weight of LPs, CDs, scrapbooks and homemade fanzines from down the years. There’s no computer in sight, we are in a mobile phone black spot and on any other day Anderson would be left entirely to his own devices.

Vinyl copies of his latest album are piled up on an easy chair in one corner of the room. Even the title, Astronaut Meets Appleman is ironic. It’s not some hi-tech flight of fancy, but a joke about a “toy”, made Louie Wren, his younger daughter, from what her dad says was “a gnarly old apple” .

The collection represents the world as seen from a distinctly lo-fi corner on Fife’s East Neuk. Musically, King Creosote’s old busking, bluegrass sound is pumped up by bagpipes, a harp, a violin, and driving rhythms; lyrically It’s funny, sad, sharp, suspicious and painfully human.

Down the years, Anderson’s bittersweet songs have been wilfully obscure because, as he says, he’s always had “a sense of being a bit wary of what I say and about who”. Yet this time around there’s a poignant touch, drawn from personal circumstances.

Anderson, 49, lives alone in this house. He is devoted to two-year-old Louie Wren, but though she helped name the album, and even makes her recording debut on it, she lives a couple of miles down the coast at Anstruther with her mum, Jen Gordon, Anderson’s former partner.

The couple broke up a while ago, but Anderson’s respect for Jen is obvious, in conversation and on the album. The lyric of Faux Call sails mournfully in on the back of a sad cello: “And I’m so sorry I let you down again / This was my call now I’m stalling / The pretence of being just friends / I wish was better at helping you through all of this /I wish I could call, have a good cry, hold you again.”

Anderson says: “It was an apology when I wrote it and it is now. Back in the day, it was too raw, I never played it live. But over time … it’s not raw any more.”

A year ago, he would hardly have spoken of such things. Now the song could be his next single. “I rely a lot on intuition,” he says. “Musically it’s evolved, I dropped it a tone so weirdly I could go higher. There are certain lines I like, a bit ouchy, but it just felt the time to do it again.”

Anderson is talking ten to the dozen as he leads the way through his Victorian house. His grandmother had a flat here but he’s bought the whole thing and embarked on a conversion. He’s had to plug the roof, but the local joiner is stalling on a loft conversion. And that hallway’s a mess, he complains.

Get him on to a pet hate, and he really goes off on one. Melin Wynt, one of the album’s most successful tracks, is the Welsh for windmill. It’s Anderson tilt at the turbines he loathes.

“Do you know what I would have done, if I was in charge of energy policy?” he says, suddenly angry. “I’d have taken out Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, got rid of all that crap. Maybe you wouldn’t have to sink banks of servers under the ocean. Then, if we still need power, perhaps put up a turbine. But why stick up an army of turbines to offset a massive power bill for all this non-essential guff?”

In Crail these things matter. “Coming home, taking in the view around the peninsula, it’s beautiful,” he says. “May Island, North Berwick law, the Bell Rock Lighthouse, the Forfar coastline, right the way round to the law at the back of Dundee.

“But now?” He thumps the turbines onto an imaginary map: “Bang, bang, bang. These ugly fucking things. It’s like taking a beautiful picture and putting a smear of shit across it.”

This is bloke with an umbilical connection to his homeground. The eldest of four children, Anderson grew up in St Andrews. Elizabeth, his mother, is a fisherman’s daughter. His father, Billy, from an East Neuk farming family, is a professional accordionist, and still plays at funerals (“celebratory but sad, it’s perfect,” reckons his son). Lynne, his sister, emigrated, but Anderson’s twin brothers still live nearby. Een (Iain) - “the best musician in the family” - makes musical instruments; Gordon - “the best songwriter” - was a member of the Beta Band.

Anderson excelled in maths and took a degree at Edinburgh University in physics and electronics. By then he was playing accordion and at 19 he began to write songs. He would spend two years busking in France, but declined the offer of a teaching job at a music school in the Dordogne, to return to Fife.

The rest is legend. Back home he founded the Skuobidh Dhu Orchestra, a post-punk busking band, and went on to establish the Fence collective, nurturing a unique musical culture, which ever so slowly put Crail on the musical map.

Along the way, he eked out, among others, a certain Kate “KT” Tunstall. He was 25 at the time, and had a day job in St Andrews Woollen Mill, about ten miles from this house.

“A friend of hers asked me to go and see her singing in a café,” he recalls. “She was absolutely incredible. At 16. I got a grilling from Kate’s mum, the kind of thing you might get from your girlfriend’s parents. ‘What’s my daughter playing at? You should be more responsible. Make sure she follows a sensible career, not this.’ I said: ‘I’m not going to dissuade her, she’s a natural.’ Kate still gives me brownie points for that.”

By 2005, Tunstall had a big label and a CD at the top of the charts. King Creosote took longer to reach a wide audience, but in 2012 Diamond Mine, recorded with Jon Hopkins, was nominated for the Mercury Prize. Its successor From Scotland with Love brought a breakthrough in sales. Retailers in Edinburgh say Astronaut meets Appleman, released last Friday, is their biggest seller since Adele’s 25 hit the shelves two years ago.

But life has its downs too. In 2011, intent of formalising business arrangements around Fence Records, Anderson set up a limited company with Johnny Lynch, his good friend and long-time musical collaborator.

He was soon ill at ease, he says. “The mentality of it was different. I’m sure someone with a financial background would look at it and say ‘that’s a great thing’. But I’m not from that school of thought.

“I found myself really unhappy and artistically stifled. I’d never gone into anything thinking, how much profit will this make? For me, it’s about a gang all getting on with it.” Within little more than a year, the limited company was over and the friendship with Lynch hit the rocks.

Now, here in the “nerve centre” Anderson has “gone back to the tiny”. He is quietly ramping up the number of record releases organised under the old, unlimited Fence banner, supported by the fanzines he makes himself.

“I keep all the artwork” he says happily, yanking a bale of it out of a cupboard. He’s already drafting publicity for the 50 small gigs he has planned next year in a hotel up the road, to celebrate his own half century.

Would he ever leave Crail? “You’re joking,” he laughs. “It’ll take me ten years to sort this house out.” In the fields beyond, the Fife countryside is singing with life. “I love this season,” Anderson says, “when the cornfields are ripe, there’s the deep blue sea and the deep blue sky. My heart rises, I’m jubilant. On drives from here to St Andrews, I want my life to be 300 years long.”

Questions in the Key of Fife 
When were happiest? At the birth of my daughters, Beth and Louie Wren.
Desert island song? A Talk Talk ‘B’ side, It’s Getting Late in the Evening.
Favourite place: The Dutch village in Craigtoun Park, St Andrews.
Favourite destination? (outside Fife): Easdale.
The best advice you’ve had? My dad said, ‘ Whatever you do, look after your feet.’ It came out of nowhere.
What advice would you give an aspiring young musician? Listen to yourself. Even when you haven’t found your true voice, you learn from that. It’s that will make you a songwriter. Ignore advice.
Do politics make a difference in life? No.
Does music a difference? Music absolutely makes a difference. 

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Better late than never - Leith lauds its conquering heroes

Once every millennium is about right for this kind of affair. As the world and his wife knows, Hibernian last won the Scottish Cup at the beginning of the last century. Yesterday, Edinburgh city centre, and more especially the old port of Leith, came to a halt when unlikely sporting heroes returned home, 114 years later, with the trophy.

Overnight, council workers found themselves obliged to plant “Special Event — No Parking” signs from the Royal Mile to Leith Links to make sure that the victory bus made the journey in good time. As tens of thousands of well-wishers flooded out of bars and tenements on to Leith Walk it took the full 90 minutes to cover a distance that might take 25 at a brisk trot.

Some of the fans had, as the song says, walked 5,000 miles for this moment. Ian Borge, 57, is one of four members of the Hibernian Supporters of Alaska and had a green banner to prove it. “I go to every final Hibs play in,” he said. “That’s two this year.”

Mr Borge, 57, grew up in Leith and moved to Anchorage half a lifetime ago to work for BP. Kenny Radin, 58, his friend, went in the opposite direction and has spent much of his life in Sydney, moving recently to Jakarka with his wife.

Mr Radin was at his mother’s deathbed in 2012 when Hibs played Hearts in the Scottish Cup final. He asked the hospice nurse if he should go to the game. She said: “What would your mother want you to do?” He went to the game. Hibs lost 5-1; his mother died.

Had he no fears on Saturday? “Do you know, I thought we’d do it?” he grinned. “And to be there. Grown men crying. Kids, marriage, whatever — that was one of the best days of my life.”

These two have seen some changes while waiting for their team to triumph. The pub they had chosen, the Mousetrap, they once knew as the Volunteer Arms, the violent “Volly”; another stamping ground was the Victoria, now a Scandinavian Bar. And they’d visit Robbies, now a respectable real ale bar.

We used to say ‘The Volly for a swally,” said Mr Radin, “the Vicky for a quickie and Robbies for a jobby,’” Carnival in Leith.

As anyone ensconced in EH6 knows, this party had started 24 hours earlier. Not everything is lovely around a high-spirited football crowd, drunk on victory and everything else.

Outside Leith Dockers Club, four women argued about who would go back home to look after the kids, while the rest remained to celebrate. A man walked by in a maroon top, his pit bull on a short lead.

By The Marksman, two women in saris smiled at the crowd gathered on the pavement holding glasses, the flotsam occasionally tumbling on to the road.

Further up the street a crowd with scarves and banners gathered around a drummer outside the Hing Sing Chinese supermarket. Within the hour, a police cordon had formed to keep them off the road. By midnight, with the street blocked to traffic, the rules were: “dance” in the middle of the road, sleep propped by a wall at the side.

Next morning, at Picardy Place, Sherlock Holmes was wearing a Hibs scarf and waving a green chequered flag. The statue marks Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthplace. The author, who was a goalkeeper and believed in fairy stories, would have felt vindicated by the sight of the trophy which last passed past this way in the year that The Hound of Baskervilles was published.

Banners hung from every other tenement; women dangled the feet over window sills; a man with a green and white flag blasted Sunshine on Leith from his berth above a hairdressers.

When, at last, the victory bus turned into Constitution Street, two young men clinging to the statue of Queen Victoria, raised their arms and shouted: “We are amused!” Or words to that effect.

Mr Sherry, a Sikh shopkeeper, had gone to Saturday's game with his sons and grandsons, three generations of the Singh family. They came out to celebrate again, clad in green and white turbans, and Hibernian tops emblazoned, “Singhs go marching in”.

Mr Sherry, 57, has been to every big final since he was youngster. Witnessing victory at last was a joy, but “ruined a bit” by the crowd invasion, which has sparked a police investigation. He was smiling now though. “I thank my father and my Sikh faith,” he said, “they have made me a proud Hibee.”Proof, if any were needed, that, in Leith football is a religion.