It was a tired but happy Findlay Napier who met up with Blabber’n’Smoke in early February to talk about his latest release, an EP called VIP Very Interesting Extras. As the title implies this is a companion piece to his 2015 release VIP Very Interesting Persons, an album that was given the accolade of second best folk album of the year by Martin Chilton, music critic of The Telegraph. We had meant to talk in January but there was the little matter of Celtic Connections to contend with, Findlay’s workload there, hosting the late night sessions at Drygate (seven shows in all) along with his work curating Hazey Recollections just too much for his diary.
Very Interesting Extras, released this week, is a five song EP that complements the 10 songs on Very Interesting Persons. That album, a result of a mentoring project funded by Creative Scotland which saw Findlay teaming up with Boo Hewerdine, is a collection of songs about people who lived “interesting lives,” some famous, some not so. Favourably reviewed on release these songs about folk such as Hedy Lamarr and Mickey Mantle were fine poetic encapsulations with some biographical detail included but it was the imagery and allusions that stood out along with the quality of the playing and Napier’s strong vocals. Much of the biographical material was gleaned from the likes of Wikipedia in the first place with Findlay and Boo then taking the raw material and shaping it into song. Their success in bringing these characters to life in a musical setting was enhanced by the short notes which accompanied each song on the album sleeve. Tantalisingly brief they begged the listener to carry out their own Wikipedia expedition to find out more regarding these intriguing folk, folk like the Japanese soldier who refused to surrender until 1974 and Jimmy Angel, the pilot who accidentally discovered Angel Falls in Venezuela. Happily, Findlay has produced a book (VIP – Behind The Lyrics) which offers more detailed information on the subjects along with his inspirations for the words.
The EP was recorded at the same time as the album and opens with another song about an historical character, this time Harry Houdini, and closes with another true story. The other three songs however are fictitious creations, dreamt up by Findlay from observations and situations he’s encountered. We started off by talking about the EP. The songs here are as strong as those on the album, there’s no sense of them being outtakes or demos so I asked Findlay why none of the five songs made the cut for the album.
Well, they were all recorded at the same time. We had 15 songs recorded but we only wanted to put 10 on the album, a self-imposed limit, so we had to consider which ones to leave off. After The Last Bell Rings, Princess Rosanna and 52Des aren’t technically about real people so they were the first ones to be left off. With How Will You Escape, well, we just thought there were too many songs in 3/4 time, Boo in particular was listening to the songs and making sure there was a certain amount of variation in the running order. So on the last day we recorded Eddie Banjo and Sweet Science simply because we had too many waltz time songs. The Houdini song actually was one of my favourite co writes with Boo. I wrote the three verses and sent them to him and he wrote the chorus and the music, he wrote it on a ukulele actually. And while it’s about Harry Houdini I was actually thinking of Amy Winehouse when I wrote it, that thing about having to please your audience and having to push yourself one step further. Houdini I think had to do that, in fact I think he died after challenging someone to punch him in the abdomen. And Winehouse, I mean Rehab was just perfect and then Back To Black came out and it was like, how can she top that? And when her drugs stuff was going on a bunch of us were drunk up in the Shetlands and we thought we should just get a van, go to London, grab her and bring her back to some croft and dry her out so she can get on with her music. Daft, but looking back maybe someone should have done it. However, back to the song and your question, as I said we just had too many in 3/4 time so it didn’t fit into the running order.
Can you tell us about these fictitious folk, Princess Rosanna for example?
I was underneath Jamaica St. Bridge, it was part of my running route and on the north side, under the bridge, someone had spray painted in luminous pink, “RIP Princess Rosanna” and I took a note of that on my phone and it just grew out of that. I haven’t found out who Princess Rosanna was, nothing on Google or anywhere so I liked the idea that it’s a bit of a mystery, was she murdered, did she drown, was it suicide? It’s a wee bit like Taggart, I wanted to leave that unknown and then I liked the idea of her body being taken out by the tide and then coming back in, I can see it as a wee black and white film. I used to hill walk with my dad on a place called Ben Rinnes and close to that is a smaller hill called Babby’s Moss. It’s named after a woman who killed herself and was buried there because as a suicide she couldn’t be buried in a churchyard or cemetery and that had always stuck with me, I mean, what an unchristian thing to do to someone who was so unhappy they killed themselves. At least let them actually rest in peace because they weren’t at peace when they were alive. So that was woven into the song.
And what about 52Des?
Well Des is not a real character but it was a real number plate on a car, a BMW I saw in Haghill when I was out running. In Haghill there were doorways were people were dealing and I thought, “Oh Man, don’t park a brand new BMW outside an old tenement,” because that’s giving the game away, telling the police a drug dealer lives here. The last line, “your beautiful things always give you away,” it’s like in crime films where there’s always one idiot in the gang who can’t wait to spend the money instead of sitting on it until the heat fades, so Des is that guy.
Folk will know who Harry Houdini, who you sing about on How Will You Escape, is but can you tell us what inspired the closing song, Showfolk?
Boo wrote that one and it’s a kind of complicated story. The album was a Pledge campaign and a guy called Jono McLeod who is a filmmaker was one of our major backers at the level where we would write and record a song based on his idea. He then sent us a story that was just perfect for VIP all about his uncle, a Scots’ comedian called Jimmy Mac. I had several goes at writing it but they were awful, just dreadful attempts and then Boo just called me up and said I’ve done it and sent it to me and it was just right. It’s a great story. Jono’s uncle was a comedian in Glasgow working in music hall and he then fell in with a troupe called Fred Roper’s Performing Midgets down in London. Roper had this trick of promoting his show by organising midget weddings and he thought it would be a great idea to have Jono’s uncle, a tall, slim guy, marry a midget. Her name was Winnie and even though it was a publicity stunt she fell in love with Jimmy, Jono’s great uncle. It’s a bizarre story, in fact there’s a whole album of songs or even a movie in there all about Fred Roper’s Performing Midgets but you can’t really say midget these days, the term now is little person. Anyway the song’s about Winnie and her having to come to terms with it all being a publicity stunt and it’s full of killer lines from Boo like, “the angel on my shoulder lied, perhaps the lie was mine,” and really I can see Boo just running through this minefield of political correctness trying to write this song without using THAT word. It could be too easy to turn it into some funny circus type song but it’s turned out really beautiful. And another great thing about it and something I totally forgot to mention on the EP credits is that Jono sang the backing vocals on the song. He came in to film us recording and we managed to persuade him to do it so there’s a nice connection to the story and the performance as it was his uncle and he sings on the song. It’s even weirder how Jono came to find out about the story. He was at some exhibition in London and saw this photograph and recognised his uncle in it. So he went to his family and asked them and gradually got all the details. His uncle, Jimmy Mac, appeared at the Panopticon with Stan Laurel back in the music hall days and then years later he was actually in Dad’s Army as one of the Home Guard platoon!
Going back to the album, you mentioned Eddie Banjo and it’s a song that really stood out for me when I first heard it, it reminded me of Gerry Rafferty’s Can I Have My Money Back.
My dad told me about Eddie Banjo and Boo said, “let’s try to do a song with only one chord,” so up until the bit from You Are My Sunshine kicks in it’s only one chord. But, I can see what you mean about Can I Have My Money Back, I love that album. In fact one of my early memories was a birthday party, I must have been about primary one, and my parents played that song while we were doing musical bumps, you know, everyone has to sit on the floor when the music stops and as we all jumped down the needle was skipping and jumping on the record. My dad, I think a lot of his records were stolen at one point but he had Penguin Eggs and Can I Have My Money Back and Do You See The Lights by Rab Noakes, maybe a Hamish Moore album as well. There was also an album called The London Hootenanny (recorded live in 1963 with martin Carthy, Alex Campbell and Nigel Denver among others) and I learned every song on that album and then later we got Rab Noakes’ Standing Up which was a big influence on me, I learned how to do all the songs on that album. Standing Up is a real good solid album, it’s like, “here’s how to write a song and here’s how to put a bunch of them together and if you do that it’s going to be great.”
Is it true that you used Wikipedia to find out about these characters?
We used Wikipedia for some of the songs, Hedy Lamar, The Man Who Sold New York, Angel Falls, Rising Sun, Idol in Decline. Sweet Science was mostly taken from an article in The New York Times. Eddie Banjo was a story from my dad about a guy who used to tramp around Wick, What A Shame About George, well, that’s just me because I love George Jones. Valentino I got from Tumblr when I saw a picture of her there. The Sport of Kings was mostly from a Guardian obituary of Sir Henry Cecil which I tweaked a bit
So, out of these twelve characters which one is your favourite or the most intriguing?
It’s probably Hedy Lamarr. It was again really weird how I found out about her. I was watching a documentary on The Adverts and they said that Gaye Advert, the bass player, looked like Hedy Lamarr. I’d never heard of her so, onto Wikipedia and it had this stuff about her inventing Bluetooth, “Aye right, typical Wikipedia,” I thought, but I looked a bit further and sure enough, she had developed a forerunner of the technology. I was playing a gig and when I was introducing the song some guy shouted out, “Oh, she didn’t actually invent Bluetooth,” and I was like, “Okay, this is a gig, not a lecture, let’s just say she did for the sake of the song.” But there was so much more about her, married six times, done for shoplifting, just a fascinating life but such a hard one. People think; Hedy Lamarr, rich and famous, but she was beaten up by her husbands, she wanted to be a scientist but the guys in charge said no, they didn’t want that, they just wanted her for her looks and that’s what that line, “every time the lights shine down you disappear,” means, Hedy Lamarr vanishes and all we see is the character she’s playing.
Picture copyright Shaun Purser
You’ve said the release of the EP wraps up this VIP phase so what’s next on the cards?
There’s a tour coming up for late February and March, all over the place right down to Torquay and back up again. In London I’m doing a show called Boo Hewerdine and Friends along with Chris Difford and Brooks Williams, we did it last year at the Ely folk festival. We all do short sets and then bits together and it went down a bomb so I’m really looking forward to doing it again. It’s an honour to play with Boo and Brooks and especially with Chris Difford, he’s one of the greatest lyricists in the world in my opinion, him and Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello.
Then I’ve been thinking about a couple of projects. I’ve been living in Glasgow for 20 years come October so I’d really like to do something around that, 20 years in Glasgow, although it might need a snappier title. I’m also really keen to do a folky type thing with some of the hip hop artists around, folk like Loki and Solareye from Stanley Odd, I’ve got this thing in my head that’s a folk hip hop thing that I want to sort out. And then there’s a song writing workshop with Karine Polwart. That’s already sold out and it’s pretty exciting. Teaching or tutoring has really blossomed over the past few years and I’ve been really lucky because I’ve been doing it for some time so I’ve got the skills needed. Apart from the workshops with Karine I’ve done stuff at the Scottish Music Centre and some really interesting work with Vox Luminis who work with prisoners and their families. I went to Castle Huntly prison with Louis Abbott and Donna Maciocia for three days and we wrote songs with the guys in there and it was fantastic.
There’s also a couple of commissioned pieces I’m doing. One for the Hartlepool Folk Festival writing about East Durham and that was really interesting. East Durham is where the final scene in Get Carter was filmed, the black beach and the coal being tipped out to sea. Well now it looks like the Mediterranean, the sea is blue, so clear you can see the rocks below. It’s a beautiful place now but its surrounded by all these old colliery towns that have problems, no work and lots of drugs. A really rich history to write about. I’ve also been asked to write a song for the 250th anniversary of my hometown Grantown on Spey.
Finally, how did it feel when The Telegraph put VIP in second place in their folk album of the year list?
Fantastic, really really fantastic. Stuff like that, well it helps when you try to get a gig, they might not seem too interested but when you point that out they perk up a bit. It’s like a passport and it’s helping to open doors in America and hopefully Europe, I’d really like to do more tours over there.
So there we have it. The album, EP and book are all available via Findlay’s Bandcamp page and his tour dates are all here including a show at The Glad Cafe on March 2nd. All very interesting indeed and, who knows, the knowledge contained within might just include that esoteric piece of information that will win you the tiebreak in your local pub quiz. If not, well, just enjoy some very fine and very interesting music.