Malcolm MacWatt. Settler. Need To Know Music

Transatlantic Connections is of course the title of a series of successful TV shows and an ensuing (and usually sold out) live gig franchise. It might be a fear of being sued which prevented Malcolm MacWatt from giving this title to his excellent debut album but it would have been most appropriate. MacWatt, a Scots musician from Morayshire, has crafted a set of songs which relate to the Scottish diaspora, those who settled in the new world and elsewhere, usually leaving everything behind but their culture. In the end, MacWatt settled on Settler as the title and we’ll just have to settle with that, given that it is also quite appropriate.

While MacWatt’s songs have Celtic blood and a healthy dose of Appalachia coursing through their veins, he opens up the connections by having Jaimee Harris, Gretchen Peters and Laura Cantrell join him on the venture and Eliza Carthy adds a fine dose of English earthiness. These four song sirens might be considered the icing on the cake but all of the songs here stand tall on their own merit. On the strength of them MacWatt deserves to be considered alongside Jackie Leven, Ross Wilson of Blue Rose Code and even Dick Gaughan.

While several songs do address relocation and emigration, many are engaged with the perils and tribulations our settlers faced and there are also occasions when MacWatt nods to contemporary issues. Trespass begins as a diatribe against land ownership depriving local folk of access to their traditional country ways and ends with a dour description of run down town centres, local shops shut while the supermarket is a magnet. The opening song, Avalanche And Landslide is another contemporary number and, while it’s an attractive listen, one can’t help wonder why it’s placed first and foremost. With a jaunty beat and snakelike slide guitar it’s the most American sounding song here and it seems essentially to be a protest song and somewhat out of kilter with what is yet to come. It sounds great and Jaimee Harris adds some excellent gospel inspired vocals but we can’t help but think that this might have been a song to close on rather than open with.

No such quibbles regarding Letter From San Francisco which is a rousing tale of a hardscrabbled sailor’s life stranded in San Francisco, his money gone, his only comforts prostitutes and opium, his words a last testament of sorts, destined to be sent to his mother once he’s dead. This is ten times better than any old sea shanty which might be getting pushed your way these days. Ghosts Of Caledonia is where MacWatt starts to emulate some of those mentioned above. It’s a sinewy and twisting folk rock song, misty and evocative with some brilliant lyrics – “All you ghosts of Caledonia before Columba came/To put you pagan Picts and Celts and witches to the flame.”

We drift somewhere amidst the Appalachians and ye olde England  for The Curse Of Molly McPhee which has Laura Cantrell joining in on a song which ticks all of the boxes to be considered a child of The Child Ballads. It’s a deliciously dark tale of love, lust and witchcraft, ending with an execution. It has the cut and thrust and sheer brio that inspired Fairport Convention’s Matty Groves and it’s really quite astonishing to realise that MacWatt wrote this song. Gretchen Peters is next up, joining MacWatt on another powerful song, a valediction for those settlers who sailed from Scotland’s shores on My Bonny Boys Have Gone. If a song could weep tears, this one would and Peters closes the song with a perfect balance of sentimentality and regret. Somewhat astonishingly, MacWatt goes one better on The Miller’s Daughter which is a gnarled and windblown blast of rural lust which comes across like a Thomas Hardy novel. Eliza Carthy is the vocal foil here and she is indeed, earthy and compelling.

While the album reaches its apogee on this delightful vocal collaborative trilogy, there’s a fine historical bent to the tale of John Rae’s Welcome Home which is the true tale of an Orkney born Arctic explorer, celebrated in Canada but vilified in his time by the establishment. With Kris Drever providing subtle guitar, it’s another example of MacWatt invoking a folk strain and bringing it bang up to date. The album closes with MacWatt’s impressionistic evocation of his homeland coast on North Atlantic Summer, a return of sorts to the spirit of Ghosts Of Caledonia and suffused with the spirit, the history and geography of our highlands and islands and those brave emigrants. A sorry tale which continues to this day as beleaguered folk still take to the waters to escape ruin.


Various artists. Choctaw Ridge – New Fables Of The American South 1968-1973. Ace Records


Bobbie Gentry’s Ode To Billy Joe, a massive hit in 1967, is the template for this compilation of storytelling songs of the American south, all of them released in the following five years, a fairly tumultuous period in The States. The album is the latest to be compiled for Ace Records by Bob Stanley and Martin Green (both with a fine pedigree in dredging up fantastic songs from the past) and Choctaw Ridge is a fascinating listen whether you are au fait with the period or just intrigued by the approving mentions of it on social media in advance of its release.

Ode To Billy Joe itself isn’t present but Gentry does appear on Belinda, a banjo driven tale of a lonesome bar room dancer, and it’s snapshots such as this which pepper the album. Well-known names such as Dolly Parton, Mike Nesmith, John Hartford and Kenny Rogers all appear but lesser known artists such as Rob Galbraith, Sammi Smith and Henson Cargill can startle with their contributions. Aside from Gentry, Lee Hazlewood gets credit for originating this amalgam of country and pop and he has two appearances here while Jim Ford and Tony Joe White provide some swampier moments.

The album is a rich tapestry of adventurous styles, intricate arrangements, and songs some of which, at the time, ventured into territory rarely spoken about never mind being played on the radio. It’s a fabulous listen.

Audrey Spillman. Neon Dream.

Until Neon Dream dropped through the letterbox, Audrey Spillman was somewhat of a mystery to us here at Blabber’n’Smoke. We’d heard (and seen ) her as part of the Buffalo Blood collective (featuring her husband, Neilson Hubbard along with Joshua Britt and Dean Owens) which, in itself was something of an offshoot of Hubbard and Britt’s Orphan Brigade. Due diligence reveals that Spillman has a couple of albums and EPs already under her belt and had also acted in an independent film, Wheeler, alongside Stephen Dorff and Kris Kristofferson. Having heard Neon Dream, it’s fair to say that we’ll be checking out those past releases as we have truly succumbed to Spillman’s bewitching songs on Neon Dream.

The album opens with Austin Motel which contains the lyric providing the album’s title, a title which is quite apt as much of this album is a dreamlike reverie with Spillman’s voice somewhat spellbinding. Her hubby Hubbard, Will Kimbrough and Dan Mitchell are the musicians who provide the ingredients and they are perfect dream weavers, the delicate arrangements perfectly suited to the voice. Austin Motel is a perfect example as the song undulates between swooning guitar and percussive pops and fully fledged Neon lit Americana. Beyond The Blue is delivered in similar fashion with its fusion of pop and roots reminiscent of Neko Case on albums such as Blacklisted.

Elsewhere, Spillman digs a little deeper into her own voyage with Red Balloon an intimate recollection of a child’s relationship to her father while Little Light Of Mine is a delicate song to her infant son, sweetened immensely by the superbly restrained and cosseting guitars.  On a darker note, Go On And Fly is an eulogy to her late stepmother but it has a universal touch.

A cover of Summertime, the Porgy & Bess chestnut, might seem surprising but Spillman and crew actually manage to breathe new life into it, their resurrection is wonderfully languid and limpid. Stretching across to the Buffalo Blood project, there’s also Spillman’s take on White River which adheres, for the most part, to the original but with glistening guitar murmurings adding to its quiet majesty.


Arksong : The Return of Marc Pilley

Cast your mind back to the year 2000 and there was a band called Hobotalk who created some waves in the general music scene. Their debut album, Beauty In Madness had been critically acclaimed and apparently was in the running for The Mercury Prize, but sales didn’t reflect that acclaim. Caught up in issues regarding their label, Hut, a subsidiary of Virgin Records, the band disbanded with leader and songwriter Marc Pilley taking some time out to reconsider his career.

Come 2005, Pilley revived the band with a new line-up and went on to release three superb albums on Glitterhouse Records. Again there was a positive reception from a small knit community, especially in Europe, but, once again, it just kind of petered out after their final release, 2008’s Alone Again Or. Since then, Pilley kind of disappeared from the scene, so it was a welcome surprise to find him back on stage a short while ago when, now billed as Arksong, he supported My Darling Clementine at the latest Glasgow Americana Festival. Appearing solo, Pilley plied the audience with a set of new songs which he has been carefully crafting over the past few years. His honeyed vocals were immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with Hobotalk and it was a joy to see him again.

It turns out that since around mid 2019, Pilley has been quietly releasing a series of albums and EPs in a DIY manner under the name of Arksong, selling them though his website and Bandcamp. After that gig, we delved into these and were quite astonished to find what amounts to a treasure trove of songs. Pilley has stripped his music back to, in the main, his voice and guitar, and recorded his songs in his garden shed. Despite this deliberately homegrown independence, there is much of what made Hobotalk such a compelling listen still evident. Pilley’s voice, quite mellifluent, a distant cousin of Tim Hardin’s, remains present. Nature and the seasons still feature with the music evocative of being beyond civilisation, a sense amplified by the beautifully stark black and white photographs which adorn the releases (all photographed by Pilley’s wife, Pam).

With Pilley’s most recent album, Ruin Valley Rising, glued to our stereo system, Blabber’n’Smoke reached out to him in his little garden cottage just outside of Edinburgh to chat about Arksong.

The last we heard of you was in 2008 when the final Hobotalk album was released. It’s been a long time.

Indeed it has. People still ask me about Beauty in Madness and that came out, oh, more than 20 years ago. I think it’s true to say that back then I didn’t really take care of business. When I’m asked about it I’ll tell folk that if you have a group of people who step in and say, here’s a bunch of money and we’ll take care of all this for you, a warning bell should go off. It’s really more important to take care of business yourself and by that I mean looking after relationships. If you take care of your business, each working relationship, then you’ll be much better placed to step forward. I didn’t do that back then. After Beauty In Madness, I took time out to go to Canada for several years and then I came back with a new band which I still called Hobotalk. We were signed to Glitterhouse and we grew quite a good following in Europe but eventually that came to a halt. Basically, I stopped thinking about having guitar, bass, drums and keyboards and I really got down to just my acoustic guitar and song writing.

So, what prompted you to come back as Arksong?

Well, I stopped doing a lot of things but the two things I didn’t stop were black coffee and song writing. Song writing seems to be the way I move though the world and I kept on doing that. It was my wife who said to me that there was no point in having all of these songs I’d written just sitting there, under a bushel if you like, so I reckoned it was time to record them and to say to people, here are some of my songs.

As you say, most of the songs are just you and your guitar but Ruin Valley Rising has some guests playing on it.

At first it was just me in my shed, singing and playing the songs. I recorded them and Ross Edmund, the original guitar player in Hobotalk who is a very gifted producer these days and runs a small studio called The Medicine Hut, mixed and produced the discs. On my last record, Ruin Valley Rising however, I asked some friends to join me and it was lovely to have The Unthanks, Ainslie Henderson, Henry Priestman, Mairi Campbell and Steve Balsamo all contribute.

I’ve really enjoyed listening to the albums and it strikes me that, on a song such as Turn To Me (on Everything’s Coming Home) you are walking in the footsteps of someone like Tim Hardin, a comparison which was often made in the Hobotalk days. Can you tell us a little about the music you were listening to when you were starting out?

I actually started off as a drummer but after a while I wasn’t enjoying the songs I was drumming on so I started writing my own. I was actually talking to Michael Weston King about this the other week when we played the Glasgow show. The first albums I remember really listening to were Bless The Weather by John Martyn and the three Nick Drake albums -I remember being floored by them and thinking this is what I want to do. When I was living in Dunbar I got to know Brian Hogg (Edinburgh based rock writer, author of All That Ever Mattered: The Story Of Scottish Rock and Pop and editor of Bam Balam magazine). I used to go round to his place where he had a huge record collection and he’d start at A and go through his collection with me to Z. It was Brian’s record collection which had a huge influence on me. It’s very hard to have something like a favourite list as it always changes but I’ve been asked that in the past and I always try to mention Tim Hardin, John Martyn, Joni Mitchell, Gillian Welch, Grant Lee Phillips and Justin Townes Earle. I think that Justin was really going places. You’ve probably heard Charlie Patton and I think that Justin was on that road. He was doing that howling at the stars thing and I thought it was going to get really exciting. Poor chap, that’s not going to happen now.

I enjoyed your contribution to the Jackie Leven tribute album, The Wanderer.

I was really honoured to be asked to participate on that. Jackie is one of those artists, a bit like Fred Neil, who are actually treasures but when you mention them to people they don’t know who you are talking about. I can’t believe that they don’t get more recognition.

So, what are your future plans?

The Glasgow Americana show was the first I’ve done in a long while and I really enjoyed being back on a stage again. I’m hoping to be touring again soon, here and in Europe where I’ve still got a lot of faithful fans. I’ll be playing solo as I think that it works out pretty well with just me and my guitar and my voice. I like to squeeze as much music as I can out of the least instrumentation. I’m currently recording songs for a new album but it won’t come out until next year.

So, keep you eyes peeled for news of Pilley playing anywhere near you soon. You can listen to and purchase his albums here and visit his website here.