Saturday, 7 May 2022



I did think I might do more on the blog this year but since my last post (a poem just after the start of Russia’s attack on Ukraine) I’ve had nothing to offer here (though I’ve had a couple of false starts). I’ve been posting pics and things on Instagram (where I have some good interactions) and Twitter (where I have very little) but a blog post (for me) is more of an undertaking. What have you got to say that needs this space? What needs more than the 280 characters for Twitter or the tiny Insta slots (that many people won’t read anyway – it being more about the images)? In the past couple of months the answer to that has been nothing special. I follow the news. I follow lots of campaigners and other writers and musicians and artists and see what they are doing and saying. I get on with my own day jobs and family responsibilities and float about like a pretty useless, dirty old feather in the wind. I have absolutely not been writing any poems; I’m barely writing my diary just now. Instead, like most of us with our ever-present cameras (via phones), I take photos, grab memories, look at them again and again to remind myself of good things and good times (even just that cup of tea in the sunshine, that feisty flower growing out of the pavement). I’m not a person who talks about things like ‘being grounded’ but I suppose that’s what they do for me. It’s something like that.

Also it’s a difficult contrast that, with wars and struggles still ongoing in so many places, it has turned to spring here and that’s very welcome. There are colours and new life all around and that feels so mighty. I’ve been reading some great books, listening to some lovely music (some old, some new, see above). I have been lucky enough to get out a bit and been to a couple of exhibitions and shows with our daughter. It’s a small life – but what else would it be?

Saturday, 12 March 2022

Dear Russian People


Russki narod (Russian people)

I remember you now,

faces set hard 

against the coldest wind.

Who has more power?

You have risen before,

carried long the weight 

of a thousand deprivations.

Rise up again.

You can be stronger than us,

with our tatty tories, 

that pathetic piss of pride.

We watch too much.

But soldiers, listen

to grandmothers, children,

so many ordinary people:

don’t take the bait. 

For what stops war?

People, enough people, 

just saying no, 

I will not kill.

RF 2022

What to say about Ukraine? Should we say anything? Should we just listen? Ukraine is not a country I know (though of course we’re all getting to know it pretty well just now – its leader, its fighters, right down to the young child singing Let it go in the bomb shelter). Even if we sit fairly far away, this feels like a pretty instant war as it streams right to us, many tweets at a time. I’ve been doing the same as many of you – giving goods and funds and then trying to remember that other places and causes still need support too (and get forgotten when a major event like this happens and fills our news and minds). It’s still important to keep supporting work elsewhere, and to support work happening nearer to home too. So much to do, to think about.

I've never been to Ukraine but, in this particular conflict, the aggressor is a country I do know a little about and therefore it is Russia that I have found myself thinking and writing about in recent days. I studied Russian (with very little dedication) in the 1980s (language, history and literature). I also went to the USSR (Moscow and, what was then, Leningrad) a couple of times at around the same time. For the first trip I went to study Russian for a couple of weeks in 1987 (I was 20). The second time I was working as a tour ‘guide’, accompanying a group of North American teenagers and their teachers for a week or so in 1989. The ‘guide’ is in quotes because really my dashing Soviet colleague (a Natasha, I think, lots of blue eye shadow) did most of the guiding whilst I answered questions about hairdryers, translated the food, listened to complaints about the food. All the photos in this post are from my 1987 USSR visit. I had no time for photography the second time (and obviously no camera phone back then). My memory of the second trip is just running all the time (it was a cheapskate company,  Swedish I think, so everything was late or badly organised and this led to situations like all fifty of us running through an airport in Paris from our bus drop-off to the plane).

In 1988 I had the chance to spend more time in the USSR (a few months studying in the chosen Soviet town of Voronezh, I think it was) but the couple of weeks in ’87 had been enough and I declined. It was so grim and the people were so sad and bored and hopeless (and my other language was Spanish – some much more inviting locations). I am currently reading Cal Flynn’s Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape and one of the places visited in this book is modern-day Chernobyl. This led me to reread a 2019 article in The New Yorker by Masha Gessen about the difference between the TV show Chernobyl and the reality. In the NY piece the line “Resignation was the defining condition of Soviet life” jumped right out. I had seen bleak before (the North East of England in the ’80s wasn’t exactly the golden age of anything) but still, there was so little joy in the air in the USSR. I remember the public toilets were brilliant – plentiful and clean. It’s not exactly the stuff of dreams.

Over the years I followed changes in the USSR and then Russia from afar. To be honest, I havent wanted to rush back (and my Russian is very faint) but I’ve watched news and features, and documentaries where Scottish comedians or English actresses go out there and try to see what on earth Russia is all about. I’ve read long articles and threads about Putin and Pussy Riot and Russian influence and Russian money, about Syria and Russia, Facebook and Russia, Trump and Russia, Westminster and Russia. In particular I’ve read everything I’ve seen lately about Russians protesting this war on Ukraine. I know protesting there (like in so many places) is very difficult but I hope protests continue and grow and have some effect. I know the Russian authorities have long been good at keeping things from their people (many governments do this of course, if not all) but I’ve read that younger Russians are VPN-ready and seeing media from elsewhere too. I know most poems right now will be written about Ukraine – about loss and bravery, about hardship and pride – and many of them will be brilliant poems that will fill anthologies in the years to come. Still, I send this one out to Russia, to ordinary Russian people. Most of us have so little power but we have to do something. To better times.

Tuesday, 22 February 2022

All Becomes Art (Part One)

No music today, just a poem, mainly because that poem (the one in the video above) is in a new book. The book is called All Becomes Art – Part One and it is published by Speculative Books. All the writing in it is inspired or in some way connected with the work of the brilliant visual artist Joan Eardley (1921-1963). There are more than 50 other contributors (and I think a Part Two still to come) so there’s plenty to explore. There was due to be a launch for this book in Glasgow today but it has been postponed till late March so I thought I’d tell you about it here (it’s available now from Speculative Books). 

My poem in the book is She’s not there – something I wrote back in 2007 after seeing Joan Eardley’s 1943 self-portrait a couple of times in Edinburgh (you can see that self-portrait on the National Galleries page I linked to already). I already knew about her because we lived on the Angus coast in Scotland from 2002 (in Auchmithie, then Montrose) and she lived for years just up the coast in Catterline. Although she died in the 1960s she is very much still a presence in that part of the world and she painted its landscapes over and over. Her studio in Catterline (‘the Watchie’) is still a working studio and the current resident is the hugely talented Stuart Buchanan (we are the proud owners of a couple of his paintings).

Joan Eardley’s life story caught my attention for various reasons but, as often happens, it was something we shared that dug into my brain and is certainly part of the background to this poem. Her father had mental health issues and killed himself when she was a young girl (as mine did). Also, like me, “the details of his death were not explained” to her until years later (I actually found out about mine from a girl I met at secondary school, something I wrote about on Day 5 of my Fun A Day project last year). Joan Eardley’s father had fought in World War One and died in 1929. Mine was a village GP in the very early days of the NHS (he qualified during WW2) and died in 1973. I keep a kind of mental list of well-known people who talk or write about the fact that their fathers killed themselves (I don’t really want to, but I do). The lovely poet/writer Salena Godden, for example, is another person on the list. Every now and then I wonder how much it affects a person’s work to have that particular event in their background. I suppose it must (Salena’s most recent book is Mrs Death Misses Death). I don’t think it is the worst thing that can happen to a person (for many of us in this situation these weren’t fathers we knew very well, often they were already absent in many ways) but it is still a significant thing and it stays with you more than you want it to maybe. It makes you more aware of death than the average child, perhaps, makes you less trusting of the stories people tell you.

This poem has always done well for me (it was named, of course, after the song by the Zombies, though I first knew the Santana version as my next brother up was a Santana fan). I am grateful to the publishers for still accepting it for this lovely wee book even though it has appeared both online and in my own first book in 2008. I’ve never been a big fan of the whole “we can’t accept it if even your cat has read it” approach taken by so much of the poetry industry (I understand it but I find it tiresome all the same) so big cheers to Speculative Books for being a bit more flexible. We can get too tied up in the admin of our art at times I think and that can be counter-productive. Joan Eardley stood out in all the elements and did her fabulous paintings – she made the art – and that’s the most important thing. Plus I enjoy this kind of detail: poet Andrew McMillan recently tweeted (regarding a poem of his that “people often seem to return to”): “it was rejected from tons of magazines, disappeared into competitions- always just write what you want to write.” Sounds good to me.

I’m nearly done here but did I say “no music”? It seems I (almost) lied as Kris Drever (the songwriter I wrote about on Day 19 of this year’s Fun a Day series) has a song about Joan Eardley and Catterline (it’s called Catterline). Along with songs by lots of other Scottish songwriters, it’s on an album put together by Stonehaven Folk Club called Sense of Place that you can get here. I just ordered a copy.

Thursday, 10 February 2022

Outro - Songwriters' Choices

“I’m gonna take myself a piece of sunshine”

It’s been a week or so since I finished my Fun A Day Dundee writing project for this year. If you missed it, it was a post a day in January, each one about a different song (and you can see the full list of the 31 songs back here). Every day I wrote about how I got to know the song, about the songwriter/s and about the artists that had performed or recorded the songs too. In many cases I had responses from the songwriters about their song (and in a couple of cases quite long interviews). In one instance (for the song Piece of Clay on Day 5) I had a response from Carleen Anderson who recorded that song in the 1990s. I met many of the songs in the project via the folk club in Montrose but there were a few tangents too. The oldest song was from the 1930s, the newest from last year.

I would like to say a big thank you to every songwriter and artist who contributed to the series of posts in some way and also to all those who shared, retweeted, commented and/or liked any of the posts. Please remember to support all those artists (and others) when you can – I think I’ve doubled my Bandcamp library in the last couple of months! The recent Spotify saga does seem to mean a lot of people are reconsidering how they access their music and hopefully that will lead to better times for musicians.

One of the things I asked of the songwriters last month was to name a song by someone else that they wished they had written. Obviously, it’s a bit of a daft question – most of us love so many songs that it’s hard to pick one – but these things are always just ways in to new (and old) music. I know it’s the kind of question you might give a different answer to on any given day, and what it’s brought up is by no means a definitive list of all the great songs in the world, but it is a list of good songs (no more, no less). Because there was so much else in each of the 31 posts, I thought these recommendations might get a bit lost so below is a list of the songs that were mentioned (and there’s a YouTube playlist of them here). I’m not going to say who suggested which song so if you want to know that you’ll have to read all the posts (and if you’ve read them once and forgotten you’ll just have to read them all again). Most of the versions in the YouTube playlist are by the songwriters in question but for one, where there are two songwriters and each has a separate version, I picked a version by someone else, so as not to pick a favourite.

God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind) written by Randy Newman. 

The Freedom Come-All-Ye written by Hamish Henderson 

I’m Looking for My Own Lone Ranger written by Charlie Dore and Ricky Ross

I’m Still Here written by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan

Winter Wonderland written by Felix Bernard and lyricist Richard Bernhard Smith.

Man on a String written by Jason Feddy 

On a Sea of Fleur de Lis written by Richard Shindell 

One Foot in the Grave written by Rayna Gellert & Kieran Kane

Tonya’s Twirls written by Loudon Wainwright III 

Making Pies written by Patty Griffin

Who Knows Where the Time Goes written by Sandy Denny

Diamonds and Rust written by Joan Baez

Samson written by Regina Spektor

If I Stayed written by Kristina Olsen

Torn Screen Door written by David Francey

Shepherd written by Anaïs Mitchell

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin

Goodbye Joe written by Bid (of The Monochrome Set)

Blackbird written by Paul McCartney

Anarchy in the UK written by Paul Cook, Steve Jones, John Lydon, Glen Matlock

A Case of You written by Joni Mitchell

Blue written by Joni Mitchell

I Think It Is Going to Rain Today written by Randy Newman

Blues Run the Game written by Jackson C. Frank

I really enjoyed the varied responses to this (and indeed to all the questions). At least one of the songwriters in the list above (Anaïs Mitchell) has been all over the radio here in the past couple of weeks, thanks to a brilliant new album. There were some lovely details in other parts of the interviews last month too (for starters, Kim Edgar’s save-the-day art teacher and Rhona Macfarlane’s lyrics written on a till receipt). As I wrote in some of the posts, research included listening to lots of songwriter interviews and especially the Mastertapes radio series. A detail I loved in one of those was from the Suzanne Vega Mastertapes from 2012 where she talked about playing whole albums (instead of just single tracks) and the reaction of her daughter to listening to a full Bob Dylan album (‘why are we sitting here listening to a whole bunch of songs by the same guy?’). I almost mentioned Suzanne Vega in the Rachel Sermanni post on Day 30 as I felt they had something in common but it felt forced and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I wanted to say so I dropped that idea.

After finishing the January posting frenzy, it was a dash down to a family funeral in Leeds, England for us last week. The photo at the top of the post is the Angel of the North in Gateshead that we passed on the way south (and in fact a song of the same name was mentioned in one of the posts last month too). Funerals (and traveling in general) heighten emotions and responses, I think, and it was flash after flash (roads, big art, first snowdrops of the year at the crematorium, music, even a poem, music, back on roads again). Some of the music I encountered last week was watching an online concert last Friday evening by one of January’s featured artists (Day 26’s Blue Rose Code – this time as a duo, Ross Wilson and Paul Harrison). In the concert Ross talked about Elton John (interesting as one of his songs is in the list in this post – can you remember which songwriter picked that in January?). Then for their cover version Ross and Paul did a song I absolutely loved in my teens (Sunshine after the Rain by Elkie Brooks, hear it here). That single by Elkie came out in 1977 but hung around on commercial radio a lot longer (certainly I heard it on Radio Tees in the 1980s and cried along with it every time my teenage heart felt broken, i.e., quite a lot). I didn’t know it back then but it was written in 1968 by Ellie Greenwich, who I should have heard of, she was a big Brill building writer, but in honesty I never have done until now, even though a quick peek at her Wikipedia page will tell you “she wrote or co-wrote Da Doo Ron Ron, Be My Baby, Then He Kissed Me, Do Wah Diddy Diddy, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), Hanky Panky, Chapel of Love, Leader of the Pack, and River Deep – Mountain High, among others”. Sunshine after the Rain was on Ellie Greenwich’s 1968 album Ellie Greenwich Composes, Produces & Sings and there was another version of the song by Berri in 1994/1995.

Back at home in Dundee this Sunday I was listening to one of my favourite radio shows (Cerys Matthews on BBC 6 Music) and she was interviewing the poet Roger Robinson who picked one of my all-time favourite songs to play (I Think I’ll Call It Morning by Gil Scott-Heron, written by Gil and Brian Jackson, the song is on the 1971 album Pieces of a Man and the quote at the top of the post is from this song). Regular readers will know I am a huge fan of Gil Scott-Heron (and I did mention him in one of this January’s posts too). I saw him live only once (at the Leeds Irish Centre, maybe in 1992, he was brilliant) and I wrote a poem about him too (it’s on this post back in 2012). I’ve always thought I Think I’ll Call It Morning would make a perfect funeral song (I Think I’ll Call It Mourning?) and it’s certainly high on my list for that. Like many great songs this one has joy and sadness mixed up so thoroughly that you don’t know what you’re feeling as you listen (but whatever it is, it’s amazing). 

I’m not sure where else this blog will go in 2022. I suppose that’s kind of exciting. See you there.

Monday, 31 January 2022

Day Thirty-One - Tentsmuir Sky

“Let me feel it, the weight of all the years gone by”

You can hear an audio version of this post here.

Today’s song is Tentsmuir Sky written by Roseanne Reid. I first heard this song (perhaps the newest one I’m looking at this month) when Scottish musician and songwriter Roseanne released it in February 2021. I loved it from the first listen and, particularly as Tentsmuir is very local to us (just over the river in Fife), I sent the Bandcamp link for the song to lots of friends and family (with a ‘Buy this now – it’s ace!’ kind of a message). Tentsmuir is a beautiful place and the song matches it perfectly. It is also on an EP that came a little later (Horticulture). And on that all I have to say is: Buy it now, it’s ace.

I first came across Roseanne sort of by accident (and not at Montrose Folk Club, that was the starting point for this project but I’ve moved a few miles south for this post). It was September 2017 and we were still living in Montrose but our daughter Heather and I came into Dundee for a poetry event at Abertay University and that’s where we heard Roseanne. There are few poetry events in Angus (one reason I organised some when we lived there) so generally you have to go a little further afield to the likes of Aberdeen, St Andrews, Glasgow and Edinburgh to get wordy events. I went through a phase of going to a lot of poetry events (particularly to the St Andrews annual festival StAnza in the noughties, mainly because it wasn’t too far away by train) but by 2017 I had slowed down on that front. To be honest there are very few poetry events that I enjoy as I’m not one for the silent adoration of published poets (reminds me too much of quaker meetings in my youth perhaps) and I’m not 100% into slam culture either. I think that mostly I like poems and poets that fall between the two*. All of this meant I hadn’t been to many poetry events around this time and had well and truly got out of the habit. We had had some family stuff going on too, more life than poetry, but I suppose I thought it was time I made an effort so I persuaded the daughter to come with me into Dundee for this event in 2017. She was applying to study English so I said it would be good for her (like vegetables). She finishes her degree this summer.

The evening in question was a bit of weird night all round for me (I won’t go into all the details here – they are back on a rambly old blog post here if you’re interested) but the best part of it was hearing Roseanne’s voice and her music. I didn’t even know there was going to be music as part of the evening so that was a lovely surprise (I almost always prefer a poetry/music mix, certainly that’s what I always booked when I organised events). The second surprise of the night was that Roseanne was so good! I hadn’t heard of her at that point, knew nothing of her background or her place in the world of music, but her songs were just enchanting and her voice was an engaging mix of confidently smooth but also somehow really on edge (just where I like it). She played maybe six songs, talked about her wife a little and looked just awkward enough to be reassuring (this was much appreciated as I was sitting in the lighting box because the venue made me claustrophobic, pity the poor daughter!). I could see the skill in the poetry that came after (two marvellous and very successful women poets Rachel McCrum and Caroline Bird) but no matter how hard I try I am first and foremost a song and music fan so it was Roseanne’s set that connected with me that night. Someone who can rock a room to another place with just a guitar, a heart full of precious tunes and a voice that soothes and stirs – that, dear readers, is what does it for me. 

Somehow I missed Roseanne’s debut album (2019’s Trails) but I bought a copy recently and it’s gorgeous (there’s a pretty thorough review here). Steve Earle (who she met at his writing workshop in 2014) shows up singing on one track on the album and he is a big supporter of Roseanne’s work (his quote about her, “an outstanding songwriter”, is the first thing you see when you go to her website). We are Steve Earle fans in this house too (and saw him live in Aberdeen in 2009). Teddy Thompson produced Trails and Roseanne has toured with him already and is doing that again in 2022 (right now in fact, dates here). If you want her bio information the best place to get it is probably her own website (here) but I would suggest you listen to her music first. Let the songs tell you who she is. 

When I first heard today’s song Tentsmuir Sky I hadn’t listened to Roseanne’s music for a while. Like many people I sometimes get overloaded with music (so many albums, so many radio shows, another hot new artist on 6 Music every week, another totally classic album that we haven’t listened to for years, another song on a TV show that sends us off down another rabbit hole of another artist we don’t know). We love music but we can’t possibly keep up with it all and sometimes that almost turns it into a chore because we feel we should stay up to date with all our favourites (and others who could be favourites) but we just can’t. At the start of the first lockdown in 2020 I found that, unusually for me, I didn’t want to listen to a lot of music. I was working from home but when not doing that I tried to take myself to somewhere totally different in my head, I think, by listening to audiobooks (the longer, the better) and reading quite a lot (books about train journeys, books about elsewhere and other times).

Then in February 2021 I somehow came across this song Tentsmuir Sky (on social media I suppose). I had just finished last year’s Fun A Day Dundee project (a lot of writing and thinking about home) and was feeling pretty drained (not NHS worker level of drained, I should point out, more Romantic poet on a chaise longue kind of drained). The title jumped out at me because I’ve been to Tentsmuir various times but I’ve never seen it in a song title before (it’s a forest, with amazing beaches, big enough to get lost in and just a few miles away). I also wrote about it on this blog recently (tales of a long walk with a friend and seeing cows on the beach). There are a lot of beautiful places in this local area (so many!) but it is certainly up there with the best (even if it is in Fife**).

Kinshaldy Beach at Tentsmuir, June 2021

Straightway I went to Bandcamp and listened – and the song is just perfect so I’m not going to say any more about it (but Roseanne will, see below). What I will say is that this is the last post of this series and I hope you’ve enjoyed the trip and the songs. I hope if you have liked the music that you will support as many of the artists as you can in any way you can. I am not the main earner in our household (thank god, we’d starve for sure) but the paid work I do currently involves supporting others in a few different ways (and then a lot of what I earn goes out the same way). I just think we have to support each other as much as we possibly can. 

And here’s Roseanne.

When did you write this song?

I wrote ‘Tentsmuir Sky’ in May 2020. The world was in the grips of Covid and lockdowns, and I was desperate to write new material while I couldn’t do anything else. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share about the writing of this song?

I wrote the song about Tentsmuir forest in Fife. It is somewhere my wife and I spent a lot of time while the world was changing, and it offered us a sort of sanctuary, an escape. When we went exploring there, we didn’t use our phones, didn’t expose ourselves to the relentless news and worrying updates from around the world. All we had was each other, the magic of the forest and a beautiful stillness around us.

I wrote the song at home. It actually started as a completely different idea in terms of the narrative, but the original first verse was scrapped and I wrote this version in full in a couple of days. 

Is it a song you particularly like?

I have nothing but fond memories of writing this song. It encapsulates one of the saving graces of our time during lockdown. During what was a tumultuous and isolating period of time, I feel hope when I listen back to this song now. On a personal level, the writing of any new songs last year felt defiant – a sort of expression of faith while we were all walking through the dark.

What is the song you’ve written that you are most proud of?

The song I’ve written that I’m most proud of is ‘I Love Her So’. Lyrically, it’s actually not the most adventurous I’ve been, but it’s honest and true and I value that just as much. The reasons I’m most proud of it have changed over the years actually – sometimes it catches me by surprise with how much courage it takes to get up on stage by myself and sing openly and obviously about my love for another woman. It was the first song I wrote for my wife and my feelings for her have only grown since I wrote this. So while it isn’t my most technically impressive song – it moves people. Other people can relate to this one and I’m immensely proud of that. 

Could you name me one song by someone else that you wish you’d written?

There’s lots of songs I wish I’d written, but ‘Blues Run The Game’ by Jackson C. Frank is right up there. Obviously his performance is such a big part of its magic, but lyrically it’s just devastating. I can’t imagine a more perfect line than “Living is a gamble baby, loving’s much the same”. I think you understand and appreciate a line like that the older you get and the more of life you experience.

Thanks so much to Roseanne for answering questions about Tentsmuir Sky and songwriting. As was mentioned on Day 26, this another song that connects so well to the place being written about. What a fantastic set of songs this has been!

And that’s it from me for this year’s Fun A Day Dundee. These 31 posts will stay up for you to read whenever you like and if you like them please share them (and the links to the musicians and songs) and make sure to enjoy all this lovely music. Thanks again for reading.

*I was interested to hear the most recent winner of the T.S.Eliot prize, Joelle Taylor, say something in a similar vein in this radio interview  (about 9 minutes in). The presenter asked about “the tension between spoken and written” poetry and Joelle said: “I think it’s where art lies, I think it’s where beauty lies, where uprising lies, where possibility lies, and it’s our job to balance in this tension and to explore it and to excavate it as much as possible.”

**A Michael Marra-inspired bit of gentle local rivalry there – see here (p.s. Methil is in Fife). My post on a Michael Marra song was back on Day 12.

This post is part of my Songs That Stick project for 2022’s Fun A Day Dundee (a community arts project that takes place every January). Anyone can take part (you don’t even have to be local to Dundee) and much of the work can be found on Instagram during January (use #FADD2022). There is usually a real-life exhibition later in the year (though this has been online for the past 2 years). The full list of songs I am writing about this year is here. My first post about why I picked this project this time is here.

If you are interested in my Fun A Day Dundee projects for 2020 and 2021 you can start here and here. They are quite different to this one (a short poem and drawings in 2020 and lots of poems and writing in 2021).

Sunday, 30 January 2022

Day Thirty - Lay My Heart


“Build a fire, watch it burn”

You can hear an audio version of this post here.

Today’s song is Lay My Heart written by Rachel Sermanni. This song was released in 2017 (hear it and buy it here) but I first heard it last year (in January 2021) when it was used for the final part of the online Celtic Connections music festival. I’ve mentioned this festival a few times this month already – it’s annual, in Glasgow, and something like the Scottish mothership for players and fans of folk, acoustic and all associated music. Last year Lay My Heart was the soundtrack to a montage that looked back at the festival, all of which had been online. It was a very emotional segment as people all over the world remembered what we had shared, watched and listened to over the previous few weeks. You can still see that montage below (and spot a few of the songwriters from my choices this month in there too). Lay My Heart was a perfect choice for that final broadcast (full details of players on the song on the Bandcamp page too). I listened to the song on repeat for days after and it became another new favourite song. You can have a lot of favourite songs – I have hundreds, if not thousands, by this point. How on earth do we fit them all in our heads, I sometimes wonder?

In fact, permit me a folk club-related aside here. In 2006 I saw a singer-songwriter called Kieran Halpin* at Montrose Folk Club. I can’t say he was one of my favourites but something he said stuck in my mind. He talked about how loving children is like having a jacket that just keeps getting more pockets. You think you have no more love to give but then, lo!, when a child arrives another pocket (full of love) appears like magic. I think someone else, another songwriter, had said this to him but I can’t remember who. We have one child so I haven’t personally tested this theory but certainly it does work for songs. Sometimes I think I don’t have room in my mind/ears/heart for more music and then, lo!, another pocket of space appears! So it was with today’s song.

There isn’t a link to my Montrose Folk Club visits for Lay My Heart (it seems I am all out of those links)I don’t think Rachel Sermanni has played there, in fact I don’t know if she plays folk clubs at all particularly. She is a Scottish singer-songwriter, a musician, and somewhere online I read “The music of Folk-Noir Balladeer, Rachel Sermanni, has the flesh of Folk but, if you were to cut the skin, you’d find it pumped with contemporary, genre blended blood” (I thought I’d read it on her website but can’t see it there now). It is common to use the word ‘artist’ for musicians and for Rachel this word seems exactly right. She’s been putting out music for about a decade and it is textured, careful, interesting, dreamy. I’ve only seen her perform live once but I have friends who are big fans and who have pretty much followed her around the country applauding. One of those friends has always looked at me a bit confused when they’ve suggested I join them on one of these trips and I’ve said no for one reason or another (distance, family responsibilities, nervous dog that can’t be left alone, just general weariness). I think their confusion went along the lines of ‘but this is the most beautiful music, are you mad, why don’t you want to come?’ And now I’ve listened to her songs I can see their point (Breathe Easy on her first album Under Mountains is another lovely one, likewise Old Ladies LamentBanks Are Broken and This Love on Tied to the Moon and that’s just my favourites so far). 

The time I did see her live was as part of the launch show for Celtic Connections 2017 (I mentioned this event already back here). The tickets were a 50th birthday present (for me) and all we knew was that Laura Marling was headlining (and all 3 of us in the family love her albums). There were some amazing surprises though because other artists on the bill were Rachel Sermanni and Adam Holmes, Cara Dillon, Aziza Brahim, Declan O’Rourke and, one of my absolute faves, the Karine Polwart Trio (and this was the event where KP premiered I Burn But I Am Not Consumed – so, so good). It was a great night. Well worth getting old for.

I know the pandemic has been (and continues to be) super tough on people who rely on live events for their income and so I have done my best to support all my favourite artists by buying albums (as directly from them as possible), buying tickets to online shows, donating what I can when there’s a donate option for online festivals and so on. Once it was announced in late 2020 that 2021’s Celtic Connections would all be online we bought a pass and got ready for some great music (at home) last January. We’ve been to the in-person Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow a few times and we’ve always loved it but, what with cost and overnight stays, January weather and all that, when we do go there we get to, at most, a couple of shows. This time we would binge!

And I’d have to say I found last January’s Celtic Connections festival really special. I know online events are generally talked about as less than ‘the real thing’ (and many people have been extremely glad that at least some of this year’s Celtic Connections have been in-person live events) but online events can have their own kind of joy (for some of the audience anyway). I’ve attended lots of events online in the past 2 years that I wouldn’t have managed to get to in-person (some music events but also book festivals, poetry festivals, talks, conferences). There can be all kinds of restrictions to getting to things elsewhere and everyone has their own versions of what’s difficult or just downright impossible. For me I’m still quite (specifically) claustrophobic (after pretty severe anxiety issues in my younger years) so certain venues just feel out of bounds or at least so uncomfortable that I won’t enjoy the event if I go (I can’t relax without a back door exit, make of that what you will). Also I think attending online can make some audiences a little more open to trying new things. Certainly we watched gigs last January that I wouldn’t have bought in-Glasgow tickets for (though I might in future). I am firmly in the #KeepFestivalsHybrid camp.

Last year we enjoyed lots of Celtic Connections events from our sitting room but one of my favourites was The Roaming Roots Revue. Rachel Sermanni was part of it and I saw in that show how she can build an atmosphere and dominate a mood (you can still hear her brilliant version of an Elbow track in that show here). Curated by Roddy Hart and the Lonesome Fire, the Revue is a regular feature of the festival but this was the first one I’d seen (sadly it was one of the cancelled shows this year). Last year’s Revue was brilliant – a great mix of songs and some lovely surprises**. It was only a month or so before that I had been introduced to Roddy Hart’s radio show (Tues nights, BBC Radio Scotland, 10-12 – apologies that it took me so long to find it). I first listened when Kim Edgar (see Day 28) was a guest on their ‘Me In 3’ segment and I fell for the show straightaway. It has interesting music choices and is a really sumptuous, mostly chilled listen. 

Anyway, back to today’s song. At the end of the weeks of amazing music last January we watched the closing event, a little sad that it was all over and that our sitting room would go back to being just a room, instead of a window and an ear to the rhythms of the rest of the world. The closing event was really moving and the montage of moments from the previous few weeks (with Rachel’s beautiful, hypnotic song accompanying them) was a lovely way to say goodbye. Straight after I went and bought Lay My Heart on Bandcamp and have listened to it over the year. I suggest you buy a copy too because (a) it’s amazing and (b) half of all proceeds will go to The BIG Project, a charity dedicated to empowering children and young people to build a BIG future, whatever their background or circumstances.

Just recently I also bought Rachel’s album, 2019’s So It Turns (and it is literally all good). Rachel has a really distinctive voice and it’s such thoughtful music. There is a great range to her songwriting (though I fear she might not often pass my father-out-law’s ’appy songs test – see Day 1). But Lay My Heart is a great place to start if you don’t know her work. In times of trouble (with pandemic fatigue of one sort or another) this song certainly opened a door for me last year, maybe even a floodgate. And since then we’ve taken on another year of all this weight and here we are now, not knowing what will come next, how much lighter or heavier it might get. We all have our ways of coping and for me it’s memories and photos, songs and sights, scribbling and stories. Pockets of peace.

It’s the last day (and the last song) here tomorrow and we’re going to be looking up high to the skies. See you then!

*I went to see what Kieran was up to these days and found that he died in October 2020. You can read about him here. The song about pockets is called The Bigger Picture and is on his 2005 album A Box of Words and Tunes.

**In case you’re interested I found this online piece which ends by summing up the 2021 Roaming Roots Revue: ‘The apt theme for the concert was hope and inspiration, and Roddy charged his guests to select a song which reflected this. Lau, joined by Rachel Sermanni, opted for Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World and the Brewis brothers of Field Music covered Money’s Too Tight to Mention. Ricky Ross contributed a great rendition of There’s Gold in Them Hills before the ensemble gave us a rocking version of The Traveling Wilburys’ End of the LineEverybody Has Got To Live by Arthur Lee was the soulful contribution from Dumfries singer songwriter Beldina Odenyo Onassis, while Strathspey’s own Rachel Sermanni selected Elbow’s One Day Like This. Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil joined in with a superb rendition of Machines. The set proved to be a thoroughly entertaining and uplifting event.’

It was very sad to hear that Beldina, mentioned in the extract above and who used the name Heir of the Cursed, died a few months ago.

This post is part of my Songs That Stick project for 2022’s Fun A Day Dundee (a community arts project that takes place every January). Anyone can take part (you don’t even have to be local to Dundee) and much of the work can be found on Instagram during January (use #FADD2022). There is usually a real-life exhibition later in the year (though this has been online for the past 2 years). The full list of songs I am writing about this year is here. My first post about why I picked this project this time is here.

If you are interested in my Fun A Day Dundee projects for 2020 and 2021 you can start here and here. They are quite different to this one (a short poem and drawings in 2020 and lots of poems and writing in 2021).