I first encountered MacGillivray when she supported Current 93 at the Union Chapel last year. Her set meddled with the tenses of time; the songs were both anxious explorations into the unknown and the fruits of beautifully honed creative craft, often placing voice and single instrument (piano, autoharp) in stark dialogue. Earlier this month she released her incredible new record, Once Upon A Dirty Ear, through which the sounds I heard at the Union Chapel were elevated into ambient clouds and dragged downward into subterranean raves. You can read my review of the album here.
You worked with Eric Random and James Young for Once Upon A Dirty Ear, both of whom I believe you’ve worked with previously. What draws you to working with these people? How was it working with both again for this new record?
Well working long-term with Young has had a seminal influence on my work. He found me in an art school context and really it was like embarking on another degree or studio apprenticeship, from a complete immersion in obscure and rare music to intensive production values from his time co-writing and producing with John Cale. The kind of precision introduced to me in terms of the editing process or instrumental balance has stood me in good stead and I feel my ear has been really honed and perfected through being exposed to this kind of rigour. Eric Random was enormously generous both with studio time and further technical support but also with a fastidious musicianship. I’d provided guest vocals for Random’s Klangalerie release Man Dog, which was also a special and interesting process. So on both counts it was a steep learning curve but one forged in friendship, a friendship that will last I hope. For OUADE I brought as much to the table as Young and Random in terms of production, recording, writing and performing but “Touched By Fire”, “Watergaw” and “Winter Song” really do belong to Young and “Dirty Knife” was worked up hard at Random’s Manchester studio. My decisions in the record were to include some unheard older material alongside new works structured in relation to those and to make the whole album cohere. I have to say that Tim Noble from Hundred Acre Recordings was brilliantly sympathetic to my ideas for the album and mastered it beautifully. It has made a huge difference working with a record label which is run by a musician; Tim is one half of the well-respected Lowland Hundred and my experience of working with him has been one of real warmth, great communication and respect for the material which really is very rare.
I’ve heard you talk before about the placement and prominence of the voice in your own music. Where does the voice reside on Once Upon A Dirty Ear for you, and what role does it play? It seems to adopt several different states simultaneously – sometimes very central and clear, sometimes peripheral and translucent.
Well this voice is embedded, I think, on the record. OUADE was hung or suspended around the track “Watergaw” whose title is taken from Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem and the watergaw in Scots is specifically a broken shaft of rainbow. In thinking about it, without wanting to push the metaphor too far, this is a kind of waterous tract with tints of colour where some elements are revealed more fully than others. In real terms, an early 4AD sound was what I was aiming for, reverb soaked and drowning itself out…a dirty ear.
The album feels incredibly sincere for a reason I can’t pinpoint. To what extent is the album autobiographical? I know that you also partake in performance art; does this record come from you so to speak, or are you embodying personalities other than your own?
I wish I could answer this better, as I could have with Horse Sweat Chandelier. I think in some senses, the record is the end of an era in that it now signals a huge change in direction for me. In that way, the album drew together a seam of voices and presences from a chronology of material; a sort of geological handkerchief drawer of a record which was forged in a melancholy and now looking back I suppose it was a premonition of my leaving Oxford to come and live in Scotland and of working to a place where I am still emerging on my own terms as a solo artist. The dancer Martha Graham talked about the Scandinavian concept of ‘Eager Doom’ and this translates as essentially Gaelic to me also. ‘Eager Doom’ is the thing that comes upon an artist – just as in the Gaelic we talk about tiredness or sickness coming upon a person or being ‘on’ someone. ‘Eager Doom’ is also something of the intransigent libido of making; something not to be diffused or ignored. Because so often the default mode of my singing voice – and the instinct behind that voice – seems to be one of lament and because it’s an enthused or urged or urgent lament I was drawn to this notion. For me, much of the voice on the record seems to walk ahead as an urgent lament where I’m only behind, following, sometimes tempering it but most of the time just giving in and letting it have its way.
One song that really penetrates for me is “The Trees Sleep Overtime”. Your voice seems drowsy; half-conscious, even. How did your voice end up this way on this piece?
Well that’s a one-take wonder. You know, because much of the recording was done in Oxford – not in a studio but in the basement practise room of the college I was at and this to me is explicitly something I’ve always done. It started really as child listening to my mother play the piano for hours when we were upstairs supposedly sleeping and this would be a constant in my rather fragmented background, whether we were in Northern Ireland during the troubles, Germany, Hong Kong or parts of the UK. This had a profound influence on me. Then, when was sent away to school at eight I’d spend my time whenever possible in the library or playing the piano for hours myself. I think that was all about escape. So this track came out of that place within me, within the more invisible spaces of an Oxford college and out of an emotional relationship to the piano not as an instrument or a machine but as a solace. And singing it? Well, I’d been watching a great deal of Lillian Gish and locating so many other women within the scope of her presence, her physical vocabulary from Betty Davis to Kate Bush – it’s all there in Gish. It was “The Wind” that arrested me and the account of her losing the skin from her palm on a car door handle when working on set in the Mojave desert because the metal was so hot. And I’d been listening to Mary Margaret O’Hara…so there’s something in the lyric about a viral instinct something which catches and meanders and roams a bit – as in the breeze – something that’s caught on film when you’re watching Gish, as if the wind’s driving right through her but the latent exhaustion of that force she holds in an immense physical tension; in her facial expressions and her physicality. So perhaps this song is a restive place for such heroines to go when they return, tired, dirty with skinned palms back to a strange trailer in a desert. But of course, this is all me thinking it out afterwards. The truth is, with tracks like this, it’s just about going into the zone and having had the luck to have pressed record.
How does your music translate from record into the live environment (and vice versa)? Do your songs change in form? Do they feel different to you?
The instinct is true to form, that much I can say. I think in terms of endless rehearsal, there’s always a suspicion within me that you can haemorrhage the energy of a work but of course there’s structure and the sheer placement of fingers when accompanying yourself. I try to treat the instruments as if they too are singing, as if they have a presence. Now I’m working with two wonderful musicians – Toby Mottershead from The Black Diamond Express and Ben Chatwin of Talvihorros – a very holy trio! I think – aside perhaps from OUADE – that the instinct in the work has been about bringing messages from some sort of Gaelic underworld I’ve cooked up so there’s a serious intent behind much of the material. This does actually play out on OUADE on “Light in the Desert” – the notion of the desert, or “desart” as Ossian would have it being correlative to the so called wilderness of the Highlands. If I’d like to put voice to presence and vice versa in a live context it’s really about evocation and invocation, about wish-intent and drawing out latent ideas of Highland”ness”. Giving musical voice to a Scottish Highland poetic diaspora culture. But all this you can hear much more explicitly on my album Horse Sweat Chandelier which The Wire described as a “fine, mysterious record – shifting between chamber music, Gaelic mountain songs and dramatic chansons”. Of course next is to really put my money where my mouth is and learn the Gaelic. I’m a beginner and I introduce myself in the Gaelic and read poetry in my sets – also a version of Chi Mi Na Morbheanna sits well in the material but a Gaelic album will have to happen at some point in the next year or so.
I see that you also work within the mediums of poetry, performance art and film. To what extent are these mediums separate or linked?
I perceive them as intrinsically linked. The second record I made was conceived as a soundtrack without a film inspired by Edisonian recordings and early radiophonics. In terms of inner and outer worlds it is very easy for me to reconcile the visual, the performative, the oral and the aural – particularly as everything I do circulates first and foremost through the written word, through a poetic and then stabilizes (or de-rails) into the attendant positions of performance art (where the word becomes figurative and silenced – I become an image of the idea), music (where the word is ventriloquised through alternate pitch and the idea of song, of melody) and then text itself (where it matches). I had thought that in making film I would find the perfect medium but it wasn’t as easy as that. The slippage between forms, the rucks and pits, imperfections, silences and types of lostness are all essential to walking between each genre. Film gives you a place to issue a vision of cohesion which is interesting but I’m still looking for the leaky bits…the unresolved, I suppose or the irresolvable. Having said that, I’ve worked on two sound tracks for British director Andrew Kotting and acted opposite Toby Jones and Alan Moore as well as creating a short Gaelic fantasy film on Skye last year and am currently drawing together the means to turn The Last Wolf of Scotland into a Scottish Western which will embody the strange dialect languages of my book from Orcadian to Norn. The interlinking mediums are all tools, really, that fit in an imperfect and therefore compelling way to me as a maker because there’s nothing so fascinating to me – as a Scot – as resistance; and I mean resistance of certain parts fusing with others like badly wired neon or patched up fuselage. The trick is to get the thing to switch on and take off.
What have you got coming up next?
I’ve put together an outfit called Ossianix with Stafford Glover and William A. Sarginson of Extreme Noise Terror to make a death metal or as I’ve called it fire metal album called Decay Flame using Ossianic poetry. I’m going on tour to Australia and the US performing with a whisky tin guitar and reading from The Last Wolf of Scotland and I’ve currently received an award from Creative Scotland to set Mary Queen of Scots’ poetry to music using a dulcitone and sampling the air in each space she lived, was imprisoned and died in to create the reverberation for each track as a kind of conceptual chamber music.
MacGillivray’s website – www.macgillivray.org.uk