John McCusker talks about 'Under One Sky', combining rock and folk, and folk festivals

the composition created for Celtic Connections and Cambridge Folk Festival

published: Fri 28th Nov 2008

Kate Rusby

Thursday 15th January to Sunday 1st February 2009
various venues, Glasgow, Scotland, Scotland MAP
various - from FREE to around £20
last updated: Mon 24th Nov 2008

This week sees the start of the 'Under One Sky' tour. This specially-commissioned composition was created by violinist John McCusker for Celtic Connections, and Cambridge Folk Festival last year. John McCusker brought together diverse styles, genres and traditions; featuring Julie Fowlis, Roddy Woomble, James Mackintosh, Ewen Vernal, Iain MacDonald, Graham Coxon, Andy Cutting, Ian Carr, Emma Reid and singers John Tams and Jim Causley. This week he's taking the festival commission on tour, and hopes to bring the collaboration to more festivals again next year.

Kate Rusby
John McCusker is probably most familiar to readers for composing the music for Billy Connolly's TV series where he goes around on is motorbike, and the soundtrack to Jennifer Saunder's sitcom Jam & Jerusalem. eFestivals had the opprtunity to talk to the violinist about the project, the folk festival scene, and his favourite festival.

How did the commission for 'Under One Sky' come about?
It came about because an organisation called the PRS Foundation and the Scottish Arts Council commission new pieces of music that normally you wouldn't be able to finance yourself, or new pieces of music that might involve different musicians that would never get the chance to play together. It's a brilliant idea, and they approached Eddie Barcan from the Cambridge Folk Festival and the idea behind 'Under One Sky' was to put a group of 12 musicians together, six from England and six from Scotland and to write a piece of music that celebrated two British festivals. the two festivals were Eddie's Cambridge Folk Festival and the wonderful Celtic Connections up in Glasgow.

The idea was to involve 12 musicians that would either appear at those festivals and music that you would hear at those two festivals. Eddie approached me to put the band together, which was an amazing opportunity. A brilliant chance to ask all my favourite musicians.

How did you go about choosing the twelve?
Well some of them were my friends already, I've been doing this for 18 years now since I was a young kid, and made a lot of friends along the way, and a lot of records with people. Some of them I think were quite obvious. For instance my favourite guitar player is Ian Carr, and Iain MacDonald the flute player and piper I grew up with when I joined The Battlefield Band. A lot of times in interviews I've been asked who would be in your favourite band and I actually got the chance to do that, to live the dream.

Roddy Woomble
I'd got to know Graham Coxon a little bit because I knew he loved folk music, and we'd become friends. I'd worked with Roddy Woomble from Idlewild a bit, and done a record with him. So I guess I was friends with everybody, and I thought it would be great to put a group together from different musical and cultural backgrounds.

So I've got a piper that grew up in the Outer Hebrides speaking Gallic, and Graham Coxon who used to play in Blur and I just thought it was brilliant to get the chance to do that.

So were they all easy to get along with and organise?
It was funny because there has always been some kind of divide between Scotland and England, but I'm not actually sure that divide is real, I think that's only when we watch football. I think people talk about a cultural divide between the two countries but there's nothing in it when it comes to the music. Music is by far the best universal language where it doesn't matter where people come from or what kind of music they play.

My experience from doing this is if you put twelve musicians in a room they'll all have a brilliant time, and that was a memory that will never leave me, just watching those people all mix together, all have a laugh, and all really get a buzz off each other's music even though it was so different to there all. Everyone got along great.

In fact one of the difficulties was that because everybody else was so amazing, they were also so busy. The problem was trying to get everybody in the same room at the same time which was difficult, but I managed to make it happen, and it worked a treat.

Julie Fowlis
How did the process of choosing the tracks develop?
It's all brand new music, that was a brilliant part of the process, getting to write with everybody. I started it off from a very humble beginnings with myself, Ian Carr, and Andy Cutting sat in a room with no music and we started to write music and swap ideas. Then I would visit everybody individually. I'd write some music for songs and visit Julie Fowlis and she would go away and write beautiful Gallic words to them. Or I'd visit Roddy Woomble and he'd take the music away work on words and we'd meet up again. I gave John Tams a couple of ideas and he wrote lyrics for two of the songs.

From the very beginning it was brilliant watching it evolve and just come together. I usually produce records and I'm overseeing projects, and I very keen to take a step back, it was great to try and involve everybody in the writing and arranging processes. There's a young girl called Emma Reid who I'd never played with before, she spends half her time in Scandanavia, in Sweden, and half the time in England. So the way she plays the fiddle is so different to the way I play, it was great, even if she didn't write much of the music, to just involve her style of playing, it completely changed the nature of a lot of those tunes.

I visited everybody over six month as it evolved, we were writing together, I got everybody into a rehearsal space in Glasgow for three days, and there we put it all together.

Do the songs have a common thread running through the whole body of work?
Well I guess the general theme is mixing English folk music and Scottish folk together, but there's elements of rock in there because of Roddy and Graham's involvement. Mixing traditional musicians and throwing them all together in a big pot and seeing what comes out.

So with all the musicians being so busy with their own work and coming from all over the country, the chances of it happening again are pretty slim...
John Tams
Well, the idea originally was to just play the two concerts at the two festivals, but I had a great with my friend John Tams at the bar one night, and he was saying you've got to document it, whether it's a film of the project or a CD because sometimes things like this, which are a commission or a one off thing, just come and go, and you never hear of them again. But for me, and hopefully everybody else it was such a magical experience, I thought I can't just let this go away. It was very difficult, but I was determined to make a record, and not let that happen. For me, it's been the highlight of anything I've got to do musically. I just thought it wasn't over yet, and thought it would be brilliant to make a record, but also watch it evolve even more because of the people involved. Thanks to their enthusiasm the record is done, and I'm chuffed and we're getting the chance to do a couple of weeks worth of gigs.

Are all twelve of you on the tour?
James Mackintosh couldn't do the tour so a fellow called Roy Dodds he was in Fairground Attraction and he's coming to play drums for us on tour.

Teenage Fanclub
Graham Coxon can only do some of the English dates, so I've asked my friend Norman Blake who sings with a band called Teenage Fanclub to be involved in the Scottish dates, at the time I was disappointed that Graham couldn't do the whole tour. But then I thought, here it is again still evolving, there's new material again. Who knows what the future holds. Even if this is the only time we do it then it's been a great experience but I'd really love it to go on even if it's just playing at festivals.

Well the other folk super group The Imagined Village went on to tour festivals, so do you think that would be possible?
Well I think it would be great, and one of the things that might make that possible, was everybody's genuine enthusiasm towards it, and hopefully it will have a life.

Roddy's had to cancel some of the dates, will he be back?
It's just that himself and his wife have just had a little baby boy. We did some shows for a record but he's had to re-schedule so we're touring again in February and June. So we'll get a chance to go out and tour that record.

What made you decide to become a violinist?
My mum decided, I had no say in it. Teachers went around the school and asked who wants to play the violin, and my mum said, "He does." It was never really up for debate. I was only seven year's old but I took to the violin quite quickly, and my parents saw that, and they made me stick at it. I'm so thankful now because the violin is really difficult to just make it sound nice and it's so easy to give up, but they kept me at it. I played classical music all the way through school in orchestras and went to the Royal Academy as a little kid but my heart was never really in classical music. I started going to see folk bands when I was 13 or 14 and I knew that's what I wanted to do. I was very lucky that when I was 16 I got asked to join The Battlefield Band who were famous then, and worked all over the world as an established band. I guess all the way through my musical life I've been very lucky.

You've played many festivals over the years, what's been your favourite?
Definitely Celtic Connections in Glasgow. Back when it started, I've played every one, and I remember the idea floating around that somebody was going to try and have a traditional music festival in Glasgow for three weeks in the middle of January. I remember everbody going, how is that going to work? It's miserable and cold and raining and nobody really likes folk music. Now they've managed to create this amazing three week international festival and people come from all over the world and it's a real magic time. So the feeling I get from Celtic Connections, when I'm there, not just when I'm performing but going and seeing what's happening in the folk scene from all over the world, and watching young people play sessions at night, it makes you feel great.

The folk scene is so different to the rock scene, It's been interesting playing with Roddy and Graham, and taking people from the rock scene to folk festivals. The folk scene is such a friendly environment that everybody really looks forward to seeing each other. Where as sometimes at rock festivals it's just people trying to out cool each other, and not talking to each other.

Who has been the best artist you've had an opportunity to perform with?
Paul Weller
This year alone I've got to record with Paul Weller, which listening to The Jam when I was in school I never thought that day would ever come. I did a world tour with Mark Knopfler. I think I try to go into everything with enthusiasm, no matter how small the project is, or how famous the person is, I think you can learn from them and take something away. Being in the studio with Paul Weller, and he's 50 now, and been through so much, and yet seeing how passionate he was about making records, and looking forward to going on tour. I loved that, I went away completely inspired, all right I'm 35 and I've been making records for a while, but I just thought here's a really famous guy and he's so excited to be in the studio.

Touring with Mark Knopfler on that world tour, I learnt more on that world tour than I've ever learned. It reminded me of going into the Battlefield Band as a tiny kid, all these people had so much experience, I learnt so much in that situation. Then 18 years later I'm on a world tour playing with Mark Knopfler, but it was a very similar feeling. A big part of me felt out of depth, playing to 15-20,000 people a night. I learned from all the musicians who were used to that, and the one really important thing I learnt from that was no matter the size of audience of stage just be yourself and don't over play just be yourself. I loved that being able to play very quietly I came away from that a much better musician.

What I learnt from that I can hopefully bring to 'Under One Sky' were even if you've got a big band on stage you have the potential to make a huge noise but you don't all have to all play at once, try to make every note count.

Do you think the folk scene has had a resurgence in recent years?
Yes, I do, I've been doing it professionally for eighteen years now and you see the media taking a look at it now and again and saying folk music's trendy and then it goes away and I go on making a living. We're all still doing it, but certainly in the last few years I've never seen it so healthy. We see it from a different perspective because we're the ones going out and doing it. It's not just a newspaper that writes an article saying it's not about beards any more or Aaron jumpers and that there's now young people doing it. Well, there's always been young people doing it, and there always has been.

The exciting thing is that there's not just people writing about it but you go to festivals and I know it's a cliché but I don't think folk music could be in safer hands. I see the passion that young people have for playing traditional music, and not just in Scotland you see it Ireland, England, and Wales. It's an incredible thing to see, and I think a big part of that is that they're growing up with the music. Like me, I was introduced to folk music at a young age, my mum's from Ireland, so folk music was never a strange music for me, it was just part of my upbringing, and it felt very natural.

I loved it from a very young age and you can see that now, people are getting taught the fiddle in schools, there's folk degree courses that people are aiming to go to, and it feels like there's never been a better time for folk music.

When will the album be released?
I just got a copy of the CD yesterday; it was like a little baby in the post. It was brilliant to see it. It's going to be available to buy at the gigs, and it will be released on Navigator in February.

The remaining tour details for 'Under One Sky' are as follows:

Fri 28 November Perth Concert Hall, Perth, Scotland
Sat 29 November Ironworks, Inverness, Scotland
Mon 01 December Pocklington Arts Centre, North Yorkshire
Tue 02 December The Lowry, Manchester
Thu 04 December The Sage, Gateshead, Tyne and Wear
Fri 05 December The Playhouse, Alnwick, Northumberland
Sat 06 December Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London
Sun 07 December The Albert Hall, Nottingham
Mon 08 December The Queens Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland

Celtic Connections takes place from Monday January 15th until Friday 1st February 2009 and is one of Scotland's most predominant mid-winter music festivals, which attracts the Celtic and World music talent from around the globe, with more than 150 acts performing around the city of Glasgow.

Kate Rusby
interview by: Scott Williams

Thursday 15th January to Sunday 1st February 2009
various venues, Glasgow, Scotland, Scotland MAP
various - from FREE to around £20
last updated: Mon 24th Nov 2008


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