Dougie MacLean on Scottish independence, Caledonia and Piping Live!

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Scots singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean will perform The Gael at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall for Piping Live! 2019 on Sunday. He has also revealed plans to turn his best-loved song Caledonia into a musical. Here he answers questions from assistant editor Shaun Milne about his life, career and what his fans around the world can expect next.

 Dougie MacLean reveals plans for Caledonia – The Musical

DOUGIE MACLEAN AND CALEDONIA – THE STORY OF A SONG

Caledonia was a homesick song. I was on a beach in Brittany, France. I finished it and was staying in a youth hostel with three friends who were from Ireland, we were busking basically in the streets around France.

We’d jump on a train basically, see a nice town and get off, did a few wee gigs and I finished the song off. 

I remember going back to the youth hostel where we were staying, singing it to them, we were all that homesick anyway we left the next day.  I went back with then to Northern Ireland and the first time I sang it basically was at a party outside Belfast somewhere.

The first time I ever performed it on stage was in West Berlin. I’d gone back to Germany and was touring around and I didn’t do many of my own songs at that time, I did a lot more traditional songs, a bit of fiddle, and I snuck this song in and the audience just loved it.

Even a way back then, I was 24 maybe, I turned around and said we’ll keep that in the set.

Caledonia is only a tiny, little part of what I do.

But there’s something about Caledonia that became part of common culture which is fascinating and which is a great thrill for a songwriter to have something that is part of common culture – that is sung at football games, played at Scottish weddings, is played at funerals, you hear buskers singing it in the streets.

I have incredible stories about Caledonia, you can’t invent that.

People have tried to make anthemic songs – and they don’t work. People choose their own anthemic songs, and I don’t know why Caledonia has seeped into this.

There’s probably not a night goes by and there’s not a drunk standing somewhere singing Caledonia.

DOUGIE MACLEAN ON THE MEANING BEHIND CALEDONIA

When you are young, you don’t have the baggage of life so you are a wee bit more honest in what you say and in what you write.

I mean, I was just really very homesick and I wrote what was there.

If I tried to write it now, I probably couldn’t, because I would be saying ‘oh no, that’s too sentimental’ or whatever.

Caledonia is a big song over in Ireland, it’s a big song whenever I’m over in Europe, it’s about the sense of belonging that it has.

It encapsulates your own sense of belonging, for me I would make it Scotland.

But there’s something else in that song that people identify with in terms of their own sense of belonging.

I don’t know where it is today.

There’s a lot of political turmoil, I’m not sure anybody knows how it will turn out. I try to sometimes to imagine what’s going to happen, where it’s going to go, but I can’t.

But I think having songs like Caledonia help people keep their cultural sense of identity, and an identity can be all-encompassing too.

TURNING HIT SONG CALEDONIA INTO DOUGIE MACLEAN’S FIRST MUSICAL

It’s a musical – I’m in the middle of working on it. Caledonia the Musical. It’s just something that I wanted to do.

I’ve been trying to keep it a bit of a secret, but I’ve been enjoying the process of doing it.

I wrote the script myself, I wrote the story, which is a nice thing to do at my stage of life after all these years as a travelling troubadour and songwriter.

I’ve got so many songs, there are 250 songs I’ve written over the years and I’ve got this great story – it’s a love story – and it’s cool.

I was musical director years and years and years ago for TAG theatre company here in Glasgow at the Citizens Theatre for a three play series, A Scots Quair, and so I learned quite a lot in the process of being involved with that because we had music on stage as well.

I’ve been using a lot of what I learned there.

I thought to myself, I know how this works, I can visualise a stage production; I’m performing all the time for I know how audiences work, I know the songs that I’ve written over the last 40 years and the ones that work on stage with people, so it’s great to just make a story and bring all those songs into that story.

It’s amazing that a song that I might have written for myself, that if you put it in another situation, it changes the whole dynamic of the song.

INFLUENCING SCOTLAND’S CULTURAL IDENTITY

Scotland has a very modern vision of itself, a modern, progressive vision of its national identity which is kind of unusual.

I’m glad that Scotland has developed it that way.

I’m very proud of our Scottish Parliament, I think it’s very progressive and modern and I think Scotland’s is a great international brand – people love Scotland, they love the whole concept of Scotland, I don’t know how politically it will all fold out because it gets very complicated.

It’s not a black and white thing anymore. There have been a lot of things – a lot of lies – said. People are maybe looking at it (politics/independence) a bit more.

Even culturally, I’ve seen a huge difference in my lifetime the way that Scottish people identify themselves as Scottish.

Back when we were kids we were embarrassed to be Scottish, it was that old buffoon with the wiggly stick and the hairy legs, the Harry Lauder caricature of being a Scot, but I think people aren’t anything like that – there’s a lovely, modern, sophisticated image that we have now and our culture’s been part of that.

I’d like to think I’ve been part of that whole cultural revolution that happened 40 years ago where it went away from being music hall to people writing their own stuff, we weren’t playing on the caricature of being Scottish, we were creating a fantastic cultural revolution – not just the folk guys, but the rock guys and everyone else.

DOUGIE MACLEAN ON SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE AND EUROPE

I think Scots are more confident in being Scottish, and maybe that will inevitably lead to independence.

I don’t how that journey will go, but I’d like to see it myself because I believe in small things.

I believe in independence, but part of a bigger thing.

And it’s been like that in my own life, I’ve been very independent in how I’ve gone about things – I have my own company, my own studio, so I was in control of my own destiny.

But without the bigger thing, it would be very different.

I’m independent but in a big music scene.  I think we need to be part of that bigger thing (Europe).

 Dougie MacLean: ‘I want people to be talking about Live by the Loch in next 20 years’

I think part of cultural identity is the brand, that’s the glue that keeps the world together – everybody loves their cultural identity, and if you can invent one that encompasses and brings in other people’s cultural identities too, then you have a modern Scotland that is quite different from the one that my dad would have imagined.

I see myself as part of that bigger thing, but I was always a Scot in these instances. I go to America and people ask if I write Scottish songs. I tell them I am a songwriter, a contemporary songwriter, but I write songs from a Scottish perspective.

That’s what makes my songs different from James Taylor songs because he writes them from an American perspective, but I’m not singing about traditional things, I write about human things.

DOUGIE MACLEAN ON BEING A SCOTTISH MUSICAL PIONEER

When we set up the record company, I built a wee recording studio, and nobody was doing it at the time. It was me and Ossian, another folk group, who were a great help. 

It was vinyl in these days, and you couldn’t get vinyl cut in Scotland, so I remember the first record I made up in Butterstone was a fiddle record and I had to get on an overnight Stagecoach to London, to Soho where they had the cutting rooms, with the master tapes under my arms, to get the vinyl cut on this thing.

That’s where I learned that they used a diamond needle on the cutting machines, but they only used the new diamond needles for the big acts and when it was worn they put it on an old machine at the back and cut all the independents with it.

People don’t realise that’s how I did it.

It was the early days of Stagecoach which is from Perthshire, and they had two old buses.

The driver would stop halfway down, about Carlisle somewhere,  and get this gin box out with his Thermos flask and come round to give everybody a cup of coffee and a sandwich that his wife had made – that was it then, though Stagecoach are huge now of course.

But that’s how we had to do it.

The CD has become devalued because it is so easy to make. But back then people said oh, you’ll never be able to do it, you’ll never be able to stay in Dunkeld, you’ll have to go to London, New York or even Glasgow or Edinburgh.

But I was dogged, I said no, I’m going to stay here, and I made it.

I live in my old school, the school that I went to, and my dad went to. It’s a great story.

All my contemporaries who had the big record deals, half of them don’t do it anymore.

I am on facetime a lot with my son Jamie who produces my records now, it all ties together. I like that. It’s not an ego-driven lifestyle, I keep bees, I collect Singer sewing machines, we’re all surviving and it’s just our lives. It’s what we do.

TRYST AND DOUGIE MACLEAN PERFORMING AT PIPING LIVE! IN GLASGOW

One of the things about the TRYST concert, it was really nice of the guys to ask me to come along and be part of the Piping Live! Festival because I had a long history with bagpipes.

I joined The Tannahill Weavers when I was 20, that’s when that whole piping revolution was happening.

I remember when the band Alba told us they getting their Highland bagpipes out, we were all – you cannae get your Highland bagpipes out in a folk ban,d because they were B flat and what have you.

But these guys worked out how to do it and I ended up touring American with wee Alan on bagpipes, and I had my relationship with young Gordon Duncan who played on all my records when he was a youngster.

This was all before it became really well established.

The concert is more of a solo concert with me touching my cap to the piping tradition.

I’ve always liked to use whistles and bagpipes, rather that saxophones – because they are Scottish. Normally a contemporary songwriter would use a saxophone or something in their instrumental, but I used Gordy playing the whistle.

I did a tour of America one time with Kathy Mattea who had just won a Grammy at the time, and she had come to my studio and we had recorded ‘From a Distance’  and Gordy had played a little bit of pipes on it for her.

So when I went to America and did the special guest on her tour, she said ‘oh, I wish we could do that with the bagpipes’ so I learned the part of small pipes – it was the only part I could ever learn to play – and I walked onto the stage playing that. I felt a fraud.

But I did it, I’m just hoping someone has a recording or photograph somewhere.

DOUGIE MACLEAN ON PERFORMING IN GLASGOW

I love Glasgow, I come down a lot. I did a solo show there recently which was brilliant and I’ve done shows over the years, all the theatres around here and I worked at the Citizens.

I remember coming down here as an eight-year-old, my uncle Roddy liked in Castlemilk, and coming down from where I lived up in Dunkeld, I might as well have been going to the moon.

It was so different for me. I love living in the country, I’m a country boy, but I have very fond memories from Glasgow.

I’ve had great fun in Glasgow, with the festivals and the shows that I’ve done – but a couple of night ago I played in Crieff, the night before that up in Findhorn on the north coast, and on Stornoway at An Laantair – it was fantastic.

I’m a very positive person, I like all kinds of music, I like the creative process.

The last couple of years I’ve been doing solo concerts, I’ve returned back to the essence of what I do.

I’ve done a lot of collaborating, I’ve done orchestra stuff, with bands and things, but now I’m doing these shows solo and it’s great because I get this relationship with the audience going which you just can’t get in collaboration.

I love that, I tell stories and get the audience to sing, I love that side of what I do.

This weekend’s show at the Royal Concert Hall will be a bit like that, I don’t like formal concerts, it’s a Dougie Maclean concert with a bunch of my songs and a bunch of my stories and a bit of whistle here, a bit of bagpipes there, it is a great privilege to be asked to come down and be part of it.

DOUGIE MACLEAN ON FILMING HIS LIFE STORY

The whole world is changing. I do a wee bit of photography and video.

I’m in the process of cataloguing my life in video for the kids.

My son has got his drone licence, I’ve got a drone, my video cameras, my GoPros and I’m going to go out and visit all the places I grew up in.

If I wait about trying to get the media to do it, they’re not interested in me at all, then there will be no record of what I’ve done, my life, unless I do it myself.

I enjoy it, it’s for my grandkids, not really for anything else.

But if there’s any other value, then there’s a big old internet out there, so people will be able to see it for themselves.

DOUGIE MACLEAN TURNS 65 YEARS OLD ON HIS BIRTHDAY IN SEPTEMBER

I’m busier this year than I’ve ever been. I’ve just come back from Europe. But people say to me – when are you going to retire?

But I remember a famous American actor said, ‘If you’ve got a job, you retire, if it’s your work – you just keep doing it’ and I thought that was a quite good way of describing what I do.

As long as I’ve got a voice and I can drive and travel, I’ll keep on doing it.

I love the people, I’ve got a fantastic group of fans who appreciate what I do, who will come to my shows, and are great fun to be with for an evening.

There are two paths you can take as a musician if you want your face on the front of Q magazine, you sign a deal with a big, major record company, then you might have a bit of fame for two or three years, then you go back to being a taxi driver.

Or if you just enjoy playing music, you set up your own independent publishing label, and you go out and do gigs, all kinds of gigs, and that’s what’s been lucky with me.

I’ve managed to have this longevity – I’m turning 65 as you say – and I think I’m getting better as I get older.

Even my own songs I sang 20 years ago I’m doing better now for some reason, with that older gravitas that you get.

There’s something about not being stressed out about it all.

I’m not at that place in my life where I’m worried about reviews, every year I have now is a bonus for me. I’ve got my family and the kids, I’ve paid off my house, I’m in a good place.

It’s an amazing place to be as a musician.

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