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Bonxies, Cattie-Faces & Moosiehaaks: An Interview With Erland Cooper
John Freeman , March 28th, 2018 09:47

Erland Cooper talks to John Freeman about how his gorgeous debut album Solan Goose helped ease the intensity of city living by summoning the magical spirit of Orkney's bird life

Photographs by Alex Kozobolis

Last April my mum died. A few days later I received a package in the post, containing a picture postcard of a gannet and a CD. The postcard included some beautifully comforting words and the CD revealed several tracks of gorgeously meditative instrumental music. As I listened, the songs help soften my grief.

The package had been sent by Erland Cooper. I had previously interviewed the multi-instrumentalist in his role as one-third of The Magnetic North during a brilliant day out in Skelmersdale. We had kept in touch and exchanged emails but I was still overwhelmed by his act of kindness in the wake of my mother's death. Apparently, I'm one of the very first people to hear what would become his debut album, Solan Goose.

It's a record of simple beauty, exploring the place where electronic and classical music can co-habit, and inspired by Cooper's childhood home of Orkney and birdwatching expeditions with his father. Via strings, piano and ambient guitar, Solan Goose, pulses with Orcadian spirit. Magnificently barren seascapes, Norse mythology, Neolithic history and the poetry of George Mackay Brown gush forth from the songs, each titled after a bird of Orkney.

And what fabulous names they are; a Solan goose is in fact the Orcadian name for a gannet, and the playful dialect produces joyous mouthfuls (a puffin is a Tammie Norie, a great skua is a Bonxie and the short-eared owl is, quite wonderfully, a Cattie-face.) I will from now on always call a kestrel a Moosiehaak – there is no going back.

When I chat with Erland (who first came to indie prominence as the front man to his Carnival) from his London home, he's in a gently buoyant mood. He seems delighted that a set of songs initially intended to help calm the claustrophobia of city living have flowered into a full-blown multi-media project encompassing epiphanic collaborations with guitarist Leo Abrahams, violinist/ soprano Charlotte Greenhow and film-maker Alex Kozobolis.

Taking inspiration from the Scottish composer Peter Maxwell Davies' hymnal 'Farewell To Stromness' ("the simplest, most beautiful thing," Erland tells me) and the words of local poet George Mackay Brown, Solan Goose delves deeply into the Orcadian spirit. As the interview draws to a close, we joke about me accompanying Erland on his next trip to Orkney. Except I am not joking. Solan Goose has worked its magic on me.

When did you move to London and what is your relationship like with the city?

Erland Cooper: Well, I am one of six, so getting eight of us anywhere was a big deal. We never really had holidays. So, I hadn't really travelled before I left Orkney when I was 19, when I took a ferry to Aberdeen, flew to Gatwick and from there went straight to New York. I remember being completely overwhelmed by the city. And loving it in every way. I subsequently moved to London about ten years ago. I live just outside and I come in to the studio on Old Street. I do love the city, but I also find it massively overwhelming. I think it is the lack of a connection to community. What I miss about Orkney the most, apart from the landscape, is a real feeling of community. You walk down the street and at the very least you would say 'Hi' to everyone. That anonymous feeling you get in the city is great in your 20s, but as I get older I have become more paranoid, nervous and anxious. I can find it overwhelming and my relationship with the city has become about taking from it what I want, before it takes all of me - before London makes me become slightly dour.

Is it possible to find that sense of community in a huge city?

EC: Yes. There is a period in London between 8 am and 9.30 am on a Sunday morning, when all the revellers are slowly making their way home, looking like zombies. They are all passive, whereas eight hours earlier there was a real aggression as they went hunting for sex and drugs and fun. I work in the studio during the night and I find it a surreal experience, having been immersed for six hours on a project, to be met by the real world. It's initially an attack on the senses, but I have built a lovely little community between those times on a Sunday morning. I will have conversations with the dry cleaners, and with the artist who is always having a cigarette at that time, and with the coffee shop owners as they are opening up. I really love that.

Is that your little piece of Orkney in London?

EC: Yeah, it's exactly that. It's about people not being strangers to me. In the city, people generally want to be strangers. That feeling of hostility is simply people getting on with their own thing and not wanting to communicate.

For those who don’t know much about Orkney, how would you describe it?

EC: Orkney is a group of 70 islands, of which only 20 are inhabited, off the north coast of Scotland. It's beautiful and barren, and, at times, utterly majestic. Orkney is massively influenced by its Norse history. The history goes far back; the landscape is punctuated with 5,000-year-old Neolithic sites older than the pyramids. It's beautiful in that you get a sense of walking back in time. It's always had its source of wealth – oil and now renewable energy – and will always rely on tourism, fishing and farming. Island life is a curious thing – many islands do their own thing, as they rely on the community. The winter on Orkney is where you really see the mechanics of what makes the place tick. I went up with the [visual] artist Alex Kozobolis, who shot some films for me. We went in October/November time and we were in the pub on the second night and we bumped into some school mates, and they were like, "What the hell are you doing here, now?" But, Alex got a great sense of how the community works together.

Let me try and connect the dots between London and Orkney. What was it about London that triggered you to write the songs that would become the Solan Goose project?

EC: I have had a few challenges. I found myself becoming very claustrophobic and almost having panic attacks based on trying to get from A to B. The coping mechanism I had was distraction, which is a trick of the brain. And, as soon as I wanted to distract myself, my head went straight back to childhood memories. I wanted to explore that. I would get to the studio, after the challenge of getting from A to B, and I would improvise the first thing that came into my head. I would play piano and it would relax me. I would record it and, when I was saving the file, I would give it a name. The first thing that popped into my head was Orkney's birds. So, I named the music after a bird and before I knew it, I had a whole batch of songs that mapped out places where my dad had taken me to birdwatch. I'd reminisce about the Orcadian names – a gannet is a Solan goose and a Tammie Norie is a puffin. Before I knew it I had built up this landscape in my head, while still in the city. I'd begin to look at the city that way – so shimmering light flickering through some glass would remind me of an Orkney sunset. I'd play the music and start to relax. It was almost meditative and it helped me get around. For me, was the best way to find a real peace and sense of belonging, was to explore a reconnection with the nature and landscape of home. Finding patterns in birds and nature was just an easy way to reconnect with being carefree, settled and at ease.

How has that reconnection impacted you as an artist?

EC: This record allowed me to write in a different way. The whole project is based on a poem by George Mackay Brown, in which he talks about the majesty of the sea, the air and the land. He wrote, "The essence of Orkney's magic is silence, loneliness, and the deep marvellous rhythms of sea and land, darkness and light" and that sums up Orkney for me. This first album is air, and the next one will be sea. And, whenever you're doing something new, you are constantly learning, which I really enjoy, particularly as an underdog in a world that is inhabited by some serious talent. I am constantly trying to find the simplest thing and to hold on to that.

An underdog? Is that how you see yourself?

EC: Yes, I always have. I think because I am from Orkney. People will often say to me that Orcadians are "over-ambitious" and it’s true that when I get an idea I will make it happen. However, I never studied music in any way, aside from being forced to learn the fiddle as a kid. It was always a side thing – I never had the opportunity to go to a fancy school. Orkney has its school and that's where you go. All my mates played football and I didn't have many friends who liked music apart from a few folks who were learning to play 'Half A World Away' on guitar.

My dad was the deputy head at school, so he had the key to the school. While my mates were playing football, I stole the key and broke into school to use the music room. I joined up the tape decks to create an eight-track and used a shitty piano and crap guitar to learn how to write at the age of 15. This went on for months until the janitor grassed me up. I'd struck up a relationship with him, thinking he was on my side. So, dad takes me to one side and all he says is, "Why didn’t you just ask?" I had always kept the making of music to myself. Recently, Elizabeth Alker played a song from Solan Goose on Radio 3 and I knew my folks would be listening. It's the first time they have ever said "very good, well done." That felt like a moment for this over-ambitious Orcadian – one single play on Radio 3.

And have you always had a love of birds?

EC: Yes. The one thing about birds is that they are as majestic to me as an adult, as they were when I was a child. I look at them in the same way and ask, "How is that thing flying?" Birds are found in every ecosystem in the world. The gannets of Orkney will go out to sea for years. It's extraordinary and fascinating how they can survive and adapt. Also, my parents would never talk about feelings, but they'd talk and debate about politics or science or nature for hours. So, for me to be able to talk to my father, I would talk to him about birds. He would go for a walk around the Point of Ness and he'd have the maps out for where we might spot the Solan goose or where we might even see a Cattie-face. I think that was his way of communicating and sharing with his son.

So, there is a sense of the project reconnecting you to specific aspects of your childhood in Orkney.

EC: There is. There were periods between being 13 and 18 that were challenging, and when your siblings have fled the nest and you are left it can be really tough. I literally escaped from the island to study, and I feel like I have missed a lot of the teenage period of enjoying the island. I could have met George Mackay Brown. He could have been a mentor. Instead I was throwing stones at his door and running away like all the other little crappy kids. Now, I try and grab all that culture at every opportunity. 

You've worked with a number of collaborators on this project, over different media. How did those collaborations – especially the with Alex [Kozobolis] as a visual artist – shape your vision for the project?

EC: I wanted to subvert expectations – people expect me to be the guy in the indie band. Collaborating for me, as I get older, is just the most joyous thing I can do in music. And collaborating doesn’t mean getting together in a room. It means being on your own, but knowing that at some point you will share something with another collaborator and you will see how they react to it. That really motivated me. While it's a bit obvious to link music to visuals, Alex created an ambient, abstract and mysterious landscape. I want people who listen to be transported to that place immediately. I want them to get lost in the dialect and the Orcadian bird names. I want people to want to go to Orkney. One track 'Moosiehaak' features old recordings of Ann Marwick interviewing several people on the island. It was for a series called The Wye Hid Wis [The Way It Was] and explored the mythology and folklore or Orkney through people telling stories. That’s what Orkney does so well – it tells stories.

Solan Goose is released out now via Phases