NO MORE – by Duncan Lyall

I’m practicing here.
I find it difficult not to say yes.

If feels good to say yes when someone asks me to do a gig, or play on a recording, or produce an album, or do just about anything that makes me feel valued. It’s a buzz knowing someone likes what you do and wants a piece of it. It’s good for the ego, isn’t it? Plus there’s the other upside, making some green and paying the rent. In fact there are lots of reasons why YES seems to be the only possible answer. Hanging out with friends, travel, working in cool studios, playing beautiful venues, meeting new people, experiencing different cultures. It’s the dream, right? How could anyone say no?

But I need to learn how to say this word.
No. No way. Absolutely Not. Nix. Negative. It doesn’t feel nice to type, let alone say.

I like to be positive. Like all of us, I have my moments of negativity but given the option I like to try and stay optimistic. So what’s the problem? That’s a good thing, right?

I do know how to say no, in fact there’s one situation where I excel at saying no – when it’s me that’s asking. I’m very good at moving me to the back of the queue.

Hi Dunc, it’s Duncan here. Any chance you could hold these dates to work on some cool new music?

Maybe… I tell you what. I’ll not put it in my diary and if anything else comes in I’ll just say yes to that and not make arrangements to find another time to work on this cool new music.

Pretty much what happens.

In 2011 I realised I needed a boot up the arse. I had been writing some tunes here and there, some weird guitar tunes, a short commission for Gordon Duncan – A National Treasure, attempts at writing tunes for Box Club or Croft No Five, but I wanted a challenge and to write something a bit more substantial. Time to jump in with both feet.

I called the head honcho of Celtic Connections himself, Mr Donald Shaw. I asked if he would consider me for the New Voices series. (In my mind the New Voices series is one of the festival’s finest assets. A test bed for emerging composers, a warm, welcoming and forgiving crowd ready for adventure, a safe space to try new things out on a great stage. Trad music in Scotland would be a bit less adventurous without it.) He agreed, and asked me to get back to him with some thoughts about what I had in mind. I started composing to see what would come from it. After a few weeks of incoherent musical ramblings I had the idea of creating some semblance of order by creating a sort of film score for a non existent film and inviting the audience to use their imagination to create their own plot. I would call it Infinite Reflections.

Six months later I was on stage with a band playing my music. I had spewed crotchet after quaver onto multiple pages and the musicians were all doing a brilliant job of turning it into music.

Six months from nothing to the best part of an hour of music. It was a lot of work and it came with some serious ups and downs over but I had done it.

After the gig we all went for a celebratory dinner. I sat with Angus Lyon who had done a New Voices the year before. We vowed to record our pieces and launch the albums at the festival the following year. We stuck to our promise, and even followed up with a tour of both pieces, sharing a band to perform them both. It was a huge success! Proud as punch! Onwards! World domination is ours for the taking! etc.

Fast forward to summer 2018. I’ve written a couple more tunes and done a grand total of no more gigs in my own name.

I did have a lot of conversations with different people about, how I was about to start working on a follow up to Infinite Reflections. I just needed to finish producing album X and then I would get to writing, or as soon as this tour is over I’ve got time at home. I’m gonna do some serious writing. I believed it too.

In reality I had spent the following six years saying yes. Saying yes to everyone else. I mean, some of those yes’ lead to truly great things and unforgettable experiences, but I’m pretty sure I could have lived a fulfilling and comfortable life without taking on everything I could squeeze into my diary.

Six months ago the head honcho himself, Mr Donald Shaw, phoned me.

Celtic Connections are commissioning a few people to write some music or create some sort of new collaboration. Would you like to be one of them?

I did what I do best. I said yes.

The following six months came with the same highs and lows as before and a lot of creative time shoe-horned between touring, recording and teaching commitments, but once again I found myself on a great stage surrounded by incredible musicians turning my hard work into some really cool sounds. It was hard work but I had done it. Milestone was born.

I’m really proud of this new music. The project needs work, it needs refined, but it’s a statement of who I am. This is me.

I’m excited to do more with it.

I’ve heard it said by so many that it sounds trite, but I’m incredibly grateful for the support of Donald and Celtic Connections. If I hadn’t been asked to do it I’m fairly sure I’d still be talking about a follow up to Infinite Reflections without much to show for it. But how do I change this? Why is it that I need someone else asking for the goods before I’ll prioritise my music before everyone else’s? Why do I need that looming deadline before I’ll grant myself the time to invest in me. And how do I keep that momentum up?

7 years it took me to create something new. That’s almost how long the Beatles were around for, from Please Please Me to Let it Be. (I’m always amazed by how much they evolved over such a short space of time). I’m not asking myself to release three albums a year. But I would like to do better than one every seven.

In order to do that I need to make more time for writing.

To do that I need to learn how to say no. But not to me.
To me, I need to say yes.


Duncan Lyall launched his new project Milestone at Celtic Connections 2019.

An unclassifiable mix of folk, electronica and funk, the band features Jarlath Henderson, Patsy Reid, Lori Watson, Angus Lyon, Chas MacKenzie and Stuart Brown.

Images and Video Credit: Paul Jennings: