What a carry on this has been. The ups and downs have been seemingly never ending this year. In this blog I thought I would try and chart some of the things I’ve found to keep myself going with music.
Back in March I was pretty lazy to begin with. I lay around like it was a holiday although of course very aware that a lot of people in the country were having a pretty horrendous time. My girlfriend and I tried to keep on top of the housework (I say me… I did the cooking…) and were getting used to us both being in the same two rooms everyday with her working from home and me playing the PlayStation… After a while though the reality began to sink in that this was going to be a bloody long slog and I better get on with some music. This was after a few weeks of pretty constant wine drinking and eating everything in sight.
My old pal and duo partner Tom Oakes suggested that we maybe try and run some online classes under our Winter Trad banner that we normally put on in Edinburgh every Nov/Dec. These were very successful with lots of folks joining in and having fun. The thing I’ve noticed though is that every new thing you try online seems to be successful for a couple or even a few times, but then you have to try and somehow come up with something new and different. We did a couple more with guest musicians and even gave a few tutors concerts a go. It was absolutely brilliant craic.
Given the extremely limited scope of what you can do in the face of a laptop this has proven to me to be one of the more tiring things about being a musician at this time. Constantly having to try and rethink and adjust so things stay fresh. I’ve been blown away by the efforts of some musicians on this score. Sandy Brechin’s brilliant costumes, different and hilarious week in week out, come to mind immediately. Great effort. Bruce MacGregor and Anna Massie also have put in a mental shift with Scotland’s Big Session. I thank them for asking me to put a track down for them. Even though I got the brief slightly wrong and played two tunes that no one was likely to know at a ridiculous speed. Idiot. Tim Edey’s Saturday night gigs have been a pretty constant source of comfort as well. I must also give a shout out to Adam Sutherland for Fatma’s Waltz. You must check this out if you can. A whole host of musicians including me and my now fiancée Cara Sandison playing a beautifully composed and orchestrated piece by Adam for Fatma Neilson and in aid of the Beatson Cancer Charity. No fees. Just a bunch of folk playing their hearts out for a great cause. There are actually countless people who’ve managed to be interesting and engaging week in week out and I think we should all be thankful that they have as it’s always kept me feeling good to know that folk are out there and music soldiers on in the face of it all.
I mention there that Cara is now my fiancée. This is without doubt the biggest piece of good news for me this year personally. We were home in Shetland for a good while and I knew she’d want to be asked here and thank goodness she said yes! We’ve been together for five years and are still having great craic so the time seemed right! Cara is from Lerwick and we love playing tunes together so doing that track for Adam was brilliant fun 🙂
Some things I have done for income include teaching online, commissions, online gigs and painting and decorating. I think I’ve had success with most of them… Teaching online has been a brilliant way of not only hopefully passing on something useful to folk all over the world, but also staying in touch with people outside your house. I always feel as well that teaching is a great way of practicing. When else are you going to break that tune down like that and go over it lots of times?! I’m not disciplined enough to do that… I’ve actually had some great fun with doing commissions. It’s the first time I’ve ever tried it and I’ve found that I enjoy it. Although I have to say I was ******* myself when I pressed send on the first couple, just worrying and hoping they liked what I produced! The first commission I sent away was for a fan of the Peatbogs and band friend Natalie Johnson. I’d managed to come up with a retreat march I was happy with and she was happy with it too. I must thank Ross Ainslie for putting in the pipe ornaments. I tried to convince Peter Morrison, who plays the pipes in the Peatbogs, that it was me who did it but he was having none of it. Online gigs – these have been an interesting thing to come out of all of this. I find them exhilarating, terrifying, funny and a tiny bit sad all at the same time. Although the sad part is only because of the longing to play music in the usual way again. I have to say though that after this period of not being allowed to I think we’re in for the time of our lives when it’s over. I heard someone say that we could be in for a new ‘roaring twenties’ and by god let’s make that happen. Wouldn’t it be something if the arts were held in even higher regard by people after all of this? I mean we needn’t expect the government to but I for one am going to make a concerted effort to go to as many gigs as I can and actually really pay attention to the music when I do once all this is over.
One of the more rewarding things I did during this carry on is that I decided since we weren’t going to be in the pub playing music for a very long time that I would try and bring some of the pub to people’s homes. By this I don’t mean I randomly sent cases of lager about the place. I decided to try and record a series of videos with pub session standard tunes that people could join in with at home. Usually with a glass of wine I’d sit and play these tunes into my phone and it was actually incredibly relaxing and fun. I laid out at the start that it wasn’t going to be perfectly played because what session ever is? Or anything by me for that matter…! Haha. This made it an extremely chilled affair. I’m very thankful to my mam, Margaret Robertson MBE!! for playing the piano accompaniment for these.
Mam being awarded an MBE was definitely a highlight for the family this year. It was also a relief as I found out months before hand and had to keep it to myself! It’s a brilliant moment for her, Shetland and Scottish fiddle music in general. Congratulations to her and more power to her and her band of musicians from all over the world, Hjaltibonhoga.
Now on to why I got asked to write this blog in the first place. My biggest musical achievement this year has undoubtedly been recording an album with my brother Ryan. We’ve talked for a number of years about doing this and for some reason we chose the time when everything was closed to do it! Nah, we have Mareel Studios to thank for basically running an experiment to see if you can record an album while keeping Covid-safe. Which we could! In truth it was these virus restrictions that loaned us the time to get on with recording. I had already begun work on a tune book, which I’ll now be releasing in the first half of this year instead. I phoned Ryan and said lets bloody do it. He agreed and I got in touch with Tim Matthew. Old friend, brilliant recording/live engineer, musician, crofter and all round good guy! The studio was booked. Ryan and I had a whole lifetime of experience playing music together but what the hell were we going to play? What shape was the album going to take?
We decided that we’d play some Shetland tunes, some Irish, an old American contest tune and a Billy Joel song! We also decided that everyone in the immediate family should have a bit of the album for them. So amongst all that, and a good few tunes penned by Ryan and myself, our mam Margaret has a tune on track two called ‘Shaela’. One of my favourite tunes of hers (there are a great many to choose from!) and perhaps one of her less played ones. Any young musicians out there, I reckon that’s one for you. Our dad Alex Couper also has a tune on there. It is a tune called ‘Da Sixty Fathom Reel’ which he wrote while on the fishing boat ‘The Altaire’ when they were upon a deep bit of water. It’s a classic Shetland reel and great fun to play. Other family connections on the album are a waltz I wrote for our sister Mariann and her husband Richard’s son. We play that in the waltzes and it’s called ‘William Couper Allan of Lower Fea’. Ryan has written tunes for him and his wife Jody’s children. They have a track each, ‘Jessi’ and ‘Sandy’. It felt important to us to include our family in this recording and we literally managed that by getting our sister Mariann to record piano on the last track. This was brilliant as it gave Ryan and I the chance to play fiddle together while being accompanied by Mariann. That track, the last one on the album, is very special to us because of that and also because of a great idea Ryan had. He was lying under the floor boards of a house one day (he’s a plumber, he doesn’t just do that for the craic) and discovered that without knowing it we’d managed to record the first tune at exactly the same speed as the only archive recording of our grandfather, Lell Robertson playing that tune. He passed it on to our mam who passed it on to us and thanks to technology (and Tim’s expertise), it is our grandad who kicks off the track and we follow him. A real honour. The recording of grandad we used was recorded for the School of Scottish Studies by Dr. Peter Cooke who sadly passed away recently. He had great interest in Shetland fiddle music and his archivist work has gone a long way to preserving our musical heritage.
While we were in the studio we were masked up other than when playing. I had three expensive-looking, shiny mics in front of me. That’s all I know, I don’t speak the language of mics or pretty much anything that exists in the studio. Thankfully Tim does though and was amazing to work with. Sometimes we’d get to the end of the take and I maybe wasn’t happy with it and he’d say “great energy! This is folk music!” I’m so glad he did that and I couldn’t be happier with the energy on the album because of his help. In the room we recorded in I sat in one corner and across the room Ryan sat in the other. We faced each other and tried to pretend we were in the sitting room at Christmas time. I found the first day hard as I’d wound myself up about studio time stupidly. Once we got to the end of day one out of two and decided to book a third I came back the next day feeling renewed. I think sometimes it’s impossible not to let the thought of maybe getting it all done in one or two days seep into your mind. I’m not going to let that happen again as it made the first day slow for me. Anyway, we met up for a third day and got all thirteen tracks down and happy with them. It has to be said Ryan and I are not well-known for practising an awful lot together. We had one rehearsal where we decided the tunes. Then we had one where we arranged them and then it was time for the studio. It ended up giving us great edge of seat excitement in the live room but I’m not sure if I’d recommend it for more than two people or at all!
After a few mixes with minor tweaks from our good man Tim, it was on to mastering. I always forget what a difference these two processes make. I get so caught up in the excitement of actually achieving something in the studio, as it’s not something that happens very often, that I listen to the roughs and am happy. Then I get the first mix through and a massive surge of excitement happens again! Then by the time you’re at the last mix and the mastering stage hopefully you’re pleased with what you’ve done. Our good friend Jonathan Ritch from the island of Unst did our mastering for us, and a great job too.
People sometimes ask what it’s like playing with your brother or family. I don’t really know how to describe it other than a ‘feeling’ when you’re playing that you can’t quite describe properly. It’s a sort of connection and knowing that is difficult to achieve with other musicians. It’s certainly possible but you have to do it for a very long time.
Anyway that’s been my year and some thoughts on music during Covid. Covid is ***** but if we keep our heads and stay strong I reckon there’s a brilliant time for music once this is under control. All the best folks 🙂
Ross & Ryan’s album ‘And Den Dey Made Tae‘ is available now from bandcamp.