A Hebridean Hogmanay, With Pictish Trail

Scottish songwriter on community, Lost Map, and recovering from 'rona…

There are several reasons why you might be even more envious than usual of Johnny Lynch’s lifestyle right now: chiefly that he lives on the Isle of Eigg, away from all the confusing madness elsewhere. Things have not been entirely rosy up in his Hebridean homeland, however. Yep, Omicron even infiltrated that 100-strong community, the catchy bastard.

Lynch – aka Pictish Trail – missed the Eigg outbreak, as he was down south doing a now-annual institution: the festive showcase for his label, Lost Map, at lovely London lunchtime bash Daylight Music. That show was filmed and is heartily recommended – particularly during this confusing few weeks (should we be in? Out? Shaking it all about?). There’s a crowdfunder below if online gigging feels too guilty a pleasure.

Actually Lynch got pretty emotional at the end of his set, while performing the title track from the forthcoming Island Family, an Eigg-themed album recorded after a lockdown Hogmanay ‘freak out’ last year. So how will New Year be celebrated there this year? If at all. What with everything?

Turns out Lynch ended up getting Covid anyway, so we Zoom him back home, post-isolation. 

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Are you over the ‘cron now?

I’m OK – while I was away it was just a flood of people on the island getting it and I was like, ‘Oh, good, I dodged that bullet,’ then I think I caught it in London. A bunch of us came down, did the gig for Daylight Music, and probably infected half the room.

We do expect the unexpected at that show. I remember 2019, a really charged atmosphere right after the general election, one of the acts just read a long speech by Salvador Allende…

That was Alabaster dePlume, an amazing poet and artist, who was playing with Rozi Plain; I’ve seen him do it from memory too. We played another gig later on, and I remember being quite drunk at the end, saying, ‘come on guys, you need to move to Scotland, the dream’s over.’ They were so dejected because they’d spent so much time canvassing. What might have been.

How long have you been doing those festive showcases?

Quite a few years now. The first one I did was, like, 2014? And it was myself and Frank Sidebottom. I don’t think they filmed that one, which is a pity, because it was such a surreal gig. It wasn’t very busy either.

The stream of this one was nice. It’s the first time I’ve watched that show with my cat.

Maybe there should be, like, a Bring Your Own Pet edition.

I can see it. So how is the festive season on Eigg?

It’s a funny time at the moment with all the Corona stuff, and also there’s been a big pier redevelopment; the tea room is the one place you can go to congregate, that’s completely closed. But there are big community meals, where everyone brings a dish, that’s usually great, because Eigg has an amazing amount of great cooks.

What about New Year, with the restrictions?

Usually there’s a big cèilidh, but I’m not sure if that’ll happen this time around, just with trying to get players in from the mainland. There are a few traditional players on the island, but I can’t play traditional music myself. I can barely play my own music. Usually I get roped in on DJ duties.

I wish there was a record shop on Eigg, I do miss the mainland for things like that. I’d love to run that, you could really influence what people were getting into.

It does kind of feel like that sometimes, the recent Bonfire Night. They asked me to DJ a thing afterwards and I did six or seven hours, and felt like I was imposing a lot of the tunes that I like.

You said at the Daylight gig that Eigg is like one big family, which you hadn’t experienced living in other places.

Partly it’s out of circumstance. Everyone has to rely on each other here, and there’s a sense of community that comes with that. If you’re really struggling with something, you’ve got a problem with your plumbing, whatever problems you might have. You do have to rely on the community and be ready to offer help and stuff.

You were doing this Visitations series, where artists came and made a record on Eigg’s bothy studio – is that still going? It was a kind of self-isolation…

I’m piecing together the next acts for the rest of the series. One big stumbling block at the moment is vinyl production. The series kind of revolves around us releasing the records on vinyl, and so now I’m trying to think of ways in which we can still do that, where we don’t have to wait months, a year before the vinyl arrives.

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It feels like every possible outlet gets pulled from musicians now. After the digital meltdown you could at least do vinyl and tours – now they’re tricky too.

It’s a weird thing. The vinyl resurgence has been amazing over the last 10 years in terms of placing value back onto music when the streaming channels are paying buttons, you’ve suddenly got this whole wave of people prepared to spend a good bit of money on having a nice physical product. The problem is, the jump in price has gone mad over the last two years.  

I was chatting to a record shop owner recently, who said there’s a lot of classic albums that were always in print; they’re no longer in print. But also there’s just a whole bunch of new releases that have gone up in price.

So the vinyl thing has been good, but so many releases are just focused around the vinyl release, the music is kind of taking second place; it’s more about having the artefact, what colour of vinyl it is, how limited edition it is.

A huge percentage of vinyl is never listened to, apparently. So for those people, we should send out, say, a bit of wood in a sleeve, all shrinkwrapped. They’ll never know.

Absolutely, I agree! I do wonder how many of the Adele vinyls that got made will actually be listened to. It’s Christmas, people are looking for gifts. Did she make like, half a million copies on vinyl or something?

Let’s not start a war between you and Adele…

Oh, bring it on: Adele, I think you should quit, you’ve had your time, that’s you done now.

Your next album might be an eye-opener for anyone who knows you best from those festive acoustic sets – musically, it’s pretty out there.

I lost my mind a bit. 2020, I’d just released an album, the tour got cancelled, the pandemic. I was at home, just full-on panic parenting mode and I couldn’t do any music. So the beginning of this year, Hogmanay, I had this freak out: my new year’s resolution was ‘right, I need to get away for a week and just try and record.’

So I went up to the bothy where we do the Visitations thing, locked myself in for a week, took a bass guitar, sampler, drum machine, keyboard and my eight track machine and just tried to splurge on as many ideas as I could. And yeah, the result is this album.

I’m always interested in how environment affects a record: this one sounds like you couldn’t really write about anything else?

Last year is the first year where it’s been a long consecutive amount of time actually on the island. Normally, I’ll have to leave every couple of weeks to do a tour or meetings or whatever. It was kind of good being here for the seasonal changes, seeing how the island evolves. – I also have like a real anxiety about a sense of belonging as well. I’m not a very outdoorsy person.

Really? I imagine you outdoors all the time, wandering the cliffs. But that might be from your videos.

I mean, I do go out; I run and all that. So I do get to enjoy the outside of Eigg. But I don’t know what anything is.

People would ask me, ‘Have you written any songs about Eigg, how does Eigg inspire you?’ I’d not written any songs. So my idea with this record was to write very directly about nature, isolation, the community and all that sort of stuff in a sort of tongue in cheek way. But what happened is, in the course of doing that, I discovered that it was absolutely fine for me to have that approach.

So it turned out genuine, not ironic?

There’s a song called ‘Island Family’, I sang it at Daylight Music and got really wobbly. It’s about all the different places on Eigg where people’s deaths have been commemorated, or happened; – It’s kind of all about all these different people from Eigg who died, and how that affects the community. The impact of every death that’s happened on the island has been really seismic, over the last 11, 12 years that I’ve been here.

So I wanted to provide a sort of weird little map of Eigg, in this made-up folk song. I’ve actually not been able to perform it the whole way through without getting emotional. I’m still trying to work out why that is.

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Pictish Trail’s new album ‘Island Family’ is out on March 18th. Click here to support Daylight Music’s 2022 crowdfunder – justgiving.com/crowdfunding/daylightmusic2022

Words: Si Hawkins // @SiHawkins

Source: https://www.clashmusic.com/features/a-hebridean-hogmanay-with-pictish-trail