We speak to the Scottish songwriter about his dual life of making music and raising sheep on a Hebridean croft
Colin Macleod is a singer-songwriter from Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. He splits his time between a quiet life working on his croft on the island to working with notable music veterans, such as Sheryl Crow and Robert Plant. He recorded his new album, Hold Fast, before lockdown and it’s a beautiful piece of rock, country, and Celtic-infused Americana. We speak to him on the phone about the release of the album, which is out now.
From where we’re standing, you seem to live a bit of a double life: half of the time you’re a crofter on the Isle of Lewis, and then you’re out on the road with the likes of Sheryl Crow and Robert Plant. How do you make both elements of your life work?
“I don’t really know, to be honest! I think if you’d started from scratch and said, ‘I’m going to do this as a career choice,’ people would say I’m nuts but I’ve been doing it for so long now it just kind of works.
“My dad helps a lot with the sheep. We run the flock together, so that’s a huge help and then, of course, every year I must take a month off for lambing time so that’s always a bit funny. It works…kind of.”
In a way, you’ve done the opposite of what people say you have to do to “make it” in music: you continue to live where you grew up on a remote island where you grew up. How did you go from playing gigs in the Hebrides to touring with such big names?
“When I left school, I decided I was going to try and do music and write songs – I started writing songs when I was in secondary school and got really into it. We played music on a Saturday night, we would play covers in the pub and that was the main thing that we did. Then we started jamming and writing songs and I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll have a crack at this and see if I can do it.’ And then, a year out from Uni escalated into four years, then five years and it just went on and on.
“When I was around about 20, I signed a deal with Universal Publishing, like a development deal, and it all really kicked off from there. I got to spend time in really nice studios with incredible songwriters and just learned; it was basically like a university for songwriters. I got to go and work with the best songwriters in the UK and learn how to craft songs and how to produce songs and how to work in studios and all that sort of stuff.
“It’s just all sort of rolled on from there. It’s been a bit of a funny journey, it’s not been the typical journey of a singer-songwriter, but I never really aspired to sell millions of records and to play sold-out shows: I really just wanted to make good music and live at home. I lived in London for a couple of years but only one foot in and one foot out, I was home a lot when I lived there.”
How did the pandemic impact the recording and release of Hold Fast and did you have to do anything differently this time?
“We actually recorded the whole thing, pre-COVID, so it was ready to go. I’d put a big bit of time aside to do it but then ended up writing it in a week, or a couple of weeks. All the songs came really quickly and, similar to the recording, I spent four weeks with my pal, Jimmy Hogarth. He produced the album in London in a couple of stints at the beginning and end of the summer and it was done.
“When I’ve made albums before, it’s always been a little bit of a process, back and forward, back and forward, change this, change that, but this one just came out as a oner. Literally, the first 10 songs I wrote for the album are the 10 songs, pretty much, in order that are on the vinyl. It was the quickest album I’ve ever made and then the longest wait (laughs) to release it.
“It was quite funny in that I spent most of lockdown twiddling my thumbs, waiting for it to come out. We delayed it a little bit – just because we wouldn’t have been able to do anything for it – so we held it back for a couple of months, but everyone’s in the same boat.”
You did Instagram live gigs during that time; how did you find the online gig experience?
“It was fun! The thing I really liked the most about it was that it was just so informal. There’s a thing when you do gigs and there’s the set-up and the prep and you get on stage and you’ve got a set amount of time and it’s very….well, I think I’m pretty laid back when I do gigs anyway, and you have a little bit of interaction with the crowd and all the rest of it, but you know you’ve got that set time and you’ve got to play these songs. Being able to do stuff online, it was like, ‘Oh I can just do whatever I want! I’ll make it up as I go along.’ It was really nice to just be a bit spontaneous and a bit daft and do something different, but I really enjoyed it.”
It’s taught us we can make music and play for an audience anywhere, hasn’t it?
“I didn’t expect for it to be such a creative thing and quite a liberating thing as well. Even with the way music has gone in the past 10 years, with so much of it being online, I always felt at a slight disadvantage being in such a rural place. Now, that’s just not the way anymore; it’s like this thing has put everyone on a level playing field. It doesn’t matter where you’re from: you can do it wherever.”
The new album features Sheryl Crow on the tracks Old Soul and 33. What’s Sheryl like to work with?
“She’s amazing, she’s great, really supportive and super down-to-earth and good fun. You know she’s worked really hard to get where she is and she’s one of the most incredible artists in the world – and one of the most famous people in the world – but still works really hard and appreciates what it takes. It’s nice that she takes the time to support little old me!”
The title Hold Fast is your clan motto – what does it mean to you and how did you pick the songs to put on the album that would reflect this?
“I think the last couple of albums have had a thing about titles and with Bloodlines [Colin’s last album], I had the title before I wrote any of the songs and Hold Fast was kind of similar. It’s the clan motto but it has this real kind of masculine, tough thing about it and I think the sentiment in the album…there’s a central figure and he goes on a journey and there’s a bit of a stiff upper lip. He’s got this bullish, ‘I don’t have emotions,’ kind of character and it quickly becomes his downfall and he realises that he needs his friends and he goes through a bit of a thing on the record.
“So, the title is a bit of a double-edged thing… you start off thinking you need to be tough, but actually when you flip it in your head, you just need to hold on. That was the idea behind it. It was a bit weird that it all did fit together so neatly, I thought it would be cool to have an album title called Hold Fast and then, as I started going about a bit of a narrative with the songs, I realised there was a bit of a concept brewing. That title just seemed really, really poignant and tied it all together. The order is the story of the character. The running order and the whole process of the album, really, reflects that.”
So, you didn’t really have any idea what it would grow into?
“Yeah, it’s the first time I’ve ever written an album with such a clear idea, almost like a story from every single song on the album is tied together. I spent quite a while writing an intro to the first song, Queen of The Highlands, and that was important that it set the scene. It’s a bit of a grandiose thing and I’ve never done that before; I don’t even know why or where it came from, really…it was obviously just all brewing in there in the back of my mind. It all just came out in a oner.”
You are evidently very connected to your Hebridean roots and upbringing – how much does the landscape of Lewis influence and inspire your storytelling and your sound?
“I think it’s pretty much central to it. It’s really apparent in the lyrics, I always knew that I was drawing inspiration, lyrically, from the people around me and the old storytelling tradition and that kind of thing but the sound, the space in the records – that really ambient, reverb guitar sound and things like that – I think that’s definitely a direct link to the island and where I live. The wind and the winter and the dark: it all bleeds into it.
“Also, I think the fact the island is obsessed with country music, and it’s played on the local radio station every Saturday night, that has definitely leaked in there as well. When I was in school, I never got it but when I left, it was my favourite type of music.”
What and who would you say are your main musical influences?
“Growing up, lots of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and lots of singer-songwriters. I listened to a lot of rock music as well when I was younger and that permeates into heavier riffs and things like that. Then, since my twenties, I’ve listened to a lot of country music; Johnny Cash is a big inspiration. Not a lot of current stuff, to be honest, although I really love Jason Isbell, he’s one of my favourite writers.”
What’s the best songwriting advice you’ve ever been given?
“Oh man…probably the best advice I’ve ever been given is just to not be too hard on yourself. Everyone has good and bad days, and everyone has good and bad songs. I think you just have to stick with it and if you have a bad day and think you’re the worst songwriter ever, you just have to put the guitar down and pick it up again tomorrow.”
Do you have a songwriting process and routine that you follow?
“Not really! I have to be honest, it’s all a bit sporadic. When I was younger, I used to write pretty much compulsively. Now, it’s like this weird thing when you do it for a while, you seem to know the good and bad days before you even pick up the guitar. Some days you just think, ‘Oh today’s a day for writing a song’…I’m a little bit shambolic in most areas of my life and songwriting isn’t really exempt from that.”
So you’re telling us you don’t sit down every morning at 4 am and write before your work on the croft begins?
“Oh, I carry my notebook everywhere and I journal constantly (laughs). Nah, I’ve got 7000 voice memos on my phone, and I can’t go through it all because it’s all just such random stuff from whenever I get the urge.”
Are you starting to look at live dates yet or what stage are you at with planning?
“It’s all really up in the air, to be honest. I’m just sitting back and waiting to see what happens. I’m just excited for the album to be out and for people to hear it. I hope everyone likes it as much as I do. I’m really proud of the lyrics, I wanted to talk plainly and be honest. It was quite hard for me, you know I keep myself to myself and I don’t say much about things, so this was a very, very difficult thing to do but I stuck to my guns and told it as it was and how I wanted to say it.”
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