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Dougie MacLean: Whitewash

| December 1, 2010 | 0 Comments

“I like dealing with songwriting as kind of a magical art. I like the idea that there’s something about it that I don’t understand and that I can’t put my finger on. Nobody can put their finger on what is or is not an infectious melody. You can give the same eight notes to people and they’ll all come up with different things, but one of them might just be something that will break your heart. Music is such a strange and powerful thing.”

Dougie MacLean has been under music’s magical spell since his childhood. Growing up in a rural Scottish town, music was an inherent part of the culture. Farmers would make up tunes as they worked on the land, then would get together after a hard day’s work and sing in pubs, and the whole town would gather every weekend in village halls for square dancing. “Everybody could knock a tune out on something,” he says. “And since you grew up with so much music, your ear was good somehow.”

It was this natural exposure to song that led Dougie MacLean to be described as a “Scottish Phenomenon” by journalists and other musicians and songwriters over the years. With his brilliant fiddling, exquisite guitar style, expressive voice, and honest performance, his songs conjure up remarkably vivid imagery of our world. He has even written what has now become the second national anthem of Scotland, a song he describes as a “wee homesick song” called Caledonia.

Just as his songs bring out the common bond in listeners, his fans love to find their common ground with each other. It’s never hard to find a group of people who are “Dougie Fans,” discussing how they were first introduced to his music, which of his albums is their favorite, or which of his songs has played an important part in their lives. “I’m still amazed when I get letters about my songs, and it’s a feeling that I don’t think will ever go away,” says Maclean. “I’m quite in awe of it, the power of song. It’s fascinating.”

Do you labor over songs very much?

No, I don’t see the point in that at all. They all come out of a little moment, and it’s almost like if I don’t finish them within a couple of weeks or a week, I don’t get the fine detail. I write the song and probably get it all kind of vaguely down but there are a lot of lines that I might change, but the basic thing will be there. And I might go back afterward and the more I sing it I’ll go “I like that line,” or “I don’t enjoy singing that line.”

So you put a lot of weight on the performance of it.

It all comes down to the pleasure of singing it. And that’s the funny thing about the difference between the song lyric and poetry. You can take a poem and try and put it to music and it might not work. It’s unsingable. It has to do with the vowels and consonants. It’ll be this stiff, jagged kind of thing. Because at the ends of lines you need to use nice open vowels so that you can sing it. Like “rescue me” (sings it). You couldn’t sing “rescue it” because it’s not enjoyable to sing. But you can move your voice around on an open vowel, but you can’t on a consonant because you’ve killed the end of your line. That’s one example of why it has to be good to sing. There has to be a certain pleasure in the actual singing of it. People are always saying that my choruses are so singable, and I say it’s just because I want to make them so I can enjoy singing them, you know?

Do you try to avoid explaining your songs to people?

I try not to tell people too much of what the songs are about. One of the things about songs is that you have to let them breathe themselves and have their own life. And you make the song out of your own feeling and your own emotion, but you don’t want it to be taken too literally by the listener. Hopefully it might summon up the same feeling you had when you wrote the song, but it should manifest itself in a different way because everybody’s different and everybody’s experience is different. You can actually spoil a song for somebody by being too literal.

You don’t write to pitch songs, do you?

No. I find that quite fascinating, too, when I come over here to the US. I mean that’s one of the things that I feel very privileged about growing up in a place where there was no music industry and songs were things that people did for real reasons, you know? And I grew up with songs being made up for real reasons, not because they’re going to make money on them or because they are going to manage to make a living out of playing music. I think the old songs that I grew up with and I learned when I was younger and I loved singing were written by people from whom there was no music industry. The song was a pure expression of forever. And there was no ulterior motive behind the songs at all. And when somebody’s writing that way, songs I think are magical. I was lucky I grew up with all that because it makes you realize when you’re writing your own songs if you’ve touched on that magic at all. If you don’t know how to recognize between touching on that magic and not touching on that magic—if you don’t have a ruler to measure that against—you don’t know. So probably a lot more of my things end up in the trash bin because I know it’s not doing it for me like that old song would do it for me.

Is there a music industry in Scotland, this writing for business?

It’s not done at all in Scotland. I don’t think any of the major companies have even got offices in Scotland anymore. They had them there, maybe, but not now. We are just really untouched by the machine. Which is nice in one way, but it’s also a shame in the other way because there’s a lot of good stuff there. But it breaks my heart that the big corporate companies have actually engineered the definite musical styles and pigeonholed and made the boxes. They’ve done that intentionally so they can target markets and such. And so if you like country music, then you wouldn’t like folk music or you don’t like rock music. So what the companies have actually done is they’ve taken away the people’s music from them, the natural music that they should be allowed to listen to if they felt comfortable. But the record companies have made these ghettos because it’s a business for them and music is a commodity. And it’s a bit like the charts, you know, it preys on the fundamental need that human beings have for the music of their soul. And everybody needs it and everybody wants it, and I’m sure it’s easy to sell it because it’s an essential spirituality; it’s an essential part of a human being.

How can a songwriter keep in touch with their music and not get jaded by the business, then?

I’m a great believer that if something is good, has a value and it’s been done for the right reasons, people will eventually get to hear it. Staying independent and starting your own label is a long hard way to go, but the other option is tough, too. I mean there’s two ways of traveling as a musician. There are two paths and they go in quite different directions. One is that you want to be famous. And the other is that you just want to be able to sing your songs and live from singing your songs. And you’ve got to ask yourself when you get to that point, “Am I doing this because I want to be on The Tonight Show or have hit singles, and be recognized when I walk down the street, or do I really just love playing music and do I want to be able to do this until I’m an old man.” And the decisions that you’ll make if you go one way are quite different than if you go the other. So you’ve got to be happy with your choice. You can’t be dissatisfied about not being popular or recognized if you took the latter route. And if you go the route of fame and fortune and find yourself dropped by a record company two years down the line and say, “What happened to me?” That’s the gamble that you take if you take that road.

Can you remember something or some specific moment that has told you that what you’re doing is right?

I remember one week I got two letters which were from the United States, actually. If I never got any letters again in my life, these two letters justified everything that I’ve done over the years as a musician. One of them was from a guy whose father was dying of cancer and he was in a special ward in a hospital. He was able to have his tape player in the room, and while he was dying, he listened to this tune that I had written. And this guy was thanking me for letting his father sort of pass away peacefully because he was a great lover of this tune.

And in the same week I got a letter from a lady who was having a baby in a hospital and she played my music while she gave birth, and she was thanking me for my songs that were in there that allowed her to give birth easily. And I thought, “Wow, there’s one going out at one end and coming into the world at the other,” and it was just so fabulous. I have those two letters at home and I know that I don’t need any other reason for doing this. And if you write from that place, there’s great strength and confidence in that. You do it for yourself, and that’s all the security you need at the end of the day.

—By Lydia Hutchinson

—Performance photo by Rob McDougall

From Performing Songwriter May/June 1995, Issue 12

Category: Be Heard Jukebox Archive

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