One of Scotland's finest songwriters extols the virtues of living in and working from the island of Mull.
Roddy Woomble began his career as the frontman of acclaimed indie rockers, Idlewild, releasing seven albums and 12 UK top 40 singles. Since 2006 he has also produced three solo albums and a collaborative LP with Kris Drever and John McCusker, as well as writing columns and articles for various national publications. He has also moved, together with his wife, to the island of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. His most recent album - the beautiful Listen to Keep - was recorded on the island, at the An Tobar arts centre in Tobermory, and released earlier this year.
The Island Review asked Woomble about his relocation, which might seem, for many, an unusual move for a professional musician.
"Getting to and from gigs is certainly more work, the travel in general has increased, but other than that it has been the best move I’ve ever made. These islands have been part of my life since I was a boy. I know plenty of professional musicians who live rurally or remotely – most of them are over the age of 30 mind, but still, I don’t think of it as an odd move for a musician to make."
How does a change of location like that affect your writing, lyrically and musically?
"In short, it doesn’t really. I work the same as I ever have. I still either go to someone’s house or they come to mine and we write songs. I like to take walks and wander around, I find it a good stimulus for ideas, so in this respect things are easier - Mull has plenty of opportunities for this. The An Tobar arts centre in Tobermory has also been a catalyst for my song writing, demoing and recording, particularly working with Sorren Maclean (a Mull native). There is space to think here and I like that – very few distractions."
Your use of imagery has clearly been influenced by your surroundings (and previously, perhaps, by a desire to escape the city). But in making use of this influence, do you find yourself having to consciously steer away from what might be seen by some as ‘twee’ or romanticised?
"Well I don’t bother about that really. There is only so much you can worry about what someone might read into lyrics. It is impossible to use the words ‘woods’, ‘earth’, ‘sea’ or ‘moon’ in a song without some old bore labelling it twee. But they have probably never spent much time outside.These are highly evocative words and work well in songs. Besides, I think that contemplation and solitude in the wilds and on islands is not romantic nicety but, rather, biological necessity."
The Scottish islands are viewed by some in the Central Belt as being ‘peripheral’, culturally as well as geographically. You, presumably, don’t take that view.
"Well no, I don’t take this view. I felt far more peripheral cooped up in a flat in the city. This whole idea of being ‘remote’ is a strange one – remote from what? If your centre point is where you are then you are not remote. I guess people naturally stick together in towns and cities. Outside this sphere is a place plenty of folk would never think of venturing to. Fair enough.
"Culturally the Scottish islands are rich in their own way. I mean there are certain things that you don’t head to the islands for – the latest punk rock band, foodie trend, or art happening for example. But the islands have always supplied some of Scotland’s great poets - Sorley Maclean, George Mackay Brown and Ian Crichton Smith, to name three. George Mackay Brown in particular is a favourite of mine. His economy of language and clipped style (akin to the sagas) really made an impression on me, and continues to do so. These poets offer a great insight into the human condition, one that couldn’t have been born of Edinburgh or Glasgow.
"Plenty of popular contemporary artists, writers and musicians visit the islands and take inspirations from the landscape and traditions. In this way the islands have a permanent cultural relevance. They seep into such a variety of work."
What do you think that life on an island can give you that cannot be found elsewhere?
"It really depends who you are and what you’re looking for. I think from the ages of 17-30 it’s probably better to be off seeing a bit of the world, and exploring all your options. But if you get to the point where you want to concentrate on yourself, your family (‘settle down’ I think is the phrase they use), then island life is a good choice. It is also well suited for those of an artistic persuasion. The ever-changing light, watching seasons come and go, the emptiness of the sky and water, and the thoughts that emerge out of this emptiness.
"I like the separation that islands give. Getting onto a boat to go home, the feeling of pulling away from the mainland, a fantastic feeling that I'm sure is shared by islanders all over the world. You're leaving something behind, and yet you're going home."