by Craig Howieson
Never alone: Art, music, poetry and hope – finding a home through creativity’s endless possibilities
For someone who has lived such a transient life, Roddy Woomble has found some semblance of stability in The Outer Hebrides – Scotland’s most westerly group of islands – and a place that he has called home for close to twelve years now. ‘Sometimes I’m amazed at how long I’ve been there,’ he ruminates as we begin our call, ‘it’s the longest I’ve stayed anywhere.’ Having had a youth dotted with travel, and a young adulthood spent on tour with his band, Idlewild, the road became a second home, and a life he relished. ‘I always liked waking up somewhere new every day. You always fell asleep and you knew the next day you were gonna wake up and go somewhere different. That would maybe cause some people anxiety, but I really loved that. As I grew older, I liked that less and less, but there’s still an element of it that’s exciting and I’ve never lost that, and I guess that’s what my music is partly about as well.’
The power of art, be it words, music or canvas, that allows you to venture beyond your own world without ever stepping out your front door is a fasciation of Woomble’s. ‘It’s maybe not physically going somewhere different, but you’re actually going somewhere else creatively in your imagination if you’re working on songs and words.’ And it is this fascination that helped him to deal with the isolation of lockdown – a period which spawned his forthcoming fifth solo LP, Lo! Soul.
‘I wasn’t really planning on making another record,’ says Woomble. ‘Andrew (Mitchell, aka Andrew Wasylyk) and I had talked about doing another EP, and making it even stranger – trying to do something completely different to what we’d already done. But as lockdown continued, an album sort of emerged as we passed things backwards and forwards, and it had a sort of spirit about.’
His working relationship with Mitchell – who plays bass in Idlewild, and with whom he previously recorded the Everyday Sun EP – has proved to be a fruitful one. In addition to having a lot in common, and a shared history coming from the same part of Scotland, Woomble adds that he ‘loves the minimalism of it.’ The two have to work within certain limitations of what they can realistically achieve just themselves, forcing them down paths they may never have ventured previously.
And Lo! Soul certainly marks a bold step forward for Woomble as a songwriter. It is a strange engagement of a record that ties, and then unravels, a myriad of threads. It demands your attention and rewards it. But its diverse nature was not necessarily preordained. ‘I dont sit down and think, “right I’ve done that, now I need to do something different,”’ offers Woomble by way of explaining the record’s tone. ‘But, naturally, it always kind of evolves. Partly that has a lot to do with the fact that I’ve worked with quite a variety of people now, and I’m pretty much a collaborative songwriter.’
His own assessment of Lo! Soul is simple: ‘It’s unusual, but it holds together.’ And he is right. The decadent, deadpan pop of Take It To The Street, and futuristic distorted dread of As If It Did Not Happen are countered by the heartwarmingly plaintive, People Move Out, the electro-pop of Architecture in LA, and the yearning expanse of Dead Of The Moon. And it’s these extremes – lying next to each other – that makes these songs hit in a way that they arguably wouldn’t in isolation.
Created for the most part in isolation, with himself and Mitchell only managing one in-person session, the record is testament to the enduring power of human connection and the ties that bind us. Its genesis reinforces the idea that a friend you have not seen in a month or a year is still a friend – you just have to reach out – and that we can find light within others in dark times. As Woomble puts it, ‘It’s a record that’s very creative and I think creativity is hopeful. We were throwing ideas at each other from a hundred miles across Scotland, and there’s something happening there: I think there’s a real sense of optimism about it.’
His past, and choice of career have meant Woomble has become no stranger to isolation – something many would argue he has compounded by choosing to live somewhere as cut off as The Outer Hebrides. But perhaps we are only ever remote if we allow ourselves to be. If you hold a deep love of the arts, and have a select few around you, are you ever alone?
‘The notion of remoteness and isolation, and feeling isolated, is one that is through all my work really, and something that has always really interested me,’ Woomble says. ‘The idea of… what are you remote from? I think when people use the word “remote”, they are quite often meaning you are remote from a large place like a city, or you are remote from things and from other people. But if you are actually living there and that’s where you are based, then you don’t feel remote. I don’t feel remote. I just feel normal. I have lived in big cities before – I have lived in London and New York – right in the midst of the action and the busiest parts, and I probably felt more remote there than I do on a very small island off an island.’
Woomble’s time spent touring the world with Idlewild has not only shaped his perspective on loneliness, but also provided him a unique insight into what can connect us – identifying the glimmers in the gutter that those of us inclined to look will discover and hold close. ‘There is a sense of detachment that permeates a lot of big spaces, and the big cities.’ he says. ‘Being in a touring band, you would travel round to these cities every night, and you would get a sense that there were all these kinds of people that sort of felt the same way as you coming to the gig. Who felt a connection to someone that was singing about the same things that they felt. The way that I did when I was younger I guess with Morrissey or Kurt Cobain.’
In a time when it feels like, more than ever, we need to focus on the positive influences that unite us, Woomble is effusive on the power of music, and also aware of the small part he plays in providing that positivity for others. ‘I understand what it’s like to be a fan of a band and to look at someone like Morrissey and Kurt Cobain, right up to Aldous Harding, Weyes Blood or Beach House that I’ve really responded to recently. You feel a connection to them because they are ascribing through their songs something you can really relate to. But if you met them, you wouldn’t be able to say that to them, so it’s just that invisible language we have with each other which is what is so fascinating about music I think. I really do believe that there’s an element of magic in it.’
Great art is not only a means to bring us together, it is also a vital comfort when we are alone, and as an avid reader and lover of the written word, Woomble is equally as enamoured with literature’s rejuvenative qualities and its ability to steal us from loneliness. ‘The notion of never being alone with literature because you’ve always got company is hugely comforting,’ he explains. ‘And I’ve never felt that sense of being alone – even when I was younger – because I always loved to read.’
His own work is influenced as much by literature as it is by other music, and it is those who ground him, and who are often found close to home that nestle deepest under his skin. ‘I’m really influenced by writers with a sense of place… and a lot of that is down to moving around a lot as a youngster, and I didn’t really have a sense of place.’ These writers allowed him to venture beyond the confines of his own surroundings, and become a visitor to other worlds of reference. Places in his mind that he frequents to this day. ‘When I discovered writers like George Mackay Brown, that’s one thing that blew me away. The idea that you could see the world from where you were, and the creative imagination could go anywhere was really important to me and still is. He is a real hero of mine for that reason.’
There is solace to be found in the words of people we feel may understand us, or share our deepest thoughts. And it is in those writers, many of whom happen to also be Scottish, that Woomble developed an early affinity with. ‘When I was in my late teens, I started to learn about all the amazing art that was out there written by people I had a lot in common with throughout the generations – often from similar backgrounds to mine. And still, my favourite kind of writing is writing from Scotland. And that’s not me being like “I don’t like writing from Wales or Germany or whatever,” because I love Portuguese writers (I love Fernando Pessoa), and I love loads of American writers. But people like George Mackay Brown mean something to me that other writers don’t. And I guess one of the reasons is because the writing gives me a sense of belonging.’
The sense of kinship with those from similar areas, with shared experiences and backgrounds, also permeates Woomble’s favourite records. ‘The idea that I’m putting something on my turntable that was recorded 70 years ago in the Carribean, and it’s come to life in my house, that’s amazing, but I don’t have the connection to those records that I do to say bands like Teenage Fanclub, or even The Smiths. I feel those records a lot more than I do records from other places. I think that’s really important, and I think it’s universal too. You are drawn to things you understand more – especially when you’re young, and what I’m really talking about is the things that formed my influences.’
For any music lover, or deep fan of literature, they will see shades of themselves in Woomble: a man who views the bands and writers he loves as relationships to be cherished. ‘You find your artist, don’t you?’ he questions – as we venture close to the end of our call – but knowing the answer. ‘There’s only ever a handful of artists you take through your life – whether it’s writers or film directors or musicians. You find your people that you want to spend your life with. People that can bring something new to every day and all different situations.’
As he goes on to point out, we would be forever altered without them. ‘I sometimes think about what would have happened if I hadn’t found those people at certain points in my life and, largely, I think my life would have been completely different. If Nirvana hadn’t released Nevermind when I was 14…. we bought it and everyone straight away was into bands, and into checking out all these underground American bands. That was a significant thing. Another significant thing was discovering people like George Mackay Brown and Sorley MacLean, Norman MacCaig and all those Scottish poets in my late teens who made me think about the way you could write about where you’re from in a completely different way than what I imagined you could. These are significant things that happen in your life, and, if they didnt happen, life wouldn’t have been the same, but I guess that’s what life is… and why it’s quite mysterious and exciting.’
Woomble’s new record is an album of hope, born of creativity, and a reminder of the blessing bestowed on those among us who have a connection with music or literature that allows us to roam and be free. It is also, perhaps, an opportunity to pause and be thankful for the artists we have found, and for those which still await us.
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