Photo credit: Greg Carr
Asked to research and bring three songs on the topic of ‘separation’ to the group, the musicians had a lot of freedom to interpret the theme as they wished. This gave rise to wide and interesting scope, including the rich/poor divide, the impact of war, geographical borders and the refugee crisis, gender-related inequalities and ‘illusion vs reality’, but by far the strongest theme which came through related to our increasing separation from the natural world.
Hannah James’ Poor Man’s Lamentation not only comments on social and economic inequity, but also explores our use of land, ownership of land and who profits from the exploitation of our natural resources.
“When I was thinking about the many topics that the word “separation” can cover I started to think about the ‘divide and rule’ mentality of our media and government and the huge disparity of wealth which our systems hold in place, but also about our separation from the land as a species. We have moved from worshiping nature and being part of it, to seeing ourselves as separate from it and, perhaps most foolishly of all, to thinking we can control it and are not dependent on it. I started looking through The Full English online archive and, after searching a few different subjects, I eventually typed in the word Earth and found this absolute gem; a broadside ballad which could have been written yesterday. It reminded me how deeply engrained and long standing these power struggles are and manages to cover just about everything I was thinking! It’s also written by a man with one of the best names I’ve ever heard, Uriahs Smart.”
Rowan Rheingans’ Soil and Soul asks about our legacy on the earth (“What will we leave when we leave?”), and alludes to the footprint we choose to leave behind.
“Before our trip north, I read what I could about the Hebrides and the Isle of Eigg. These islands hold a fascinating collective story, where so many facets of life converge: nature, religion, language, ecology, poetry, mythology, tradition, change, land, politics and people. This song was nesting quietly in my head before we arrived on Eigg, where it took flight and soared under the imaginative and sensitive wings of the group. The woman in the mountain is inspired by some hills on The Isle of Lewis which look like the figure of a woman lying down. They’re known locally as ‘Cailleach na Mòintich’ or ‘Old Woman of the Moors’, which reminded me of the old legend of the ‘Big Women of Eigg’. There are stories waiting to be noticed again and uncovered in the physical and social landscapes we inhabit and, in doing so, there’s rich learning to be done about our shifting relationships to land, nature and community. The song’s title is inspired by the thought-provoking Alastair McIntosh book of the same name.”
A green plan?
Initially planned to be just a 6 day recording project, with only 1000 albums to be burned (and sold online), part of the design of the original Songs of Separation ‘model’ was about testing the potential to make music ‘in situ’, without the traditional approach of touring.
This was inspired by work that producer Jen Hill was doing with Damian Helliwell’s Metta, on the Isle of Eigg, where we were developing a model of ‘studio sessions’, bringing together some of Scotland’s leading trad musicians for live sessions which would be streamed on the internet, as a way of testing a more viable, sustainable way of getting music out into the world.
This angle was very much influenced by our environment. Living on The Isle of Eigg, in a green community, powered by wind, solar and hydros, with limited access to ‘stuff’ makes you think more carefully about everything you use. This small community of less than 100 people is known world wide for its community land buyout (the ‘losing of the laird’), and for designing and installing the energy sources it needed to survive. Why? Because necessity made it so. In a community with no mainland power sources, people had to change the way they do things. Economics plays a big part in this, as it does currently in the music industry, with mounting tour costs which are giving rise to unworkable margins, and unsustainable terms and conditions for musicians. The Songs of Separation project looked to ‘unpick’ some of these issues, and the project design was about ‘ethics, environment and equalities’.
However, Songs of Separation grew in its ambitions, and the original plan was superseded by the idea of touring the work. Doing this ‘the old fashioned way’ jeopardised the green credentials of the project, but it meant that more people would get to hear the music.
In response to this change of tack, producer Jen Hill vowed to bring this work to fruition with the smallest possible ‘footprint’. This included everything from decisions about modes of transport to gigs, to never once using a new envelope (we recycled packaging to the point of obsession!). We even explored carbon offsetting and are hoping that the RSPB can make use of the song ‘Echo Mocks the Corncrake’, to draw attention to habitat destruction and the impact on UK birdlife.
Do musicians think about the impact of their choices on the earth? If not, perhaps it’s something that we do need to start thinking about? After all, taking into account environmental impact, rising tour costs (fuel, and eventually air travel taxes which more accurately reflect the impact), then surely the whole model for delivering music will need to change? Environmental considerations should be at the centre of our planning and decision making. The musical world will need to adapt how it works, and if the music we make can support and inspire other people to do the same, all the better.