The musicians of Songs of Separation came together for just one week on a small Scottish Island. Each was tasked with bringing three traditional songs from their own musical genre, which we jammed on the first night. Over the next few days, those songs that we felt had ‘something to them’ were developed, sometimes as a whole group and sometimes as small ensembles.
Karine hadn’t planned to bring this particular song, but something about the Isle of Eigg, made it come into being. The island is so rich in birdlife that it had its very own Scottish Wildlife Trust worker, called ‘John The Bird’, who had spent his days walking, pipe in hand, the length and breadth of the (5 x 3 mile) island, noting the rare species he saw. He’d been doing this for 25 years.
“Just minutes after arriving on Eigg, I read a public information board at the pier, which mentioned that corncrakes still live on the Isle. These shy migrant birds, who arrive in western Scotland and Ireland in summer and leave for Africa in winter, were once plentiful across the British Isles. They’re an elusive Red Listed conservation species now, due to the devastating impact of mowing mechanisation upon their nesting grounds.
I first heard this song sung in Girvan by an Ayrshire singer called May Mayberry. On the surface, it’s a bonnie pastoral love song. But to me there’s great added poignancy to it now, because the corncrake, once a familiar and welcome symbol of changing seasons, has been absent from many areas for a lifetime, pushed like other species to the environmental margins.
The song’s celebration of “rural joy … free for a’” also has a chilly ring to it, when so many of us have poor access to and understanding of the wider natural environment we inhabit. I think this disconnect between human beings and the living world is one of the great faultlines of our era”
Whilst the arrangement grew naturally, and the various effects and choices were not subjects of lengthy discussion, it is these that make this track special.
You’ll hear the opening Corncrake call (kindly provided by Magnus Robb), which producer Jen Hill insisted ‘must move in and out of time’, as bird calls in rhythm can sometimes go too far! Andy Bell – engineer extraordinaire – obliged. This is backed by the unusual sound of a ‘scraped’ banjo, plectrum edge moving against a low string (Rowan Rheingans), and the stabbing rhythm of the guitar and bass pick up the initial bird call rhythm, creating a cushion for Karine’s crystal clear vocals.
You can hear a bass drum, you say? That’s the heel of a palm hitting the back of the double bass, creating a deep heart-beat thud that sounds like it comes from the centre of the earth. The sparseness of the opening verse moving to egdy, raw upper strings which play dynamically around the vocals, rushing into the vocal gaps and creating a sense of urgency and pressure.
Is there something in the chorus about the migratory pattern of this bird? Many listeners have told us that the edgy, ten voice, high energy chorus of “E-ho E-ho” reminds them stylistically of African women’s chorus singing. Others have noted the nod to Gaelic song choruses.
And you may have noted all the other ‘island sounds’ we gathered and interspersed between tracks? A testimony to Andy Bell’s deftness of touch is that (if you have the album on repeat in the car, ironically) the final track closes with the singing of birds at twightlight, and then segues into track one’s corncrake call – which, in context, is a kind of wake up call.
Often used as the opening number of our gigs, Echo Mocks the Corncrake is an absolute joy to play. There is something primal that happens in the chorus – a rush of energy, a fizz up your spine, a sense we are singing into the cavernous gap between how we treat our earth, and how we ought to treat it. A sense that we are crying out in the hope that the natural world will still be able to reply.
Want to find out more about Songs of Separation and Eco-Themes? Read our recent article.