James Graham, Kathryn Joseph, and Marcus MacKay on the savage beauty of their new project...

On paper, Easterhouse isn’t a very good place to live. In practice, it probably isn’t either.

Conceived in a fit of post-war 1950s optimism, the affordable housing product of Glasgow’s slum clearances soon fell prey to a lack of investment and the ravages of social deprivation.

Now, it holds the dubious honour of being one of Scotland’s most notorious estates – a hinterland, just six miles from the city centre, where the ‘Glasgow effect’ is running amok. At last count, over 40% of the children in the area were defined as living in poverty. In 2016, it was named one of the worst places to live in the UK. Gangs and drug abuse are rife.

But for the unmistakeable darkness, there are glimmers of light. And one of those is the Platform cultural centre. Part of significant recent regeneration, it brought together a swimming pool, a library, a café and a venue space – emerging as a social hub in a community in dire need of support.

And Easterhouse proved fertile terrain. But then, things used to grow there. ‘Conflats’ itself is a reference to this agricultural past. It echoes back to the original maps drawn of Scotland in the 1500s, where the area was known as ‘Conflat’ – farmland where corn and wheat would grow.

But with this record, the three musicians at the heart of the Out Lines project – James Graham of the Twilight Sad, singer-songwriter Kathryn Joseph and producer/percussionist Marcus MacKay – are charting its emotional cartography.

These are hymns to a neglected place, telling the stories of good people often dealt a bad hand by life, responding to their circumstances with resilience, humour and strength.

Initially conceived as a one-off performance for Platform’s Outskirts festival, the project found life and legs of its own. Through a series of in-depth interviews, the musicians spoke directly to the community about their thoughts, fears, hopes and concerns. And from those conversations, sprung these luminous songs of hope and despair.

I meet them in Glasgow’s Mono to talk about it.

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Could you tell us a little bit more about the project and how it came about?

James: Alun Woodward, who was in the Delgados, works as the music programmer at Platform and organises the Outskirts festival. He’d asked if I wanted to be involved with it, and if there was someone that I wanted to collaborate with.

He gave me a list of people and I was like, ‘Nah’. I said Kathryn, because I was a big fan of the album. I loved the record, and I think I’d said before…it was kind of out of character for me. I’d never met Kathryn, didn’t know her at all. Me and Marcus had been friends for quite a long time, maybe ten years.

But I thought, this is time to take myself out of my comfort zone a little bit and see if she would be interested in it. Usually I’d go to someone that I knew and say, do you want to write some tunes together? I must’ve been feeling weird that day.

Kathryn Joseph: It was still quite early on when I got asked about it. And so I was still very uncomfortable, in an ‘I won’t be able to work with anyone’ mode, but then they were like James has specifically asked for you. I think it made it a bit easier in some ways, you know, because we were both put in this weird situation together.

J: I’m pretty much used to only writing with Andy from the band. I think I’ve only ever written with another friend, and it wasn’t a situation like this…so it was jumping into the unknown a little bit.

Marcus Mackay: One of the reasons I thought it’d be good for me to get on with it all this effort was going into a live set and writing songs, and no-one was actually recording it. Having a studio, I thought, let’s commemorate this, let’s record it. And whether it gets put out or not, at least we’ve got it.

J: The first day we went, Marcus was walking around Platform, kind of getting the feel for the place. Kathryn and I went around interviewing people – older and younger – who used Platform as a place for somewhere to go, somewhere to help them.

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It was jumping into the unknown a little bit.

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How did you approach those people? Were they selected, or were they just people who happened to be around on the day?

J: Alan and Margaret (at Platform) selected them. We maybe did two meetings a day, a day every week for a month. The first time I hadn’t met Kathryn. So we sat in this room with an older woman to do an interview. I didn’t know Kathryn, the woman didn’t know us…

And through all the conversations, we got to know each other. Which is a really weird way to get to know anyone! But at the same time, instantly we knew we were quite similar. And in that situation, we had each other to lean on at the same time. We had conversations with older women, an older man, some kids that made us feel really, really old...and that was the most terrifying one of the lot.

K: They didn’t even know who The Cure were, let alone The Twilight Sad. I’m totally disturbed by this generation!

J: The first woman who came in had a newspaper, and there was a picture of Kathry in it. And I was thinking, did you slip that in her bag?!

So what was the focus of those conversations?

J: Life in Easterhouse, why they used Platform and what Platform had done for them. But we didn’t want to approach it like bullet points ‘can you tell us about this’, we wanted to have a conversation. We didn’t record any of the conversations either, as it might make them feel less comfortable talking to us. Luckily, we’ve both got pretty good memories!

K: What’s come out of that is what affected you in those conversations is what you end up putting into the songs.

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Just a total, weird snapshot of human beings and how they cope with things.

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M: The things that resonated really stuck with you.

J: And some of them were pretty harrowing.

I was going to say, it must’ve been quite gruelling.

K: And they just started telling you things. They just started telling you about their partner or their child dying. But it’s that thing, it's how someone sums up their life and tells you about it. And then the next minute they’re telling you about how amazing the Commonwealth Games was and how they were all volunteering and how it was the best thing they ever did. It was really beautiful. Just a total, weird snapshot of human beings and how they cope with things. How resilient they are.

J: There wasn’t one person that had a ‘woe is me’ thing. It was very ‘this happened and it was really shit’. But even at that, there were some it was still really rough for. Platform was obviously helping, but it was still pretty horrible.

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Were you surprised by how open they were?

J: I was. I don’t think I would be. If you sat at the table and said, ‘tell me your life story’, I don’t think that I would. You’d drive home at night and it’d still be going round your head. It was an amazing experience, just those interviews themselves.

M: Pretty unique circumstances.

J: What came out of it was that everyone said Platform was really important to them. It was the place that they could just to go to. Not to have to go and learn, no judgement…

M: Just the space of it.

J: A place to go where they could talk to somebody.

K: It must’ve been weird when it started up. I used to work in the restaurant of a gallery and people used to be intimidated because it had glass doors. They wouldn’t come in because they thought ‘I’m not supposed to go in there’. So, to have an arts centre right in the middle of that area is really brave. But people haven’t gone, ‘who the fuck do you think you are?’ They’ve seen gigs that there’s no way they would have gone to see before.

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I love that you can go in any door and see a little surprise around the corner.

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M: Before, it was all separate. There was a college, there was a swimming pool, there was all these separate things. And the ‘platform’, as it is now, was joined by an architectural endeavour to make one thing and kind of draw it all together to make it work the way it does.

K: That’s where the desire lines part of it comes in. It’s been built over man-made ‘desire lines’, where people make their own paths to go to the shops, their closes, their homes. And that’s why there’s three entrances, and it doesn’t feel like you’re going in the wrong door when you’re going through any of them. I love that you can go in any door and see a little surprise around the corner.

M: While those guys were doing all the hard interview stuff, I went along for a little session. There’s some sounds on the record that are sampled from within the actual building. I literally had a snare drum in the library. Had to go up to some people like ‘Hi, I’m going to be hitting this soon’. And I had to do all this stuff that would end up appearing on the record to capture the acoustics of the thing. I thought that was my way of bringing the space into the music.

When you set out on it, did you have any preconceptions of how you wanted it to sound?

M: I tricked my brain. I thought, I have to come up with some drumbeats. Kathryn had left the harmonium with me. I thought, what I’ll do is make up some drumbeats and put them onto the harmonium and then songs just came out. I’m not sure how I tricked my brain into how to do that. That’s what I sent to James. And then he sent me some stuff back. Listening back to it, it wasn’t like it was easy – but it wasn’t stuttered, and it flowed.

J: The initial exciting stages of writing, where it should be exciting, that was all there.

K: Which is even more weird, when you know it’s something that you have to do now. That’s the part of it that I worry about.

M: There was a gig, and we hadn’t had any songs written. And that was a very unusual situation to be in. That’s motivation!

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How did you find it as songwriters to use other people’s lives as material?

K: It’s an odd feeling. But even though you’re thinking about them, and lyrics were often sentences that someone had said, it’s all about how you connect it back to your own life anyway. Some things that were happening in my life at the time were very similar to what they were talking about too. It all becomes part of it.

J: I had the exact same thing. I don’t want to use the word coincidence – but similar things in my life were happening. Not like for like, but making me feel what these people were telling me they started to feel.

K: James was sending over whole songs like ‘Just say if this is shit’ and we’re like [grudging voice] ‘No, it’s perfect. Thank you.’

M: That’s motivation as well! J: I was in that headspace, that’s what I was thinking about. I wouldn’t say it was a different way of working compared to how I am when I’m in the band, but it was different musicians that I was working with.

M: There’s one song that you sent me over acapella constructed by you literally just singing into your phone.

J: That’s the first time I’ve ever done that.

M: And I played all the wrong chords over it too – you were like ‘not that chord’

K: ‘I know I don’t play anything but…’

M: ‘I don’t know how to say this but I think that’s the wrong chord.’

J: I don’t even know what a chord is! I think I did that because I’d just come off my tour with Aiden Moffat that he did for Where You’re Meant to Be. It was like old folk songs. There was a night in Kirriemuir where people got up and would sing ballads and things. I got a story in my head and I wrote it after experiencing that – a local community coming together to share stories with each other. And I felt like that’s what we did.

And that’s part of what that brought out of me – I would never have done that before. This took us out of our comfort zones in so many ways that great things came from it.

M: For all of us. For me, learning a different instrument and having a different process about it.

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This took us out of our comfort zones in so many ways...

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K: Marcus wrote the harmonium lines, and at the gig I was playing the bass. And I was really shit at that. I was thinking, I know that this should be easier but I don’t understand one line of the notes. So trying to learn it – I didn’t. Learning something instead of writing it. I love it!

M: We’ve all kind of done that in this project. It’s just the way it’s turned out. I think that’s a really healthy thing to do - not at all shying away from something that seems really intimidating. By doing something like that, there’s lots of information and confidence which can be gained from it.

J: I would totally agree with that. It’s weird, I noticed it affecting me in other ways in life as well. Like before when there would be things I’d think I wasn’t sure about doing, part of me would think ‘Maybe I could do this, that seemed to work’…so now I’ll go to the supermarket.

M: Join that rowing team.

J: …I’m now a professional skier! But it’s very weird how there was no plan, but something seemed to have brought it together.

M: Having such a finite time presented to us, like the gig’s booked – it has to work and you have to write the songs. It forges it. Whereas, when you’re putting an album together it’s all ‘yeah, cool’ and before you know it it’s a year later. When you’ve got all these elements in place that make you do something, it forges things in such a way that you can’t foresee. Limitations, in a way, are good for you. But I wouldn’t do every project like that!

J: It’s so far away from what happens when a band go make an album – you’ve got to go find all these things, do all these things. Everything was there, but it was such a different way of working, of making an album. Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know if anyone that we interviewed came to the gigs. But it’s like I said this before. Maybe you don’t need to. We had that time together, that moment where we spoke to each other and maybe that’s enough. They don’t need to hear the miserable songs that we’ve written!

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We had that time together, that moment where we spoke to each other and maybe that’s enough.

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Did you have unexpected discoveries? There was the 15 year old guy you chanced on who idolised R.M. Hubbert….

J: I texted Hubbie when I got home that day, saying I’d had the most fucking amazing day with this young 15 year old who told me you were his guitar hero. I was like that to Hubby, “He hadn’t heard Slash yet, so…”

K: It’s a really beautiful thing, just to think that. He wouldn’t have heard Hubby if he hadn’t have gone to Platform for a gig. There’s that kind of thing that they’re making happen.

J: Just those wee things that you hear, you’re like ‘that wee guy went home and taught himself flamenco guitar because of that’. Mind-blowing, you know. There was one day we spoke to some girls who’d been chucked out of school and were on a college course.

K: One of them did something that really sticks with me. I was starting to get to the “how many brothers and sisters do you have?” type questions, and she said the number. And I can’t remember how she did it, but the way that she worded it, it then explained that she was counting one of the babies that her mum had lost. It had never been born, but she still used that to denote that it was still part of her family. And she just said it so off the cuff. So tough, so totally cool. But so revealing too.

J: I’ve never felt so old in my life! There was a different group of people we spoke to, later at night, including the boy who loved Hubbie. Who was that fashion designer guy? He’d came from a different country and moved to Easterhouse. From Nigeria, I think? He came in, this massive ball of energy. He was amazing. And we had a conversation for about an hour about how positive this guy was, and how amazing his outlook on life was. Then, there was the boy after that. I’m not even sure that I want to talk about this, actually. Apparently he was a fan of the band.

K: He told us that his mate’s girlfriend had gotten James to write down the lyrics of one of the Twilight Sad’s songs in a card, and that it had been one of his most favourite possessions. And he’d split up with her, and she’d taken it away.

J: And I was like, “That’s pretty shite, I’ll write it again for him.” And he kind of brushed over that really quickly like “nah, it’s alright”. So, we carried on talking. And what turned out was that his pal had died about a month before our conversation, and they’d been to one of our gigs not long before that, and that was the last gig they went to together. And that came out of nowhere.

That must’ve been a massive thing for him to do, to speak to us about that. It was hard. But that boy, I’ve got his email and stuff. We’ve kept in touch. That was one of the ones driving home just thinking about it, over and over.

K: Basically, his friend had had meningitis. He’d fallen down the stairs at work. He’d been his best friend his whole life.

J: This guy came in and just openly told us this stuff. After a while, he said I didn’t know if I was going to tell you this, but now I’m glad that I did. That must’ve been a really cathartic experience for him to come and get that off his chest. If it wasn’t for this, that guy wouldn’t have got a chance to tell me that. So many small things happening, they just seem to come out of nowhere.

With something like that you think you’ll just be going in, speaking to some people, going out, writing some tunes, playing the gig and that’s it. But so many small things intertwined with such massive, significant things, for all of us. The whole thing was so rewarding.

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Did you feel changed as people?

K: It was a really beautiful thing that we got to do.

M: It’s a contribution, I think, in the way that it’s part of what you do. It’s a contribution. Exposing that we’re all just human. All these intricacies are all connected.

K: it’s the sameness of everyone, isn’t it? For me, it’s coming out of that I get to work with them and write songs with them. That’s an amazing thing. And it’s totally all down to Platform. All of it’s blended together.

M: This band, and here we are, talking about it like it’s a band, when it was just a project. It’s funny how things sort of forge.

J: I don’t know. One of the positive things is we’re getting to tell people about this place. Even with this article, someone who maybe didn’t know about Platform – they might not even go and listen to the record, but everything comes back to this place. If more places like this were available in any community, there’s only positives that came from it. I don’t even know if people will be able to tell from the record. There’s a story along with it that kind of points back to this place, hoping that people will look in.

Usually I’m quite blasé about things. But I’m not blasé about this. This feels like I’ve achieved things, and it’s made me think about things more than just documenting my own life – which I do through the band. Made me think that I should try to be a better person, in a way. But I hope people take the record for what it is musically on its own as well.

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Usually I’m quite blasé about things. But I’m not blasé about this.

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M: It’s not a direct storytelling experience. This is emotion, and lyrics, and rhythm put into context.

J: We want it to be judged on its own merits as well. Because ultimately, we put a lot of time into it and we’re really proud of it. But there is a story that goes along with it, and it has been made for a reason.

M: It’s not a vanity project by any stretch of the imagination. By doing another record, we don’t even know if there is the option of that. But this is what this is, and it has to have its own life first.

J: It’s been nice to see the reaction to it so far. No-one’s really heard the record. But the songs that people have heard – it’s nice to see people understand it, more than anything else. They like the music, but there’s an understanding of the stories behind it.

M: It’s that thing – people know about James and Kathryn and their music. And they’re thinking, oh this’ll be interesting or good. But to be able to take this a step further and think, “this is good” and not just because it’s come out of that combination.

K: People have said to me that it doesn’t sound like what either of us do. It’s completely new. That was tricky at the start. Thinking about how to bridge that, make it fit.

How did that come about?

M: Arm-wrestling competitions.

J: We didn’t even know if our voices would gel well together.

M: I can’t even remember who’d put vocals down first. And then I heard them together, and I was like “ok, that’s working. Continue.” But until you hear two voices singing together and recording, you don’t know how it’s going to work. This whole thing is decided upon whether this blends properly.

K: For the songs that I’ve written, to have what James has done on them, to turn them into… One of them, I’ve been singing it on my own and I always say “oh, this is shit without James on it. Try and pretend he’s singing” He’s so good at what he does. Even in rehearsal today I’m nearly crying, because his voice is just so fucking beautiful! It’s mental.

J: Within two seconds of meeting each other we were like ‘this is going to be alright’. Ultimately, whatever the record does, the record does. And we’ve achieved what we wanted to do with it.

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Even in rehearsal today I’m nearly crying, because his voice is just so fucking beautiful!

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K: At rehearsal time, I was very unhappy. But rehearsal day, that was the one day that I was happy. It made everything ok. I’m listening to it all the time in the car at the moment. And I’m not listening to it like “I made this record”. I’m listening to it like “I love this record”.

M: I think that for me too. I didn’t mix it, it was mixed at [Mogwai’s studio] the Castle of Doom, and mastered at Abbey Road. It helps me be able to listen to it as well. When you’ve mixed a record, you’ve often been so enmeshed in it and it’s difficult to listen to it as an objective thing. Knowing that someone else has taken those elements away from you allows you to see it a different way, from a different perspective.

J: To release a record in a way that’s so completely alien to us, it’s still quite a big statement. It’s a big step in itself.

K: I was worried that Twilight Sad fans would hate a girl’s voice all over this voice that they love. But apparently the guy who runs their fansite is into it.

J: People aren’t going to listen to it for the story of it. You hear the music first, at the end of the day. My dad likes it, so that’s all that matters to me.

M: My dad said to me, “I’m not sure what you’re trying to do with this”. But he’s very entrenched in traditional Scottish folk music, so…

J: My dad’s entrenched in The Eagles. So I might go with yours!

M: At the gig itself, literally no one had heard the songs being played. And there’s no expectation from them, but there’s also an element of confusion because no-one has any idea over what to expect.

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Compared to any album that I’ve worked on, I don’t feel nervous about this.

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Was it daunting to play it out?

J: I had a bit of confidence with it. I was proud of it. Compared to any album that I’ve worked on, I don’t feel nervous about this. I don’t feel that, I don’t feel the pressure with this.

M: There’s a completion to it. It was ready to be heard, but no-one had heard it yet.

M: I’m looking forward to doing a couple of gigs to get that pushed through, to know what that feels like. There’ll be some more gigs this year. But it’s a long build to get to that point.

There’s the one at the Oran Mor on Bonfire Night on November 5th. And we’re planning some other ones around January/February time. But if people want us to play more then we will. Because it’s there now.

M: It’s hard. It has to be what it is and then, from that, either we can respond to that or not. There is a limited time on it. It isn’t like people can say, ‘oh I’m into this, I’ll go and see it at a festival this summer’.

There’s a very limited timeframe there. This isn’t a band that’ll exist for twenty years; it might just be for a moment. And it’s testament to what we’ve made.

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'Conflats' is out now.

Words: Marianne Gallagher

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