In Conversation: Erland Cooper

In Conversation: Erland Cooper

"I'm just ploughing the landscape..."

Separated from the rest of Scotland by the rushing waters of the Pentland Firth, the Orkney Islands have a character, a history, a mythology all of their own.

An area with a distinct dialect and a very different view on life, it leaves an imprint on all who visit, a kind of postmark for people to take back to the mainland.

Erland Cooper grew up on Orkney, and his various musical adventures have all been tied - in some way or another - to the archipelago, to its landscapes, stories, and people.

New album 'Sule Skerry' is out now, the mid-way point in a solo trilogy about Orkney, and it's a beautiful listen; a distinctly solo experience, Erland Cooper gathers like minds, this collective endeavour to uncover, to reveal his home to the world.

But it was created in the centre of London, an act of imagination and memory as much as a factual portrait, it's wonderfully nuanced songwriting matched to lung-bursting string arrangements.

Clash spoke to Erland Cooper to find out more.

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You’re very much studio based – what is that space like?

It’s kind of my little sea haven, in that it is a safe place. It’s very, very quiet. It was passed this studio by default from an electronic musician called Benge. He’s got one of the biggest synth collections – arguably – in Britain, and he’s such a wonderful guy. I was a bit like a cat, sneaking in and out of his studio. He would let me use it, let me use all the modular gear, and the analogue desks.

Eventually, after about three or four years he said: I’m leaving London, and I need someone to take on this space… and I believe that man is you! I kind of crapped myself, and thought: oh God! Musicians get these publishing advances, and most musicians spend it on guitars and drugs, but I thought instead of renting a studio for a year, this way I could own it for a decade.

So I took it on. And then chopped it up and literally within six weeks I got some people in and I took this little small room. The one I was using already, I took that on, and shared it with a few people. It’s become a really creative, conducive environment for writing and making records. Which I think it always has been, it’s this hub – we’ve got Leo Abrahams, East India Youth, Hannah Peel. We’re all quiet… odd. Weird! A great bunch of folk.

But what’s strange about is that you’re in the middle of London – top knot central – and you just walk down, and it’s like going back to the 70s or 80s, and you’ve got this hybrid studio of old and new. I love it! I kind of don’t feel like I’m in London. It’s a nice thing.

The new record is the mid-way point of a trilogy – did you think about how the full structure would unfurl beforehand?

It’s funny… I did and I didn’t. I didn’t intend to release ‘Solan Goose’. I kept it to myself, just as a tool to ease a busy mind. I write between the cracks – so I was writing and producing and working on other records for other artists, and when I’d arrive at the studio I would just have half an hour to myself. I would maybe put a synthesiser through some tape and then improvise some piano over it. I’d do another layer every time I came in. It was a bit like chipping away at a book. And before I knew it I had this record.

And as I’m travelling around London or whatever I’m going it would act as a tool to relax my brain. You have to give these works a name, and I had to name them. I would be on the underground, and trick my brain, and ask myself: what’s the name of the Puffin in local Orcadian dialect? Of course, it’s the Tammie Norrie! Before I know it, 12 minutes has passed! So those became the track names.

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I kept it to myself, but eventually showed it to my publisher, and she just said: I want to hear the whole thing start to finish. Then she listened to it, and sat in silence – which is always a funny feeling – and she just said, you’ve got to share this with people! And before I knew it, it’s out there in the world, people are listening to it, and this thing, this tool that I had was everybody else’s! So I started the next one. With a very fixed view in mind, of referencing a poem by a local poet in Orkney that touches on the elements. So, the sky, the sea, and the earth.

It set me on a path. Ploughing a particular field on Orkney until I’m done. I’m kind of restless on it. It’s quite a nice explorative feeling. I didn’t have a plan initially, but as soon as it was finished it became so clear – like a map – that I needed to make the whole trilogy. 

Was there something in particular you wanted to say about Orkney? Or did you find that your view of the place was being revised as your own life unfolded?

Well, you’ve answered your own question beautifully! I mean, you’re right. When I was working with Magnetic North we had this concept of psycho-geography – or whatever you want to call it – and it doesn’t work if you’re the insider. You need that outside view, you need that person to come with you, travel with you, collaborate with you. Their view is so, so different to what yours is. It’s this idea of two people getting something different from the same experience.

And for me, I suppose, all I’m trying to do is capture an essence of something. Yes, it’s Orkney, but ‘Orkney’ can mean anything – it can be a reminder of a simpler time, it can be a reminder of evocative childhood memory… and that’s what I’m getting back from people. Whilst they absolutely want to travel to Orkney, if they do they go with the understanding that they’ll be transported to a place, whether real or romantic, that is their own.

I’m much more interested in proper artists – like painters or photographers – and this idea that you go to a place, you take a sketch, then you take it back and turn it into something. That’s kind of what I set about doing. Just ploughing the landscape. Then you return to London, and figure out what to chuck away and what to keep, so that when I’m on the underground I know exactly what takes me home.

This romantic view that you have to sat plonked in the landscape to compose and write about the landscape – beside a loch, for example – is nonsense. I think you have to go there, absolutely, take notes or don’t, and then come back and recollect the strongest, evocative moments – to you – and you capture the essence of a place.

There’s something endlessly evocative in the names alone – a ‘Groatie Buckie’ is very different from the scientific name, for example.

Well, there’s two things about that. One, I’m always in stitches when I hear people like Marc Riley or even Lauren Laverne pronouncing Orcadian words. You can get multiple layers of joy out of something. I’m very fond of – it’s not a lost dialect, it’s very much still there – but I think savouring these words, recounting these words, talking about these words is a great thing.

Somebody told me ‘Groatie Buckies’ sound horrible, but it’s these lovely shells that children keep and make necklaces out of! I like the symbolism of these words. They’re quite literal in Orkney – an owl is Cattie Face… the bird with a face of a cat!

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There are a number of guests on the record – Kathryn Joseph’s contribution, for example, is hugely striking.

With Kathryn it was quite straight forward. I’d written this track - ‘First Of The Tide’ - and I’d absolutely no intention of keeping my voice on it. I sent it to her with a view of her singing his line, and she said: no, it’s done… you don’t need me on this, it’s done! And I thought: oh… OK. But I really wanted her on the record as I respect her so much, she’s powerful, there’s this magic to her.

I wanted to involve her in some way, and Kris Drever as well. Kris is famous for his singing voice, but what I particularly like doing with artists is collaborating in a form that they’re not used to. That idea really intrigues me.

So I got Kris – this phenomenal singer – to read a poem by William Burns. And what’s really interesting to me about that song ‘Flattie’ is that Kris sounds like a preacher in a church – that’s the beginning of the song, and it’s like he’s giving a sermon. And then at the end Kathryn speaks the same words and it’s like she’s giving a prayer for her fisherman partner to come back safe from sea. It’s exactly the same words! They read it in their phone. It’s a joy for me.

I think collaboration is this lifeblood of what I want to do, particularly on this record. I get to work with classical musicians, and it’s phenomenal to write notes on a piece of paper to someone, and watch them react and perform. I didn’t expect to release the record, let alone play it out live.

We’ve just done these shows and there are times when I sit and watch them play, then I’ll go offstage and just be blown away. I love it. It’s a very strange thing. But I think when you work with talented people, people that are better than you, people that are focussed and disciplined on what they do, and what they play, it’s more than the sum of the parts. It stacks up.

You played the Barbican just a few weeks ago.

Yes we did! And Rough Trade East, too. Shows are a rare bird for me. I just think less is more. I want to make them really special, really interesting, and I’m amazed people are reacting to it, to be honest. It’s a really moving thing.

It’s kind of a perverse pleasure, when you didn’t expect to be playing those songs to people, and then you’re actually taking joy from it, and seeing the reaction of people. It’s a weird thing. I’ve released a lot of records with different bands, and the live side is always… you’re up and down, all over Europe, and this time we put a little show on in the Barbican and it sold out within a couple of weeks. It’s a strange thing. I call them a rare bird. A show is a rare bird for me!

As you say, it’s curious when people like Marc Riley and Lauren Laverne grapple with these Orcadian phrases, but what has the reaction been like from people in Orkney?

Do you know… I have in my head that I’d love to go back to Orkney and play all three records in St Magnus Cathedral. If they’d have me!

I always joke that I should work for the tourist board but I mean it in the nicest way. I’m so fond of Orkney. If anything I’m only following in the footsteps of proper and better artists than myself and just trying to capture an essence of something.

So many folk go to Orkney in July or August when it’s beautiful – red skies, it’s rich. I’ve been travelling there in winter, and that’s when you get the real spirit of how an island operates, how it really ties together storytelling, myth, mythology, and good people doing good things. It’s quite interesting.

But I’m very much aware that I’m probably referred to as a ‘ferry looper’ - someone who comes and goes! I’ve got friends up there and I’m sure they take the piss out of me in the pub, I’m sure of it! But I don’t mind. Because I can’t wait to go back and see them, and crack on with the next record.

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'Sule Skerry' is out now.

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