Mull Historical Society – In My Mind There’s A Room: Album Review

Giants of the literary world flock to collaborate on the first Mull Historical Society album for over five years .

Release Date:  21st July 2023

Label: Xtra Mile Recordings

Formats: CD / 2LP / Digital

I guess that most At The Barrier visitors will be aware that Mull Historical Society is the musical vehicle of Tobermory-born musician, playwright, author and songwriting tutor, Colin MacIntyre. 

In My Mind There’s a Room is the ninth album – the first for five years – of a multi-media career that began back in 2001 with the gold-selling Loss album and which, along the way, has achieved a brace of Top 20-selling albums and a clutch of Top 40 singles, and scooped a whole array of musical and literary awards, including the 2015 Edinburgh International First Book Award (for Colin’s debut novel, The Letters of Ivor Punch) and the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award for Scotland’s Top Creative Talent.  And, if that’s not evidence enough of the scale of artist that we’re dealing with here, there have also been collaborations over the years with the likes of Irvine Welsh, Annie Lennox, Snow Patrol – and even Tony Benn – and worldwide tours supporting acts of the magnitude of REM, The Strokes and Elbow.  

In My Mind… is a significant album; an important one, even, and there’s an interesting concept behind it.  As a child in Tobermory, Mull, Colin MacIntyre spent a lot of time in his grandparents’ living room, a room with views across the Sound of Mull and the entrance to Loch Sunart.  Colin’s grandfather, Angus MacIntyre, was the local bank manager.  He was also a well-known poet who had earned the honorary title “Bard of Mull” whose work was a regular feature of BBC Scotland broadcasts.  Such was Angus’s gregarious reputation and such was the attraction of that living room with its staggering sea views that the MacIntyre home became a regular venue for ceilidhs and storytelling sessions, occasionally attended by international names like Anthony Hopkins and Robert Wagner.  

Colin hadn’t set foot in that room for over 20 years when he learned that, remarkably, the room had been converted into a recording studio.  

Now, as a musician and author, Colin had long been fascinated by thoughts of how the worlds of songwriting and literature could be brought together and, taking inspiration from the room that inspired his own musical and literary inclinations, he invited an all-star cohort of 13 guest writers to write “25 lines or so” about “…a room that has played a significant or important role” in each writer’s life.  The guest writers – and there’s some huge names amongst them – duly obliged and the results are as varied and unexpected as you would expect from such a seemingly simple yet deceptively wide remit.  

Colin takes up the story: “For some time I’ve had the ambition to bring worlds of music and writing together – and to set myself the creative challenge to collaborate using somebody else’s words for the first time.  To discover how Elton works with Bernie?  The chance came when my grandparents’ home of 40+ years on Tobermory seafront on the Isle of Mull, was – unbelievably – transformed into a recording studio.   My grandfather was the Scottish poet, and bank manager of Mull, Angus MacIntyre.  He was a unique character and remains my biggest inspiration.  He lived in the turret-themed flat above the Clydesdale Bank on Tobermory Main Street with my grandmother, Betty, and, latterly, my great grandmother, Tait.  She could remember when The Titanic went down, Butch Cassidy and Queen Victoria.  ‘Living above the shop,’ it was not always evident when my grandfather was banking or writing…  His ‘customers’ often left in the early hours with many-a-dram in them, a poem stuffed in their pocket and an extended overdraft to boot!  I hadn’t stepped into that room in the 21 years since.   

So, I decided to reach out to some of my favourite writers, many of whom have inspired me in words and song, to ask if they would write some original words on a significant room to them, that I would then mould into lyrics and record in this significant room to me.  Over two magical, but intense spells, I stepped back into those rooms again.   

It was immediately evident the flat, now studio, had the atmosphere of those times still resonant.  My gran’s kitchen was unchanged; the clock the same.  Tait’s room was empty, but still full of her.  I sang in my grandparents’ bedroom, where he used to practice his fly-fishing (from the bed…).  

What I wasn’t accounting for (or maybe I did know this) was how emotive and revealing it would be to have the author’s words, their stories, their rooms from all over the world, flow through me; and all captured within my rooms, back home.  Their words felt like mine.  That was the ‘buzz.’  The privilege; the hand on their doors.  To be let in.  I’m delighted with the record.  Despite a huge workload, it has felt almost effortless throughout, and special to me.  In my mind, there are now 14 rooms.” 

And, in order to fully realise that vision of a merger of prose and music, Colin enlisted the services of a cast of leading musicians from across Scotland and the UK to help flesh out his tunes, including Capercaillie keyboardist and accordionist Donald Shaw, harpist Camilla Pay, Mull-based guitarist Sorren Maclean and his performing partner, violinist Hannah Fisher.  And the result?  A musical compendium that brings together strains of prog, folk, jazz, psychedelia, electronica and rock and roll – a mixture as varied as the stories told by Colin’s legion of guest writers.  

Mexican/American novelist Jennifer Clement provided the roomy recollections for the rocky opening track, Not Enough Sorry.  It’s a breezy start, but, with the lyrics buried so deeply in the mix, it’s surprisingly difficult to pick out Jennifer’s story.  That’s an issue that’s corrected in the first contribution from former National Poet of Scotland, Liz Lochhead; the death of King George VI, cramped accommodation, Virginia Woolf and the ascension of Queen Elizabeth II all get a mention in 1952, an excellent, evocative song, packed with grinding guitars, soaring vocals and 60s-sounding harmonies, to get the album well and truly underway.  

Next up is award-winning novelist Alan Warner, who tells an abstract story in the poppy, optimistic-sounding Wake Up Sally, before Stephen Kelman, author of the Damiola Taylor-inspired novel, Pidgeon English steps forward to recall episodes of childhood confusion in the jazzy – almost experimental – The Red Flame Diner.  Nick Hornby best-selling author of Fever Pitch, High Fidelity, Funny Girl and other stories, chips in with a string of recollections of the comings and goings in, out and through his teenage bedroom and of the room’s “cocky little shit” inhabitants in Panicked Feathers.  One of the rockier tracks on the album, the song is a feast of chugging guitars and crisp drums, with a genuinely retro-60s sound – there’s even a quasi-psych middle eight, and lots of wonderfully swooping, sliding bass.  

With lyrical inspiration from poet/ playwright/ novelist Sebastian Barry, Kelshabag is charming, reassuring and packed with detail.  Colin duets with a female soprano over lyrics that take a dive back to the late 1950s to celebrate the sense of safety to which our war-surviving parents gave such a great priority for the sake of their children.  Children’s novelist Jacqueline Wilson articulates the uncertainty that anyone leaving home to resettle in another town will have experienced in Somebody Else’s Life.  In a slow, almost conventional, piano ballad, the song’s lyrics explore the initial alienation and its transformation to contentment as accommodation is found and familiarity and routine become established.  

Crashing guitar and urgent piano licks call the shots in My Bedroom Was My Rocket, and Ian Rankin provides the childhood memories of a bedroom that he could reshape however he wanted and, in his imagination at least, use as his vehicle to travel to wherever he wanted to go, before the funky prog rock of Seeds tells the tale of the old lady who would scatter her stories and watch the different effects they had, depending upon the reactions of the various people who received them – courtesy this time of Scottish poet James Robertson.  

Perhaps the folkiest track on In My Mind… is Meltwater, Jackie Kay’s wonderful story of her childhood visits to an island bothy, a place she was taken to by her new adoptive parents and where she was to experience feelings of safety and love for the first time in her life.  In her story, she recalls the activities of her parents, the locals and the weather to a dreamlike – almost abstract – tune that perfectly suits the narrative.  And Camilla Pay’s harp in the coda is exquisite.

Swirling piano adds to the sense of ghostliness in All Empty Rooms Must Be Mourned – a contemplation of the mysteries of an abandoned house from 2021 US National Book Award winner Jason Mott, before the location of and the views from crime writer Val McDermid’s room are savoured in Room of Masks, a song with an almost gospel-like feel.  

Liz Lochhead returns for the glorious Anaglypta, this time in person, as she revisits her ‘1952’ theme to offer a whole bag more of childhood recollections.  She was four years old in 1952, yet the delight she felt in moving into her parents’ first home together – “One room, and nae room tae swing a cat” – and then moving on to a larger home where she had her own bedroom, remains palpable.  Her monologue is chock-full of reflections that will surely resonate with anyone with vivid memories of their 1950s childhood.  

And then, to round off a remarkable, utterly fascinating album, Colin has resurrected a recording of his poet father, Angus, reciting his own Memories of Mull poem.  It’s the perfect, respectful and thoroughly appropriate way to end such an engaging piece of work.  

2023 is proving to be a busy year for Colin MacIntyre.  He’s already released Archaeology, his 80-track, 4-CD retrospective bookset, along with 20th and 21st anniversary reissues of the first three Mull Historic Society albums – Loss, Us, and This is Hope.  And, in September, he publishes his fourth novel, When the Needle Drops – the first volume of a new Mull Mysteries series.  And, as if that workload wasn’t enough, he’ll be appearing at Book Festivals throughout the summer before taking to the stage again with Mull Historical Society for a series of Autumn headline shows.  Watch this space….

Watch the Lyric Video to 1952 – Mull Historical Society’s collaboration with former National Poet of Scotland, Liz Lochhead, here:

Mull Historical Society / Colin MacIntyre: MHS Website / Colin MacIntyre Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / YouTube

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