Interview: The Pictish Trail

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Photo credit: James Yorkston

If you’re searching for a bit of peace and quiet, then the Isle of Eigg could be the place for you.

Located off the coast of Scotland, the island is far removed from the hustle and bustle of mainland life. It’s the home to the Pictish Trail (aka Johnny Lynch), an artist who says, ‘since we operate on the margins, it makes sense to live on them too’.

As part of the elusive Fence collective and now head honcho of Lost Map recordings, he’s been behind some of the most beautiful and beguiling records to emerge over the last few years as well as releasing some great records as the Pictish Trail and Silver Columns (in cahoots with mate Adem). We find out about his latest release, the Secret Soundz compilations, plus why he only needs a good broadband connection and a working kettle to make things happen…

How did you first get into music?

By going to mass and singing hymns at obnoxious volumes with my sisters. In terms of recorded music, Barbara Dickson – Scotland’s Beyonce – was pummelled into my lugs on school car journeys. My older sister taped songs off the radio, and we listened to them loads. The Pet Shop Boys and Erasure featured heavily.

How did you first pick up an instrument?

I can’t actually play an instrument properly. There was my older sister’s Yamaha keyboard, which I mucked about with during school summer holidays. I didn’t know what the demo button songs were, so I made up my own lyrics and sang over them. In a weird way, I kinda still do that now.

Was songwriting something you were always drawn to?

As a child, I didn’t understand what songwriting was – being a pop star, specifically looking like one was more appealing. It carried such a sense of mystery, and I was dazzled by the fact that everyone wanted to do it. Like most children of the eighties, I was addicted to TV; that decade was a minefield for TV actors becoming chart-pop singers; Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Craig McLachlan and Stefan Dennis from Neighbours were my Fab Four. They were all on to something. It was only when I was given a guitar and the actual Beatles chord book that I realised songs existed.

How does the creative process work for you?

The feeling I get with most of my songs is that they are written already – I just need to find the right bits of the jigsaw to make them exist in real life. I hope reading that doesn’t make anyone physically sick!

I think there’s something innately wrong with trying to describe the creative process. People are obsessed with deconstructing it, trying to find the hidden secret. It can’t be done.

How does living on the Isle of Eigg inform your musical approach?

Eigg is an amazing place. Very little distractions, other than the most serene views this country has to offer. It’s quiet and calm, and I need that in order to untangle myself from mainland life. Music is my full time occupation, but I’m fortunate that it’s not always my own music. Running a label means I get to interact with music as a fan, and not just as an artist – which is a really healthy thing. You always want others to do well, within the collective – which, in turn, pushes you. I’m incredibly proud of my Lost Map family.

What is the relationship between the two Secret Soundz volumes?

Both albums were written just by myself, so they’re quite personal, compared to the collaborative stuff I’ve done. There’s a few thematic parallels too; I tend to write a lot about comfort in isolation, but that’s more a product of my approach to writing. Writing and recording is, for the most part, a solitary experience. I can’t control that.

You worked with the Fence label and now you have Lost Map imprint – is there a shared aesthetic between the two?

When I joined Fence full time in 2003 I started the events the collective became known for – including Home Game and our Hallowe’en parties,– plus managed the day-to-day running of the label including all the releases until it closed in 2013. I always work closely with the artists whose music I have the honour of releasing; it involves regular meetings, planning a schedule, helping them get live shows and servicing their music to people in the press who I think will share my enthusiasm for it. I did that throughout my ten years at Fence and carried it over to Lost Map. I put my entire being into promoting the music I release.

Do you get as much satisfaction from writing songs as releasing the work of other artists?

Absolutely. The records I’ve released and artists I’ve worked with are a constant inspiration. It’s a really fulfilling for me to promote and get excited because it’s incredible music – and it completely informs the approach I have to writing my own material. I have a close relationship with all the acts on the roster, so their well being is important to me.

What are your thoughts on the business side of the music industry?

With the internet, the way people consume and create music has altered, irrevocably. But I think what has happened over the past ten years has been good for music – we’ve been forced to question what it is, how we receive it, and reassess our perceptions of its value. Do we listen to something differently if we don’t pay for it? It’s a scary but exciting time because there’s so much uncertainty.

Through legal and illegal streaming channels such as Spotify and CouchTuner, there’s a new generation who expect all media for free. It’s created a weird cultural communism, fostered by capitalists and criminals! Thing is, if we, as a people, are fine with ingesting art for free, and know that those creating it are getting nothing in return, why don’t we just have our governments create an online digital public library? Let’s nationalise music! Ha – I’m sort of joking, here, and I don’t know how that would even work … but why should the people at Spotify get rich off of other people?

I’m proud of the fact that Lost Map doesn’t make its music available on Spotify. It’s important that more musicians turn against perceived industry norms. Ideas are the most important thing; I’m only interested in doing something different and as opposed to doing something to generate cash.

Which artists/acts are you currently most excited about?

There’s a new act we’ve signed to Lost Map called Tuff Love; the songwriting partnership between Julie and Suse really pulls at my heartstrings. I love everything on Border Community and I’m constantly excited by Four Tet. He’s someone that has cultivated a certain sound that is recognisably him, but constantly evolves. His collaborations, and the way he releases music, is thrilling.

Have you got any tips for new and emerging artists?

Ideas and stories.  People love a good story.  If you’re keen to have people hear your music, good songs aren’t enough – you need to have a reason for people to want to hear them.

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