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John McCusker - 25 Years and still excited by music!

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I met with John in a cafe near his home in Innerleithen, in the gorgeous Tweed valley in the Scottish Borders, and we reminisced about our prior interview in 2002 and the cover of FiddleOn featuring his Mohican haircut. Despite being a member of Mark Knopfler’s band, performing for 20 nights at the Albert Hall and on a double bill with Bob Dylan at the Hollywood Bowl, he hadn’t changed at all.

From the first moment, he bubbled with enthusiasm about his new ventures and repeated how “amazing” it was to be able to just spend time making new music with his pals.

Back in 2002, John said that his strengths were accompanying, composing and arranging, and he didn’t rate his own abilities as a fiddler at all.

“I still don’t,” said John. “My heroes are Frankie Gavin, Johnny Cunningham, Liz Carroll, Martin Hayes, Aly Bain - the list goes on. No matter how much I practise, I can never play at their level.”

But some of these players would cite John as one of their favourites too.

“It’s nice if they say so, and they do play my compositions, but I’m not in their league. This isn’t a negative thing. I love fiddle tunes, but they are just one part of my life, one of my passions. I also love songs so much and I mainly listen to songs in the car. I love being part of songs, helping to develop them from tiny little things into beautiful tracks.”

“From the age of 13, as well as listening to De Dannan, I was playing indie rock with bands like Teenage Fanclub and Ocean Colour Scene, and accompanying Gaelic songs. I never concentrated on playing fiddle tunes and I still love it that way. I go in cycles. I started off listening to solo fiddlers and pipers, then I got into songs, indie rock, arrangements and accompaniment. I’m into solo pipers and fiddlers again now, but I’m still totally inspired by people like Ian Carr, with his driving, funky, indie rock rhythms.”

“I’ve just come back from working in Glasgow for three days on The Ballads Of Child Migration. It’s interesting how things can grow legs. I did a gig in Canterbury with John Doyle, and some professor involved in an exhibition, On Their Own, asked if there were any folk songs about child migration.”

An estimated 100,000 British children, whose parents couldn’t support them, were sent overseas by migration schemes run by charities such as Dr Barnardo’s, religious organisations and governments. They claimed to offer children as young as three years old the opportunity of a better life in Britain's Empire, but they were shipped off, often without their parents’ consent, and this went on until 1970. Many migrants never saw their homes or their families again.

John continues: “I put this professor in touch with a friend who has a radio programme on folk ballads and this led to commissioning 12 songs about different stages of the children’s journeys, a CD and a concert in Glasgow. I directed the music and Kris Drever, Jez Lowe, Eddi Reader and others also got involved. It was inspiring and amazing.”

“I’m old enough to remember when I was in the Battlefield Band (from 1990-2001) and various events like Mayfest were tried in Glasgow. They were OK, but they faded away. I heard about Celtic Connections and thought that it would be just another similar effort. I never dreamt that it could get such massive audiences as it does today. Now it can get big concerts like the Joni Mitchell Tribute and Ballads Of Child Migration on consecutive nights.”

As well as the Ballads Of Child Migration concert, John has been busy with various projects.

“I did the BBC Transatlantic Sessions earlier in the year and, since John Doyle was over here, I then toured for five weeks with him and Mike McGoldrick. From mid-April, I have 22 dates with my own band on my 25 Years Anniversary Tour. I haven’t made an album of fiddle tunes for 13 years, though I can still remember how to do it! I’m recording an album this afternoon at our studio here. I’ve been mainly accompanying singers like Eddi Reader, Heidi Talbot, Mark Knopfler or my wife, Heidi Talbot, so it’s a big challenge to play fiddle with the trio or my own band.”

“I did an awful lot with Mark Knopfler in 2015 - 90 shows over nearly five-and-half months, plus rehearsal, production and recordings. I hope he’s going to record again and I’d love to be involved, but with the artists I’m associated with, you just never know what direction they will take. He turned my life around eight years ago. I was moving back to Scotland and, out of the blue, I got an invitation to play on his record. That led to tours and gigs in places like Nashville. It’s been incredible learning from Mark. After 90 gigs, he’s still making changes to his set, mainly taking things out and playing more gently. He can be playing a massive arena in front of 15,000 people and I’m watching him play: his fingers are barely touching the strings, he’s singing quietly and drawing the audience in, not rocking out all the time. We did 60 shows with Bob Dylan all around the world. Sometimes we’d see him on fire and we’d leave the stadium excited by him. He never stops touring and that’s all he wants to do. These amazing people inspire me.”

In May, John plays the Drill Hall in Lincoln, amongst many other gigs on his 25th Anniversary Tour. How will that feel so soon after playing all those nights in the Albert Hall with Mark?

“Last year, Mike and I played with Mark to 20,000 people in an American arena, and our next gig was at Sidmouth Folk Week, followed by the Nettlebed Folk Club. In fact, Nettlebed was scarier than the Albert Hall, with the audience sitting right in front of you, in your face.”

“I know I sound like a broken record, but I’ve been so lucky. I left school at 16 and I only ever wanted to play music. I was offered a place in the Battlefield Band, which was perfect. I was paid for playing music at a time when few others were. There were no Folk Awards, and if you got a folk club booking, you were delighted.”

“Now, I’m releasing my anniversary recording with old friends who I’ve been playing with for 25 years: James Macintosh, Ian Carr, Andy Cutting, Mike McGoldrick. We feel like a family. But for the tour in April and May, I fancied a challenge, getting out of my comfort zone, so I’ve put together a mainly young band made up of Andy Cutting plus youngsters Adam Holmes, Innes White and Toby Shaer. Toby used to hang about after our gigs, asking if he could have our autographs. When he was 10, his dad said that he’d got a new tin whistle and asked if he could play a tune with me. He did, and he played with Mike too. Now he’s grown up, making recordings and touring with my wife, Heidi Talbot. He’s fabulous and he’ll go on and on because he’s got that same passion that Mike and I have. Adam Holmes is an exciting player and singer, and Innes White is great on guitar. At 17, I played on a recording with his auntie! I’m drawn to these talented youngsters. They inspire me, as I hope my generation inspired them.”

Back in the day, John’s band recorded the BBC’s Virtual Session on their website and it appears to have been very influential. You can still hear those sets being played in sessions. There, John listed his influences as The Chieftains, Dubliners, Stockton’s Wing, De Dannan and Kevin Burke - all Irish.

“That’s right. My mum was Irish and that’s her record collection. There was no Scottish folk music in the house. As I got older, I’d see The Corries or Aly Bain And Friends on the telly. Kathryn Tickell, The Fureys, Boys Of The Lough, Phil and Aly - that was our teenage education if we didn’t have money for records.”

John started out playing Irish traditional tunes in Glasgow with Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann, but it is possible to hear a mix of Irish and Scottish decorations in his playing - soft rolls and pipey things.

“I had classical lessons at school,” he says, “and I joined what is now the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow, but apart from this classical training, I never had any lessons in traditional fiddle. I just spent my school dinner money on records that I listened to all the time - Silly Wizard, Aly Bain, De Dannan. I nicked what I considered the best bits from Johnny, Aly and Frankie, and you’re right, I’m a mixture of these influences.”

Nowadays the Conservatoire has a folk degree. Is it scary, all those great young players coming out of the colleges?

“The degree courses are amazing. Traditional music has moved on so much, and not just with things like these degrees and Celtic Connections. We had to travel far and wide to find like-minded people to play jigs and reels with us, but now they’re all brought together. One thing hasn’t changed, however. It’s still incredibly difficult to make any living out of it. That hasn’t changed over the years. You’ve got to really want to do it.”

What does John think of music sarcastically referred to by some as ‘Jock Rock’, with at least one set of highland pipes, drums and amplified guitars?

“I don’t think that’s fair. The scene is so exciting now. Festivals would be so boring if every act sounded the same. Young people want to dance and some of them get into traditional music by listening to Bellowhead or the Treacherous Orchestra. Somewhere down the line, they might get into Frankie Gavin. We’ve got everything from solo Gaelic singers to Treacherous wearing goggles. I say, good on ye lads. It’s exciting.”

I’d describe John’s playing as driving and ‘crunchy’. Technically, he clenches the fiddle to the heel of his left hand, and plays on the top half of his bow, rarely crossing halfway. Does he have a callus on his left wrist from the fiddle? Yes, he does.

“Well, it doesn’t have to be sonically perfect. I’ve tried getting things perfect, but then I hear Dylan playing passionately on an out-of-tune guitar, that’s what I keep going back to. So now I try to make something sound as beautiful as I can, and I forget about sounding perfect. My drive may come from the grunge of indie rock.”

“I know loads of top players with all kinds of technical faults and I’m always trying to be relaxed and be myself up there on stage. If you grip and clench the fiddle to play louder, it doesn’t work. When I play in our kitchen, nothing’s tight but it’s tough achieving that in front of an audience - it’s something you have to learn. I’m now trying to get further up my bow, but staying relaxed, being at one with my instrument, driving or playing sweetly. Some fiddlers have bad habits and grip too tight but they sound fine. On the other hand, others have great technique but it never happens.”

I saw John hanging around Schipol Airport last year, waiting for a delayed flight. It didn’t look too exciting.

“I spend eight months on the road each year, though I’m trying to cut down on touring, looking for more balance. I’m lucky that Heidi’s a singer and she understands. We have two young girls who come on tour with us and they’ve been in every motorway service station in the UK and many overseas! If you want to do it badly, you find a way. I’ve slept on floors and couches all over the place, just to play.”

“I have also been involved with teaching. I always get something out of it. I feel the passion of those desperate to learn. Having said that, I only taught one master class last year, at the Edinburgh Fiddle Festival. I had no time for more. I really worried over it for ages because, as I said, I don’t rate myself as a fiddler. But maybe what I say and play comes from my heart? Maybe we need to open our ears and listen?”

“This is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I still get excited by the music. For example, in 90 minutes from now, the amazing Duncan Chisholm is coming down from Inverness to play on my record. I’m so excited.”

by Trevor Buck

Published in Issue 113 of The Living Tradition. Buy the printed version of this issue from our online shop