Three of the country's most intriguing, exciting artists come together as Out Lines to release Conflats, a gorgeous set of songs inspired by stories of hardship and sorrow, redemption and hope.
The first detailed maps of Scotland from the late 1500s show the now East End of Glasgow suburb Easterhouse labelled 'Conflat', a name derived from the flat farmland where corn and wheat were grown. By the 1950s the area was being developed with the intention of providing improved and affordable housing for people on the city's outskirts. But in the years and decades to follow, Easterhouse became the backdrop to low employment, crime, riots, gangs, violence and substance abuse. In recent years the creation of Platform, the arts centre at the heart of The Bridge complex, has provided a centre point of creativity and community cohesion vital to the area's regeneration.
In early 2016, Platform's music programmer, ex-Delgado and Chemikal Underground Records co-chief, Alun Woodward, asked The Twilight Sad's James Graham if he would be involved in the Outskirts Festival – Platform's annual celebration of largely left-field, cross art form experimentation, taking in the Easterhouse Conversations project. Graham was to choose an artist he wished to work with, before conducting a series of interviews with a cross-section of local people, with the discussions to serve as a basis for a series of original collaborative songs that would be performed at a one-off show in April of the same year. Based on his admiration for her 2015 Scottish Album of the Year Award winning debut, Bones You Have Thrown Me and Blood I've Spilled, Graham asked an initially reluctant Kathryn Joseph if she and musical partner, Marcus Mackay, would join him on the endeavour.
Both parties were trepidatious at first. “I looked at it and thought 'that sounds daunting, Im going to run a mile from this',” admits Graham. “Everything I hate is having to write on purpose and chatting to folk I don't know and then writing songs about them, that's all of the most opposite things of what I want to do in my life,” adds Joseph. “It was pretty much possibly one of the most stressful situations you could put yourself under whilst writing music,” says Graham. “[But] we knew something good would come out of it. It wouldn't be a case of us dong something terrible, it was actually the opposite of that.”
The conversations were harrowing at times, with tales of domestic abuse, substance abuse, incarceration, loss and immeasurable misfortune. But they were also surprisingly uplifting, proving the strength and resilience of people in the face of adversity. “These people came and didn't hold back, they told us everything,” recalls Graham. “It wasn't a case of you had to dig that out of them. They didn't even really know what the project was about… they didn't really know what they were getting themselves in for. I'd drive home at night just going 'fucking hell things aren't that bad, I've got nothing to complain about'.”
Joseph cites the inspiration behind one of the tracks, a woman whose whole family had emigrated, leaving her behind. She felt unwelcome and isolated in the community, but Platform provided a place of respite, a place where she was able to make friends. “It was really sad but no one felt sorry for themselves,” insists Joseph. “They were all just really strong.” Graham remembers another interview, with a man who was a recovering alcoholic. “He basically was going on a downward spiral and somebody said 'come to Platform', and by the end of it he was involved in becoming an actor and all that kind of stuff.”
“They were tough but also really beautiful,” adds Joseph. “One guy was obsessed with RM Hubbert and has learned guitar because of him and is now teaching guitar, he's like 15 years old and he's teaching guitar to other kids. For Hubby to be his hero and he's seen him play at Platform and now he plays because of him... and he's a little genius. Platform is amazing. They're all involved, they're all doing amazing stuff, it's just beautiful to see somewhere like that being totally used by people who wouldn't have these opportunities otherwise.”
As Joseph and Graham absorbed their subjects' stories, Mackay took advantage of the acoustics in Platform's lofty spaces, recording snare drum samples in the public library. With the deadline for the festival performance looming shortly after the interviews had ended, the trio began writing. “It was quite a quick turnaround from the interviews to the show and it was terrifying,” admits Graham. Fortunately, the ideas flowed.
“There were no guarantees of this working out at all,” says Mackay. “It was a really weird thing to have a gig booked and no songs.” The drummer picked up the harmonium for the first time, sending parts he'd written to the other two. “I just started playing it and all of a sudden a couple of songs came out,” he says. With the harmonium parts providing the skeleton for some of the songs, and the obvious time constraints, each of the three were forced to write in a way they weren't used to. “It's been one of those projects where everybody has been out of their comfort zone at some point,” says Graham.
“[Marcus' harmonium] noise made me want to write and then James wrote whole perfect songs whilst I sat at home with three words written down,” laughs Joseph. “[James] kept sending whole perfect songs saying 'I don't know if this is any good' and I was like 'yes, it's perfect'.” On some of the tracks, Graham returned his lyrics the same day as receiving the harmonium compositions. “You know when it's happening quickly that something is working,” he says.
“It only took me 25 years to do those other songs (from Bones You Have Thrown Me… ),” Joseph jokes. “So I was a wee bit worried that we had to get this done. Something in your brain thinks you won't be able to do it and then as soon as you start it's like 'oh' and then [the songs] come out. I was so miserable last year and it was a Wednesday we used to rehearse and that was the only day all week where I would feel fine. It was like, thank God for this, this makes me feel better.”
With Mackay's producer's foresight and studio access, the idea to record the tracks as an album was born. He recognised that the songs were special, and deserved much more than to be lost following a one-off performance. “I thought it was an awful lot of work going in to creating all of that and doing one show and then that's it,” he states.
Conflats is exquisite; powerful, innovative songwriting that shows the sadness, strength and beauty of human experience. Though perhaps not an initially obvious vocal or musical marriage, the combination of Graham, Joseph and Mackay feels effortless, with the distinctive lyrical narratives melding flawlessly. Hymnal harmonium and delicate, driving piano provide the underlying lifeblood of the songs, whilst instinctive percussion and bass synth notes are the heartbeat.
From Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai a pivotal figure in the decision to put out the record on Rock Action Records, to some lyrical inspiration from Aidan Moffat's Where You're Meant To Be film project, along with Frightened Rabbit's Scott Hutchison's involvement in the cover artwork, the album's journey to release has been shaped by some of Scotland's finest artists. It was recorded by Mackay at The Diving Bell Lounge, mixed by Castle of Doom's Tony Doogan and mastered by Frank Arkright at the legendary Abbey Road Studios.