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Blog interview: Calum Baird

Hello Calum how are you?

Hey Del! It’s great to speak with you, I’m good!

Congratulations on the release of “Some Call This Normal”, how does it feel? 

The reception the song has received has been incredible.  I wrote the lyrics to this song in my head while out running one day last year – it was a very stressful run trying to remember the lyrics so, to keep them in my head, I sang them to myself to the tune of John Lennon’s “Nobody Told Me”.  It took me a while to formulate them into a song – and to disentangle it from Lennon’s masterpiece – but I’m delighted with how the track turned out.  It was recorded in collaboration with my friend and fellow musician from Berlin, Tobias Thiele, who mixed, mastered and produced the track as well as performing some of the instruments heard on the song.  A lot of people I know that have heard the song have complemented me on it and, really, that’s more than you can expect as a songwriter – especially when you consider the origins of this song haha!

The track has been supported on lots of different Spotify playlists curated by bloggers, radio show hosts, other artists, lovers of music, and Ditto Music even added it to their “Ditto Coffee” playlist, too!  It’s also been featured in playlists curated by New Artist Spotlight, an incredible indie artist network.  The song has been played on radio shows – including your own! – around the world and it has been well-backed by Amazing Radio who added it to their Acoustic Moments playlist as well as their Folk station playlist.  Jim Gellatly played it on his show and Charlie Ashcroft played it on his Postcard from the UK show, too.  I’m really delighted with how this song has gone down and it’s well worth the days of recovery required after sprinting home to get the words written down!

You are a singer songwriter from Scotland, how did it all begin for you? 

I’ve had a passion for music for a long time, since I was a small kid.  I started learning the guitar when I was 15 and tried writing songs from that point – it did not go well! However, I kept learning the guitar, listening to more and more music, trying different things out and, eventually, once I got to Bob Dylan and Neil Young when I was 17ish I felt more confident to start writing songs that were led by the acoustic guitar.  Later, when I was around 19 I added a harmonica to what I was doing and it sort of went from there.  I then started playing open mic nights here and there, meeting other musicians, learning from them and their songs all the while writing myself and getting booked for slots in bars and venues, firstly in Edinburgh, then other parts of Scotland.  Recently, in the last couple of years, my music has started going into the folk-rock/indie-folk genre as I’ve reintroduced the electric guitar to my songwriting – giving my harmonicas a rest – as well as other instruments like the keyboard.

Now, live music, live entertainment – the live arts in general – and songwriting are all a huge part of my life.  I’ve played all around the UK, into Europe, and back again.  It’s quite humbling when I actually stop and think about the amount I’ve picked up and done in the last 10 years since I started going out and performing/writing properly.

What did you listen to growing up? 

I listened to everything.  As a child, the radio was always on in my room so any of the pop music from 2003-2008 was a big feature in my life – Coldplay, Red Hot Chillis, Keane, the lot – basically everything on the “Now That’s What I Call Music” CDs from the noughties!  I also raided my parents CD collection, listening to different things and genres to see what I liked.  After that, I went through a deep, deep Oasis phase that probably lasted for longer than it should’ve! That said, listening to Oasis opened the door to many other bands as well like The Smiths, The Stone Roses, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones which, in turn, led me to Bob Dylan, Neil Young, David Bowie and many others.  Eventually, I found the music of the Scottish musician, Dick Gaughan, as well as that of Billy Bragg, Tom Robinson Band and Phil Ochs and, from there, my music took on a more political edge.

You’ve composed a film score, specifically for the award winning “Exiles”, how did that come about? 

Exiles is a book written by Glasgow Poet and Writer, Victoria McNulty.  I performed a few times with Victoria in 2019 in different spots and we just kept in touch on social media.  She wrote to me at some point in 2020 saying she had received some backing to turn her book into a feature-film and asked if I would like to write the score.  Musical scores and TV show themes are, like most people, I’m sure, things that I enjoy and, as a musician, something I had wished I’d always been able to do – I defy anyone who has heard the Lord of The Rings or Star Wars themes and not thought “god, I wish I’d written that”.  When Victoria asked me to be part of this, it was a no-brainer!

What was the most rewarding and most challenging part of that experience?

By far the most rewarding part was working closely with Victoria and her work.  Her poems really capture the life and struggles of working class people in Glasgow and the themes in her poetry are similar to the themes in the songs I write which made scoring this film feel like something that was natural, almost easy to do.  I say “almost” because I was finishing up a Masters degree at the time and, also, was working on this during the lockdown conditions (arranging it all via email with Victoria) which meant I had to score the film without having seen it first because the lockdown rules meant filming hadn’t fully started yet.

What’s your favourite film soundtrack? 

I nearly answered this above! I think Lord of the Rings has to be up there, especially the song “Breaking of the Fellowship”, I always love hearing that piece.  Star Wars as well, definitely up there.  I also love a lot of Morricone’s work and especially love “La Missione San Antonio” from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  During lockdown, I got heavily into painting and drawing – not especially well but never mind – and I made a playlist of songs from films, TV shows and classical music to have on in the background while painting or drawing.  That’s still out there on Spotify, it’s more than 7 hours long now and has soundtracks from Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Morricone, Sakamoto, Badalamenti and many others.  “Songs to Paint to” is the playlist’s name if anyone wants to check that out!

You’ve played festivals in the U.K. and Europe what was your favourite one to play? 

This is a really tough pick! I will always remember going out to play at Festa do Avante in Lisbon in 2016.  That was the first European Festival that I had played and it was a huge experience for me.  I played to crowds that were a few thousand deep.  My first show there was quite a chilled one, I played after a theatre company had performed and went on in the setting, Lisbon sun and felt at ease.  In some ways that was a false sense of security because my next show was on the second biggest stage and I will never forget walking out on to that stage with just my acoustic guitar between me and a few thousand people all expecting to be entertained – I knew it was a big stage to be playing before I went out there but, somehow, had not really processed what that actually meant until I was out there!

When I came off stage there, I got approached by the director of the Barnasants festival in Barcelona who asked me to go out there and perform in 2017.  I think they arrived at the conclusion after my set there in March 2017 that I was the first Scotsman to play the festival which is pretty cool!

I have also been out to play the Festival Musik und Politik in Berlin in a few times and that was incredibly special, too.  It’s where I first met Tobias Thiele, who worked on my latest single, and I was told I was the first Scotsman to play that festival since the 1980s which is nice!

All of these festivals have really given me the appetite for playing live music.  To be able to go abroad, play live music, speak to other musicians, artists and lovers of music and art is a privilege and something I haven’t lost sight of.  I’m travelling back to Berlin in July and August this year for different festivals and events and looking forward to them both very much.

You’ve also got dates in July, how’s rehearsals going?

They’re going all right, thank you!  I’m working on simply acoustic versions for a couple of my more recent songs that I’ve released since 2020 and it’s been nice to revisit these pieces.  Even though they’re barely even two years old, some of them, I haven’t had a chance to play them live since their release because of lockdown so it’s nice to dust them off.

You’ve got Sofar Sounds coming up as well, a completely different experience as it’s a different space to the usual venues… Are there any changes that you will make for it?

I’m mostly just revisiting some of my songs and working out a couple of setlists that I can pull out once I see the lay of the land at the venue and can work it out from there.  It will be a really simple set up for this one which suits my acoustic-led/folk and singer-songwriter style.  I think it’ll be a lovely event, it’s sold out and in a really nice spot (though, I’m not allowed to reveal the location just yet!).  I’m looking forward to playing and it’s great that Sofar are back in Edinburgh putting on events again.

COVID impacted the creative industry in a big way what kept you motivated?

This is a really good question!  Just as COVID hit, I was returning to music full-time after applying myself elsewhere for a few years and, in a way, the pause COVID brought gave me a chance to reassess my musicianship and my songwriting, too.  There was a definite and marked change in my songwriting process and that’s something I’ve kept since then.  It’s a lot more patient, like building a piece of furniture or something – not that I have ever done that!  In general, though, I just tried to keep going as much as possible.  I tried not to get sucked into the abyss by it all, which wasn’t easy, and really just read as much as possible, listened to music in a way that I hadn’t had time for, for a long time.  I also did a lot of live shows on Facebook, Zoom and others which kept me going to, gave me something to work towards.

The last couple of years have been a time to reflect what did you learn about yourself?

There are some overlaps with this question and the last one…I think the word “pause” that I used above is one I would keep pointing to here.  At first it seemed like the end for the creative industries and many artists and workers there were devasted and I can see why – I was myself for a while at first.  After a period, though, I was able to see the duality of lockdown and appreciated the space and time it given me to reassess my music, adapt my working practice to be flexible and take in online spaces that I had ignored before and, as I say, most importantly, work on my songwriting process which had become a little bit smash and grab and not thought properly thought through.

At the same time, though, I recognise that this is something of a leisured position.  While I’m able to stay at home, play lockdown gigs on Facebook, experiment with songwriting, get financial aid, be furloughed, go nice walks in the peace and quiet and more, millions of workers – not least the legends in the NHS – were out there propping that lifestyle up and they were doing so for many millions more across the country as well.  This is something I thought a lot about during lockdown and which was drawn out by the books and articles I was reading to fill my time, the podcasts I was listening to, the music I was busying myself with, the videos I took in and the conversations I was having with friends, family and so on.  All of the last two years really did reveal, I think to everyone, who makes the wheels go round and who puts on the lights in this country and I reflected on where I am placed in all this as a musician. 

I don’t consider myself to have a leisured life as a musician and artist – it’s just as busy as anyone else’s when I speak to people about it – but at that point, there is not doubt that shopworkers, health workers, council workers, volunteers and many more created space for me to “make art”, if you like.  I think that is quite profound and, as well, I’ve been really thinking about how my music can talk about social issues, on the one hand, but be involved in them, on the other so that I’m not living a decadent, leisured life at the expense of other people.  This is something I directly confront in my most recent song, Some Call This Normal, but in all of my songs that I have brought out since 2020, as well to certain extent and from slightly different perspectives.  I want my music to be reflective but also engaged in what’s happening, too.

Did you pick up any new skills?

Again, awesome question!  Yes, I did, I learned new IT skills trying to negotiate the different platforms needed to perform on and speak to other people on as well.  I also learned how to paint and draw in a really rudimentary fashion.  As well as that, I picked up a keyboard and began learning that and writing some songs with it – ambient stuff as well as some parts for songs I have released.  I also relearned the electric guitar and composed a few songs with that.  Finally, I got a Masters degree in the Arts which provided me with a lot of skills which I hope to make use of in the years to come and draw on for my songwriting as well.

What are you listening to at the moment?

My music tastes have been quite saturated owing to the lockdown and how much listening I did then.  I am trying to break my music listening up because, at times, I felt like I was listening to music as “research” for my own writing purposes which felt too much like “work” and killed the joy of it all a bit.  That said, I am listening a lot to Phoebe Bridgers right now.  I first got into her music in 2019 and went to see her and her band Better Oblivion Community Centre in 2019 in Manchester.  Her album Punisher filled a huge space in lockdown and I also went to see her in Glasgow at the Barrowlands on the 22nd of June – she was utterly incredible.  I’m also listening to a lot of indie music through NAS, who I mentioned earlier as well as listening to old favourites like Gaughan, Bragg, Bob Dylan, The Jam/Weller in general and other music like Aphex Twin.

What are you looking forward to next?

I’m really looking forward to the run of shows I have coming up this summer.  As you mentioned, I have the Sofar gig next week on July 6th.  I then go to Berlin on the 21st to play a gig and a festival there.  I then have a handful of shows at the Edinburgh festival and then go to Berlin again in August for another festival at the end of that month.  I have a few more gigs booked into the autumn, too, and there’s some other projects in the pipeline perhaps, even a new song before the end of the year.  If anyone wants to keep posted on all of that, my website is CalumBaird.comand my social media handle is @calumbairdsongs – it would be great to meet some new people!

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