Unbound 2016: Liz Lochhead

Article by Clare Mulley | 28 Jun 2016

You can put her on stage but can ye Makar sing? Yes and no. Our ex national Bard updates poet Clare Mulley on her Unbound night of folk, pop, poetry and jazz – the performance of her new collaborative album The Light Comes Back with The Hazey Janes

It’s easy to see why Liz Lochhead has such a way with spoken word and the stage. She settles into conversation as naturally as a tabby curling up in an armchair, and renders listeners every bit as relaxed in the process. There’s no hint of cagey or awkward, as you might expect from any sane person on the phone to a complete stranger – in fact, it hardly feels like an interview.

Two minutes in, she asks me to excuse her for a couple of seconds, “…just needed to retie my dressing gown cord on the way to the kettle…” After that we’re off again in full flow for the best part of an hour. She chats warmly and easily about her work, her numerous friends and the art of writing, flitting into many fascinating trains of thought along the way. 

There’s no doubt that Lochhead is one of the strongest women’' voices in Scottish poetry, and has been a guiding light to many female artists who came after. However, when I ask about the earlier years she spent establishing herself – a time when female poets were still very much a rarity – she is typically modest of her achievements.

“I don’t know if I really paved the feminist way – being the token woman poet was a definite advantage. I also had a lot of luck. If I’d started 15 years later, I’d still have been exactly me, but I would have had it harder. I was one of a generation of pioneers.” We briefly discuss the recent election of Jackie Kay, whom she likes a great deal, and the difficulties of picking from such an illustrious shortlist. “I wasn’t consulted on the choice of new Makar, to my relief,” she laughs, “I’d have been delighted with any of them.”

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More on Unbound 2016:

 Poetry's relationship with music

 Canada comes to the Spiegeltent

As you’d assume, her feet have barely touched soil for the past few years, and, with her new play Thon Man Molière already winning rave reviews, it is only now that she can look forward to a more definite rest. She speaks with great fondness of a caravan park on the West Highland coast, where she first used to holiday with her late husband, Tom, and still often uses as a retreat. A painting of its sea view – her own – features on the cover of her latest book of poems, Fugitive Colours.

Amongst other things, the collection tackles the theme of bereavement, and the caravan features early on as a setting both for some of her happiest memories and deepest griefs. After Tom passed away, one of the first hurdles was to reclaim the caravan emotionally as a place she could relax. “I had to go back,” she says. “I said to myself, 'If I don’t go soon I’ll never be able to go.'”

“I don’t know if I really paved the feminist way... I was one of a generation of pioneers" – Liz Lochhead

Like Fugitive Colours, her appearance at Unbound has a lot to do with the theme of commemoration, and audiences are in for something rather special. She will be showcasing the collaborative album, The Light Comes Back (recently recorded by Tob Records on the Isle of Mull) with indie band The Hazey Janes and saxophonist Steve Kettley, which is dedicated to the memory of one of her friends, singer-songwriter Michael Marra. Marra’s son and daughter are in the band, and the project was triggered by a poem Liz wrote on the day of his funeral, The Optimistic Sound.

The band left room for ‘unspecified Liz narrative’ in their planning (“I can’t sing!”) which grew into performances of her poems flecked throughout the music, and the finished album also contains one of Marra’s own tunes. It is, in a word, beautiful – a hybrid of Radio 4-style monologue with a mash-up of incidental folk, pop and jazz. Lochhead’s clear voice forms snapshots, delicately underpinning every tiny fluctuation in emotion, the mellow sax swooning up and down underneath it all the while like dribbling honey.

So what happens after Unbound draws to a close? A very peaceful not much, it seems. “I’m on my own over summer having a break, and I’m going to try and have a slightly different year. I haven’t been in the situation of not knowing exactly what to write next for a while… and I need to clean the kitchen.”

Liz Lochhead and The Hazey Janes, Tue 16 Aug, 9pm, free