Music Like a Vitamin

<b>Rod Jones</b> and <b>Emma Pollock</b> speak exclusively to The Skinny about the making of <i>First Edition</i>, their contribution to the forthcoming <b>Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival</b>

Feature by Paul Mitchell | 01 Sep 2010

It's early July, and the Chem19 Recording Studios in Hamilton are bearing witness to some hectic scenes. Amidst the sound checks, photo shoots, bass riffs and (brief) coffee breaks, Idlewild's Rod Jones is running on what seems like the last vestiges of nervous energy. He, along with Emma Pollock (formerly of The Delgados, and seemingly comparatively calm, though it is hard to tell amidst the hubbub) have set themselves one hell of a task – that of laying down an entire album in the space of a week.

This is the sort of organisational nightmare which presents itself when gathering a large crew of different musicians, each with their own timetable and career to consider, together in a room at the same time. The album in question, First Edition, was written in its entirety under similarly hastened conditions, with Jones, Pollock and seven other hardies decamping to Perthshire for a few days in the winter with copious amounts of snow, boardgames and fruit wine for company. But the mayhem exists in good faith.

The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival fast approaches and Jones and Pollock have been involved with that for three years now, curating music events, and collaborating with performers under the cooperative banner Music Like A Vitamin. This year, (with the Festival running from 1-24 Oct) the collective features again, but Jones’s plans are growing ever more aspirational, as he explains whilst tripping over yet another amp: “Outside of the festival, there’s all this dead time where people have forgotten all that’s been done, so we wanted something sustainable and an album seemed like a good idea. We were going to do a covers record but instead, as a way around having to worry about royalties and other issues, we thought, ‘Why don’t we just write the music and then we’ll own it’?”

And so, it came to pass. “We got nine musicians we wanted to be involved and booked time in a house in Perthshire to just write with each other and see what would happen,” says Rod. [The group also comprises Twilight Sad vocalist James Graham, Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison, Jill O’Sullivan from Glasgow-based dark folk trio Sparrow and the Workshop, singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, multi-instrumentalist Jenny Reeve, Olympic Swimmers' Jonny Scott and Graeme Smillie, plus ‘folk-experimentalists’ Alasdair Roberts and James Yorkston; phew!] “And we paired off, two different matches a day, or three if people were fast. I’d say something like ‘Right, this morning Emma you’re going to work with James Yorkston and in the afternoon it will be with Scott and you’ve got that amount of time to come up with something.” Two tracks from First Edition will be available for download in September. The record will be available in CD format when the artists perform during the Festival with the album available for download in its entirety immediately following the Festival's end.

Jones and Pollock (along with a funding specialist and members of the Mental Health Foundation) have gone so far as to establish their own organisation, Fruit Tree, for the purpose of financing and managing the project. Pollock is effusive in her praise for the contributions of people from a wide variety of backgrounds, but particularly those from a music scene. “There are a lot of people who have been extremely generous with their time to make this happen. The music industry in Scotland is full of disparate people, small companies, it’s a really wide and varied collection of sole-traders and people who just work on their own. When it’s a cause like this, where we hope the long-term benefits of the project will be to aid knowledge of the foundation and its work, it can have the effect of making people more willing to embrace the idea of working with other people, which can be really daunting.”  

Jones explains why, despite his extensive commitments elsewhere, he’s been devoting so much time and energy to the whole thing. “The idea was to promote organisations like the Scottish Mental Health Foundation and also Breathing Space who have helped me in the past." He's also identified a cause of specific concern. "I have a bee in my bonnet about mental health education and think that’s one thing we don’t concentrate on enough in this country. We have physical education; and sex education which is invaluable but doesn’t teach people how to deal with the emotional side of relationships, which is one of the biggest causes of depression as I’m sure everybody knows. You’re not going to stop people from suffering from depression or necessarily change their mindset but you can educate them about what to do when it does occur. The fact is it does happen to everybody and it’s not something you should be embarrassed about. So we’re trying to help petition for an education system where mental health is being looked at.”

So is music an effective or appropriate way of conveying or publicising such matters? “Almost any song that’s ever been written has got a relationship to your mindset because a song is an expression of yourself," says Jones. How, specifically, does he see this project playing a role in changing attitudes to mental health issues? "I think when people come to these gigs and see acts they respect and admire like Frightened Rabbit and Emma and James – it’s a fairly big cross-section of audiences – openly saying ‘Well, I’ve suffered from this,’ it does help to remove that aura of shame." Laughing, he continues: "I’m not saying it necessarily makes it cool. There are an increasing number of people who’ve been to these gigs as groups of friends and are now starting to, within that group, feel like it’s alright to talk about it. I feel the knock-on effect from the festivals before has been massive. Hopefully the album will help us create as much traffic to these corresponding sites as possible and find out about all these resources.”

Jones readily admits his ambitions don't stop with this specific project, with ideas for taking the concept to an ever wider audience. "I want to keep growing. We’re presenting it through the festival but really it’s a separate entity. So next year, hopefully, we’ll go national, rather than just Scotland. Then, my aim is to be international the following year. We thought it was ambitious this year but we’ve pulled it off. I think if we can show that we’ve done it and that it’s worked, it will be easier to develop from there. I’m ever the optimist. For the third year, I want Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith to be involved. That’s my plan." Emma interjects. "Springsteen? Well, I suppose when he reads this article he won't be able to refuse."

The Boss has been put on notice.

Rod Jones & Emma Pollock with Friends play HMV Picture House on 1 Oct and O2 ABC on 2 Oct, where copies of First Edition will be available.

You can download two free songs from the release here.

The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival takes place from 1-24 Oct