Celtic Connections: David MacGregor on Broken Chanter

With Kid Canaveral on a well-earned hiatus, David MacGregor explores his Gaelic roots with a stunning, stately debut as Broken Chanter

Feature by Joe Goggins | 02 Sep 2019
  • Broken Chanter

"I’ve not gone full Runrig or anything."

The very fact that David MacGregor feels the need to reference the Celtic rock band from Skye tells you something about the direction he’s headed in with his first solo album – namely, one a long way from his work with Kid Canaveral. After a gruelling touring schedule followed the release of the Edinburgh five-piece’s third record, 2016’s Faulty Inner Dialogue, MacGregor’s songwriting partner Kate Lazda signalled a desire for a break – and left him with a blank slate, one both invigorating and intimidating.

Out of it was born Broken Chanter, an LP titled after his new solo moniker – the photo that inspired the name is on the inside sleeve of the record, of a two-year-old MacGregor enthusiastically blowing into the detached chanter of a set of bagpipes, to the deafened dismay of his family ("who used to hide it away in a drawer"). The album is a long way removed from Kid Canaveral, swapping out the fizzing pace of their melodic indie-rock for something much more understated, more stately, and more reflective.

Broken Chanter is a sonic reflection of the environment in which it was conceived; defined by the stunning vistas and wild weather of the Scottish Highlands, where it was written, and an Atlantic peninsula in County Donegal, where it was recorded. "I locked myself away in various wee bits of the Highlands and Islands," says MacGregor over the phone. "I wanted to try to get away from the temptations of the city, and the possibility of procrastination. I went up to my in-laws’ village in the off-season – so last November and December – sitting in their closed gift shop by myself, trying to put demos down. By January, I was on Skye to visit my sister-in-law for her birthday, and I was putting down anything I could on my wee recorder. I just wanted to collect every single idea that I could, so I had plenty to choose from when I got to Ireland to record."

He headed there with producer and engineer Gal, who's parents had left behind an empty house for two weeks, with drummer Audrey Tait joining them, too. Together, they hammered together Broken Chanter in 12 days, turning the ground floor of the house into a makeshift studio. What emerged from the sessions was a record that reflected the profound beauty of the surroundings in which MacGregor had written and recorded it. "That was definitely an influence," he says. "At pretty much any given point in this whole process, I could turn my head and see another spectacular view.

"When we were in Ireland, we would record the basic tracks in the morning, and then head out for a walk – and there were three or four beaches within ten minutes of us. It was the start of February, so the weather was wild; you would have piles of hailstones outside the window one minute, and then glorious sunshine an hour later, and then snow, and then torrential rain. We were on that cycle for the whole fortnight. It crept into the recording, for sure – there’s a slightly chaotic energy to some parts of it."

For the most part, though, MacGregor had wanted to steer clear of the restlessness that had come to be Kid Canaveral’s calling card, especially in terms of his own contributions. That was especially true of his work on Faulty Inner Dialogue. "The band can be pretty breakneck at times, and I didn’t feel the need to go down that route this time," he explains. "I wasn’t worried about typical songwriting structures, or how energetic the songs might need to be on tour. I wanted to approach everything from the opposite starting point as I would with Kid Canaveral, as well as make something a lot less claustrophobic than that last album. That was written when I was dealing with severely poor mental health personally, and was maybe quite an uncomfortable listen. It’s definitely not the cheeriest of records. I wanted to be a bit more abstract in places, but also more hopeful. A renewed sense of positivity was what I was aiming for."

If Broken Chanter was conjured up in the north of Scotland and made real in the north-west of Ireland, the finishing touches weren’t applied until MacGregor took it to Glenwood Studio in Glasgow, where a host of collaborators were able to lend their talents to it. Most of them were friends that he already knew – he co-wrote some tracks with Gav Prentice of ULTRAS, and had cello provided by Hannah Shepherd of eagleowl and Withered Hand. Both old tourmate Emma Kupa of Mammoth Penguins and Standard Fare and Jill O’Sullivan of Sparrow and the Workshop and Bdy_Prts also feature.

One crucial contribution, though, comes from somebody MacGregor had to cold email; Kim Carnie, who sings in Gaelic on the gorgeous Mionagadanan. "I’d seen her in the final of the BBC’s Young Traditional Musician competition a couple of years ago," he recalls, "and I thought she’d be perfect, so I sent her this big demented essay of an email telling her who I was, what I'd done, and what I knew about this kind of music – that it wasn’t going to be a gimmicky novelty thing. She came into the studio, and when Gal asked her what made her want to work with us, she said, 'Well, David sent me a long email, and I just wanted to see what was wrong with him!' I'm very glad she did, though."

Mionagadanan is an old Gaelic word with no English equivalent pertaining to the specks of dust you see swirling in a beam of light as it enters a room, "or if you're feeling less romantic about it, those bits of skin that float about," laughs MacGregor. He’s been trying, on and off, to learn the language for a number of years, having postponed his studies at the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig college on Skye for the time being as Broken Chanter begins to command all of his attention. "My sister-in-law’s fluent, so I had her check what I’d written to make sure it wasn’t stupid or offensive! I thought that it would encourage me to kick on and learn properly if I sat down to write a song in [Gaelic]. It just seemed as if that title would fit with droning guitars and atmospheric synths we had for that instrumental. It’s just another way in which there’s a sense of place to the record."

He’s open to returning to Kid Canaveral as soon as Lazda is ready to pick up a guitar again, but before that, he’ll take Broken Chanter on the road around the UK later this year, with Prentice, Tait and O'Sullivan joining him in the live band. As the record’s release approaches, he’s satisfied that, despite kicking against most of what he’s known his whole musical life, he’s made an album that is, as he puts it, "as worthy as it could possibly be of being pressed onto two sides of vinyl.

"I said to Gal that if we ended up with anything that sounded anything like Kid Canaveral, we’d get rid of it. And we did – we dropped two songs. I had the freedom just to follow anything that felt right, and see what happened – and I’m glad that I did. I like it, anyway!"

Broken Chanter is released on 6 Sep via Last Night from Glasgow and Olive Grove Records
Broken Chanter plays CCA, Glasgow, 6 Sep; Beat Generator Live!, Dundee, 7 Sep; Sneaky Pete's, Edinburgh, 17 Oct; The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 18 Oct; MacArts, Galashiels, 2 Nov