Erland Cooper on music, nature and Scotland's islands

We speak to Erland Cooper about his three-album project inspired by his home on Orkney, part two of which – Sule Skerry – drops this month

Article by Eala MacAlister | 10 May 2019
  • Erland Cooper

"You’ve got to go to the place."

Nature and a sense of place is something that runs through Erland Cooper’s solo work, as well as in his work with Simon Tong and Hannah Peel as The Magnetic North. "Not only have you got to go to the place," he tells us at The Lighthouse in Glasgow, a fitting location for our chat, "but you have to bring somebody – an outsider – with you because then you get two views, you get your insider view and someone else’s outsider view." It’s a theory Cooper regularly puts into practice, having invited several friends and collaborators to visit his home in Orkney over the years, where he freely admits that he ends up playing tour guide.

He tells us about a time where he took someone to see an ancient stone circle called the Ring of Brodgar. "There’s me looking out proudly at this thing... it’s an incredible feat of engineering, and he’s got his back turned and is looking at this rotting old fishing boat," he laughs. "I just love the idea that we were looking at different things, so when you get the sense of place you need different views, opposing views."

Residing in London these days, where he now owns a recording studio he likes to call the Sea Haven in a nod to Stromness, Cooper was drawn to music from an early age, particularly enticed by the piano and equipment in the local school. "My father was the deputy head of the school," he tells us, "so I would steal his keys to go into the school to use the music room and the piano and record on eight tracks and four tracks and use the mics. When he finally caught me he was like, 'Why didn’t you just ask?'"

London living may be very different to that of the archipelago off the northeast coast of Scotland, but every opportunity Cooper now gets he catches the ferry to Orkney where he grew up, and which continues to be a constant source of inspiration. "We’re quite a big family and we all used to go back at Christmas... I tend to go back a few times a year, at least, and with this [current] project I’ve gone back a wee bit more."

Cooper's current project is a three-album epic based on a poem by fellow Orcadian George Mackay Brown with the first in the series, Solan Goose, released last year, and the second, Sule Skerry, arriving this month. The plan for this trio of records may be coming together now but it wasn’t always planned this way. "I didn’t intend, or plan, to release Solan Goose," Cooper explains. "I kept it to myself for about six months, then played it for a few people and before I knew it, it was out flapping around."

When it comes to nature and the birds that inspired Solan Goose, he's passionate about their preservation, too: "I hate the thought that our children’s children, to go and see puffins, will go to a national park, which is a bit like a zoo, while you [can] just walk around [Orkney]." Also, recently there has been a row over the netting of trees and hedgerows to prevent birds from nesting, which Cooper is also keen to highlight: "It’s caused a reaction, as it should have, because it’s so extreme," he says in dismay. "It’s a shame that extremes make people take notice."

Where Solan Goose focused on the air, paying homage to the birdlife of Orkney with field recordings of birdsong and the Orcadian names for certain birds doubling up as the album's song titles, Sule Skerry makes you picture the sea while you listen; the motion of the water at the back of a ferry as you plough through waves. As a result it’s more rhythmic, with instruments such as the cello giving a voice to the sea.

It’s easy to see why Cooper would focus on something that's so important in island life: "If you grow up by the sea it dominates. It dominates in its colours, it dominates in its motion – it dominates in every way." The music on Sule Skerry, much like the sea, is sometimes calm and beautiful, sometimes stormy and wild, but never predictable, featuring a number of guest turns throughout from the likes of Benge, Kris Drever and Kathryn Joseph.

As well as guests peppering the album, while practice may have been done in solitude in the beginning, he's now found a group of musicians to regularly record and play live with. With this consistent pool of musicians – Anna Phoebe (violin), Jacob Downs (viola), Lottie Greenhow (soprano) and, latest addition, Klara Schumann (cello) – he now finds it easier to write different parts as he knows exactly how they'll translate: "They make the seven or eight or nine notes sound so much more beautiful than I could."

With a handful of live dates planned around the release of Sule Skerry, including The Queen's Hall in Edinburgh on 24 May, Cooper promises a tour later in the year. He also tells us he's keen to take the live show to Orkney once his triptych is complete and can be played together – "I want to play in the St Magnus Cathedral and do something different." It’s a tantalising prospect as Cooper’s gigs tend to be memorable for all the right reasons. On one occasion he had the audience use their phones to record a loop of gannet calls and play them back, he recalls, delighted. "I said to the audience, 'We’ve just created London’s first live gannet colony here in this church.'"

Written and recorded in the cracks between other commitments as a way to clear a busy brain, Cooper explains that, although specifically inspired by Orkney, it's as much to do with any place that feels safe and like home. "We get up in the morning and go out from our safe place, whether that’s a room or a house or a book, and go out and anything can happen."

With the air and sea already brought to life in parts one and two, the final part of the trilogy will focus on land and community, and by the time it's all finished, Cooper believes it should all come together, adding, "but it’s okay if it doesn’t – it’s only music."

Sule Skerry is released on 17 May via Phases

Erland Cooper plays The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, 24 May