Saving Grace: Owl John on the record that rescued Frightened Rabbit

Ten years into his career with Frightened Rabbit, Scott Hutchison came close to calling it a day. He tells The Skinny how solo record Owl John may just have kept the band in business

Feature by Finbarr Bermingham | 01 Aug 2014
  • Owl John

“I think I’ve got a really shit name for a solo project,” says Scott Hutchison, straining to be heard over the blare of hungry seagulls outside a recording studio in Glasgow. Glasgow, he says, smells a bit like cowshit today and may as well be a million miles from the settings and the inspirations behind the eponymous album by Owl John, the moniker he’s adopted for his solo debut in an effort to bypass his own “really shit name.” 

The album was recorded between the Isle of Mull and Hutchison’s home of four months and counting, Los Angeles. Both are to be found near their nation’s respective west coasts, but that’s where the similarities begin and end. The melodies were conceived on Mull, in a studio Hutchison booked himself into for a fortnight with Frightened Rabbit keys player Andy Monaghan and touring guitarist, Simon Liddell (also of Olympic Swimmers). 

“There was only one rule: to see if we could finish a piece of music every day, and that’s basically what we did,” Hutchison reveals. “We booked the studio on Mull for two weeks and had no songs written, nothing at all. We agreed to do a piece of music every day and see if we could make an album from it. We recorded melodies for 11 or 12 songs, which became 10 on the album. The running order of the tracks on the album is chronological: the first one is the song from day one and the last one is the final piece of music we finished.”

Hutchison then upped sticks and left Scotland for Los Angeles, where he wrote the lyrics. Understandably, perhaps, there are themes of desolation and alienation and he admits that the settling in process hasn’t been easy and that it’s ongoing. He describes the city itself as “beige and aesthetically unbelievably dull” and says that at times “it can be a right fucking hellhole.” 

“I wasn’t sure I even wanted to continue being a part of Frightened Rabbit" – Scott Hutchison

There are fragments of this sense of remoteness across the lyrics sheet, moments in which you can audibly hear Hutchison trying to get to grips with life near the Hollywood Hills (particularly on the excellent Los Angeles Be Kind). Like many musicians who have made the pilgrimage, though, Hutchison has found salvation in the surrounding area. For while LA itself may be built on bogus foundations, the landscapes around it are said to be some of the most real and most beautiful on the face of the earth. 

“It’s incredible. It’s unexpected as well,” says Hutchison on the Californian countryside. “You drive two hours out of the city and it feels like you’re in a different country. I just finished a west coast tour, driving up the Pacific Highway 1 and I’ve never seen anything like it, it’s where the mountains meet the sea. It’s not what people associate with California, but it’s on your doorstep.”

Hutchison speaks in awed tones about the “totally inspiring” communities of hippies in Northern California. He mentions Big Sur, the vast area that has inspired the literature of Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, the film of Orson Welles and the music of Joni Mitchell and the Beach Boys. But that said, his changing situation made him determined to keep some fragments of home.

The second track (Two) features a vocal accompaniment from Donald Smith, a teacher at a local Gaelic-speaking school in Mull, who reinterpreted an old sermon Hutchison and co. had found on Stornaway but couldn’t clear the copyright for. The two places are very different, but the combination works. 

“You’ve got lyrics written in LA and music from Mull,” he explains. “That’s the meeting of two very disparate places and that again helps to add a bit more interest to the whole thing. I’m glad those two places came together. There was this running joke that people would make, friends and bandmates, that you’re going to forget where you’re from, you’ll go out there and get all happy, your songwriting will change. I don’t think that’s happened, but [Donald Smith’s contribution] was a really important part to put on there. I might have fucked off, but not entirely. It’s a reference back to where a lot of the album was made, the west coast of Scotland.”

The polarity of the locations have combined to create a record that pairs coherence with variety, with more of the latter present than on any of the records he’s recorded with his full-time band. Perhaps the closest reference point for those familiar with the Frightened Rabbit canon will be the two EPs that preceded last year’s Pedestrian Verse. There are elements of each of the band’s records, and over the 10 tracks, the humour, wit and grit we’ve come to expect from Hutchison’s craft is there in abundance. But the record feels like a collection of rarities: songs which while certainly strong enough to be worth forking out for, may have been too disparate to make it onto a Frightened Rabbit LP, proper. 

It’s this sense of freedom, the ability to let off some songwriting steam, which drew Hutchison into the project and which has been getting more common as the band has been maturing. The EPs featured collaborations with Aidan Moffat, Tracyanne Campbell and Archie Fisher, while the last album was the first occasion on which he'd shared songwriting duties with the other band members. It’s this sort of variety and boundary pushing that Hutchison says has helped keep the band together. He admits to coming very close to calling it quits. 

“Having worked really hard on Frightened Rabbit for ten years, it’s almost like having nothing else in your life but this one band,” he says, candid as ever. “Last year everyone was drained and I don’t want to mince words: I was pretty sick of Frightened Rabbit. I wanted to do something else. I didn’t want to sit on my arse and just watch TV shows for a few months while we took a break from it. This album exists so that I, and Andy as well, could get our teeth into something else, almost refresh the palate, to become excited about going back to the band again. 

“I wasn’t sure I even wanted to continue being a part of Frightened Rabbit. And if I didn’t want to, the whole thing wouldn’t exist anyway. It was at that point where, I was kind of thinking: ‘Fuck this’. The whole reason for it existing is to keep the band alive essentially and that purpose has been served, which is nice. I don’t care how it does: I hope people enjoy it, but the reason we did it, that’s been achieved. From here on in, everything else is a bonus.”

The next step is a small solo tour as Owl John, the American leg of which Hutchison says turned into “a bunch of request shows,” during which he became a “Frightened Rabbit jukebox.” But after that he expects to put the moniker to bed, for now. The experiment has worked and after playing some band shows on the festival circuit, the plan is for Frightened Rabbit to regroup – hopefully reinvigorated – and start writing songs for the follow-up to the superb Pedestrian Verse

“I wanted this album to be a break from the band but I didn’t want it to get in the way. Once these shows are over, that’s the end of what you would call a very short album campaign. It’s time to get back into writing the next Frightened Rabbit album,” he says, using words which will no doubt be music to the ears of the band’s ever-growing legion of fans.  Enjoy this detour while it lasts.

Owl John's self-titled album is available on 4 Aug via Atlantic. Frightened Rabbit play Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival on 8 Aug and Party at the Palace, Linlithgow on 10 Aug