Erland Cooper is daydreaming. We are sat in his North London studio at the end of a hard day’s rehearsing and recording, nursing a peppermint tea each. The studio is tidy, and its focal point currently is an altered piano on the far wall. The strains of Jon Hopkins‘ earlier music stream through the control panel, providing a backdrop of balm against the relative rush hour chaos on the street outside.
Cooper is – in his head at least – back in his native Orkney. “What is it about birds that we like as adults?” he muses. For we are discussing Solan Goose, his first fully fledged solo record – a gallery of ten bird portraits associated with the islands. The musical pictures are poignant and richly evocative of both the winged creatures and their habitat, revealing at the same time a deep seated passion for nature on the part of the composer.
“For me, I get the same feeling when I look at birds of prey – a falcon, or a Cattie-Face owl – as I did when I was 10,” he says. “That doesn’t change, but when I was writing the Solan Goose record the titles were coming second. I would improvise a piece at the piano after a pretty hectic rush around, missing home and wondering what am I doing here, why am I doing that, and with the normal stresses and anxieties that musicians and men go through, all at the same time.”
The studio is his bolthole. “You come in and you reset for five or 10 minutes, and that makes me feel a feeling of being a kid again. I improvise something, and then when I go back I add another layer – a simple melody – and I would spend half an hour on it, and then put it away again and work on something with The Magnetic North, or whoever I was working with at the time. I would come back to it and tinker with another layer. By default I had to name them – and when I was travelling on the underground to get here I was forcing myself to remember the bird names in the local dialect. What was the kestrel again? ‘Moosiehaak’, that’s it! Or the ‘Bonxie’ (Great Skua). Then you start to name and shape them based on the characters.”
Keen ornithologists may also note that the Solan Goose, whose picture adorns the album, is known as a gannet in most other parts of the UK. “The goose is indeed the gannet – the king,” explains Cooper. “That particular picture from the cover of the record was taken in the 1960s, just off the coast of Shetland. It’s this big (he spreads wide his arms) and it’s in my parents’ living room, where it has always stared at me since I was a kid. If you were to wake me in the middle of the night and say describe your childhood home, that bloody goose – gannet – would still be staring at me.”
Cooper is still coming to terms with his solo standing, but he remains in the midst of a musical community. Its roots lie not so much in his first group, Erland & The Carnival, which yielded three albums of fresh folk-pop, but in his second, The Magnetic North, a trio formed with Hannah Peel and The Verve’s Simon Tong. The music here was closer to home, concentrating on the first of their two albums on Orkney itself.
He has good memories of a crowded family upbringing, which continue to develop on his travels home. “My father was very well read. We don’t have conversations about anything emotional in any way, but you could talk about different birds and where you might spot them until the cows come home! Folklore and mythology were also incredibly popular.”
Despite the love of his homeland, itchy feet took him eventually to London – via a circuitous route. “Funnily enough I didn’t move directly”, he explains. “I left Orkney when I was 18, 19. I’m one of six – five boys, one girl – and the thing to do was go to university, as with two schools there is only so far you can go. My folks moved up there in their twenties and raised six kids, and they were teachers – now retired. The first place I went when I left – bearing in mind we were a family and didn’t travel too much – was to take a ferry to Inverness, a train to Edinburgh, then a flight to London Gatwick and a flight to New York City! It just blew my poor immature mind.”
After such a culture shock, which was nonetheless a valuable experience, he settled a little. “I travelled a wee bit and then went to study mechanical engineering in Edinburgh,” he recalls. “I love engineering in terms of audio, I could talk for hours about that, but that’s something I felt like I had to hide. I only did it because my siblings are fighter pilots and brain surgeons, proper academics – and as number five I thought I should follow suit. To give you an example, my father is deputy head at a school, and – I’m going to get in trouble for this – I used to steal his master key to the school, when all my mates were playing football, and break into the music room to use the piano and the four-track, and join up the four-tracks to get eight. All I wanted to do was experiment and buy musical gear – beat-up guitars, a Tascam, an out of tune piano. I didn’t come across any other introverted musicians at that time, they were all bold, brash, folk-singing, fiddle-wielding, and I was interested in playing guitar and listening to anything from Bert Jansch to Bright Eyes, all very sensitive.”
He moved around again, undertaking anthropological studies in Budapest, before settling near London. “I had read in a few books about residential studios, and about Kent and Surrey. I found one – Ridge Farm – and like that bright eyed and bushy tailed 18-year-old in New York, I made a phone call to the studio. ‘Hello, it’s Erland Cooper, I’m from Orkney!’ ‘Fucking hell mate, why are you calling here?’ ‘I just wanted to see what a real studio is like!’ ‘You’d better come over then, and make the tea!'”
Introductions over, off he went. “The man I spoke to was quite a short guy, jet black hair – an artist called Juno Reactor. So I rock up, and he was doing his contribution to The Matrix soundtrack. He invites all these amazing drummers and vocalists over, and he brings me in, and says what are you – a singer, a writer? I played him some stuff, and he said, ‘You’re a singer.’ I said, ‘No, really? I’m just singing because I’d love to record something.’ I set up something in the corner and would go down a couple of days a week. He called this producer he knew in London. ‘Alright, Youth? I’ve got a singer for you!’ I googled super producer Youth – and thought yeah, I’d love to meet him.
“I would love to reach my 80s having made music someone else can perform.” – Erland Cooper
“I met Youth and he was really direct, a master of mind games. He’ll break you down before he pulls you up, and everything you play is shit before you start playing it. He’s an old school genius producer, but difficult and complex – challenging. I wrote with him for a couple of years, and would watch him at Olympia Studios – Embrace were there, I remember. I would sit and wait in the corner, until one day he asked me to sing on something. Youth asked me to play a tune, with one of the guys from Orbital in the room. Now I’m an introvert, not an extrovert – that’s why I’m writing gentle music now. I’ve done it though – I was in a psychedelic folk rock band, and we would play for 40 minutes – and three of those minutes I would fucking love, and rip the stage up. We were raw – but for the rest I was petrified, though I wouldn’t let it show! Now I have the comfort of orchestrating, which I’ve learned with Hannah and Simon. Simon became a bit of a mentor to me, though I haven’t mentioned it to him, and he still is.”
Cooper has made another enjoyable diversion, something of a trademark of his. “To cut a long story short,” he says returning to the story, “once I played that song to Youth and the guy from Orbital, he shot me down and said “Just stop. Let’s do some writing. These songs are shite, what you’re saying is rubbish, there’s no meaning in what you’re doing. You’re not an artist. Where’s the artist in you, what have you got to say for yourself?” Even thinking about it now it hurts a bit, but out of that came Erland & The Carnival. He’s since told me he was proud of me, and taken credit for it. I was delivering song after song for a label they were running a label called What The Folk, and I was putting stuff out. He was still saying it was crap, but he was doing it with Simon, of The Verve and The Good, The Bad & The Queen – who later became my good friend. He’s very similar to Youth in intelligence, very dour – never lets on – but he would say ‘let’s write another one’. Next thing I know I’m in Damon Albarn’s studio recording a debut album with a band. So I surfed on his coat tails for five years, and we formed The Magnetic North together. I was exploring writing and loving it so much, and I started writing about Orkney. Simon latched on to it and we went up there together – and a whole new band was born. I haven’t really looked back but I’m constantly learning, and now I feel like that kid again, because I’m just getting into composers like Sibelius and Arvo Pärt in that way!”
Cooper is listening to more classical music of that ilk, with Vaughan Williams a prominent presence in his musical mind. “I was more interested in the folk element, because that’s what I was doing – but now I’m really interested in the classical side. I do feel intimidated, but then I listen to Jóhann Jóhannsson, Julianna Barwick, and these are people that directly influence me, and make me feel like melody is what I love – but simplicity is very much more difficult to get. I’m down that rabbit hole, and I’m really enjoying it.”
Although the new album is only just released, he is thinking ahead. “I’m onto the next album already, the next part of a trilogy based on a poem by George Mackay Brown. I won’t mention the poem, but it talks about sea, land and air. The air I’ve written about, with the birds in Solan Goose, and the next record is about the sea. Then it will be the community and the landscape. I really hope I’ve studied enough of Ralph, and Sibelius, to do that one justice. I’m only doing it out of my satisfaction.”
This is an important point, for Solan Goose was only intended for its owner initially. “This record I kept to myself for a long time, and listened to it on the tube while I was building it up, and it was only when I played it to the junior intern at my publisher. We both went to see Jóhann Jóhannsson together and were really moved, and I played her the whole record at the studio, I thought she was going to think it was really amateur but she was really complimentary. She wanted to travel with it, which was a real honour, and then told my publisher, and someone else heard. She loves choral music, and now I’m learning to write for voices. The sea – voices – it should work.”
Mackay Brown was a boyhood neighbour, but the shy Cooper would knock on his door and run away. Did he meet the musical figure that towers over classical music in Orkney, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies? “I didn’t, but my dad did. Oddly enough one of my tracks was played on BBC Radio 3 the other day, and my dad said it popped up between Vivaldi and Peter Maxwell Davies, an arrangement for trumpet of his Farewell To Stromness. I was so chuffed, as it is a remarkable piece of music, simple and beautiful – not showing off at all. It sums up the island. In my own modest way every song that I try to write is like a failed attempt of Farewell To Stromness. That’s where my head is at.”
There is visual content with many of Cooper’s instrumentals, showing off the island’s natural beauty while complementing the music. “That was important to me. To be connected to the landscape, I can tap into it at any point, and I can see the seals, gannets and fishermen. So much of it is in my head, but I had to have a visual element – and not in a touristy way. I met the film maker Alex Kozobolis, who’s an amazing musician too. We went up, and part of the record for me is the collaboration of reaction – as in the girl I played the record to first of all. Entrusting him with that side was great – I would be looking at the shoreline and he would be looking at a rusted can on the side.”
“I’m onto the next album already, the next part of a trilogy based on a poem by George Mackay Brown. I won’t mention the poem, but it talks about sea, land and air.” – Erland Cooper
Making the album has brought Cooper back to first principles. “Sometimes people forget what the point of music is for, and I’m starting to realise that I’m fascinated by sound. I realised I could spend hours capturing an echo and working with it, bottling it. I love sound, but I would love to reach my 80s having made music someone else can perform. Music isn’t yours once you’ve finished with it. When I shared Solan Goose for the first time it was someone else’s, and that was a weird, scary feeling – but it actually doesn’t matter.”
Flexibility is the key. “When you’re in bands you’re creating your own world, but what I’m learning about electronic and classical music – all alternative music to me – is that it is creating those atmospheres that can be reproduced by someone else. The soprano on this recording was accidental. I was looking for a Hardanger fiddle player, and found Charlotte Greenhow. She said ‘You realise I’m actually a soprano!’ So I said could you just sing a bit (the title track) and she sung it, and my hair went on end and I had to grab a microphone. Then I manipulated it through tape, and before I knew it she was the sound of the record. It was a lovely feeling, because I’d given it to someone else and they made it sound so amazing. It’s a simple melody but when someone puts all that expression into it the change occurs.”
After such private beginnings, he is planning to take the music out into the public. “Funnily enough I’m starting to thinking about a live side, which is almost a contradiction in itself, because I have an anxiety, and this music made that anxiousness go away – for a period. Now doing it live is bringing it back a bit. However, breaking down the album, I’ve come up with an idea. I’m creating tape loops, taking the guitar and creating an infinity loop of that, the soprano, the Juno synth, the Hardanger violin doing harmonics, and I’m playing it on cassette, fading those things up, and then adding the real instrumentation on top. I’m going to give it a first bash at the album launch, it’ll be my first experiment. I’m reminded too that I’m not singing, so I can relax. I just want to take some of the studio out with me.”
Erland Cooper plays at London’s Union Chapel on 24 May 2018. The album Solan Goose is out now through Phases. Tour dates and further information can be found here.