Umpteen talent shows in various configurations have waltzed across our screens since Will Young warbled his way to winning the first series of Pop Idol. In 2002 the BBC launched a rival format, Fame Academy, and its first series was inexplicably won by David Sneddon. In fourth place came another but rather more interesting Scot – Ainslie Henderson. With a playful personality and a memorable face, and with a voice channeling Robert Smith, he carried with his obvious charisma the suggestion of songwriting ability.
Fast forward a few years, with nods and waves to a conveyor belt assortment of Girls Aloud, Liberty X and Shayne Ward, and we find such TV shows still pulling in viewers and creating stars that briefly fizzle. Ainslie’s own fizzle brought him top five singles chart success with the jaunty Keep Me A Secret, but the constraints of being attached to a programme format whose audience was far removed from his own soon ended his stab at fame. As with all the Mercury-signed Fame Academy graduates, Ainslie’s name was soon superceded by the next series, other formats and considerations as the media circus moved on. Only Lemar, who signed to Sony, enjoyed sustained success.
In the intervening years Ainslie joined, then left, a band. He co-wrote a song for Jason Mraz‘s last album, Mr A-Z, and put pen to paper to write some new solo material.
Growing Flowers By Candlelight then is, rather astonishingly, Ainslie’s debut album. It comes a full four years after his time on the show and without the hype or pizzazz of those times. Self-released through his Amphibian Husbandry label, it is currently available only through a smattering of shops in his home city, Edinburgh, and through his official website. The homespun approach seems not yet to allow for a distribution deal or anything like a marketing budget. Thus it is that a copy of the album landed on my doormat a full month after its inauspicious release in the immediate vicinity of his home.
The first surprise is that the homespun, no expense spent approach to the record’s release seems entirely fitting with the music. That fragile but distinctive and note-perfect high tenor voice, one part Robert Smith and another Chris Martin, still sounds as radio friendly as Brandon Flowers. But the introspective melancholia of his material is arranged in fragile, sparse and stripped down soundscapes that remind more of Damien Rice or Boo Hewerdine‘s recent Harmonograph album.
On first listen the album floats by like a gentle breeze. There are no big choruses, no anthemic hooks, no really memorable lyrics. It’s not a singalong record, instead assuming the feel of a delicately constructed aural coccoon, a sanctuary from the wild, rampaging world outside. Ainslie’s finger-picked acoustic guitar runs through all but one of the tracks here, alongside occasional emotive cello, dreamy, reverb-laden piano and sundry other illustrative instrumentation.
Opener Dust is an ode to time passing since a loved one left, of “every morning turning to yesterday”. Go Back To Sleep could be the soundtrack to falling asleep in a rocking chair – and feels better when sat in one. Love I Remember brings bass to the fore and distorts his vocals, reminding more than a little of Jason Mraz. Here and there lyrical amusements abound – “you are an irresistable implosion, you made my mother out of me” he sings on Man Made.
There’s something a little world wearily tragic about a record as sad and reflective as this coming from a young man of 27 years, but it’s no less touching for it. Ainslie sounds as if he’s had his heart broken and is reminiscing about a time happier than the present. While there’s nothing groundbreaking here, this isn’t the point – it is rather a deeply personal record that grows with repeat listens.
The cottage industry approach hasn’t prevented Ainslie from braving Europe’s largest city once more – he plays London’s ULU in September. It remains to be seen whether anyone else in the media bothers to look up from their post-punk obsessions long enough to notice him, but there’s enough on Growing Flowers By Candlelight to remind anyone who cares that Ainslie, unlucky so far, remains irrepressible and deserves another crack of the whip, hopefully doing it all his own way this time.