…in conversation at home (where else?)
by Kev Green & Stewart Sinclair (AKA The Hughouse Bears)
A lot has changed for Ian in the last couple of years. His long 17 ½ half-year civil partnership suddenly and sadly came to an end in November 2018. Having known Ian for about five years now, we knew that he was someone who did not relish living alone. The dogs were gone too. Half-jokingly he asked if we might consider buying out his ex-partner. A few months later we asked if he had been serious? He was non-committal, but his face said yes. On further discussion we all three decided it was a good way to go. So, the three bears, devoid of Goldilocks, now share ‘The Hughouse’ and it works very well. We look out for each other.
Ian’s latest CD, Young Territorial, with his backing band The Tartan Spiders, which was very positively reviewed in LT139, was one of the first catalysts for our unlikely home sharing. We were invited for dinner and, before we knew it, were involved in the embryonic version of Inverness, the opening track. Ian decided that Kev’s Kent accent, duetted with his own Scottish one, would properly represent both sides of the London Scottish. Major (Retired) Rob Pitt’s tells more about the regiment later in this magazine.
We have a genuine interest in Ian’s work and, of course, in many ways, now feel immersed in it. Ian is 65 years old, and we really only know about the last five years and anything else he has told us in conversation since we moved in. We’ve compiled a few questions whose answers might probe Ian’s history and poke at his hopeful future. Incidentally, we are neither columnists nor journalists - just three friends in conversation. No long words. LOL! We have literally placed our questions in a hat (fruit bowl, if truth be told) and will pick them out at random. No timeline here.
You’ve told us that you were once called The Biking Balladeer because your main mode of transport for gigging was a motorbike. What brought that on, and do you miss it?
I always fancied motorcycling but never got round to it until I was 39. This was five years after becoming a professional folk singer, and as such, would see me away from home 10 months of the year. If I were to use the bike, then I’d have to combine the riding and singing. It generally worked very well although some of the soakings and freezings have turned me into a fair-weather rider. As you know, I volunteer for Blood Bikes Scotland which transports items between hospitals in an attempt to save the NHS some transport costs. However, they also have a car in our region. If it’s wet, I’ll defer to the car. Does that answer your question? I do still love motorcycling.
You were born and brought up in Glasgow. We know you’ve lived in Germany, Dumfries, Castle Douglas, Edinburgh, South Queensferry and now here in Cupar, Fife. We’re hoping you feel settled here for all kinds of selfish reasons but if truth be asked, where did you feel most comfortable and why?
Firstly, let me assure you that I love living here in Cupar. It has everything I need, and we are very close to Dundee, Edinburgh, Kirkcaldy etc. Nothing is too far away. I was a relatively happy Glaswegian but not necessarily a proud one until Lord Provost Michael Kelly persuaded us that ‘Glasgow Smiles Better’ with a glut of little (and huge) yellow and smiling Mr. Men. I had a decent time there and always had a load of great friends there. Wegies are a’right man. My life was, and still is, although I very rarely drink these days, usually measured by how often I could have a pint or two and how much folk music I could be involved with. In retrospect there was something missing. Loads of friends, yet lonely. I moved to Germany. I loved it. Loads of friends and music, but still lonely. I’d literally have the odd night crying myself to sleep. Lonely as hell.
It was about this time I decided to come out. I’d had three years of confirming my homosexuality but really had done nothing much about it. Too many people might be let down; myself included. I came home for a trip in 2000. I contracted Hep B. I was very ill and had to cancel an extensive US tour. My home was now in Germany, but I was recuperating in my brother’s home in Auchterarder. I was feeling more and more that I should come back to Scotland and Mum was then 86. It would have been very, very painful to leave her behind again at that stage. It had been dreadful leaving her two years earlier. Also, I met my partner-to-be in Edinburgh. I went back home. No more lonely. I went properly home.
In answer to your question, I reckon I’ve been generally happy wherever I’ve lived but I think I felt most complete in Leith. Our restaurant was successful, we had great nightlife all around us and I was in the heart of the Edinburgh folk scene. So, let’s go for Leith being my favourite for these reasons, but “never go back” is my maxim. I plan to stay in Cupar.
This question has come out the hat just at the right time we think. You’ve told us that you backed off the folk music when you met your partner in 2001. Why did you do that, and how much has it impacted on your current status within your profession?
Well, my partner was a very committed and talented Michelin starred chef. His days were long and I was playing gruelling tours. We hardly ever saw each other. Something had to give. Around that time, I did feel I was doing OK. I remember Dave Burland, at Cleckheaton Folk Festival, telling me he was seeing my name everywhere and in retrospect, he was right. By that time I was a relatively respected singer/songwriter, singer of traditional material and decent interpreter of Robert Burns material, with nice album reviews and audience reactions.
However, it was very tough, and I wanted a bit more of a settled home life. I don’t remember turning down work, but I must’ve stopped pushing. I took what came my way. I used to make an album every year and continued that trend until 2005. I became the General Manager / owner of Plumed Horse, our Michelin starred restaurant. It was a very busy and satisfying time. I couldn’t possibly keep them both going full time. Each made me feel guilty about neglecting the other. The gigs were reduced considerably. I was still gigging in Germany but not so much at home.
However, I was missing the music, if truth be told, and started recording again in 2010. Rhythm & Burns was produced by Dr. Fred Freeman and received a mixed reaction. Then in 2011 I released a three-disc retrospective, Hits & Pieces, which was very well received. But I could not get back into the clubs easily. All my contacts had moved on and the ones who took over did not know me. Also, I do believe the ‘Gay Thing’ was a bit more of an issue than I had expected in this apparently free-thinking folk scene. I can neither quantify that nor qualify that statement – it’s just a feeling I got. I’m still not really sure where I currently stand in the folkie pecking order. Certainly backing off, although it was the right thing to do at the time, has pushed me under the radar I feel.
OK. We are ignoring the ‘Hat’. This seems to be the right time to mention COVID and 2020. It’s been a right mixed bag for you. Disastrous in some ways but we’ve seen you being supported lovingly by many of your friends and fans, often one and the same? Firstly, you must feel very proud of the garnered support? And secondly, we were there when you revelled in the wake of your sell-out German tour in February 2020. You had a big tour of England planned. In fact, we were going to be in your Faversham Folk Club audience. Sadly, like all the others, it was postponed. Your long-time musical partner, Victor Besch, died in summer 2020. You caught COVID and were quite poorly in November 2020. Last year seemed to go from a great start to one hellish situation after another. How on earth did you get through all that, or maybe it’s best to ask, how are you getting through and where do you see it going?
Yes. It was a very tough year for most of us, but I must say the shit really did hit the fan for me in so many ways. Where do I start answering that very robust question? I suppose by saying you’re right. The February tour was amazing despite Victor being seriously ill. We had expected his demise in November 2019, but he miraculously and courageously fought his way through to make our last tour together a blinding success. We had recorded Children Of Blue, our last CD, but shelved it thinking Vic was not going to make it. When he amazed us and revived sufficiently, we decided to complete the album. It came out halfway through the tour and was greatly received. Of course, with everything that’s happened subsequently, hardly anyone knows about it. Shame. It’s a good one IMHO.
I certainly was ill with the virus but fortunately never dangerously so. It did not feel that way. On top of all that, on 7th January 2021 I had a heart ablation. I was fortunate to receive such care given the state of the NHS at that time but nevertheless I was very nervous. It worked out fine. I hope the postponed gigs will be reinstated at some point. That’s if the clubs ever open again. I suspect some may have lost the will to re-open.
Yes, tough times but I have been greatly supported and encouraged by my friends and fanbase, as you say, often one and the same. I have been online twice a week since around May 2020, I think. (By the way, I am on every Saturday and Sunday at 19:00 British Time. www.facebook.com/ianbrucemusic). They have shown me love. I’m very grateful. I see this as a way forward even after the COVID crisis. Better than a newsletter or round robin, don’t you think?
OK, the gigs are gone but you’ve hardly been idle. Between your online shows you’ve been slaving away. You produced your brother Fraser’s CD, Every Song’s A Story and you’ve released your Young Territorial album. Please tell the readers about the other projects that are waiting in the wings. We’ve heard about them and love them.
Thank you. Yes, as you know, I find it very difficult to do nothing. I’m sure it’s one of the things that drove my partnership to the edge. When he left, my partner took a source of income and support with him. I realised that I needed to get back on the road more. As touched on before, would I easily find the necessary gigs after my long sabbatical? I thought it would be great to release an album to remind folks of my existence. Then I considered Crowdfunding as I really could not afford to fund a new album. (I might say here that albums are very often funded by friends. Then the sales go direct to them. At least that’s the plan. One or two albums, for one reason or another, have some outstanding debt. e.g. The Demons Dance. After the first pressing sold out the pressing plant went bust. I could not get a second batch. I still need to get those funds to my friend who helped me with that one. And now, because of COVID, Children Of Blue needs to repay another funder. Sigh!)
I’d been involved in Ian McCalman’s Far Far From Ypres. That got me in touch with a few wonderful performers - Barbara Dickson, Dick Gaughan and The Sangsters. I brazened the question (just before bottling out), “Would you be so kind as to do a track with me on my new Crowdfunded CD?” I expected: “I’m a little busy!” But no! Then I asked others I’d worked with over the years. I wanted them to record songs that were important to me, with me. I recorded most of the tracks in the other person’s homes. I cannot wait to release it. It will be called Made In Heaven and features all sorts of people - the aforementioned people from Far Far From Ypres and also Artie Trezise, Bob Fox, Arthur Johnstone, Ian & Moe Walker, Jim Malcolm & Carol Jamieson, Sheena Wellington, Jez Lowe, Jim Mageean, Aleksander Mežek, Flekkefjord Sangforening, Fraser Bruce and Alan & Carole Prior. In addition, Archie Fisher, Watt Nichol, Alastair MacDonald, Real Time, Ragged Glory and maybe North Sea Gas have all said yes, but whether we get around to it is another matter. It’s already a strong album but it would be amazing to have input from these folks. I’m not sure if I will Crowdfund or not, but I have already sold a few in advance.
How did you get so involved in Robert Burns’ work and did that change your audience at all?
That all started with a phone call in 1996 from Dr. Fred Freeman. I’d heard of Fred. He had
written an article around 1990 about the healthy state of the Scottish folk songwriter scene. I was mentioned very positively. His opening gambit was something like: “We’re a bit fed up with the pseudo-operatic renditions of Robert Burns material. We’re looking for ordinary voices and wondered if you’d be interested?” Hmmmmmm. Thinks, “I know what he means.” “Yes please!” I said. “Can I have Westlin’ Winds?” I ended up on about five of the The Complete Songs of Robert Burns CD set.
My tracks got me a lot of compliments. “I like what you do to Robert Burns songs!” Or “I never cared for Robert Burns songs until you sang them.” I asked Linn Records if we could lift my tracks to make Alloway Tales. They agreed and the album was placed at No. 2 in the all-time best Robert Burns ever by The Scotsman newspaper. Yeah! OK! You want to know who was No. 1? I’m not telling you and I have not spoken to Rod Paterson since. It did open a few different doors. Happily, my own songs seemed to fit around them well enough to have them accepted also. I was never going to go along a theatrical John Cairnie route. In fact, somebody who came to see me sing these songs at Glasgow University bought my CD whilst telling me I needed a scriptwriter. He didn’t like the looser folk style presentation although he enjoyed my singing. There we go. He bought the album and I forgot all about the incident!
LOL! You obviously have not forgotten that incident. We know you to be a sensitive soul. How does that work in a club? Is it not daunting to be thrown to the lions at times?
Folk clubs are generally very friendly and people come to support you, especially if they already know what you do. I can have problems, and they with me, if they are there to hear your style of guitar playing or your Streets Of London or Flower Of Scotland or the track that led you to be the BBC folk singer of the year. I don’t have such stuff. (Maybe Too Far From She comes closest.) It’s true that I am not terribly sure what my strengths are. I only know that if I am relaxed and the audience receptive then we’re going to have a great night. It does only take one sour face or a negative gesture to turn it sour. I can be very easily put off, but fortunately that kind of stuff is rare.
OK. Let’s talk about Young Territorial, your new CD that’s just been released by Greentrax. As mentioned before, The Living Tradition gave it a terrific write up. We think that was well deserved and hope the CD goes on to do great things for you and Major Rob Pitt, the executive producer. It started because of a previous Greentrax release of yours, Hodden Grey?
Yes. Thank you for that. Might you be interested in this one because you’re heavily featured Kev? Lol! As someone who had all my albums before you even moved in here, you’ll be well aware of the 1998 release, Hodden Grey. I’m not going to say much about that here as Major (ret’d) Rob Pitt has written a separate piece about that CD project, and that article follows this one – so read on!
I suppose we kind of went off piste with the ‘Hat’ questions as we got more into discussion rather than interview. We’ve watched, and heard, you work and are a bit in awe of how you get all these sounds from those attic studio rooms. You’ve produced a good many albums for other artistes. Do you see production as part of your future? Would you like it to be?
I’m now 65. I am told by Apple Apps that I have the hearing of a 55-year-old. If those ears stay well enough and my ideas still flow, then I will happily take on production work. A bit like this latest project, I suppose. I will always want to play live though. A mix of the two would be great. Bring it on.
OK. We’ve asked nine questions. Let’s try and make it 10. Is there something we have not asked you that you wished we had?
Earlier you asked me, “Where do I see it going?” I was thinking COVID recovery I suppose. But I see the folk scene generally surviving. More and more styles are embraced by the genre. It will remain fast for the odd few. For the troubadour, I see the House Concert as the future - people enjoying their favourite artist in their own living rooms, gardens, outhouses or whatever. I’d love folk clubs to survive and, to some extent, I believe they will. I love them. However, the humble House Concert is fast gaining ground. Can I ask that anyone who has enjoyed the online company through the pandemic consider inviting the likes of ME to their home. I think the going rate is around £10-15 a head (2-3 pints??). It’s a beautiful way to connect, but please make sure the audience invited is genuinely interested and not just supporting the host. Otherwise it can be a bit of a damp squib.
Well, we hear you play in the house all the time and really don’t mind it at all. In fact, we’d recommend others borrow you for a while. We get you for free though. LOL! We’ve enjoyed our chat. I hope it translates to anything like as interesting on the page. Meanwhile, what can we do with a fruit bowl full of unasked questions?
Thanks to The Living Tradition and to you Housebears for asking the questions. Great housemates… Who’s making the tea tonight? – Ian.
Photo: Stuart Lawson
Published in Issue 140 of The Living Tradition – August 2021.