Silent streets. Shuttered-up shops with apologetic signage. Rainbows painted on kitchen windows and cobweb-coated advertising hoardings for films never to be screened. The earliest months of British lockdown, in Spring 2020, had a unique ambience: an eerie, gentle stillness overshadowed by a gathering cloud of foreboding.
Both concerned and oddly inspired by these feelings was Dundee-based musician Andrew Wasylyk, who sought refuge from his anxieties in the city’s picturesque Balgay Park. Visiting early in the mornings, he found solace in historic tree graffiti and idle cloud-watching, slowly turning his experiences into a beautifully meditative new album. Andrew is the frontman of indie quartet The Hazey Janes and bassist with Idlewild, but the album – Balgay Hill: Morning In Magnolia – is the latest chapter of a parallel solo career, and is available now from Clay Pipe Music.
I caught up with Andrew on a still, autumnal afternoon to discuss the album’s genesis and inspirations. Here’s how the conversation went:
Bob: So it was the very earliest lockdown period that inspired this album? Those first few weeks, in March and April 2020, had an atmosphere like nothing else I’ve ever encountered. Complete stillness and silence, but with an air of nervousness hanging over everything.
Andrew: Yeah, it was during that period. There was a universal cloud of anxiety, and the news was relentless… and I started to feel as though I had to attempt something. I wasn’t particularly in a place where I felt ready to make a new record, but I live very close to Balgay Park and it was a really conducive place to spend time, often early in the mornings. It was just a chance to be somewhere else, to think about something else and to… be, I guess.
It sounds like lockdown was a struggle for you?
It was. It was really unsettling. And a lot of the anxieties are still there. At that point, I’d had two or three tours cancelled, and I was trying to work on another project that involved getting string players together in a room. That was cancelled two or three times as well. Although I know lot of people were going through a lot more heartache and difficulties than me, so in that respect I was very fortunate.
But also… talking to fellow artists and musicians, they were speaking about having a sense of guilt when trying to be creative during that time, and that was something I could relate to. The worries were pretty heavy in my mind, and it felt like every door was being closed. Both metaphorically and physically. So being somewhere else and thinking about something else was at least like leaving a door ajar, a door to something bigger.
Is Balgay Park a place that holds a lot of memories for you? Did you go there as a child?
I lived in this neighbourhood briefly when I was younger, although I’ve moved around Dundee quite a lot. But we were here when I was a baby, and in my early teens me and my pals used to hang around the park, too. And I have family buried in the Western Necropolis, which joins onto the park and the observatory. So in that respect, it’s been present in my life for a long time. My great grandparents from Ireland are buried there, and the Wasylyks – my grandfather and grandmother – are there, too. It’s a beautiful place. I don’t know if you’re a fan of graveyards…
I am, I love them. I find them very peaceful places to sit. I find them oddly reassuring.
No, I can relate to that. They’re great.
I’ve seen you say that, during those lockdown walks, you spotted things in Balgay Park that you’d never seen before – some very old names carved on the trees, for example. I did the same thing. I live in a small town called Yarm, with a lot of history behind it – it’s been here since before the Norman conquest. I’ve been here pretty much all my life, but during lockdown I started noticing little pieces of history that I’d never seen before. Strange bits of architecture, old heritage plaques hidden behind hedges, that kind of thing.
Yeah, exactly that. All these little details kept presenting themselves. I guess, with everything being so amplified in the outside world, it felt like these details were almost gifts. We were clinging onto them for meaning and guidance and comfort. In fact, if you open up the vinyl and look at the inside sleeve… I sent Frances photographs of the carvings I found on the trees, and she was really keen to incorporate them. And the labels on the vinyl itself have “1” and “2” carvings on each side… I love that.
They’re all actual views of the park, too. Below the wrought-iron bridge is a path called the Windy Glack, which was a smuggler’s route that once came out of the city. I think it was a quarry at one time, too. That joins the Mills Observatory to the Western Necropolis. Apparently, there’s a White Lady of Balgay Spirit, too. Every good park should have a ghost…
There’s a track on the album called ‘The Ghost Who Never Arrived’. That’s not her, is it?
She’s probably somewhere in there! [Laughs] That was about waiting for something that never quite occurs….
No, finding all those little details was great. I felt like I’d taken something on my doorstep for granted for too long. But actually – everything there is completely saturated and rich in history, if only you look hard enough. I even discovered that layout of the park was inspired by Père Lachaise, the famous Parisienne cemetery. I love the idea there being a wee pocket of Paris in Dundee. That’s very comforting.
Was there something about the quality of the early morning that you tried to capture on the album, too?
Yeah, I think so. That interim period of optimism and hope… before it’s dashed by the Scottish climate! [Laughs]. No, the light is completely precious and unique in the mornings, I think. Particularly in the spring… you have the promise of summer, even though – when it arrived last year – it didn’t necessarily feel like summer. But it was all there… the light, the history, the detail, and also the physical views. The panoramic views across the Firth of Tay estuary, and the Sidlaw mountains to the north. And, because the streets were so quiet, you could hear everything – the birds in the canopies were blaring, and you could even hear distant lawnmowers. It all fed into this daydream world that I dipped into while trying to understand this new distance between us all.
At which point did you start to realise it could be an album, then? You made field recordings, so you must have had something in your mind when you did that.
Yeah, the environment was so evocative and otherworldly that I felt I needed to capture it. There was so much detail and colour. So I made recordings and started listening back to them… and they were a comfort, really. And eventually I was able to get into my studio space and start improvising tones and textures. Not with any great plan in mind, but it gravitated towards being this group of… recreational meditations, or whatever you might call them!
So the field recordings came first?
Yeah, that was just me taking these little samples of the texture of the park, and bringing them home with me.
Did you meet many other people while you were out and about?
I did, and on the recordings there are joggers, and people shuffling through the leaves. And bairns being shouted at by their parents! But there was that dichotomy of us all coming together in the same place, but no-one being allowed to meet properly.
That’s what I meant, really – did you actually speak to anyone? I’m a dog walker, and sometimes during that first lockdown I’d pass other people in the street late at night. And there was a very odd combination of solidarity and nervousness. You’d say hello to strangers, and sometimes stop to chat, but you’d cross the road first.
Yeah. I was always quite open, and as I passed people I’d smile. But some folk were wearing masks outdoors at that point, so body language was completely stifled. And other folk were hanging onto their dourness – which I quite admire! You’d wave and smile and get nothing. But they’re probably always like that. So there was this other dichotomy of being thankful and excited to see people, and to share these little interactions… but some people wouldn’t even acknowledge you. My playful attempt to capture that feeling is the track ‘Smiling School For Calvinists’.
That’s also a book title by Bill Duncan, isn’t it? I looked it up. I’m not familiar with his work, what can you tell me?
He’s from Dundee, and he’s a photographer as well. I was actually at school with his son, which I didn’t realise until much later – it’s a Dundonian circle completed! But I read it years ago, and the title stuck in my head. It’s a nice tongue-in-cheek title for what’s quite an ornate song. And I just like that duality and contrast… having something melodic and hopeful and optimistic, and sticking a self-deprecating title on it.
Is the book collection of short stories?
Yeah, it’s a collection of short stories about peoples’ lives across Dundee. It’s a fun book, I’m a fan of his work.
I’ve asked this of Clay Pipe artists before, but I’m always intrigued by the physical process of making music that captures the feel of a very specific time and place. How do you actually go about your appreciation of the morning sunshine in a park in Dundee into music that evokes that very feeling? Or is it something that’s completely subconscious?
That’s an interesting area. Obviously there are literal things – leaves rustling, birds in the trees, people walking past. All of those things make you think “OK, I’m outside”. But beyond that, for me anyway, there’s only so much of an idea that you actually want to present to a listener. It’s healthy for them to bring their own ideas – there’s a unity in that. That sounds contrived, but it often happens quite naturally. I don’t want to push too much of a concept onto people. I know this record is quite conceptual, but hopefully dots are also being joined by the person listening. That can be a beautiful coming together.
So you meet halfway? That’s really interesting. It’s just that when I hear things like – say – the slide guitar on ‘Sun Caught Cloud Like The Belly Of A Cat’, I can absolutely appreciate that it somehow sounds a deserted park at sunrise. But I can’t explain why! I wondered if you can do a better job than me…
[Laughs] The answer is no, sorry! I guess… that’s you using your own thoughts and memories, and that’s the beautiful thing. Equally, I know a lot of songwriters who will say “Here’s the song – this is what it’s about. And you shouldn’t be thinking about anything else…” And I totally appreciate that, but for this album I’m quite happy to write about something specific to me, and for it to be somewhat re-appropriated in the listener’s mind. I’m fine with that.
Can you do a lot with song titles as well? Can they change the feel of a track?
Oh, absolutely. ‘Sun Caught Cloud Like The Belly Of A Cat’ is quite a playful title! That was just me walking around, seeing the sunlight hit the clouds in that particular way, and needing to cheer myself up a bit. And I also like the way that phrase is spoken… it’s quite rhythmic. Oh, and I love cats!
So it was literal? You just saw a cloud that looked like a cat’s belly?
Yeah! I was just sat on the grass trying… not to cry! [Laughs]. No, I just realised I hadn’t done much cloud-spotting for a while. You forget what an innocent and beautiful pastime that is.
How did the link with Clay Pipe come about? Had Frances heard some of your earlier solo albums?
My good friend Matthew Marra works in a record shop in Dundee, Assai Records. We’ve been pals since we were teenagers, and to this day he’s still turning me on to all sorts of wonderful music. He played me some of Clay Pipe’s albums – Gilroy Mere and Cate Brooks. I think Autres Directions, the Cate Brooks album set in France, was the first one I heard, and I subsequently started buying every release. And, at the point when ideas for my album were simmering to the surface, a little seed was planted. “I wonder if Frances might like to hear this…”
So I sent her some stuff before the album was finished, hedging my bets a bit. “What do you think? Could this maybe be on your label, which I love dearly?” [Laughs] She replied to me – which was very kind – and, to her credit, her first words were along the lines of “I like it, but it’s almost too Clay Pipe”! And she encouraged me to develop it more, so I’ve got a lot to thank her for in that respect. She gave me the confidence to think it could come out on Clay Pipe – which was a wonderful thing – but also to push certain ideas away from where I originally thought they ought to lie.
But yeah. I love the label, I love the aesthetic, Frances is one of my favourite illustrators, and all the artists on the label are great. So it’s a thrill and a privilege to be working with her.
There aren’t many labels whose visual and musical aesthetic is so perfectly combined. I think she’s excelled herself with Balgay Hill – the artwork is so beautiful.
And if you look on the front cover… I sent her some photographs of the park, and my partner was walking past the observatory. So the photograph was just intended for perspective and scale, but Frances has kept her in! She’s on the right hand side…
Oh, I’ve got her! I’d never spotted her before! That’s great, she’s immortalised.
Totally! Yeah, I love the artwork. I was so thrilled.
You mentioned you’d had tours cancelled at the start of lockdown – was that with Idlewild? Or Hazey Janes? Or something else entirely?
Mostly Idlewild shows… I think! They’ve been rescheduled for later this year. And I’ve not long since recorded and mixed a solo album – Lo! Soul – for Roddy Woomble. That came out earlier this year. So… actually, did we have to cancel some of his solo shows as well? Oh, let’s say it was Idlewild! Sorry… my brain’s not working! [Laughs]
How’s Roddy to work with? He’s a songwriter I admire a lot.
Yeah, he’s great. A great lyricist. The album was a really interesting project, we did it remotely. It weaves around a lot musically, and we sent a lot of ideas back and forth. It actually started life as ambient sketches with drum machine rhythms.
And what’s happening with The Hazey Janes? Any plans?
Nothing planned at the moment, it’s tricky getting us all together in the same room. But we see each other off and on in Dundee, and they’re like siblings to me. They’re always in my heart.
I did love the Houseroom EP you made with Michael Marra – he’s another songwriter I like enormously. When I worked on the radio, I used to play a track called ‘Plus Porteous’ quite a bit, it became a real favourite. I didn’t realise at the time that Alice and Matthew from The Hazey Janes were his kids! It’s a beautiful EP.
Oh, that’s brilliant. Thanks. That’s a record that’s extremely dear to me. Obviously Michael was a pal, but he was also a musical hero, and his democratic spirit lives on. He’s a really important person for all of us, and making Houseroom was one of the most special times I’ve had musically. Making that with Alice and Matthew and their Dad… we did it very quickly on the Isle of Mull at the start of 2012, then we did a brief tour of the West Coast and Dundee in the March. There was tropical weather on the coast, which is unheard of! And the shows were wonderful. Really, really special. And obviously that was the last project Michael worked on before he passed away.
I was a latecomer to his work, but one of my radio regulars – Uncle Harry – brought a few tracks in one night and I thought they were superb. And we played his stuff regularly after that. We were both really saddened when he died.
Yeah, I think that’s often an unfortunate way of seeing the effect a person can have on so many lives. But it’s been so powerful and moving hearing so many people speak so fondly of him. Ah, that’s great. Good on you for spreading the word. You only had to spend five minutes in Michael’s company to know how special he was.
And one thing that intrigued me – when you play with The Hazey Janes and Idlewild, you’re Andrew Mitchell. But your solo work is all under your family name, Wasylyk. Is that because your solo albums maybe feel a little more personal, or more connected to your family background?
I suppose… yeah, to an extent that’s correct. I was Andrew Wasylyk when I was born. My grandfather Ivan Wasylyk was from a place called Soroky, in western Ukraine. But I changed my name to my Mum’s maiden name when I was about 12. I moved school a lot as a kid, and I always felt really self-conscious… you know, “Here’s the new boy. Andrew W-as-k-… oh!” So using “Wasylyk” on the albums felt like an appropriate way to exorcise that, to reclaim it and to celebrate it. I am Andrew Wasylyk! It’s probably only a matter of time before I change it back officially.
And a silly question to end. I read an interview where you were asked about making music as kid, and you said you were always too distracted by playing football. Do you still play?
Its just that I’m pretty good at guessing people’s football positions from their appearances and demeanour.
[Laughs] Good luck!
Well, you’re pretty tall but you’ve got a thoughtful, cultured air about you. So I’m going to say… a ball-playing centre-back in the Alan Hansen or Gary Pallister mode.
Oh, interesting! I played on the right side of midfield. Sometimes as a left winger too, and occasionally as centre-forward.
I’m totally wrong, then. Honestly. you’ve got a laid-back defender’s air about you.
I was too small, really! I didn’t really have a growth spurt until I was 17 or 18. But I was completely obsessed. My brother was a youth signing for Dundee United – he was there with Duncan Ferguson and Christian Dailly, and I just wanted to be like him. But then my uncle gave me an old 1980s Stratocaster – which I still use today – and that coincided with my Mum giving me cassettes by The Beatles… and Crystal Gayle! And suddenly a whole new door swung open for me. A new universe. And I hadn’t felt or heard anything like it in my life. And I hung my shinguards up!
But now I dabble again…
Do you play five a side?
Yeah. And I’ve managed to break my ulna, my radius and my metatarsals. I’ve worn a moonboot or two at gigs! Much to the dismay of my band members…
Balgay Hill: Morning In Magnolia is available here:
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