'On a Wing and a Prayer' by Perth based band Running wi' Scissors, is primarily an album of cover songs. People can be pretty dismissive of cover versions these days. A situation probably exacerbated by 15 straight years of reality music television fodder like the X-Factor, Pop-Idol and The Voice. After the umpteenth watered-down interpretation of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah', you couldn't really blame anyone for never wanting to hear a cover again.
However, when done right, covering someone else's music can still have tremendous value. They can allow you to look at a song from a slightly different angle, often throwing new light on the story and music. Running wi' Scissors excel at this. This is clear straight off the bat, with an initially foreboding reading of 'Sittin' On Top of the World', made famous by Howlin' Wolf. The foot-stomping, clapping and deep lead vocals put me in mind of Son House's 'John The Revelator', but this is a much sweeter song, tempered by some exquisite harmonies and an optimistic lyric.
The second track, John Prine's 'Speed of the Sound of Loneliness' finds the band in fine voice. Rowdy's gruff vocals blending with singer Molly McCabe's lilting sound. It's like a duet between Tom Waits and Lucinda Williams! Like most right-thinking individuals, I'm a huge Steve Earle fan. I was eager to see how the band interpreted one of his greatest songs, the paean to depression that is 'My Old Friend The Blues'. There is a more folky influence to the backing track, and the different vocal phrasing on the chorus really opens the song up.
One of the highlights of the album for me though is an original, 'Hey Friend', written and sung by Molly McCabe. It stands shoulder to shoulder with the songs on the album and had me reaching for Google to see what country singer had composed it. It's a fabulous arrangement too, starting with a great Cajon beat from Chris Small and featuring some fantastically evocative electric guitar work. This is followed by another great original, the touching and sincere 'Bring A Little Faith', with its uncluttered fingerpicking arrangement, understated fiddle, and message of hope.
The song that really knocked me off my feet was the criminally unknown 'I Blew a Kiss fae Wishaw Cross'. My Dad was born and grew up in Wishaw and we spent a lot of time visiting there when I was a kid. I was shocked that there was such a great song about the place and I'd never heard of it. It's a nostalgic look back at the West coast of Scotland from the West coast of America. It's a bittersweet wee gem that sounds like it could have been written by my favourite Scottish folksinging guitarist, Bert Jansch.
Overall, this is a great collection of tunes and is the perfect anecdote for the person who thinks they are sick of cover versions. I know, I was that man!
We sat down with Rowdy Yates of Running wi' Scissors to discuss music, the way they approach cover versions and their connection with the charity, Phoenix House.
The album sounds great. Where was it recorded and who produced it?
The album was recorded and mastered at Clearwater Studio, Perth by Dave Macfarlane, who is also a member of the band. We were anxious to make sure that the recording was as near to the live sound as possible so we did each track 'as is'. We simply set up a circle of microphones and played each track as a full band with almost nothing added afterwards.
There are some really interesting cover versions on the album. How did you go about choosing them?
There tends to be a sort of superiority thing about covers. I've always felt that there was a value in reworking original songs. The starting point for us with each number was, can we do something new or different with this. In some cases, this is simply a change in rhythm or a tweaking of the tune. In other cases, it was adding new parts - like the bridge we wrote for Stand By Me.
My personal starting point is always to try to put myself in the position of the songs main protagonist. How would I feel if this was happening to me? So for instance in I Blew a Kiss fae Wishaw Cross, I imagined it was a Scottish mother ringing her son who's not been very good at ringing or writing home.
Speaking of covers, the artwork for the album is really striking. Who is the artist?
Yes, the cover illustration is stunning isn't it? It's a painting called Storm Petrels by Manchester-based artist David Bez. I knew David many years ago when he was still in art college and have followed him ever since. That became easier with the advent of Facebook. When he posted Storm Petrels online, we had already decided on On a Wing and a Prayer, as the title and the painting looked perfect. David very graciously agreed that we could use the painting for our album. A number of other folks supported the project too. KETHEA, a therapeutic community for addicts in Greece printed the sleeves for free, and Mad Ferret Records did the disc duplication and printing (and of course the band recorded for free and waived any rights to the proceeds).
The proceeds of the album are going to the charity Phoenix House, how did you get involved with them?
The background to that goes back to the 1960s when I was working as a guitarist/mandolin-player in various bands and as a session musician. Pretty much every penny I earned went first on methedrine (an injectable amphetamine) and later on a burgeoning heroin habit. I got clean in 1969 and started a self-help support group based on what we knew about Synanon - the first drug-free therapeutic community in California. That group became a major treatment provider and was always involved with the therapeutic community movement.
In the early 1990s, when I left to head up the addiction studies network at the University of Stirling, I kept up that interest through involvement with the European Federation of Therapeutic Communities (EFTC), becoming their Vice President in 1999 and then President in 2007. More recently, I was invited to join the Scottish board of Phoenix House Glasgow so I've done a lot of work with their residents. The band got interested in this and actually, the first album performance was at Phoenix House for the staff and residents.
Can you tell me a little bit about the history of the band? How did you get together? What's behind the name?
The origins of the name go back to the first line-up which was put together for the first Southern Fried Festival. Mark Farmer of the Glasgow band Seventeenth Century was on fiddle. His dad, Peter and I go back many years to our time on Arran. Peter was suffering from Alzheimer's and we'd invited him to join us because he'd always wanted to be in a band. We hadn't settled on a name and we were due to go on. Peter said, "Aye youse are running wi' scissors noo!" and it just stuck. The current line-up really evolved out of our trying out different combinations at Perth open-mics over the years. I think that I'm really, really blessed to be supported by such talented musicians who instinctively understand what I'm trying to do with a song and have the talent to make it happen.
Who or what are your influences as a band?
I'm honestly not sure how to answer that! I come from a traditional music background (I was one of the original members of The Songcarriers) so that informs a lot of how I approach the music. Chris and Dave are obviously also with Red Pine Timber Company so they bring that alt-country/Americana thing to the mix. And Molly is a genius at harmonies so there's a strong emphasis on four-part harmonies to most of what we do.
On a Wing and A Prayer is available on Bandcamp
and can be streamed on Spotify, Deezer and Google Play. All proceeds go to Phoenix House
Photo Credits: Live Photo- Kirsty Mason, Black and White Promo- Ellis Welsh.