"I'm A Terrible Pianist" - David MacGregor Talks Isolation and Still(ness)

Interview by Isabella Eastwood

I low-key imposed a video call on David MacGregor (Broken Chanter), somewhat springing it on him with the follow-up “it’s what I’ve been doing for all the interviews so far”. I like to think I softened the blow by emphasising tea and biscuits were, if not mandatory, at the very least highly recommended. I got a tour of his ceilings (some white, some grey) and we discussed being still, the NHS and synthesisers.

“I chose ‘Still’ by Annie Booth because the whole EP that that’s on is beautiful, and the arrangement of that song and the lyrics struck a chord with my interpretation of what we’ve been asked to do.”

So how did he do this? 

“I pulled it apart to make it more sparse, not only because I can’t play the piano as well as Annie, but it was about 4-5 weeks into lockdown and I think at that point I was feeling kind of spaced out myself. And my studio is a wee box room – really it’s just a big cupboard – in my flat so I was feeling a bit claustrophobic as well.”

“I think I gave myself a bit of a challenge deliberately, partly because it’s different from Broken Chanter stuff, and partly because I’m a terrible pianist. I chose it because I’d have to do more work on changing it, to force myself to do something quite different… It basically allowed me to fanny about a bit with the synthesiser. “

As David elaborates on the nature of the track a little more, it sounds as if the lyrics not only echoed his emotional experience; they seemed to act as a gentle push in a certain direction, against the course his life had been following:

“It’s a very haunting song... The very first line is an instruction to stop, be still, cease. And I think I was exceptionally busy before it all ground to a halt, I was about to go on tour and it just felt like a bit of an instruction I’d received: be still, stop, close the door. And the rest of the lyrics just spoke to my spaced out, cabin fever frame of mind.”

Struggling with the same issues we all are, David has found his own ways to cope and readjust with the new normal: from being in the middle of an album campaign, touring and playing with the band, his entire agenda was shelved. 

“I really miss being out playing live because that’s the best bit, and I think that one of the issues is, only being outside for an hour a day, it eats into your ability to be inspired and write. So it’s good to have something instructive to practice making music, because you can procrastinate for so long that you then become really anxious about it, and you end up creating an insurmountable barrier for yourself.”

Returning back to basics, to the fundamental process of creation, became a lifesaver. No matter whether the writing turns into something else or not, producing something, anything, helps establish a sense of routine and of purpose:

“Putting something down everyday, even if it gets chucked. Just the actual activity of doing, of just creating, is really helpful just now.” 

We talk about the feelings of helplessness and of being stopped in our tracks, and how every single person is affected. We discuss how society is reacting, and have a bit of a rant – I admit, I encouraged it – about the emphasis on individual responsibility that has surfaced in the wake of systemic failure. 

“There’s this toxic stoicism in the UK […] The “Great British spirit” and stiff upper lip, but it’s blind patriotism. Flag-shaggers banging on about the Blitz who were born decades after it. I knew folk who survived the Clydebank Blitz and they weren’t giving it “take that, Fritz! No kilometres for us!” - their dignified, sober take was that it was something so horrific that everything possible should be done to avoid total war ever happening again. Barry (42) from Gammon-on-Thames, rattling on about the bloody Krauts over his warm pint, has never had to try and pull his neighbours out of a bombed-out tenement only to find that only liquid remains. British exceptionalism is a ridiculous, self-aggrandising, and frankly embarrassing fantasy - a delusion that’s going to be responsible for a lot of deaths during this crisis.”

“Folk must not be allowed to get used to the notion of the NHS as something that requires fundraising as if it’s a charity - A 100-year-old walking around his garden to raise money, while admirable, is being portrayed as a necessity instead of it being highlighted as a failure of government, and people are losing sight of the fact that the National Health Service is paid for by taxation and is being underfunded as an ideological choice by the UK Government. I’m aware that the stripping of the NHS is something that’s not an issue here in the same way as England, thanks to devolution and our choice of Holyrood government, but these funding decisions have knock-on effects. Devolution doesn’t feel so settled when those lining the front bench at Westminster are desperate for post-Brexit trade deals.”  

“Once this has subsided enough for us to start going back out and about my main fear is that we’ll be so relieved with our taste of normality that we won’t as a society look to why one of the richest countries in the world suffered from one the worst death rates, and we’ll turn a blind eye to the structural inequality and democratic deficit that exists across the Nation States of the UK that were massive contributing factors.”

With the future prospects being a little bleak, we return our focus back to the project (somewhat hypocritically?), and I ask what David is looking forward to most.

“I’m really looking forward to hearing Cloth cover Annie, and Annie cover Cloth. It’s also lovely to have someone cover something you’ve written, so Lola in Slacks doing ‘Don’t move to Denmark’ is very exciting.”


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