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Finding a voice in another language

A guitar hits a jangly series of chords; the bass and drums delay their entry for a bar or two; a second guitar, wearing country-rock colours, picks up the lead; a lone male voice starts to sing.

Willie Campbell plays covers in pubs, but his own songs set him apart                       from the crowdPhotograph: Colin Templeton
Willie Campbell plays covers in pubs, but his own songs set him apart from the crowdPhotograph: Colin Templeton

It's a style that's ingrained in a certain type of Scottish indie: California in the late 1960s via Bellshill in the early 1990s. But those words… what are those words? The song is called Fir Chlis, the album is called Dalma and, yes, that really is Gaelic we're hearing.

If anyone's going to steer Gaelic music away from lazy lowland pigeonholing (it's either melancholy folk ballads or anthemic Celtic rock, is it not?) then it's Willie Campbell. Campbell had already developed that Teenage Fanclub strand of Scottish songwriting with his former band, Astrid, so as a native of Lewis, it was only natural that he would one day combine his musical influences with the culture of his home island.

Except it's not as straightforward as that. Campbell's troubles in the latter days of Astrid have been well documented in the music press and in a BBC Scotland documentary from a couple of years ago. Caught in an alcoholic downward spiral, sacked by his best friends and band mates before Astrid could get the break they so deserved, he went back to Lewis, got sober, got married, became a dad and starting making music again - first as Open Day Rotation, now under his own name - that is as good if not better than anything he has written before.

"I realised I could keep to my music and keep to my influences and just sing in Gaelic," he explains. "The songs sound like my songs, it's just the language that's different."

We meet in the café-bar of the CCA in Glasgow, where in a week's time Campbell will launch his Dalma album at an event organised by Ceol's Craic, the city's year-round programme of Gaelic culture. In a way, the project will have come full circle: it was at a Ceol's Craic night a few years ago that Campbell was persuaded to write a song in Gaelic with Celtic rock veteran Calum Martin. Thus the seed for a full album was sown.

"We found that literal translations won't fit within the melody, so you have to change the words to bend them into the tune and maybe bend the tune around the words," he says of a working process that has seen Martin help mould Campbell's English-language lyrics into Gaelic, as well as co-write a couple of the tunes.

He adds: "I could speak Gaelic as a kid, but I stuttered in Gaelic and not in English. My two sisters are fluent but my folks kind of discouraged me because I was stuttering in Gaelic."

Campbell says that finished copies of the album will include a link to a website containing the lyrics in English. While it will be nice to know exactly what's being said across the album - there are some heartfelt images in the English-language versions of two songs that come as a bonus at the end of the running order - in a way it might not matter. Although I don't know what the words mean literally, I can feel what they mean emotionally. Glorious, life-affirming moments here are conveyed simply by an upward surge in the music and the beautifully pure singing voice of Campbell himself.

Whichever way you look at it, this album is a triumph for a man who was at such a low point less than a decade ago, when music was tainted by being associated with such a "bleak" part of his life. It was then that Lewis itself played a big part in his return to health.

"Everything good that came to my life was by me being back on Lewis," he admits, "from me getting sober, to meeting my wife, to holding down a few jobs, to going self-employed. It was all tied into Lewis, and into my family, my mum and dad taking me back at 24. I left at 15 and they got me back, a wee boy, at 24.

"Lewis is pretty much the root of the whole thing. The places I grew up in, the beaches, the villages - probably more than any other album since I moved back home, the influence is right the way through it, through the lyrics and probably through the melodies as well."

These days Campbell makes ends meet by playing covers in pubs and clubs, which causes him to travel regularly over to the mainland.

"When I moved back to Lewis, I was working in kitchens, cooking, and I ended up being quite grateful I was well enough to hold down a job. But once things settled down, I realised I could make a living singing in bars. OK, it might not be the way I intended to make a living from music, but why not give it a shot? And it worked out really well.

"I play stuff like Proud Mary and The Gambler and Wagon Wheel. No Oasis, I'm afraid; I've been doing it for five or six years and not learned an Oasis song yet.

"I look around the room and, if it's an older clientele, I kind of like that because I can play Hank Williams, loads of country and 1960s stuff. I struggle with a younger crowd because I don't like Avicii or I get asked for Gangnam Style, believe it or not. How do you expect me to do that?"

I don't know. Maybe he could slip it into another language, one that's closer to home…

Dalma is released on March 24. Willie Campbell plays Ceol's Craic at CCA, Glasgow on March 22

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