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From Norway to Canada for Blake's latest musical project

'Like all good stories it actually starts in Norway," says Norman Blake with a mock theatrical flourish.

just THE TWO OF US: Joe Pernice and Norman Blake will play a stripped down New Mendicants show at The Arches in Glasgow on January 25 as part of Celtic Connections. Picture: adadadad
just THE TWO OF US: Joe Pernice and Norman Blake will play a stripped down New Mendicants show at The Arches in Glasgow on January 25 as part of Celtic Connections. Picture: adadadad

The Teenage Fanclub singer and guitarist is explaining the genesis of his latest project, a collaboration with Joe Pernice from indie-rockers the Pernice Brothers blessed with the name The New Mendicants.

Norway? "I was working there with Robyn Hitchcock and the former drummer of the Pernice Brothers, who told me that Joe had moved to Canada, which is where I now live," says Blake. "I knew Joe a little bit, we'd done some shows together a few years before, so I emailed him and we met up for a beer and about half an hour later we decided to start a band - as you do. We just thought, why not?"

Blake moved to Canada from Glasgow four years ago, and obtained permanent residency status in 2012. He lives in Kitchener, a city one hour west of Toronto in Southern Ontario, and while he says he is "settled" there, as yet he hasn't had much of a chance to get teary-eyed over the old country. "I'm back and forth so much, I'm in Glasgow every two or three months. So no, I don't have any nostalgic notions."

One thing he has missed, however, is the convenience and camaraderie of having a vibrant musical community on his doorstep. "I did miss the interaction," he says. "In Glasgow I worked with all sorts of people, and when I moved here I missed folk coming around, hanging out, playing music, or getting together to rehearse. In Kitchener I met some nice people but not many musicians who I felt compatible with."

The arrival of Pernice in the area was, therefore, a godsend. Once the pair had resolved to start a band they swiftly recruited Mike Belitsky, drummer with Canadian country-rock group The Sadies, and set to work. Except it didn't feel much like work at all.

"Joe and Mike would come to my house, we'd push back the settee, set up the drum kit and start recording," says Blake. "We'd make some coffee, or if it was a weekend we might crack open some beers.

"We did this every couple of months for about a year, it was all very laid back and informal, and I think that comes across in the music."

Indeed it does. The first fruits of these relaxed sessions is Into the Lime, a ten-song collection of highly loveable acoustic beat-pop which mines a distinctly Byrdsy vein to fine effect, with its strong melodies, warm harmonies and genial, good-natured atmosphere. There's even a seasonal song, A Very Sorry Christmas, which had typically incongruous origins.

"It was initially a suicide song called New Year's Eve," Blake laughs. "We just flipped the lyrics a little and turned it into Christmas single."

The song was a part of a batch of material written by Blake and Pernice for the forthcoming film adaptation of Nick Hornby's book A Long Way Down - the English author is a friend of both men. "We thought, they'll love them! They're great! We sent them off to the producer and he didn't like them at all, but through that rejection we had four songs, which was a good basis to start our album."

Most of the material on Into the Lime comes from the prolific pen of Pernice, while Blake "kind of produced it and played lots of instruments, that was my role. Maybe for the next one I'll contribute more in terms of writing, but this time I was busy writing songs for the next Teenage Fanclub record."

Blake makes it clear that the Bellshill band, who celebrate 25 years together next year, remain very much his day job, with the New Mendicants offering a "nice distraction. I don't think we labour over the songs in the same way we would if Joe was making a Pernice Brothers record or I was making a Fanclub record. That's not to say we don't want them to be good songs, but we're maybe a little bit less precious about it. We want this to be as much fun as possible, so I don't think it will ever become our main thing."

All going to plan, Blake's "main thing" should be returning to the fray with a new record and tour in the second half of 2014. "We're getting there," he says. "We started recording last March in the south of France, mostly backing tracks. We've still got a bit to do. Gerry [Love, bass player] had his band Lightships and was involved with the Pastels album, Raymond [McGinley, guitarist] was doing stuff with Snowgoose, but we're 80 percent there. We'll get together early in 2014 to finish it, and hopefully it will be out by September. It's going to be good fun. I don't think we've played a show for over two years, so everyone is keen to be on our way."

In the meantime Blake will be back in Scotland to play a stripped down New Mendicants show as part of Celtic Connections. "It will just be me and Joe, the two of us in a little car with acoustic guitars and a melodica," he says. "Celtic Connections is pretty amazing, it has a great global reputation nowadays. Just in terms of the scope and the range of music, there's so much convergence." Fine words, of course, but it transpires that there's an ulterior motive to appearing at the festival. "The after show parties usually get pretty dangerous," he adds with obvious relish. "I'm definitely looking forward to that."

Into the Lime is released on One Little Indian on January 20. The New Mendicants play The Arches, Glasgow, on January 25 as part of Celtic Connections

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