ROSS WILSON – Blue Rose Code to his many fans, who include Ewan McGregor, Ian Rankin, Emma Freud, Bob Harris, Ricky Ross and Edith Bowman – is relating a story from the making of his most recent album, about the legendary double-bass player, Danny Thompson, whom he has known for years.
“It was right at the end of the day and Danny was a bit tired," he says. "I wanted to play one last song, but he was getting frustrated with my piano-playing. Danny said, ‘We’ve done so many songs today’. I said, ‘Mate, you’ve come all this way …’
“We had a knock-down argument, really. But we did the song, although Danny was really unhappy. You can hear it in his playing.” Thompson’s bass is urgent but compelling on the track, Glasgow Rain, one of the highlights on the superb, jazz-and-soul-tinged …And Lo! The Bird is on the Wing.
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Three albums into his career, things are falling into place for this Edinburgh-born purveyor of "fine Caledonian soul". After a long-awaited homecoming concert at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall, he has added an extra date tonight at the Fraser Centre, Milngavie, after Sunday's Milngavie Folk Club show sold out. On January 22, he will return to Celtic Connections to support Sarah Jarosz, at the City Halls. In February, with Wild Lyle Watt on guitar and John Lowrie on keyboards, he will play five dates in Ireland, with a sixth in Belfast.
There’s a heartfelt, literate, unforced quality to Wilson, both in his songs and in interview, and if he has so far flown under your radar, his music, which has traces of Van Morrison and John Martyn, is worth seeking out.
Wilson, 37, has long been a fan of Martyn, particularly of his 1960s/1970s acoustic songs. A turning-point for him came in his early twenties when Martyn and Danny Thompson brought their Sunshine Boys tour to Glasgow’s Pavilion Theatre, in 2001.
“I had a tiny Ford Fiesta, and six of us got in and we drove to the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow, the first night of the tour,” he says. “John was as fresh as a bell and they played all of the sixties, seventies stuff that I loved.
“John was in great voice and what really caught my attention was the uncommon love between two artists on stage. They clearly loved each other like brothers. The whole evening was genuinely magical and it will live forever in my memory, I hope.
“That night, I decided I wanted to become a musician. I had always toyed with the idea. Not long after that, my gran died. She had been the cornerstone of my life, and it sent me on a heavy downwards spiral. I decided there was not a lot left for me in Edinburgh, and I left for London.
“I had been sitting around in council flats with friends, taking drugs, and what we suffered from, more than anything else, was a poverty of aspiration. It’s very easy to label people, criticise them, for not making the right life choices – but if you’re unaware of the available options, then what are you supposed to do?”
His London journey, which would span 15 years, began in Bethnal Green. He stacked shelves during the night in a Tesco superstore. He was a token Scot “but it taught me so much about the rest of the world, learning [from colleagues] about Africa, and Asia, and places I had never heard of. It was an amazing education.”
Wilson stuck to his music, releasing a single with a small London indie label and starting the process of recording an album. He signed a deal with Reveal Records, which ended up releasing that album, North Ten, in 2013 (with Thompson among the guest musicians). For a complicated mix of reasons, however, the three-record deal was scrapped by mutual agreement after just that one album.
Personally, Wilson had also been dogged by alcoholism; after a spell of rehab at a treatment centre near Bournemouth, he began work on his second album, The Ballads of Peckham Rye, much of which was recorded in Scotland. Its roster of personnel included Thompson (again), as well as Karine Polwart and ex-King Crimson bassist John Wetton. It is also home to several classic Blue Rose Code songs, such as Edina.
“The album gathered pace and I had much more confidence,” he recalls. “I also had much more creative autonomy in its production with it than with the previous album.
"It was an extraordinary thing to have it nominated for the Scottish Album of the Year award in 2014," he adds. "Anyone who tells you they don’t care about being nominated for these things is either stupid or lying. It was amazing for me – I’m an independent artist with no pals in the industry, I’m living in London, with no PR budget, and suddenly I’m getting this sort of official recognition.”
Aside from the exposure he has received from the BBC, such as two Quay Sessions (both of which are available online), Wilson has achieved much through his songs and constant hard work, and through the direct connection he makes with audiences at his gigs. One of Wilson's musician friends notes: “Ross has put up a not inconsiderable sum of money to promote his music himself, so that fact that he is doing great business, is well deserved.”
Album number three, …And Lo! The Bird is on the Wing (which features a brief spoken cameo by Ewan McGregor), continues Wilson’s passion for “that fusion of folk and jazz and where it intersects with songwriting.” It’s a challenging listen, but a rewarding one.
* Blue Rose Code, tonight and Sunday at the Fraser Centre, Milngavie www.bluerosecode.com
Milngavie Folk Club, Fraser Centre, Milngavie, Friday December 16 and Sunday December 18