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From KGB to RnB

Published on 4 December 2011

WHEN Scots journalist Angus Roxburgh was travelling through Chechnya covering the war, he found himself in a precarious position.

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Having driven with his BBC producer into the dark and deserted Russian-controlled town of Grozny – the sound of shells and gunfire going off nearby – the pair were stopped by an armoured tank and escorted to an army check point on the outskirts of town.

"These soldiers weren't at all pleased to have us there," says Roxburgh, recalling the tense moment. "It was all balancing on a knife edge – it was very nerve-wracking. But they had a guitar. I picked it up and sang Yesterday to them and they all started to melt. Soon, they were all singing along and it completely broke the ice. My music saved us."

It was a bold move and today, on the eve of another musical venture, Roxburgh will be hoping for a similarly positive reaction as he launches his first record – a collection of heartfelt, self-penned songs. It's a strange change of career for such a well-known foreign correspondent – and one who was once accused of being a spy by the Russian government, no less. But today, it seems, the only identity Roxburgh is swapping is his own, having traded his colourful former life as a journalist for that of a struggling musician. But why now, at the age of 57?

"When I was a teenager, I wanted to do what I'm now finally doing – and that's make a record. I got my first guitar at 14 and started writing songs and then it all kind of went away because you get a 'proper job'. Now, I've just decided to do it."

Those "proper jobs" saw Roxburgh use his Aberdeen University degree in Russian to work as a translator in Moscow before embarking on a career in journalism, first as the BBC's Moscow correspondent (where there was an attempt by the KGB to recruit him as an agent) and later as its European correspondent. He has interviewed Gorbachev and Putin; done PR for the Russian government; and written a book, The Strong Man, about Putin (out in the New Year). But it was a few years ago, while living in Brussels, that Roxburgh found himself persuaded by a friend to take to the stage with his guitar – igniting the idea of recording his own album in the process.

Now, two years later, as we meet in the Grand Central Hotel in Glasgow, Roxburgh is eagerly awaiting the delivery of his first CDs. It is a happy time in his life, currently living as he does with his girlfriend in Bratislava, but it wasn't always such. Much of the music on the album was borne out of a challenging time for Roxburgh, both professionally and personally.

"It contains songs I started five years ago, when I was going through a very ropey period in my life, so a lot of the songs were doom-laden, slit-your-wrists songs," says Roxburgh, reflecting on those days. What happened? He takes a long, deep breath before answering. "Everything was just going wrong. My marriage started breaking up and my work as a journalist wasn't going all that well either. I just got into a bit of a mess. Writing the music was a kind of therapy. It really helped to get me out of it and I feel so much better now."

Music has been his saviour; but keen not to make this first album too personal, Roxburgh wrote other songs, too – an emotive mix that touch on themes of love, heartache and social commentary. The latter may be evidence of the journalist inside him trying to get out but Roxburgh doesn't miss his former profession.

"Look at the things going on in the world and imagine being a journalist just now..." He trails off. "I'd be writing about the economic crisis – and it all seems so futile, a pretty soulless occupation. When I compare that with writing songs - I can write about anything I want now. It's a much nicer way to comment on what's going on in the world than writing about it in a newspaper. You don't need to be specific but you can make people think and entertain them at the same time."

The first song on the album, God Ran Out Of Ideas, muses on the horror of human tragedy in global events such as the London bombings of 2005 and hints at a journalist jaded from covering such heart-wrenching stories. The original first verse, now scrapped, was based on his experience in Chechnya. "I covered events like that and you look at that devastation and think, 'How did human beings do this to each other?' And you feel pretty desperate.

"I will always remember these refugees flooding out of Grozny. We came across this woman with her injured little girl. She was bleeding, in her last hours, and we helped them into this car and the car goes off and you never know what happens after that – these little fleeting moments that you witness and you never know if she survived or not.

"It has an affect. It maybe contributed to the depression I had for quite a long time. And that spills out into a lot of the songs." Head Above Water, for example, is "a song about my dark days – but overcoming it".

But the most personal track on the album is I'm Going Home. "It's about making the kind of change that I have made in my life - going home, in a sense, to what I want to do, to being me again. And it's a dialogue with someone."

Journalism, for now, is off the cards for Roxburgh. "It may well come back to me, but at the moment I'm glad that I've moved on to something else. Writing music is such a great way of getting the same sort of message across – but maybe in a more powerful way."

Angus Roxburgh, Harmonies For One, is out now on iTunes. www.myspace.com/angusroxburgh

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