Erland Cooper

“Give me half an hour and I’ll happily stare out of a window.” Erland Cooper – composer, singer, producer, “dreadful” fiddler, exiled Orcadian in London – is remembering his boyhood in Stromness, one spent among five brothers and one sister. Such was the size of the family that young Erland grew deft at occupying himself.

“I'm the one who wolfed down his food because the other gannets would beat you to it,” he recalls in between sips of tea that suggest his table manners have come on leaps and bounds. “You didn’t want to cause issues so you went into your own brain and drifted off.”

Exploration, both creative and contemplative, has been one of the threads running through Cooper’s life ever since, culminating in recent adventures including sampling more than a thousand voices for an installation in London and coaxing 200 punters at a concert at St Pancras Old Church into accessing a link on their mobile phones of a gannet call and playing it on cue.

“All of a sudden there’s a cacophony, just like a gannet colony,” he recalls, brightly. “I said to the audience: ‘You've just created the first live gannet choir in London.’ It was f***ing awkward, but good awkward. It was a moment, a bit of magic.”

His new record Sule Skerry, named after the rocky island 40 miles west of Orkney, is equally transcendent. Though dusted with contributions from Cooper’s compatriots Kathryn Joseph and Kris Drever as well as composer and producer Leo Abrahams, vocalist Astra Forward and sound artist Hiroshi Ebina, it is Cooper’s light touch and frequently breathtaking melodic pulse that elevates the album. In an increasingly toxic age, Sule Skerry dovetails seamlessly with the rising thirst for nature and its manifestation in the arts, whether literature, cinema, music or poetry.

The album is the second in a trilogy inspired by the air, sea and land of Cooper’s home islands. Last year its predecessor, Solan Goose (the Orcadian term for gannet), drew plaudits from music writers as well as BBC 6 Music. Sule Skerry embellishes its recipe of field recordings, modern classical, folk music and ambient textures with a greater emphasis on the human voice; its maker, favouring a yearly rhythm to the births of the trilogy’s component albums, anticipates its follow-up will see the light of day next spring.

It’s too early for Cooper to say much about the next album other than that it will focus on the Orkney community. For now, he is merely grateful for the positive reception afforded his latest solo record and the accompanying live shows, at which he and his arsenal of piano, reel-to-reel tape machine and sundry electronic devices are joined by a four-piece string ensemble.

Cooper’s resourcefulness stems from growing up among a large family on Orkney, whether playing chap-door-run at the threshold of George Mackay Brown’s house, talking about the island birdlife with his father as they sauntered along the shore or developing musical skills.

“They’re all doctors and fighter pilots and whatnot,” he says of his siblings, “and arguably better musicians than me. Mum forced us all to learn an instrument. I learned fiddle – which I'm dreadful at – and trumpet, while my siblings learned cello, trombone and things like that. But music was never encouraged as anything other than a pastime.”

Beyond the realm of folk music, Cooper was keen to learn other instruments, unpick cherished songs and explore recording technology, but Stromness in the 1990s was not brimming with like-minded souls. As he does now, he looked around and picked up the objects closest to hand. “My dad was deputy head of the school, and while my mates were playing football I would steal his master key and break into the school, just to use the music room,” he says.

“So I'm learning how to use the Tascam four-track [a portable recording device that uses cassettes] and doubling up two four-tracks to make an eight-track, learning MIDI and piano and guitar, and dissecting songs, from Nirvana to Paul McCartney, on my own because I didn't find anyone else who wanted to do the same thing. I felt very isolated. But through solitude comes exploration.”

When the janitor, with whom Cooper had developed a tacit understanding, finally told Cooper Sr about his son’s adventures, rather than being furious the latter simply said: “Why didn’t you ask?”

“And I said I had no idea. I think that being the fifth of six children, you don't want to cause problems, and invariably you end up causing more because you keep your mouth shut.”

Among Cooper’s neighbours in Stromness was Mackay Brown, whose poetry supplies the wind in the sails of Cooper’s Orkney trilogy.

“As a boy I had a chance to have a living mentor but instead me and my mates were throwing pebbles or doing chap-door-run,” he recalls, mildly exasperated even at 30 years’ remove. “If I could just give myself a whack … ‘That's George Mackay Brown. You could be asking him questions and he could give you answers that would stick with you for life. Instead you threw a stone at his door and ran because you thought it was funny. You’re a little s***.’ Although he would probably say: ‘I'm glad you're doing that. It's the right thing for children to be doing, filling the streets with laughter.’”

Upon leaving school, Cooper turned his back on the endless skies of Orkney for a temporary job in the United States – “In New York I remember looking up and thinking, ‘F****** hell.’ It blew my little mind” – before taking the path established by his older siblings and entering further education, graduating from Edinburgh University in mechanical engineering. Music, however, was his guiding star. London beckoned.

It was in the capital that Cooper found himself in a demi-monde populated by the likes of Damon Albarn, Paul Simenon and Paul Weller. He met and began to write music with the guitarist Simon Tong, whose CV includes The Verve and Gorillaz, and the producer Youth (“probably the only guy I like and dislike in equal measure”). Bonding over a shared love for the US folk musician Jackson C Frank, Tong and Cooper formed Erland and the Carnival, releasing three albums, and the Magnetic North alongside Northern Irish artist Hannah Peel. The latter group’s 2012 debut album was inspired by the Orcadian landscape and its follow-up by Tong’s hometown of Skelmersdale.

Now securely installed at the helm of his own ship, Cooper looks back on his time as a conventional frontman as a mixture of fear and accident. “I've done the guitar thing – the showman. I don’t know why. I was kind of thrust into it,” he says. “Onstage there would be one or three minutes of pure ecstasy. The other 45 were petrifying but for that one minute it was worth it.”

Cooper chose to leave his voice off Solan Goose, a decision that was met with disapproval in certain circles. “There were two reasons,” he says. “One, I fell out of joy with the sound of my own voice, and two, imagine the Bay of Skaill next to Skara Brae [on Orkney] – it’s a beautiful sandy beach, with the sea coming in. You're looking at it and all of a sudden there's a red plastic balloon. That's what my voice felt like. It kept distracting me. I had to take my ego and pop it.”

Besides his solo work, Cooper is a composer for hire and is increasingly enthused by the prospect of working on installations. Earlier this year he collaborated with artists Marshmallow Laser Feast, scoring Nest, a sound-and-light installation that opened the first London Borough of Culture in the north-east borough of Waltham Forest.

“I sampled over a thousand voices of the local community and got 900 schoolchildren singing like starlings and put them into the composition, which was a relatively ambient piece with cello and choral elements,” he says. “This little kid said, ‘It's like going to a fireworks display but without the bangs, and instead of the bangs there’s your music.’ An adult said it was like tripping off your tits.

“Seventy-thousand folk travelled through the Nest over three days – it was a 15-minute composition on a loop, four murmurations an hour – so I'd love to do more like that.”

Cooper’s sense of adventure, born of isolation and curiosity in a music room in Stromness Academy, burns brighter than ever, only now he has learned to open his arms.

“I don't think I've ever lost that sense of exploration but what I've learned in adult life is collaboration is the life blood,” says Cooper. “I'm getting to play with brilliant musicians and a fine musician is like a bird of prey or a Formula 1 car – it's a magnificent thing. They take these eight, nine or 10 notes that anyone could write in any order and they make them sound really good, and I know that's because it's them playing it. That's a joy. So that solitude I had as a child, you do need to come out of it.”

Sule Skerry is out now on Phases Records