Paul McGeechan, Starless

IT was always going to take something special to tempt Paul McGeechan to step back into the spotlight. The keyboard player – a founder member of Scottish bands, Friends Again and Love And Money – had taken a conscious decision to give up performing.

As a producer and engineer, McGeechan had enjoyed considerable success working in virtual anonymity in his home studio on the outskirts of Glasgow. But in 2016, a highly ambitious project to record a trilogy of albums – with a string of top vocalists – placed him centre stage again.

“Several years ago, I decided not to play at all. I guess I just fell out of it,” he admitted.

“I’d worked with so many different singers and artistes on their own records, that I turned my back on the playing side of things altogether. It wasn’t intentional, it was just the way it happened. I’d also never really been a front person anyway. I don’t sing – certainly not in public – so I had to work with other people to do that for me.

“But on this project, I got to record with many different artistes.”

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The project was Starless, a series of collaborations with singers performing his music, accompanied by The Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. The small print of the album reads: “Conceived, realised and produced by Paul McGeechan”.

“After Friends Again and Love And Money, I got out of performing and more into producing other people,” he recalled.

“But in 2008, I thought, I quite fancy doing a record of my own. I had an accident where I lost a fingertip, so I gave up the idea and forgot all about it.

“Three years later, Love And Money decided to reform. Initially, it was just to do one gig at Celtic Connections, but it ended up being quite a few shows and we also went on to make an album, The Devil’s Debt.

“I didn’t even have any instruments. I had to go out and buy a new keyboard and learn to play again. That was the impetus that got me back into performing.

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“It’s said you don’t really miss something until you do it again. In this instance, that turned out to be very true.

“I decided to rekindle the idea I had to do my own record. I began by asking a few musicians if they’d like to get involved and they all said ‘yes’.”

Starless was released by German indie label, Marina Records. The tracks – a mix of original songs written by McGeechan, plus adaptations of traditional music – have a real cinematic feel. He chose vocalists such as Chris Thomson of The Bathers, who was a close friend and bandmate from Friends Again. Folk musicians Julie Fowlis, Karen Matheson and Kathleen MacInnes agreed to perform on the album.

Gwen Stewart, ex-lead singer of Wild River Apples, Marie Claire Lee, Kaela Rowan and Andrew White also took part in the project.

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The catalyst for Starless was a singer whose name was No1 on his wish list … Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile.

In music terms, the enigmatic genius behind the renowned Glasgow band rarely puts his head above the parapet.

But McGeechan felt his voice would be perfect for the title song on the album.

“I had already recorded the track with Karen Matheson of Capercaillie. Gwen Stewart had also sung on a version of it,” says McGeechan.

“But I began to think, if I could ask anyone on the Scottish music scene to sing this, who would it be?

“I realised that maybe the song itself wasn’t for a female voice at all, it was perhaps more suited to a male singer.

“The first name on my list was Paul Buchanan. I didn’t know him at all. We’d said a quick hello at a few functions in the past, so our paths had crossed. But I loved The Blue Nile and really wanted to work with him.

“There was a bit of nervousness about asking him to get involved. When we finally made contact he said: ‘If I like the song, I’m up for doing it’.”

McGeechan admits it took 12 months to get the Starless project off the launch pad.

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“I started off with lots of different pieces of music and bugged the hell out of Davie Scott of The Pearlfishers trying to gauge which would work best,” he recalled.

“I was toying with the various ideas for about a year – playing them to him – just trying to find a format for the record.

“I’m maybe not the most confident person when it comes to asking other artistes to get involved in my stuff. But as more agreed to take part, and the album began to take on a little bit of shape, I grew more assured.”

McGeechan recorded Buchanan singing a guide vocal for the song at his home studio in Bothwell. He admits the experience was both exciting and intimidating.

“Paul was standing behind me in the control room and it was very nerve wracking,” he said.

“Later, when I had recorded the strings with the orchestra, we moved on to CaVa Studios in Glasgow to do the vocal track for real. When the engineer set everything up, Paul said: ‘This sounds brilliant … it’s like something from the movie, Blade Runner’.

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“That was perfect because one of my main influences was Vangelis’ soundtrack for the 1982 film. Paul was so generous to work with. I had got my nerve by that time and think I pushed him quite hard in the studio. He tried out a few ideas and just did his thing. He nailed it right away. I love his vocal on the track and I’m proud to have had him do it for me.

“Just to hear Paul bring my music to life was a very emotional experience.

“It also made asking other people to get involved a little easier.

“Once Paul had agreed to sing on the album, everybody else was more than pleased to come on board. That was not the reason I asked him of course, but it certainly didn’t do any harm.”

McGeechan was reunited with friend Chris Thomson on the track Misty Nights, which also proved to be emotional.

“I suffer from insomnia and got up at 5am one morning and went into the studio,” revealed McGeechan.

“I had the track more or less done in a few hours, with a few lyrical and melody ideas. I played what I had to my wife and she said: ‘Why don’t you ask Chris to sing on that?’

“Even though we go way back to school and the very early days of Friends Again, I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe sometimes you’re just too close to people. But it was a great suggestion.

“I sent Chris the tape with strict instructions that he was never to play my singing to anyone. My only other instruction was, use what you want and throw away what you don’t need.

“It was the first time we’d worked together for 30 years.

“He had a few great lyrical ideas that reflected us growing up together and the people we both knew.

“To hear him revisit our teenage years was very moving.”

The album was released to rave reviews. But McGeechan decided to raise the bar creatively on what was essentially a studio project.

In 2017, he showcased Starless at The Mitchell Theatre in Glasgow, as part of Celtic Connections.

“That was an even bigger deal than I first thought. It was quite a thing to pull together because there was no permanent band,” he said frankly.

“The various singers helped to draw an audience, but nobody really knew who I was or what I’d done previously.

“It was pretty stressful, but on the day I just thought … wow.

“Starless was a long time in the making, from my initial idea to the album reaching the public. When you make a record, you stick it out and just hope people will somehow get to hear it and respond to your work.

“The reaction was brilliant. People seemed to like it and that provided the momentum to move on to a second album.

“Making the record was really enjoyable and I was fortunate to get so many great people involved. So all things considered, as an artistic project, I don’t think it could have gone any better.”

THE Billy Sloan Show is on BBC Radio Scotland every Saturday at 10pm.