Colin MacIntyre is one of the UK’s most respected songwriters and performers.
For Colin MacIntyre, politics and music have long been inextricably linked. Hailing from Tobermory on Mull, MacIntyre was immersed in both from a young age. His late father Kenny was a well known and highly respected journalist who worked as political and industrial correspondent for the BBC. For MacIntyre, this was a big part of his family life as a child. He remembers: “When my father passed away suddenly, the Scottish Parliament invited us in to hear them make a statement about him, which was quite surreal in some ways. Because of my father, as a child I sat outside many an MP’s house all over the country. The phone would go at home and it could have been any level of politician.”
MacIntyre’s love of music started while watching and listening to his uncle’s cover band. He said: “I first got into music as a six or seven year old when I got my first guitar. I grew up on Tobermory and was mostly inspired by my uncle who had a covers band on the island when I was growing up. They played the Beatles, the Stones, Van Morrison, Neil Young; all the classic range of stuff. We didn’t have a record shop or a cinema and we didn’t even get a radio signal but I was lucky that that was going on a couple of nights a week. For me, that was where my first love of music came from and when I got over the disappointment that my uncle hadn’t actually written any of these songs, I started to form my own bands with friends and cousins. It wasn’t until my teenage years and late teens that I left the island and went to Glasgow to university. That is where I started to really write more and more prolifically and try and get my music out there.”
Leaving Mull, Macintyre pursued his musical career while studying politics. However, the thought of the island was never far away and it provided the inspiration for what is his wellknown pseudonym, Mull Historical Society. MacIntyre has now released albums both under his own name and the Mull moniker, and even today he draws inspiration from his birthplace.
He said: “I’ve been living in London for a few years and I am further removed but at the same time coming from Mull is a big part of who I am. It is always there and you can always tap into it, I don’t need to be standing on a hill right now to do that. It has really influenced me. When I first started I wrote a song called Mull Historical Society, which was my warped Orwellian view of this organisation on the island. After I wrote that group of songs, things started to change. Venues, labels and managers started phoning me rather than me trying to pursue them, I knew I was onto something and quite quickly I had to decide what I was going to be called and I decided on that name. Now, since the ten years I’ve been doing this professionally, it is hard for me to escape from where I’m from because of the name but I wouldn’t want to.
“[Releasing albums under my own name] has made me feel a bit fresher about that identity, I feel much more in tune with it. I always admired people like David Bowie who had Ziggy Stardust and different identities they would immerse themselves in. I realise now that it is probably my truest identity in a musical sense. It felt quite nice, having done a couple of albums [under my own name], to go back under the Mull name because it has made everything come together. My first three albums were under the Mull name. I like to write about communities and focus on micro issues that hopefully tell bigger stories. When you come from a small community, you are more sympathetic to that. There is lots of darkness to be found in small communities and lots of great things too. There is no end of material.”
MacIntyre’s new album, released under the Mull Historical Society name, is called City Awakenings and offers a tribute to Glasgow, London and New York, the three cities that have most influenced him. His latest single from that album, Must You Make Eyes At Me Now is out next month. To date MacIntyre has achieved four UK top 40 chart hit singles, and two top 20 albums. He has been awarded The Glenfiddoch Spirit Of Scotland ‘Top Creative Talent Award’ and made The List’s top Scottish artists of all time. He has released four albums under the Mull pseudonym and two under his own name. He has collaborated with Irvine Welsh and toured with The Strokes, Elbow and REM.
His new Mull Historical Society album was released in January on Xtra Mile Recordings and was produced by the Grammy-winning Dom Morley. MacIntyre co-produced the closing track Thameslink (London’s Burning), which he first performed on acoustic guitar at his father’s funeral.
Despite living south of the border, the musician is well aware of the changing politics in Scotland right now. He said: “I played in Glasgow recently and someone came up to me after the gig and said very seriously ‘there’s a question in Scotland at the moment and three answers, yes, no or maybe’ it was an interesting way to put it and he wanted to know my opinion. I’ve always been really passionate about politics. I might be one of the few musicians who could happily sit and watch the BBC Parliament channel if I’ve got a free day. I remember doing that once and seeing someone standing up at the dispatch box whose title was Minister for Genetics and Insurance and I thought, how can that be possible. It stayed with me and for my second Mull album I wrote a song called Minister for Genetics and Insurance.
“I’ve always found there is something quite interesting about these suits who walk around Westminster. The life of an MP, particularly if you are a Scottish MP in Westminster, it must be quite a weird existence in some ways.” His love of politics has also influenced his music in other ways. In 2008, for a track on his album The Water, MacIntyre was looking for something different. He wanted another voice to speak at the end of the song Pay Attention to the Human and top of his list was veteran politician Tony Benn.
MacIntyre added: “It was great because it is a song called Pay Attention to the Human and it was about the effects of war on individuals. I got in touch with his [Benn’s] publishers and the next day my mobile went and it was that unmistakable voice on the phone. In a weird way I think the Mull name hooked him in because he had spent time on Oban and also Tobermory in 1940s as an evacuee. He had a memory of that and I think he also registered my dad’s name.
“I explained the song and showed him the lyrics and asked if he would read something. He said he would be delighted and later he left me a message saying he’d only ever read his own words and he would prefer to write something. He wrote a poem which I thought was really amazing. It works really nicely on the song. There was some kind of weird symmetry because when I was a student I remember writing a poem called Tony Benn’s Voice and to end up ten years later to have him on my song was amazing. You have a vision for these things and I remember having a wish list of voices of people who I respected. Tony Benn was at the top. We recorded it and I had an idea of what the song was but it was still in my head so when we put the two together it was one of those lucky moments. It has been a really nice memory to have and I gave him a copy of my poem all those years ago and asked him to sign it. We exchanged poems, although I think his is a hell of a lot better. I’m lucky to have both.”