David Milligan - shopping for inspiration


It’s never going to replace How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria, or Dorothy, as a TV programme idea. The more’s the pity. Because there could be an entertaining series, surely, devoted to the trials and tribulations involved in writing a piece of music that conveys a message such as “If you need a painting in an emergency.”


Except that Dave Milligan didn’t have the luxury of time to spend thinking too much about this weighty challenge. He had another two numbers to write and four more new ones to rehearse, record and perform on a tour of the shops along Tobermory Main Street before the week was out.


Looking back on the eve of the Scottish Arts Council Tune-up tour that will take the resultant project, Shops, back to Mull as well as to venues the length and breadth of Scotland, the pianist says his initial response to the idea was that “it sounded a bit daft.”


In his liner notes to the CD that Milligan’s splendid trio released as part of their involvement in the An Tobar Sessions, Gordon Maclean, director of the Tobermory arts centre, conceded that it did indeed seem crazy at the time. But Maclean, whose commissions have also included fiddler Aidan O’Rourke’s An Tobar, which joins Milligan’s trio on the Tune-up tour, and Scots jazz mavericks Burt-MacDonald’s A Day for a Reason song cycle dedicated to Tobermory’s town clock, was persuasive. He really did want Milligan, bassist Tom Lyne and drummer Tom Bancroft to write music about the local shops – and to play the music concerned in each shop.


“I've known Gordon a long time,” says Milligan. “As director of An Tobar he’s been a great supporter of projects like Bashue [Milligan’s group with his partner, harpist Corrina Hewat] and I trust his judgement - so I had to hear him out at least. But knowing his fondness for an unusual project, and then realising its context as the last of a few pieces he had commissioned to celebrate different aspects of life on Mull, it suddenly seemed like something we had to do.”


On gigs since the Shops CD was released and in talking about the project generally, Milligan and his trio have made a joke about the performing-in-the-shops part of the plan being what convinced them to carry on, but this turns out to be true.


“When Gordon first talked to us about it, he was pretty low-key and matter-of-fact about the whole thing,” he says. “We initially thought that we were getting involved in a bit of light-hearted quirkiness, but after we got there, we soon realised it wasn't about the shops so much but the identity and survival of a community's way of life, and that was a pretty powerful thing to be involved in.”

On arriving in Tobermory, Milligan’s trio got straight to work. They went round the shops that were to be their muses, meeting the owners and staff. Tom Bancroft, a man who can seemingly incorporate anything with rhythmic possibilities, including a Black & Decker power drill, into his music, sampled some sounds and snippets of conversations that found their way into tracks such as Browns and Tackle & Boots. Within two days, they had the music written, including If You Need a Painting in an Emergency, which Milligan was inspired to write after seeing a sign to this effect in local artist Ronnie Leckie’s shop window. 


“The plan was always that it would be a joint writing project, but I don't think any of us really knew how that would work,” says Milligan. “When it came to it, we all just started writing individually without really talking about it. I think somewhere in my head I imagined we would eventually get together and try and contribute something to each other's pieces, but it just didn't really happen that way. It's hard to know where inspiration really comes from, but for some reason we each were naturally drawn to different shops, so it worked out perfectly.”


Given the very local nature of the project and possible picture postcard connotations (the tracks on the CD run in the same order as the shops, left to right, along Tobermory’s famously colourful waterfront), you might be forgiven for thinking the results would be a bit twee. In fact, Shops, as many a review has noted, is international class jazz and the music has grown in performance in the two years since it was conceived and recorded.


Milligan, who has been working - by email - with Aidan O’Rourke on a piece that will act as the finale on the An Tobar Sessions tour, looks back on the Shops experience with a mixture of puzzlement, pride and fondness.

“It's strange to think that we recorded the music within a day or two and in some cases, within hours of having written it,” he says. “That's very unusual for any musician and I don't imagine anyone would choose to record a normal album in that way, but that was the way the project was supposed to work. When we recorded the music we did a couple of takes of each piece and then just stopped thinking about the CD, because there wasn't really time with all the workshops and songs we were working on with the local kids and musicians that were part of the project, too.


“The next time we heard the music was a good few months later when we mixed the tracks. That was interesting because even at that point the material had already developed from a live point of view. And even now, in some ways, it's moved on a bit more, so when I hear the album, those particular versions of the tunes transport me right back to that week and to Browns hardware store, or wherever. But the thing I
love about performing this material still is to try and keep it fresh without losing that connection to the people and places that inspired it.”


From The Herald, April 

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