Ross Ainslie - Staying focused on the music
Ross Ainslie is having to get used to a new job description. As a talented tunesmith and skilled and in demand player of various bagpipes, whistles and cittern over the past ten years and more, Ainslie, if he’d thought of himself in such terms, would have answered to musician and composer. Now with his new album, Remembering, he’s added singer-songwriter to his list of credits.
Remembering, as well as carrying memories of friends Ainslie has lost at a too young age, is about looking forward. It’s also the product of a new Ainslie. Three years ago, the Perthshire-born musician decided to stop drinking. He’d seen the destructive side of alcohol and in a music business where sitting in a pub can be the easiest way of filling in time and drinking can become an occupational hazard, he’d been able, in older musicians, to see himself twenty years hence and he didn’t like the view.
“The first year after I stopped was hard,” says Ainslie, who works regularly with trance trad band Treacherous Orchestra and has an acclaimed partnership with fellow piper Jarlath Henderson. “A lot of my friends are big drinkers and the whole social side of being a touring musician revolves around drink. So the first thing I had to do was get comfortable with myself as a non-drinker, and that was a struggle. I’d get paranoid and lonely and go straight to my room after a gig because I couldn’t face being in a bar. I also had no patience with drunk people and I started to realise that I must have been a nightmare before I stopped.”
If there’s an element of growing up and facing up to responsibilities in Ainslie’s story, there’s also a realisation that the way he was living wasn’t conducive to productivity as a musician. As a drinker he found ideas for new tunes came easily and he worried at first that he might lose inspiration. What he’s discovered, however, is that whereas previously many ideas were being wasted and never brought to fruition, the focus his new life has given him ensures that ideas are followed up.
“It comes down to time,” he says. “Before, everything was based round drinking and you find you’ve no time for anything else. But now I’m not frittering away the day and because I’m way more focused, I get things done.”
Things like songwriting, something that wasn’t even on Ainslie’s radar before, during one of his “lonely” sessions when he was strumming the cittern, he decided to try putting words and a melody to a chord sequence he’d happened upon.
“I’ve no idea why,” he says. “It’s something I’d never even thought about because I’m not really a words person. It started out as a laugh but after a couple of hours or so I had the first verse and the chorus of what became Dreaming Daisy on the album. Then I got stuck so I went down to Hamish Napier, who lives in the flat below me and writes a bit, and I asked if he’d come up and give me a hand to finish this song. We then sat and worked on it until three in the morning.”
Much to his surprise Ainslie found that he enjoyed the process. Not being given to talking about his feelings, initially he found working with words and setting down personal thoughts made him cringe until he’d got the lyrics the way he wanted them. However, once he’d completed what he thinks of as a puzzle, getting his thoughts to scan and rhyme, he found songwriting therapeutic.
“It was a slow process,” he says. “After six months I had two and a half songs, so I figured a deadline might help. Donald Shaw at Celtic Connections gave me a New Voices commission. That was in July, so that gave me six months to finish what has become the new album, rehearse the band and be ready to perform.”
The New Voices experience meant that when Ainslie and his musicians went into TPot studios in Dunning, they could record as live with only a few tweaks. The result, he feels, is an honest recording and it’s one that as well as Lullaby for Mel, dedicated to one departed friend, has contributions from the son and father of another, his mentor, piping legend Gordon Duncan.
“I’ve wanted to do something with Gordy Jnr for ages because I’ve known him since he was five and watched him grow up, and he definitely has his father’s musical genes, even if he doesn’t play pipes so much now as drums, guitar, and bass. He’s also a great singer,” says Ainslie. “And having Jock, who’s ninety now, speaking about his life was just what we needed for the intro to Head High. Jock’s seen it all, come through real highs and awful lows and he’s a real inspiration. If Remembering has a theme, it’s about remaining positive and Jock absolutely nailed that in his immaculately timed fifty-three seconds.”
Remembering is released on Great White Records.
From The Herald, September 9, 2015.