It’s taken a while, eight years to be precise, for the Anglo-Scottish duo Snowgoose to release the follow-up to their critically acclaimed debut Harmony Springs, but it’s well worth the wait. The Making Of You, out now on Glass Modern Records is a gorgeous mix of British folk-rock and 60s West Coast psychedelia, lush arrangements and warm harmonies evoking memories of everything from Fairport Convention to Crosby, Stills & Nash.
“Real life gets in the way!” laughs Jim McCulloch, guitarist and one half of Snowgoose with Anna Sheard, as he explains the hiatus. “It’s a combination of things. Anna has started a family with her partner and I went back to university to get a degree or two. These things all take time and then I have a young family as well, But it was always ticking away in the background and then the planets all aligned so we thought we’d go for it in a big way. Everyone was available when they needed to be, so it was great, everything clicked!”
Jim has been part of the Glasgow music scene for many years since his first appearance with 80s alternative rock band The Soup Dragons. For this latest project he has called upon the services of a host of the Scottish musical hierarchy including bass guitarist Dave McGowan (Belle & Sebastian/Teenage Fanclub), Raymond McGinley (Teenage Fanclub, guitars), Chris Geddes (Belle & Sebastian, keyboards), Davie Scott (The Pearlfishers, string arrangements) and drummer Stuart Kidd (The Wellgreen/Euros Childs/Jonny/BMX Bandits).
“I’ve played around Glasgow and Scotland for so long,” said Jim when I called him to discuss the new album. “You get to know people and their strengths and build up relationships. When push comes to shove, you pick up the phone and see if they are available and they are, which is all fantastic. It’s not that big a city and there’s not so much of a competition among the musicians, it’s more of a support network. People are always looking out for each other which is a great thing.”
While Jim and his Scottish pals provide the music, The Making Of You marks the welcome return of vocalist Anna Sheard, one of the British music’s best kept secrets. With her pure tones, Anna has already drawn comparisons with the greats of the genre, Sandy Denny and Maddy Prior.
“When you hear that voice for the first time,” Jim enthuses, “you kinda realise this is something special, it’s quite inspirational. She has that classic English folk singer voice, very pure, she’s exactly as she sounds, she doesn’t put it on, it’s amazing.”
After cutting his teeth with The Soup Dragons, Jim embarked on a solo project, The Green Peppers, as he made his first, tentative steps as a songwriter. Jim first came across Anna while working on the third Green Peppers’ album Adventures In The Slipstream in 2008.
“I was looking for a female singer to sing my songs because I was getting tired of listening to my own voice. I was looking around and had a couple of songs waiting and my friend Dave, who was playing in the band, shared a flat with Anna and heard her singing in the kitchen. He taped a wee song, a home recording of Neil Young’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart. She loved it, thought it would show off her voice and it blew me away. ‘How could this person be singing and no one has heard of her before?’”
Anna would sing lead on two of the album’s songs, In Time and The Apple Sun, a performance she would later reprise on the first Snowgoose album.
“We got on really well,” Jim added, “and I put together a full album of songs for Anna to sing. I brought the bulk of the material to the party, written and ready to go. That was the first Snowgoose album.
“From there it moved on, Anna is a very creative person, herself, and she wanted to get involved (in the writing) and so now she’s singing something that she’s got more of a connection with. We decided to work as a team and we feel it’s paid off. It soon became clear that not only is Anna a peerless singer, she is also a wonderful lyricist.
“During the writing process, I was, as usual, listening to a swirling melting pot of artists, from Spanky And Our Gang, through Fleetwood Mac, to France Gall and Jobim. Anna was pregnant during the writing and recording process and I think all of those influences, musical and personal, spill out, adding something undefinable to the Snowgoose sound.”
The result of this collaboration between the pair is a record of rare beauty. At last, it seems this could be the big opportunity for Jim and Anna to make a breakthrough into the mainstream. Jim also gave me a potted history of his own musical roots.
“At high school I played clarinet in the school concert band, a lot of Glenn Miller music and big band stuff. Great melodies, that’s what it’s all about! Through the teenage years it was The Jam and 60s music, it was a combination of all those things. We used to go busking in Glasgow and use all those influences and try and play a good mix of stuff. It’s just having the knowledge of all that music, jazz and soul and rock, whatever’s going. Good music was good music, there was no shutting doors on any of it.
“The first band was The Soup Dragons, a bunch of friends. We’d hang out together and started writing songs together and jamming. Then we got offered our first gig after eight weeks, so we had to get out act together pretty damn quickly and get a set of songs together. You go and record a demo, practice and practice and record six songs in a day and hey presto, that’s what you sound like! It’s a strange, strange situation but that was our first step into the music industry.”
After ten years The Soup Dragons split and Jim took his first songwriting steps for his solo project under the name of Green Peppers.
“That was just me trying to find my own way, to write my own songs and find a sound I was happy with. Like everyone else, I’d start by strumming a guitar in my bedroom, I like the sound of an acoustic guitar and I was pretty happy to go back to the acoustic thing. You can get a lot more interesting chords out of an acoustic guitar. Playing the music for yourself, you can have that kind of subtlety, it just expands your sound by changing the chords around. It’s about finding my sound and being happy with it. It just took time to build up and it became more enjoyable as time went on and I got my confidence. You’ve got to trust your instincts.”
Jim also enjoyed success as guitarist and composer on Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanagan’s Ballad Of The Broken Seas and this confidence was clear on his second Green Peppers album Domino Mornings (2007) with Adventures In A Slipstream coming the following year.
Now, with his Snowgoose partnership with Anna Sheard promising to bear fruit, they are keen to take it forward although the 2020 pandemic has, as with everyone else, forced them to put plans on hold.
“We were in the process of putting a tour together when it all [the coronavirus pandemic] kicked off. At the beginning of the year we were looking to string some dates together when everything gradually shut down. Everybody’s in the same boat, so we’re looking at the end of the year, maybe early next year, it depends on what’s available, a lot of places may not be open.
“Before the lockdown, my elder son and myself caught the virus and we went through a bit of a time with it, but we’re fit now.
“We’re looking at getting the songs on the radio and keeping the profile up, it really helps talking to The Wee Review and we have quite an active Facebook page. We’re very lucky that the people at Radio 6 are big fans of the band.
And, hopefully, there will be a return to the studio, a little sooner than there was for the second album?
“Absolutely! We’ve got some ideas. Anna lives in Glastonbury, I’m in Glasgow, so we can work together with Zoom technology. Once the dust has all settled from this we’ll get together and start writing the next record.”