Like many musicians, Alice Marra is braced for a busy Celtic Connections. Firstly, she will be playing with her band, rootsy pop combo The Hazey Janes, in collaboration with the writer Liz Lochhead and saxophonist Steve Kettley. Their sold out show, The Light Comes Back, like their album of the same name, is a mix of spoken word and atmospheric, jazzy backing, quite unlike anything The Hazey Janes – and, presumably, Lochhead – have ever done before.
The project was inspired by Alice’s late father Michael Marra, the wonderful Dundonian songwriter and storyteller, best known for songs such as Mother Glasgow, Hermless and Frida Kahlo’s Visit to the Tay Bridge Bar, whose back catalogue is released digitally for the first time at the start of February – “so hopefully there’s a whole new generation of Michael Marra fans to come, which is a nice thought.”
Alice has also recorded her own tribute to her father’s music, Chain Up The Swings, material from which she will perform at her own concert, backed by a reconstituted incarnation of her father’s big band, The Gaels Blue Orchestra.
So we grabbed the chance to speak to Alice before these shows to canvas her thoughts…
On recording an album of her father’s songs, including one previously unheard demo
I went through hundreds of songs to find stuff that was right for me and I felt passionate about. I’ve let people hear Soldier Boy, and nobody recognised it. Not even my mum had heard it, we don’t know where it came from. We created something new with it, very different from the old demo we found. It’s been a really interesting and long process but I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve treated it as work, trying to create a really good tribute to a songwriter who just happens to be my dad. Otherwise I think it gets too overwhelming.
On her memories of Marra
Well, he was away a lot. You just got used to him not being there, that was just kind of normal to me, but when I did get a glimpse of what he was doing, going to see things he’d done at the Dundee Rep, I loved all of that. That was my first taste of ‘I want to be part of this world’. He would never encourage it or discourage it, he just let us get on and do our own thing. It just so happened we are all doing the same thing, and it was great being able to make a record with him, which was the last thing he did before he passed away.
On her dad’s stage fright
He was so nervous. You couldn’t talk to him for a whole day if you knew he had a show. He used to find out about 48 hours in advance about his shows because he didn’t like knowing what he had ahead because he couldn’t stand to think about it. He used to be physically sick with nerves but you would never really know he was like that because when he came onstage he turned into this different person.
On his love of songwriting
What he always wanted was for other people to sing his songs. Since he’s passed away, things like Loudon Wainwright’s version of Hermless – he sings “harmless” instead of “hermless” – if he’d known that something like that would happen, that would have been a dream come true for him. There’s a famous quote of his, when he said ‘I didn’t want my name in lights, I wanted it in brackets’. That kind of sums him up.
On collaborating with writer Liz Lochhead
It’s so different to anything we’ve done before. There’s almost some of Michael coming through in the piano playing on that record. We made it in An Tobar [on Mull] where we had made the record with him, we’d spent a lot of time there and while we were recording. it definitely felt like he was there somehow and that that was the reason we were all together. You can hear his presence on the record almost.