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Making Tapes for David: The Pearlfishers and Duglas T Stewart’s mixtapes

When one of our great tunesmiths, Davie Scott of The Pearlfishers, got in touch with an idea for a blog we jumped at the chance. The result is this splendid feature about mixtapes. Before we hand over to Davie just a reminder that The Pearlfishers play the brilliant new album Making Tapes For Girls in full at Frets Concerts on June 7th: tix here

a person sitting in front of a building

Davie Scott

When I finished writing Making Tapes for Girls, it felt like I’d brought together a lot of the themes and ideas that had been bubbling away in Pearlfishers music for a while. The title track itself obviously hymns the act of making mixtapes for people; friends, girlfriends, whoever, but it is also about the moment you grow up: when cycling to the shop for a packet of penny chews and the Beano doesn’t quite cut it because you just saw David Bowie perform ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ on Top of The Pops. And the way you start to share the music you love becomes the way you show your true self and understand who other people are too. To share music is to share meaning.

I invited friends to donate a handwritten mixtape for the film we made of the song ‘Making Tapes for Girls’ and drove down the coast to sit with Duglas Stewart on the beach as he wrote out his contribution. We were laughing because when he handed me the 5-song list I realised all but one of the songs had been on the very first mixtape he made for me around 1995, the start of a long period where more or less the only new music I listened to was on tapes Duglas compiled for me. They would arrive regularly with the legend ‘for David’ and each would inevitably result in a trip to the nearest record shop to stock up on Harpers Bizarre, Todd Rundgren, Emitt Rhodes and a host of others.

So, when I saw his great blog here about the music that had inspired BMX Bandits’ Dreamers On The Run it took me right back to his mixtapes and the ways in which they are still inspiring Pearlfishers music. Here’s six songs plucked from my cassette archive that link straight to the heart of The Pearlfishers’ Making Tapes For Girls.

People of my generation might remember this song being a hit for David Cassidy, but the version Duglas introduced to me on that first mixtape was the original, written and performed by Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati with The Young Rascals in 1967. It’s a record that has been a big guiding light on so many levels for me. The melody is incredibly expressive, very wide in range and never seems to stop inventing and reinventing itself over an intense 2 minutes and 50 seconds. But it’s also enhanced by an amazing full-blooded lead vocal and a lush multi-layered arrangement with strings, horns and accordion.

‘How Can I Be Sure’ reminds me that the coolest thing you can do is write a gorgeous tune and then dress it in its Sunday best. The title track of Making Tapes for Girls is an attempt to do just that, and the melody is pretty expansive, or pretty and expansive if I do say so myself. I tried not to shy away from making the vocal feel emotional and yearning and took the same approach in the arrangement. Strings on Pearlfishers records are never there for the sake of it and never there to soften. They are intended to expand harmony and texture and – by dint of that – the emotional heft of the record.

I still don’t know much about The Cookies, but this track is a mind blower. The record itself is Carole King-adjacent, written by her then husband Gerry Goffin with ace LA producer Russ Titelman and arranged by Carole herself. But it could easily be a Carole tune. It has that girl group soul sway with gorgeous, sophisticated vocal harmony and layered arrangement that utilises little plucked guitar lines in harmony, but all melted in the way that only a 7” can melt. Again, very expressive melody, particularly the middle 8 section which steps up the heat and changes the colour quite effectively in a way I guess you are always trying to do with a middle 8. This kind of record was also a big influence on one of my all-time heroes Laura Nyro and she celebrated that on an incredible album called Gonna Take A Miracle.

There’s a bunch of Pearlfishers songs that mine that orch-soul sway, among them ‘We’ll Get By’ from The Young Picnickers and ‘You Can Take Me There’ from Love & Other Hopeless Things. On this record it is a song called ‘Put The Baby In The Milk’, which got started with my granddaughter complaining about her wee sister crying. The title became a game. What might ‘put the baby in the milk’ actually mean? And for me it became about just throwing your arms around people, and the harmony and arrangement is designed to get you to that emotion. It moves through two key changes. Hopefully you don’t notice that but hopefully you do feel the euphoria of it.

More people know Roger Nichols’ songs than know who Roger Nichols is. ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’, ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’, ‘I Won’t Last A Day Without You’. I’ll leave it there. This version of a Lennon, McCartney song is from a 1968 album called Roger Nichols and The Small Circle of Friends. What I loved about it when it came on one of Duglas’s tapes was the emotional intensity of it, even though the singing is so restrained and understated. Of course, the song – a real Lennon potboiler – has something to do with that but I’ve always loved the way The Small Circle just sing it really small and quietly, sometimes in unison, and let the lyric speak. On the song ‘Yellow & The Lovehearts’ I was writing about being in a group in the early days, trying to be all things to all people, and more often than not finding yourself in a pub playing to 10 people who really just want to watch the football and possibly beat up the band afterwards. There’s a distinct second section in the song in which the band, the Lovehearts, become the narrator, singing softly and quietly in unison, eyes closed trying to get through the gig and radiate something spiritual.

Experiencing, and transcribing, the music of Morricone, first encountered via Duglas’s mixtapes, then the Mondo Morricone compilations and then later through the shows we did together celebrating that music, was a major education, not just about melody and structure but about sonic contrast. In Morricone music you will sometimes experience a big moment of  change or revelation before realising you are simply hearing an electric guitar or oboe playing what was previously a synth or a violin line. The effect of very simple contrast can be BOOM. I used that idea on a track called ‘The Vampires of Camelon’ from Across The Milky Way, swapping trumpet for flute for banjo then trumpet and whistling layered together. The tune doesn’t change, just the sonic delivery method. On ‘Protect the Heart That’s Beating’ from our new album we revisited some of this territory. My friend Johnny Smillie suggested doing the guitar intro line instead on a banjo and that sent me all the way back to Morricone. In the second chorus I replaced the low vocal harmony with the banjo as a different kind of ‘voice’ and then at the end we get a visit from triple tracked whistling that comes straight from the maestro’s playbook. ‘My Name Is Nobody’ is Morricone in 3 minutes and 20 seconds.

As well as communicating through mixtapes, Duglas and I have made a lot of music together, not least the shows we did performing the works of Morricone, Brian Wilson and Serge Gainsbourg. There’s a serendipitous magic in the intersection of Gainsbourg’s songs with the voice and artistry of Jane Birkin. Aside from the rich musicality and amazing sound of their records there’s a lyrical connection to balladry, a lot of it very dark, made more intriguing by Jane’s sometimes quite plain delivery. On the original recording Serge sings it and Jane weeps in the background. This is a live recording which I find very affecting. The blunt frankness of this lyric – ‘I have come to tell you I am going, and all your tears can’t change my mind’ – is contrasted with other mystical, poetical allusions: while this conversation is going on we are told that ‘Verlaine’s ill wind is blowing’.

My own early experiences playing live music were mostly at Falkirk and Stirling folk clubs and the kinds of songs I was hearing – songs where everyday experience and magic walk side by side – became, and remain, fundamental. So, when I heard Gainsbourg and Birkin together they aligned with that traditional music. On the new Pearlfishers record a song like ‘When The Sun Comes Back To The West Coast’ has an obvious and simple folk structure to the lyric: it is almost, but not quite, an AAA storytelling ballad, but when I was writing it all these characters starting popping up from that more mystical space – Hamlet, poor mad Ophelia, Jack Frost and the ‘playwrights and conmen’ I remember from early days in the music industry. A song can cover a lot of ground in a condensed space and Serge and Jane were masters of that.

The name that most puzzled me on early Duglas mixtapes was Rod McKuen. I remembered Rod as a grizzled singer on Saturday TV with his dog Mr Kelly; the epitome of light entertainment with a side salad of slightly mawkish poetry. But Rod contained multitudes. Like Serge Gainsbourg he was able to write songs that were rooted in balladry but had another dimension of magic and mystery. On the face of it, ‘Love’s Been Good to Me’ is simple enough (a lover in every port, as it were) but he takes you on this kaleidoscopic journey across America and roots it in his own lonely and resigned experience. Rod does that in many of his other songs – ‘I’ll Catch The Sun’, ‘Mr Kelly’, ‘The Beautiful Strangers’ – and does it with a light touch. What his songs taught me was just that: tell a simple story but explore it through a magical lens.

I got the idea for the song ‘Sweet Jenny Bluebelle’ – the closing song on Making Tapes for Girls – when my granddaughter was a tiny baby. It was the tune I’d hum to try to get her to sleep, the tune I’d sing while wheeling her around Troon in her pram, so that when I thought about turning the melody into a song, I just told that story. It’s the two of us walking at the beach, learning the colours of an apple tree in the garden, her falling asleep. But I thought about where I could find and amplify magic – ‘the bells of St Meddans’, ‘the cities we found in an old apple tree’ – and made the last verse a devotional hymn which could be about anyone you love…’lords and good ladies with riches at hand will never know beauty as thine’.

A legitimate question about any very personal or simple song is, well, so what? What I’ve learned from all the songs listed here is to try to make my own work as magical and as universal as possible, to make them for everyone.

We’ll play all of the Making Tapes for Girls songs, start to finish, when we play at FRETS, Strathaven Hotel on Friday 7th June.

Making Tapes For Girls is available now from Marina Records and to stream here


Davie Scott is Head of Arts & Media at University of the West of Scotland