On the face of it, a global pandemic isn’t the best time to be releasing a new album, but for Orcadian composer and multi-instrumentalist, Erland Cooper, the odd circumstances and moods of a national lockdown have given his work an added resonance.
“A lot of folk who listen to my music tend to want a bit of escapism or release,” reflects Erland, speaking from the London studio where he crafts his emotive soundscapes and songs, often built around atmospheric field recordings captured in the Orkney landscape. “This record is about community, myth and imagination and those are things we’re thinking about daily at the moment.”
Erland’s album, Hether Blether, is officially released today (Friday 29 May), representing the final element in a triptych of Orkney inspired work that debuted with 2018’s Solan Goose. Sule Skerry, the second album in the trilogy, followed in 2019.
Although Erland was already well known for his work with bands The Magnetic North and Erland & The Carnival, Solan Goose and Sule Skerry fully showcased his unique compositional approach, one blending his talents as an instrumentalist and producer with a passion for the natural world.
“A tool to ease a busy mind,” is how Erland describes the earliest elements of the trilogy. Living an increasingly hectic London music industry life, he began to create aural tapestries from recordings to evoke the landscape and birdlife of his childhood island homeland.
“I didn’t plan on releasing it,” recalls Erland, who left Orkney as a teenager. “I would often write it in between the cracks of other projects, rushing around - I’d get half-an-hour-here, or ten minutes there, and I’d do another little layer. By the end of it, it had written itself and I was using it as a tool for months before someone heard it and wanted to release it.”
Solan Goose (the Orkney name for a gannet) was critically acclaimed – it became a BBC Radio 6 Music album of the year – with Sule Skerry receiving equally high praise.
Where Solan Goose and Sule Skerry took listeners on a journey through Orkney’s air and seascapes, Hether Blether - named after a mythical island from Orcadian folklore - turns the focus back on the land, its people and its legends. Track names include Noup Head, Rousay, Longhope and Peedie Breeks, creating a deep sense of place and connecting the listener emotionally to locations of inspiration and significance.
The result is another deeply thought-provoking sonic experience, one that also celebrates artistic collaboration and companionship - Erland’s album has contributions from a diverse range of talents, including award-winning Scottish poet, John Burnside and singer-songwriter, Kathryn Joseph.
“The collaborations have been an absolute joy,” says Erland. “Collaborating isn’t about sitting in a room together 100 per cent of the time though, that’s not right to me. It’s about working really hard 80 per cent of the time and leaving the door open for a little bit of magic to walk through. It’s like in Orkney where you leave your door open and never lock it.”
Early reviews for Hether Blether suggest the magic has again walked through Erland Cooper’s open creative door – Peedie Breeks, which features Erland on a rare vocal outing, has already made this week’s 6 Music playlist.
“I hope it feels like full circle to anyone who has joined the journey and is finishing it with me,” says Erland of his remarkable trilogy. “It felt right to split it over three albums. It gave me time to explore the themes even more so and come back to Orkney many, many times, bringing folk with me – not just people to collaborate with, but those who have kind of come on board and got under the fingernails of the music.”
That desire to touch others through his music, while sharing his beloved Orkney with a wider audience, are clearly much greater motivations for Erland Cooper than fame or fortune.
“For the first time ever when making these three records I care less about what people think, or might think, and more about how it makes me feel, and how it might make someone feel,” he says. “That means so much more to me that anything.”
Although the album launch has gone ahead, despite the ongoing lockdown, plans for a tour around the work have understandably been put on hold for now.
“I was due to play the Barbican main hall, but we’ll do it next spring,” says Erland, who is looking forward to taking his audiences on a musical and imaginative journey to Orkney when the opportunity does arise. “On tour last year I’d say to the audience, ‘let’s imagine this hall is a ferry and we’re going to go to Orkney and back again’. By the end of the show we were there. I really wanted to do that in that great Barbican hall in London, and we will.”
View the video for 'Peedie Breeks', taken from Erland's new release Hether Blether
Erland was also due to be visiting the island of Sule Skerry this month, along with Orkney author, Amy Liptrot. It would be a first visit for both to the remote island, which lies around 30 miles west of the Orkney mainland, but that expedition will have to wait for now.
In terms of future creative explorations, Erland is keen to continue his collaborative work, particularly in the multi-arts field, scoring installations and film.
“Making music for an album is one thing, but making music for an experience, where somebody can walk into a space, watch a film, or come into a gallery and be surrounded by an installation that perhaps makes you reflect on your relationship with the outside world - those are the projects I adore.”
For now, Erland isn’t going far from his London studio, enjoying the intensified creative solitude that lockdown has brought, though he’ll be back up to Orkney to see his parents in Stromness as soon as travel restrictions allow.
“The first thing I’m going to do is catch the ferry home and I’ll walk around the Point of Ness to spot gannets,” he says. “I’m looking forward to that.”
Buy or stream 'Hether Blether' via Erland Cooper's official website.