Calamateur: The idiosyncratic Scottish songsmith picking up critical plaudits

Wednesday 13th October 2010

Following the release of his latest album 'Each Dirty Letter', Lins Honeyman talked to the man who is CALAMATEUR


It would be easy to class the release of Scottish singer/songwriter and recording artist Calamateur's latest album - the accomplished 'Each Dirty Letter' - as something of an overnight success. In reality, the Inverness-shire based recording artist (real name Andrew Howie) has been ploughing an innovative and prolific musical furrow for over a decade and has built up a back catalogue of varied and often leftfield material.

Back in 2000, and with only a borrowed reel to reel machine to hand, Andrew recorded and released his debut single "White Light Unknown/Inhabit" in his then hometown of Glasgow. The release soon caught the attention of radio presenters such as John Peel who played the single on his Radio 1 show, giving Andrew the confidence to pursue a future in his chosen line of work.

Soon after this tentative initial release, Andrew joined forces with multi-instrumentalist Mark Russell and formed the Glasgow-based outfit Oldsolar to record the band's debut album 'Many Visitors Have Been Gored By Buffalo'. Whilst the band's quirkily titled release received positive reviews in the music press, Andrew chose to maintain a solo presence as Calamateur with releases such as the experimental 'Autocity EP' - a series of songs based on a Channel Four documentary about car crashes - before leaving Oldsolar in 2004 following a move to the peaceful setting of Beauly in the Scottish highlands two years earlier.

Although the move north certainly took him out of the more accessible musical circles of Glasgow, Andrew continued to release his own material - most notably 2009's acclaimed 'Jesus Is For Losers' album which saw him reference his Christian faith whilst pulling off a successful cover of the much celebrated Steve Taylor title track. In addition, collaborations with artists such as bass player and loop expert Steve Lawson and fellow Scots singer/songwriters Iain Morrison and Jo Mango have ensured his work remains as eclectic as ever.

I caught up with Andrew as he took a break from his hectic schedule to ask him what the name Calamateur actually means. "The name partly comes from a book I was reading at the time called East Of Eden by John Steinbeck," explains Andrew. "The main character in the book was called Cal and there was also a film in the '90s called Amateur which I really felt a connection with and the name came about by putting the two together."

It seems that choosing a stage name is not without its perils. "When John Peel introduced me on his show, he didn't know how to pronounce it and there was DJ a while back who didn't get it right either so I maybe should have gone for an easier name!" Andrew laughs.

Pronunciation problems aside, 'Each Dirty Letter' has certainly seen Andrew come into his own as a recording artist and has marked a change in the way he approaches his work. I ask him what makes this release different from the rest of his back catalogue. "Pretty much everything I've done up to this point has been written and recorded by myself," he explains. "With the latest album, I had all these songs written on the acoustic guitar but I didn't really know what to do with them. I met a guy called Iain Hutchinson who had been making a name for himself as a producer and an engineer and we decided to work together on my songs. I wanted to give him total control of it all in terms of production and it was quite a novelty for me to be able to just sit down and play the guitar and not to have to run and press the record button or check the levels!

"It was great to record with an actual band too," continues Andrew. "In the past, I'd programmed drums or arranged samples or played keyboard parts and cobbled it all together myself. This time it was just me sitting and playing acoustic guitar and I had other people doing everything else. It was amazing having so many people involved and the album's so much better because of that. Also, Iain pushed me quite a lot to get the best performances and that really improved my abilities as a performer."

As a writer, Andrew tackles a range of thorny issues in his songs. On the latest album, the bitingly confessional "A Bad Friend" stands out as a prime example and sees Andrew admit to a whole host of attitudes and actions that have put friendships at risk. Due to the sensitive nature of the song itself, Andrew is understandably reticent about its origins. "I won't answer how the song came about directly but I was walking back from work one day and I just kept thinking about the way I'd treated people in the past and how insensitive I'd been in my youth. I kept thinking of event after event in my mind and got that cringe feeling. These regrets came from years ago but I thought that writing a song was one way for me to deal with them."

I ask Andrew if he ever considered not putting "A Bad Friend" on the album to avoid leaving himself open to judgment. "No, the bad stuff we do is there. In fact, lack of honesty is a bit of a bugbear for me," he explains. "What's the point in being anything else but honest? Sometimes we pretend things are okay when they're not and I try to fight that."

With this in mind, I wonder how important it is for Andrew to reflect his own faith in his songs. "I'm a Christian and I'm very grateful for having been brought up in a church environment and in a Christian family but I don't feel the need to shout about it," he reflects. "As I've said, honesty is important to me and, if I'm honest and I'm expressing myself well, my beliefs will just come out naturally. I'm not the evangelistic type - I'm just not that kind of person - but you'll find God somewhere in pretty much every song of mine. He's an important part of my life and what I believe is going to come out in my work. Having said that, the last thing I want is for people to think I'm twisting things to shove God down their throats. Primarily, the idea of someone else enjoying my music is great. If the music can serve any other bigger purpose then great, but I don't want that to be the overriding priority."

Over the years, an increasing number of people have certainly enjoyed Calamateur's music. I ask Andrew how it all began. "Mark Russell (from Oldsolar) had gear like samplers and drum machines whilst I just had a bass guitar," admits Andrew. "Mark went away to the States for three weeks and suggested that I stay in his flat and use his equipment. I'd been writing songs for years so I recorded about five songs onto his old reel to reel eight track. 'White Light Unknown' and 'Inhabit' were two of them and a few months later I got them made into a big thick slab of seven inch vinyl and that was the first thing that came out. 'White Light Unknown' has been great for me - a lot of people really like it."

One of the admirers of his debut release was the late music luminary John Peel who featured Calamateur on several occasions on his Radio 1 show. "I'd sent the single off to a few folk including John Peel," recalls Andrew. "I remember staying up late one night with the radio on just on the off chance that he might play it and he did! It was an amazing feeling to think that someone like John Peel thought that something of mine was worth listening to and playing. It was a big confidence boost for me."

Keen to keep things fresh, Andrew has maintained a healthy experimental edge to his work. "I love music and I don't ever want to get stuck in a rut - musically or in life," he advises. "I love all genres - singer/songwriters, post rock, electronica - and it just all comes out in my material. It's probably not done me a huge amount of favours commercially when I bring something out that's completely different to the last thing but hopefully it attracts a few people as well."

One of his most experimental projects remains the 'Autocity' EP which saw Andrew push the barriers in terms of content and musicianship. Andrew explains the thinking behind this release: "I'd been reading a lot about cars and there was a documentary on Channel Four about how dangerous cars were - some of the dialogue from the programme is on the actual recording - and the project was partly inspired by the 1974 Australian film The Cars That Ate Paris. It came from those things and it's certainly the oddest thing I've ever done but I'm still really happy with it. It was played on the Radio 3 Late Junction programme and, because the songs are so long, I got a really nice big royalty cheque just from one play!"

In the midst of his prolific recorded work, Andrew admits that it took him a while to start performing his material in front of a live audience. "I think nerves and a lack of confidence had a lot to do with it," confesses Andrew. "I love recording because I can shut myself away and it's one of my most favourite things to do in life. I have a love/hate relationship with playing live but it's great to play places like Greenbelt because I feel very much at home there. I feel much more comfortable playing in front of an audience now because I've stopped being afraid of it and have learnt to relax when I'm on stage. I'm really interested in the whole living room gig idea too and would love to start doing appearances like that."

Aside from performing in intimate venues, Andrew has plans to keep making music. "I've got a lot of ideas in mind but none are set in stone," he explains. "I've probably written about 30 new songs over the last couple of years. I like the idea of repeating the process of working with Iain Hutchinson and doing another album along the same lines as 'Each Dirty Letter'."

Finally, Andrew admits that his creativity poses a welcome problem. "I've just got to figure out which songs should be left out!" CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Lins Honeyman
Lins HoneymanLins Honeyman is a Perthshire-based singer/songwriter and currently presents The Gospel Blues Train on Cross Rhythms Radio on Saturday nights from 11pm and on Listen Again.


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