Tom Lennie quizzed the much praised singer/songwriter STEPH MACLEOD
Scottish singer/songwriter Steph Macleod seemed to explode onto the scene from nowhere with a hugely powerful solo album 'Light In The Darkest Of Nights' and a series of breathtaking gigs in and around Edinburgh. Steph's individualistic style of bluesy folk music, at times in striking acoustic format, other times with full rock attitude, has been winning over the hearts and minds of virtually everyone who have given the guy a hearing. The strength of applause to his music has left him feeling overwhelmed, because as he remarked, he's surprised that something he has felt called to do is actually doing well, for, in his own words, "nothing much has ever worked out in the past due to the problems I had." To understand more about what those problems were, and to find out more about the man and his music, I caught up with this most impressive songsmith.
Tom: Tell me a bit about yourself.
Steph: I found myself homeless and begging for money in Edinburgh at the age of 25. It hadn't always been like that. I had studied classical guitar at music college and University, I had travelled the world and enjoyed, for the most part, a happy family life. I gave my life to Christ when I was a young teenager and I loved everything to do with Jesus and the Christian walk. Unfortunately my parents separated when I was 15. There was a lot of surrounding circumstances that really made the separation difficult for me at the time. We lost the house we lived in and my Dad and I moved to a new home in a different part of Midlothian, Scotland. In my own naivety I thought bad things didn't happen to Christians. I didn't understand why the life I loved was taken away from me. I thought I was being punished. I lashed out at the thing I loved the most. I lashed out at God. It wasn't that I didn't believe, I just didn't want to know. I couldn't understand why the guys at school, the trouble makers who spent their weekends drinking and fighting, were having it so good while I, a devout Christian, was having such a terrible time. Within a year I was out drinking and taking drugs at Edinburgh's underground dance scene. Soon after, I got involved with drug dealers and gangsters. I was the fresh faced kid who could bash out a tune or two on the guitar or piano at the after club parties. I'd leave these parties in the morning and go straight to school reeking of alcohol. I thought I was above everyone in my year because they had pathetic stories about getting served in bars. I was doing class A drugs with notorious criminals. To keep a long story short, I lost a lot of friends at school because I was arrogant, selfish and already had been consumed by the hedonistic lifestyle.
I was very gifted at music and was offered a place at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) to study classical guitar and piano. It was my ticket out of Edinburgh. All I wanted to do was party. For three years I did until the inevitable happened and I was asked to leave because I didn't work or study. I managed to finish my degree at Reading University but it was a poor grade. I was drunk in my exams. Having returned home to Edinburgh I found that all the baggage from my teenage misfortunes were still there. I left the UK and travelled to Thailand where I taught English for awhile. After six months I lost my job and I began to drink huge amounts of alcohol. I was drinking at least three bottles of Thai whiskey a day. My Mother had to come and get me as I had lost four stone in weight and had a breakdown. When I got back to the UK I tried to get off the booze with the help of the doctors and medication. It didn't work and I became a self destructive person. I didn't want to stop drinking or taking drugs so I left home and became homeless where I could feed my habit in peace. It was destroying my family. But because of my fragile mental state I was banned from pretty much every B&B hostel in Edinburgh because I was so aggressive when drunk. I got into trouble with the police for the first time and ended up with a criminal record. I ended up sleeping on the streets, under bridges and in stair closes as no hostel would have me. I would wake up every other day in hospital because I had drunk myself into blackout and ended up unconscious somewhere. My blood pressure was through the roof and I was very near to death. I was 25.
Tom: So what happened?
Steph: This was also about the time I realised I was in serious trouble. My brain wouldn't function normally unless I had alcohol in my system. I couldn't write no matter how hard I tried. I was having pains all around my body. Alcohol withdrawals were the scariest thing I had ever endured. I had to fight them off daily with more alcohol. I had to beg to get the money to get the alcohol. I was so cold. I was cold to the core. Not even warm baths or sleeping on someone's couch heated me up. This is what happens when you've been on the streets awhile. I knew I was going to die if I didn't stop drinking. The trouble was, I couldn't. The alcohol withdrawals and my mental state meant I couldn't cope without the alcohol. By chance, I found a poster at my Doctor's with various addiction services and numbers on it. One that I hadn't tried was the Bethany Christian Centre. I gave them a call. I got interviewed and in two weeks I was given a bed at this 17 bed homeless hostel for men with addiction problems. They had a 15 week course that worked through addiction. It was very like the 12 step programme associated with Alcoholics Anonymous. Bethany's programme was a biblical approach to the 12 step programme. I was like, "Yeah, I'm a Christian," in the most patronising manner. Anyway, Bethany changed my life! They helped me deal with the reasons for drinking, my parents' separation, gave me new coping mechanisms for my depression and helped me to build bridges with my family. I retrained at college in Multimedia and I had a life ready to start when I left the centre after eight months.
One very important thing happened to me during my time at the Bethany Centre. I came back to the Lord. It is the main reason I am alive today. I knew God would forgive me. I knew he knew how sorry I was, but I couldn't forgive myself. I was so ashamed, so angry with myself. I had become the thing that stopped me from having a relationship with God. One evening I went to a night of testimony at a hotel in Perth. There was a free meal, and as I had only recently started eating again and the fact I loved my food, I was attending! The speaker that night was a pastor. He had an unbelievable testimony. He had been in prison. It was here he gave his life to Christ and he was one of the first people to be involved with the Prison Fellowship. I couldn't take my eyes off this man. I was engrossed in his story and the power of God's saving grace. All thoughts of food and hunger had been vanquished. Suddenly I felt something that I had not felt in a very long time. A decade to be precise. I knew what it was instantly. It was the Holy Spirit. I would like to point out that I have always been a bit of a sceptic when it comes to the supernatural side of Christianity. I must confess I am a bit of a doubting Thomas. But I would count myself an honest man, and I can only say that when I felt the presence of God that night, it wasn't my imagination, it wasn't something I had made up to feel like part of the crowd, it was very, very real. I was overcome! It moved me in a way I had never felt before.
Tom: So how did this encounter with God affect you and the way you were living?
Steph: The first thing I noticed was how light I suddenly felt. For 10 years I had been carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. It was gone. Just like that! My heart, mind and soul had been tortured for 10 long years. I now had peace. Not just peace and quiet, but an absolute peace that left me speechless for the rest of the night. It was as if I had turned my back on Jesus when I was 15 and started to walk away from him, and then when I was 25 I stopped, turned round to see how far away he was, and he was right there beside me. He had been with me all the way. There were so many times I could have died or been seriously hurt. I know now that God had been there the whole time. That night I prayed for the first time in a very, very long time. I asked for forgiveness. I asked for healing. I asked God to lead me out of the darkness which I had been walking in for 10 years. I found hope. I found Jesus.
The following weekend I went to the local church. I was so nervous
that I remember I was shaking. The night at the church had been
dedicated to prayer and healing. I thought, You really can't make this
up! I was prayed for and I can honestly say that I have not touched,
craved or have given serious thought to drinking anything alcoholic
since. I have been sober since February 13th, 2006. There was one more
thing that happened while I stayed at Bethany. I picked up a guitar
for the first time in years. But this time it was an acoustic guitar.
I started to write songs about drinking, addiction, homelessness and
recovery. I started to sing. I had never sung or written songs before.
God had given me music to use as a tool in my recovery. I recorded six
tracks at a local studio and put the songs on MySpace. The response I
received was overwhelming, especially from people who also had
recovery stories. I became a member of a local church. It was here I
met my wife and her seven year old son. I have gone on to record my
own album of music about my walk of faith during these last four
years. In January my wife gave birth to our baby daughter. We called
her Seraphim. She is my angel and little miracle. I still can't
believe it. The last four years have been the best of my life. There
have been trials and hard times, but God has always been at the centre
of everything. I love Jesus! He gave me my life again. He broke my
chains. He comforted me when I was alone. He saved me from darkness.
He put the fire of life back into my heart. Every breath I breathe is
Tom: Were you aware of your songwriting gift prior to your becoming homeless?
Steph: I did play the guitar prior to being homeless. I studied classical guitar at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD). Unfortunately I had to leave after three years as studying was not on my list of priorities. I was lost in my alcohol and drug addiction. I composed for guitar and piano. I wasn't interested in songs at that time as most of the guitar music that accompanied them were basic chords. I was a technique freak and a bit of a purist so it was guitar all the way. I did dabble with jazz and blues though. I never wrote any form of song before I was homeless.
Tom: What was the first song you wrote?
Steph: The first song I wrote was called "Alcoholic Synonymous". It was about the daily routine of getting alcohol, drinking alcohol and eventually finding despair because of alcohol. I wrote it the first fortnight I was in the Bethany Centre.
Tom: I first heard you play the song "Hallelujah" at a Praise Night in Edinburgh's Usher Hall in the autumn of 2009, which Origin Scotland's Exile band and choir led. What is your connection to the Exile Band?
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