Sitting in a London cafe, Johnny Lynch almost struggles to push himself forward. Continually modest about his own achievements, the songwriter – who records under The Pictish Trail moniker – seems more at ease with discussing others than his own work.
It’s a burden he’s going to have to get used to. The Pictish Trail has journeyed to London in order to promote – no matter how reluctantly – his new album. The product of sessions on the remote Scottish island of Eigg, ‘Secret Soundz Vol. 2’ is by turns angry and redemptive, serious and throwaway, pithy and witty. It is, in short, his most cohesive, focussed work yet – and perhaps his best. As ever, though, the setting of the album is far from glamourous.
“Two caravans. Two!” he laughs. “Pretty good, though! They’re all fully plumbed; they’ve got electricity and high speed internet. It’s pretty good. Actually it’s faster on Eigg than it is on the mainland. I’ve been doing a lot of Skype meetings, now. That’s where it all happens, as opposed to going out to the pub and getting wrecked with someone”.
Shifting from the Fife village of Anstruther to Eigg, Johnny Lynch removed himself from the confines of the Fence collective. Responsible for introducing the world to such talents as King Creosote and KT Tunstall, Lynch has operated as the engine room, as the energy for the cottage industry. Focussing on multiple live events and the label itself, The Pictish Trail indulged himself by commencing the ‘100 Songs In 100 Days’ project. “I did this thing where I would write a song every day for 100 days. They’re all 30 seconds long. It did well – it sold out, I don’t have any more copies of that left. No plans for a re-press any time soon. I’ll wait until it fetches 800 quid on eBay or something before I start putting them out again.”
Begun almost as a joke, the irreverence of the project belies the effect it had on The Pictish Trail – both in terms of songwriting and production. “I think it’s made me know how to use my equipment a bit better and work with my equipment a bit better. My recording equipment and the actual instruments. I’ve never been taught to play any instrument, it’s all self-taught so doing that helped me learn how to program drum machines better, use different effects better and record vocals better. So that totally informed how this record came together”.
Acting as a launching pad for ‘Secret Soundz Vol. 2’ the project also supplied The Pictish Trail with a mountain of fresh material to pick through and expand. “There were sketches of songs from that 100 Days project which I had fleshed out; there’s about 20 songs on there which were going to be full songs. They’ll feature down the line, until I figure out exactly how I want them to sound” he explains. “There’s maybe another 30 or 50 songs that I’ve got from all the various CD-R releases and stuff which I had written and recorded as demos. I’m a total stickler for balance and how songs balance on a record. Particularly now that people are listening to vinyl, a lot more people are thinking of records in terms of two sides. This record is meant to mirror the first album but it’s also meant to mirror itself in terms of the two sides”.
Shifting from tension to resolution, light to dark, ‘Secret Soundz Vol. 2’ is born from a series of tumultuous events in Lynch’s own life. Relocating to Eigg brought with it a number of difficulties, before the songwriter’s mother sadly succumbed to cancer. Numbed, The Pictish Trail retreated to his island home for a period of reflection – a period which forms the crux of the new album. “When mum passed away, going over to the island totally cleared my brain” he says slowly. “It was a really good time to just clear my head and come to terms with what had happened a little bit. It took a long time. I think these things do. About six months afterwards it really hit home – just the thought of what had happened. Out of that I had so little distractions being up there, I was with my girlfriend in a place which was very self contained – being in the caravan most of the time surrounded by all my equipment. I found a way of writing these things which just managed to express the emotion that I felt about what was happening”.
“I’m glad as the core of the record really is the newer songs, the ones which I’d most recently written at the time of recording. Songs like ‘Michael Rocket’, ‘Wait Until’ and ‘The Handstand Crowd’ especially; those three songs are the ones that really encapsulate the relief of knowing how you feel about a situation” he explains. “They’re songs which sound – when I listen back to them – like I’m exhausted. They’re kind of a sigh of relief, a little bit. That’s why I was trying to encapsulate. They’re definitely the saddest things I’ve written until that point. On the record I was trying to bring out those quite happy instruments, some rocky tunes and then I wanted the middle of the record to have that quite solitary part”.
The play off between the need for community and the requirement of solitude is something which runs through the new album. As Johnny Lynch explains, though, it’s a contradiction which sits at the heart of virtually every project Fence have undertaken. “It’s a weird collective, in that it’s a collective predominantly of singer-songwriters who record on their own anyway. Or certainly write on their own” he says. “There’s a support system within a collective when it comes to putting an album out, helping to organise tours together and stuff. It’s always been a network of people who are very individual and who write intimate recordings. It’s always been about connecting with that artist as a person. We don’t really have that many bands on Fence and the ones we do tend to be quite happy. It’s just the solo artists that are miserable bastards!” he laughs.
‘Secret Soundz Vol. 2’ – despite it’s sometimes emotional, confessional nature – is not a morbid, melancholic record, however. Too complex to place in one mood, it’s production – courtesy of Sweet Baboo – allows the songs to breathe, creating a softly meditative atmosphere. “We did it over ten days in a cottage on Eigg. It was wicked” he enthuses. “We would get up dead early in the morning, fire all the equipment up and listen back to what we did the night before. We would put down guides for things and then just layer stuff up and muck around with the instruments and different songs. Then we’d stop for dinner and go back to it. It was a good diet, more than anything else. I lost like a stone in a week!”
Now able to focus on his own career, Johnny Lynch can’t help but refer back to Fence. Now an actual, proper, official record company the label are looking ahead to a year of new releases and an expanding series of live events. Shrugging his shoulders, the songwriter says simply: “It’s better to be busy and do a half arsed job with things than just do nothing!”
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'Secret Soundz Vol. 2' is set to be released on January 21st.