Track by track guide...

Long in the shadow of its West Coast cousin, Edinburgh's music scene burst into life recently.

Auld Reekie seemed to be crawling with young songwriters, fusing Scotland's folk sensibility with something very modern. The initial wave of talent is beginning to recede, but it seems that those left behind are glistening even brighter.

Now based in Oxford, Rob St John recently completed work on his new album. 'Weald' is centred on a bedroom aesthetic, crafted by one man and his acoustic guitar, but the finished result has some lush, orchestral flourishes.

Rob St John's most accomplished document to date, 'Weald' is tender yet sparse, modern yet timeless. Out now on Edinburgh based label Song, By Toad the album is set to bring the songwriter's music to a much larger audience.

Tracking down Rob St John, the artist agreed to give ClashMusic a track by track guide to his new album.

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Your Phantom Limb
The first song recorded for the LP, over a couple of days in December 2010. Long time pal and collaborator Ian Humberstone (of Tissø Lake, and who’s ‘House on the Hill’ ended up on the other side of the single split 7) had a free house so I decamped for a few days to the Cambridgeshire countryside, the freezing fog creeping under his kitchen door and around our waveringly tuneful instruments. All analogue this one, I had to be careful not to get carried away with the heavy dub possibilities offered by Ian’s tape delay unit. Ian played the snare drum with his fingertips, possibly as a means of keeping them warm.

Rob St John "Your Phantom Limb" from rob st john on Vimeo.

Sargasso Sea
I’ve a reputation amongst collaborators and co-conspirators in Edinburgh for wrecking guitars with obtuse tunings. This is perhaps the worst offender. Bloody tricky to pull off live, it’s played in a guitar down-tuned to Sunn O))) proportions and capo-ed high up the neck. For non-guitarists (like me), this is a recipe for reluctant guitars straining themselves out of tune. I’m really pleased with the cracked choral harmonies of Brendon Massai, Neil Pennycook and Tom Western sailing high over the chorus.  This song was written after reading descriptions of flying sun-blind over the light-flared ocean in the 1931 novel Night Flight by French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The Sargasso Sea is a still, eerie region of the Western Atlantic Ocean, a dead eddy held by curling oceanic currents. A song of frustration and (possible) redemption.

Rob St.John 'Sargasso Sea' from rob st john on Vimeo.

Vanishing Points
Weald was mostly recorded with Neil Pennycook (who fronts Meursault) over two days in the high-ceilinged living room of Matthew Young’s (who runs Song, by Toad) Victorian house in North Edinburgh during a dreich February 2011. Vanishing Points came together very quickly (perhaps out of necessity), when Louise Martin came to overdub the musical saw and I found a harmonium-stopped drone. Working this fast sent Neil and I slightly mad, in a shutter-drawn room lit by a glitter ball, talking in invented language. We got there in the end. I wrote this song whilst trying to teach myself to use (still trying) a 1930s box camera, hence the (over)use of photographic language. A song of finality and acceptance.

The Acid Test
I grew up in a tiny, bleak valley between the hills and the half-derelict factories of East Lancashire. I’m fascinated by the shifting communities here, the stories of witch trials, the half-neglected anti-pastoral countryside, driven past on a motorway to somewhere else: the ‘darkened rooms and deserted villages’. ‘Weald’ is a fascinating word, emerging out of Teutonic language to form a whole host of words meaning ‘wild’, ‘wooded’ and ‘dangerous’. Ironically, perhaps, it’s now morphed into a description of the most manicured and middle-Englander parts of our country, which made it a pretty apt word to sum up the LP’s themes.

I’m interested in the communal aspects of group singing, - as on this song - and recently became interested in rough music (or ran-tanning) - where a chorus of villagers would ostracise a criminal or wrongdoer with a loud, primal chant and the clatter of saucepans, drums and cymbals. Bill Drummond’s 17 project, where a rotating cast of 17 amateur singers were assembled to sing compositions based on ideas such as the tones and harmonies made by the machinery of a rusting, whirring old Land Rover driven from Hull to Liverpool, is similarly inspiring. That rediscovery of remaining a happy amateur and emphasising something crafted and communal, rather than necessarily forged from high art (I’m talking about myself, not my band of talented musicians…ahem), is an idea that resonates with me.

Stainforth Force
Stainforth Force is a series of waterfalls on the upper River Ribble near the Lancashire-Yorkshire border. In summer, children swing off increasingly frayed ropes into the peat-stained plunge pools or ‘pots’. In the autumn, you can sit and watch salmon scrabble up through the foaming water towards their spawning grounds. The song is about parentage, patronage and renewal. It ebbs and eddies on a bed of hydrophone recordings by Patrick Farmer from underneath the waterfall, gradually submerging under the drone of a harmonium and a buddha box held up to a delayed guitar’s pickups. I especially like Malcolm’s oscillating Warren Ellis-esque fiddle on this one.

‘Like a pre-war work song played by Earth’ is how a friend described this. I’ll leave it at that, except to say that we overdubbed swathes of distortion and field recordings onto the initial recording in an effort to make it heavier, only to remove them in the mix, leaving a version that sounds much more menacing and sinister. Owen’s drums sound huge.

Emma’s Dance
An instrumental, a ‘dance’ in its archaic, folk meaning (although I would like to hear a donk remix of this, if at all possible). When I first moved from Lancashire to Edinburgh in 2004, I became firm friends with Pablo Clark, who plays as My Kappa Roots. We used to sit up until the dawn, putting the world to rights under a cloud of cheap beer, and contested who would be “Bert” and who would be “John”. This song’s a nod to that time, and to the person who encouraged me to start playing guitar this way again.

An Empty House
I’m always struck by the histories, stories and emotions tied up in empty houses, whether arriving or leaving, whether yours or another’s. Empty floorboards creaking potential, hollow acoustics echoing through. This started off on the electric guitar, with a vaguely Phil Spector-ish rhythm (it was a phase I was in...), before being slowed and stripped to the fragile, haunted thing it became on the LP. Sometimes even I have to will it to the end (and I should know that it will…). Seb Reynolds overdubbed the grand piano in the 13th century St.Michael’s on the Northgate church in Oxford, at around 7am on a summer’s morning. It was the only time of day that we could use the church, and the reversing notes of delivery lorries outside on the wakening street became louder and louder as we went on, barging their way into the background of this recording. The final few moments are of a dog barking in the rain-soaked Edinburgh street outside and the echoing clasp of the harmonium (and the record) closing in.

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'Weald' is out now.

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