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Scotland Bard: Stuart Murdoch Finds Inspiration in Glasgow, Girl Groups and God

July 1, 2009  |  10:00am
Scotland Bard: Stuart Murdoch Finds Inspiration in Glasgow, Girl Groups and God
{I}

On the day before St. Patrick’s Day 2005, a young Irishwoman named Catherine Ireton auditioned for a singing role on the soundtrack to a movie that didn’t yet exist.
The film was to be called God Help The Girl, and the man behind the project was Stuart Murdoch, founder of Scottish chamber-pop ensemble Belle and Sebastian. Murdoch had, in his decade-long career, written songs about white-collar crime, middle-aged sex, martial artists, track stars, cyclists, priests, bookworms and awkward teenagers. The cover of his band’s first album depicted a woman breast-feeding a stuffed tiger. By his standards, a phantom soundtrack wasn’t especially odd.

Murdoch had been auditioning women for months. To find them, he’d placed an ad in a Glasgow newspaper: “Girl singer needed for autumnal recording project. Must have a way with a tune.” The ad never mentioned Murdoch’s name, but it did affectionately reference The Ronettes and suggest that wannabe Celine Dions “save your breath.”

In Belle and Sebastian, Murdoch composed melodic rock songs that unfolded like one-act plays, miniature comedies and tragedies punctuated by strings and brass. For God Help The Girl, a musical about post-adolescent soul searching, he would combine the luxury of orchestral arrangements with the shoo-bopping, eyelash-batting sensibility of 1960s girl groups. His idea was to make the soundtrack first and shoot the film later. But after a dozen auditions, he still hadn’t cast the lead voice, the part of Eve, a budding singer/songwriter.

So he turned to Ireton, who sang smoky vocals in a pop band called Elephant. Ireton had a musical-theater background, so she knew how to sing in character; at her all-girls high school, she had played the role of Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar, then turned around the following year and portrayed Mary Magdalene. At the time of her audition for Murdoch, she was a college senior who kept busy directing one play while starring in another, and she knew almost nothing about God Help The Girl. The project was, at that point, still percolating in Murdoch’s head, and he hadn’t bothered explaining it to her in advance. All Ireton knew was that she had a chance to sing for the frontman of Belle and Sebastian. So on that particular grey afternoon in March, having flown over from Dublin, she walked through the fringe of Glasgow's West End and down a busted cobblestone path to the band’s two-story headquarters, a ramshackle building with a corrugated roof and a constituency of stray cats. She climbed the stairs, sat on a couch and waited for her big moment while sipping tea from a Belle and Sebastian mug.

Murdoch arrived, shook Ireton’s hand and showed her to a cozy rehearsal space halfway below street level. Several of his bandmates were there, too, and Ireton momentarily swooned. “Belle and Sebastian,” she remembers thinking. “Here I am!”

Murdoch is not conventionally famous, but he inspires feverish devotion from his followers. His fans are more like acolytes. He’s a well-known fixture in Glasgow, so it’s not at all unusual for admirers to show up and try to make his acquaintance. One American fellow, for example, tattooed Murdoch’s lyrics on his arm and moved to town long enough to befriend the singer before eventually being deported. Ireton hadn’t reached that point, but Murdoch was the first person she’d ever met who’d successfully made a living through music. That counted for something.

He asked her to sing two songs: the dreamy title cut from God Help The Girl and a leisurely Belle and Sebastian kiss-off called “Dress Up In You.” Ireton didn’t think she was particularly nervous. But when she went back and listened to the audition tape, she noticed her voice was trembling.

Still, Murdoch was impressed. Despite her nerves, Ireton sang with deadly accuracy. And when Murdoch asked her to make her voice less folky, she did just that, which meant she could take direction—an important trait for whoever was tasked with singing his songs. After the rehearsal ended, Murdoch took Ireton on a walk through nearby Kelvingrove Park and casually mentioned that he’d like her to return to Glasgow for another recording session. Ireton agreed to return. Six months later, she moved to Scotland.

{II}

On a brilliant spring afternoon, Murdoch is out for a drive in his little black hatchback. He’s 40 years old with a ruddy face and a toothy grin. His eyes and hair are matching copper. He has the mind of a grad student and the coiled energy of a jock. He’s dapper, favoring snug sweaters and coats that drape off of his figure. He often sports a vintage fedora. Today he’s wearing sneakers, frayed jeans, a denim jacket, a stubbly beard and chunky sunglasses. His wife, American photographer Marisa Privitera, sits in the passenger seat applying makeup. Privitera and Murdoch married in New York in 2007. She’s currently shooting a documentary about the soundtrack to the film that still does not exist. She intends to keep filming until her husband’s picture begins production, tentatively next summer. God Help The Girl will be set in Glasgow, just as most Belle and Sebastian songs are set in Glasgow. Despite its reputation as a scruffy cousin to princely Edinburgh, the city is Murdoch’s muse, conversational lubricant and songwriting fountainhead.

Murdoch stops the hatchback near a train station and Ireton slides into the back seat. Four years have passed since her audition. In that time, she’s become close friends with Privitera and, officially, the voice of Eve. Just last night, she received her very own advance copy of the movie soundtrack. She carried it home, bought a good bottle of wine, turned out the lights, sat on the floor with her boyfriend and, at last, listened.

In its finished form, the album is a plush symphonic suite written mostly by Murdoch and sung mostly by women: There’s Ireton, of course, and also Dina Bankole and Brittany Stallings, singers Muroch found through the online music service Imeem. German graphic design student Alex Klobouk contributes background vocals on a track called “Perfection As A Hipster.” Celia Garcia, who responded to Murdoch's newspaper ad, performs on loping album closer “A Down and Dusky Blonde,” which also features Asya, the guileless singer from teenaged Seattle duo Smoosh. All seven members of Belle and Sebastian play on the record, too—making it less of a solo record and more of a side project that could just as easily be called The Softer Side Of Belle and Sebastian. With sweeping arrangements that recall vintage Burt Bacharach, God Help The Girl is the musical equivalent of a long, lovelorn sigh.

Murdoch steers his car toward the outskirts of town. He’s headed to the countryside, a Saturday tradition. With Glasgow receding from view, he pulls around a curve, and the city’s low-slung skyline appears in panorama. On the scale of inspirational urban vistas, this one ranks fairly low. The city’s once-mighty shipbuilding industry is long gone, along with much of Glasgow’s architectural charm—so much of the historic city has been demolished that an entire book, Lost Glasgow, is devoted to its former glories. And yet, landmarks from Murdoch’s career endure. “There’s Stow,” he says, and below us in an industrial building is Stow College, the school that sponsored and released Belle and Sebastian’s debut album, Tigermilk, back in 1996. “There’s St. Teresa’s church,” the setting for the title track of the band’s second album, If You’re Feeling Sinister, a folk-pop classic Murdoch wrote while wandering town. Off to the left, Murdoch points out a canal that figures into the plot of God Help The Girl. To tour greater Glasgow with Stuart Murdoch is to see his catalog in three dimensions.

We breeze by a whiskey distillery, wind through tiny villages and drive past rolling pastures of grazing sheep. Murdoch parks on the banks of Loch Lomond, about an hour outside of town, and everyone gets out to stroll alongside the harborfront. Privitera stops for ice cream. A gentleman walks by in a tuxedo jacket and a kilt. “My love for my particular city,” Murdoch says, “goes beyond a reasonable sentiment for a lump of concrete in the middle of the Highlands.”

Murdoch was born in Glasgow in 1968, the middle child of a maritime engineer and a midwife. He spent most of his childhood in the coastal historic county of Ayrshire—the
18th-century home of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet—before leaving in his late teens to study physics at the University of Glasgow. “I didn’t really know what I was doing when I was 16,” he says. “I just wanted to get out of Ayr.” In the city, Murdoch’s obsession with music was unabashed. He was the kind of college DJ who would play a song, run out on the floor to dance, and skip to the next track via remote control. He tried to dye his hair silver to look like ’60s-era Sinatra, only to have it turn out blue. He once hitchhiked to London to see obscure indie-rock band Felt, and he interviewed Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore for a nonexistent fanzine, tape-recording their conversation with a giant boom box. “I was shit,” Murdoch says. “I couldn’t think of any good questions. The first question I asked Thurston Moore, he yawned. He literally yawned in my face.”

In his early 20s, Murdoch began to suffer from chronic-fatigue disorder, which stalled his life for seven years. He’d always been athletic, even running a marathon, but his illness left him sidelined, literally and figuratively, to the point that he couldn’t work, play sports or summon the strength for much of anything. Sapped of energy, he moved back in with his parents and stewed. “There was nothing I could do but listen and watch and daydream,” he once told me. “So you’d be imagining interesting scenarios, inventing people, inventing characters you would want to meet—because you would never meet them.”

He joined a support group. He meditated. In time, he regained his strength, wrote songs and formed Belle and Sebastian, a ragtag group of musicians that eventually congealed into a tight, ambitious and influential band. Murdoch, who couldn’t write songs at all before his illness, was suddenly inspired. He sang in clear tones—with a choirboy’s voice—and he used Belle and Sebastian as a vehicle for stories about lost souls and lonely hearts. The people he wrote about were peculiar and frustrated, crippled emotionally the way he’d been crippled physically. His tunes, especially his earliest, were almost unbearably fragile and characterized by anachronistic earnestness. “Nobody writes ’em like they used to,” he sang, “so it may as well be me.” Glasgow, with its failed dockyards and busted cobblestones, was his setting. Its citizens were his characters. Here was a misfit town full of misfit boys and girls. Ayrshire had Robert Burns; Glasgow got Stuart Murdoch.

We hike up a hill to an overlook, with the massive lake spread out below. In a little while, we’ll all climb down to the shoreline and skip stones across the cool, clear water. Ireton and Privitera will wade in, and Murdoch will stay on shore reciting a list of great Scottish inventions (the telephone, the television, tarmac). For now, everyone relaxes on the mossy hilltop, taking in the view. We can see sailboats on the horizon and cliffs through the distant mist. The lake is shimmering. “I think it’s the biggest inland body of water in the British Isles,” Murdoch says. “It goes up north and gets quite narrow. I think it has something like 44 islands in it.”

At the overlook, Murdoch tells me the story of Hyndland Parish Church, his place of worship, which has attained mythical status to Belle and Sebastian fans. As a fledgling musician, Murdoch lived in the church caretaker's suite, performing odd jobs in exchange for free rent; the church has been a tourist destination ever since. “I just started going to the church randomly,” he says. “I think because I was a young person, they wanted to catch me. They put me in the choir before I knew what the hell was going on.”

Murdoch remains devout, rarely making a major decision without prayer, but he’s since moved out of the church hall and into a West End home with hardwood floors and a bay window looking onto a row of cherry blossom trees. He still sings in the church choir and leads the youth group, and his old sleeping quarters are now occupied by a Belle and Sebastian fan who moved to Glasgow after meeting Murdoch at a show in Toronto. Apparently, Murdoch told her after the concert that she should let him know if she ever needed any help, and then one day she showed up in town and said, “Here I am.” A lot of artists might consider this grounds for a restraining order. Murdoch gave the girl furniture.

When Murdoch started Belle and Sebastian, he wrote songs for daydreamers and eccentrics, the sort of music fans who’d do anything for a human connection, the sort of fans who needed a voice on the radio to make them feel like they weren’t alone. He could relate to fans like this. Not so long ago, he was a fan like this.

Privitera is patient with the artist/fan dynamic, but she worries about her husband. “I’m just more strict than you because I’m scared of the John Lennon scenario, and you’re not,” she tells him. “The John Lennon scenario,” Murdoch scoffs, considering the sensitive souls that listen to his music. “What’s somebody going to do, beat me to death with their knitting needles?”

{III}

On a blustery Sunday morning, Murdoch strides into Hyndland Parish wearing a seamless black overcoat, then disappears through a side door into the vestry. The congregation numbers about 100, maybe less—mostly senior citizens. The church, which takes up most of a suburban block, certainly has room to spare. It’s a sandstone structure, rusty in color, with an alabaster pulpit. As the service begins, everyone rises as a Bible is presented. An organist plays. The ceiling is vaulted into a dramatic arch, supported by great wooden beams. Light filters through stained glass.

The service commences, and Murdoch enters the sanctuary in a single-file line with the rest of the choristers, all of whom are draped in burgundy robes. The choir sits in two short pews by the altar, with Murdoch posted on the end closest to the congregation, presumably so that he can be better heard. And yet, when it’s time to lead the congregants in hymns, his tenor becomes just another voice in the choir, blending with everyone else’s and rising to the rafters in a mass reverberation.

The minister is Craig Lancaster, a puckish Scotsman with a buzzed haircut, protruding ears and an air of exuberance. He’s only the ninth reverend at Hyndland Parish since 1878, and he infuses the place with energy. After the gathering prayer, he charges into the pews and distributes fish sticks—known in Scotland as “fish fingers”—as a kind of visual aid to the day’s reading, Luke 24: 36-48, which describes Jesus visiting his disciples after the resurrection. The disciples were afraid at first, the reading says, and Jesus wanted to put them at ease. So he requested a snack, and the disciples produced a piece of broiled fish, which he ate before their astonished eyes.

Lancaster finds the passage deeply resonant. He says it illustrates Christ’s humanity. It suggests that Jesus is earthly as well as divine, that he eats just as his disciples eat, that he is human as they are human, that he lives not above his admirers, but amongst them.

{IV}

After church, Murdoch meets me in the domed greenhouse at the Botanic Gardens near his house. He used to come here to write during the winter, he says, since it was the warmest spot he could find. Today the rotunda is teeming with people, and we decide to go somewhere quieter. On our way out, we pass a marble statue of a woman with waves of hair cascading down her back. She’s mostly nude, covered only by leaves. A rectangular sign bears her name: Eve.

We walk across the street to an anonymous hotel, a spot where a younger Murdoch took refuge from the city while pretending to be a guest. He buys us whiskeys and sits by a window. One of Privitera’s girlfriends passes by, and Murdoch points her out amidst the bustling streetlife. I tell him I’m impressed by the number of places I’ve seen around town that have wound up in his songs over the years. He laughs nervously. “There’s many, many more known only to me.”

Fellow countrymen recognize Murdoch’s ambassadorship for his hometown. At one point while working on this story, I call Scott Hutchison, who sings in Scottish indie-rock band Frightened Rabbit, and who first heard Belle and Sebastian’s music drifting across the room while he was a student in high-school art class. “I grew up in a small town and moved to Glasgow,” Hutchison says, “and one of the things that first dawned on me when I first got there was Belle and Sebastian’s back catalog. And it’s an important thing to happen, as well: You move to a city, and then you hear the music of that city.” Since then, even while touring with his own band, Hutchison has noted the long shadow cast by Murdoch and Belle and Sebastian. “Especially for a lot of people in the U.S.A., it’s the absolute classic Scottish band,” he says. “And he’s the classic Scottish guy.”

Murdoch is also a champion of Glaswegian music. Sunday night, he and the rest of the city’s music community descend on Barrowland Ballroom—a 1,900-capacity venue in a sketchy part of town—for a homecoming gig by beloved local band Camera Obscura. Vaselines frontman Eugene Kelly is there; so is longtime DJ and scenester Tam Coyle, and also Francis Macdonald, who manages Camera Obscura and drums for Teenage Fanclub. Belle and Sebastian guitarist Stevie Jackson watches the show wearing a velvet suit and black glasses, looking like a young Elvis Costello. Keyboardist Chris Geddes works the merchandise table downstairs with his girlfriend, Fiona Morrison, who also handles merch orders for Belle and Sebastian.

Murdoch stands off to one side. He has personal attachments to Camera Obscura, having produced their early single “Eighties Fan” and photographed their second album cover. Before meeting Privitera, he dated the band’s lead singer, Tracyanne Campbell. He still clearly loves the band’s style. Camera Obscura started out as a shambling twee-pop collective, but the musicians have grown in confidence. Tonight, they incorporate two percussionists, plus string and horn sections. They make cinematic, wistful pop music with female vocals and an orchestral flourish—which is another way of saying they’ve followed in Murdoch’s footsteps.

Murdoch watches the show intently. So intently, in fact, that he can tell who’s running the stage lights just by watching how they move. Murdoch knows the lighting guy. He knows everyone in this town.

As the show goes on, I notice that Murdoch is standing a few feet away from the people around him, as though surrounded by a force field. It’s a strange dynamic: He’s in the crowd, but also alone. A mentor, but also a fan. If his band hadn’t forged the path, Camera Obscura might not even exist. Everyone in the room would be somewhere else tonight. Murdoch has, arguably, created the entire scene around him.

Then again, the tenderhearted music fans here at the Barrowlands would exist with or without Belle and Sebastian. They’ve always existed. They’re the reason Murdoch started writing songs. So maybe he didn’t create this scene after all. Maybe it created him.

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