Interview: Blue Rose Code

On a brisk, Sunday mid-morning I found myself traversing through the streets of Bethnal Green trying to find the quaint, and bustling, atmosphere of the Gallery Cafe. It was there I met with indie-folk artist Ross Wilson, AKA Blue Rose Code, and discussed his past, his name, his new tour, the album and throwing mushrooms at James Yorkston’s head.

So what brought you down to London from Edinburgh?

I first moved to London about 10 years ago. I moved just to get away from Edinburgh really and had this irrepressible urge to remake who I was. I’d been down to London a couple of times when I was a child and just fell in love with the place. You know, it’s that Dick Whittington thing.

How is it playing with a new live band?

Yeah, well Blue Rose Code is more of a name for my music rather than me. I have a collective of people who I’m lucky enough to have belief in me and want to play with me. So generally in London I play with a fiddler and a female vocalist, and a banjo player who also plays lead guitar. If touring in Scotland I have a mandolin player and a keys player, who’ll hopefully be playing festivals with me as well.

Have you found with the new band behind you, your approach to songwriting has changed?

I don’t think I would say that, the way I do things is more visceral than cerebral. I just do it. I find it far more honest to approach it like that. The great pain of mine is that I can’t right politically charged lyrics about what’s going on today, I just find that ability is beyond me, perhaps, certainly in the sense there was in the 60s and 80s, that would be beyond songwriters today, that it has been stripped from us; we have a really interesting attitude, like we have been born with an instinct that makes us suspicious of people who are talking about it and who are engaged with social change.

Back in 2009, when you released ‘Love/Whitechapel’ you ended Blue Rose Code. What was the decision behind this?

I used to believe that great art comes from suffering and after moving to Bethnal Green and throwing myself into songwriting I just lost myself for a few years, actually, to substance abuse. That kind of came to a head when I started touring. I got into a fight in Glasgow, just silly behaviour that I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t been drinking and ended up throwing a mushroom at James Yorkston’s head. We were doing fairly high profile gigs, touring and we were going to move on to the next level and I just found myself incapable of doing it anymore. My two bandmates and I at the time instinctively felt that we had to get out of the East End, and we moved to Muswell Hill. There was a real change then, I felt that I had to stop drinking and sort my life out, but I woke up one morning and just looked at my guitar and felt that it represented everything that was really damaging me. Much to the chagrin of the label that had been very kind to me and really supportive, I couldn’t do it anymore, so I stopped playing. I didn’t pick up my guitar for maybe a year and a half.

Did you find it was something you couldn’t stay away from?

No, I got a job for a charity in the East End and sort of manically threw myself in to that, and then my partner and I went to stay with a friend in Williamsburg, New York last year and our friend had arranged a couple of gigs for me to play. I was reluctant but part of me wanted to go ahead and do it. I found it incredibly inspiring and I just fell in love with it all again, and by that stage I had stopped drinking. I had lost the ability to write new music, and you’ll hear any musician say once you have played your songs a number of times you just want to move on and play something else, and when you love playing and writing so much and you can’t write a new song, I just felt really worthless. But there was no pressure on me, no one expected me to come home and write an album, but that’s what I did. I spoke to some friends about perhaps playing some gigs in London, and it was an amazing experience when I started extending the olive branch to various promoters, they all seemed happy and encouraged that I had got my stuff together.

Are you happier with how your new material has come together, compared to the original EP?

I haven’t heard the mixes, but I have a really good feeling about how it’s going to sound. We did it over 4 days and I had 7 musicians there, including myself, from the four corners of Britain and Ireland. We had mandolin, keys, whistles, banjo, electric guitar, slide guitar, and I’m hoping we’ve recorded the album that I always wanted to record. With the previous releases I’ve felt there was an element that when it hasn’t been successful, I could blame other people. If I’m not successful with this record, then it’s entirely my fault, because I’ve made all the calls and it’s all my judgement, and I’m really happy with that. I’m confident.

You’ve shared the stage with Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, King Creosote, so who would you most like to play with if you had the chance?

I’d love to play with Eddi Reader. When I left Scotland, I resisted the whole notion of shortbread-tin nationalism, and because of my family situation I felt utterly rootless, but the longer I’ve been away from Scotland, the more interested I’ve become in my history. Living in London – I’m an immigrant, a Jockney as they call me – you’ve got people from everywhere in the world and they’re all so proud of where they come from, and the majority are also happy to be living in London. I’ve got that far, but it took me a long time to forgive Scotland after the relationship we had when I left. Eddie Reader was the beginning of my interest in traditional Scottish music, she did an album of Robert Burns’ poetry to song. She’s just an irrepressible, vibrant character who makes me proud to be Scottish.
That being said, I’m a massive Johnny Flynn fan. He’s a man who sets his own agenda. I saw him at the Shepherds Bush Empire a couple of years ago and him and his live band were unbelievable. A lot of people would view his career as not reaching the heights it ought to, but he has been part of that. Van Morrison too, but I probably would prefer not to meet Van Morrison. A friend of mine who produced my record recorded Van Morrison in the 90s. He’s the most gentle, lovely guy you’d ever wish to meet, and he had a week with Van Morrison, during which Van Morrison would refuse to refer to him by anything other than the moniker ‘mother-fucker’. So perhaps it’s best not to meet your heroes.

Is there a particular song of yours that is your favourite? Which do you most enjoy playing?

It changes all the time. When you write a new song, that’s the song you like the most. At the moment my favourite song of mine is called ‘Where the Westlin’ Winds Do Carry Me’, which is basically just about continuously letting myself down and being an alcoholic. A cheery number.

Did you have a musical upbringing?

Not at all. I brought myself up really. Music was a good reason to not go out and get a job, so that’s why I did it. I’ve always just felt moved to play music. I listened to a lot of stuff like Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley and all that stuff that I suppose my mother had in a record collection. I was just constantly digesting music from all corners. I picked up the guitar when I was about 15 or 16. So I’ve been playing guitar badly and behaving badly since then.

Is there a song that you wish you had written?

‘Georgia On My Mind’ by Ray Charles. Everytime. It’s perhaps my favourite song.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?

In a detached cottage, where I can sing as loudly as I want. And have recorded another 2 or 3 albums.

You can hear the stunning sounds of Blue Rose Code by heading HERE, and look out for the new album North Ten, due for release this Spring

Josh King