We interviewed Jim Malcolm at Don Quixote's in Felton on January 25th, 2012. Jim sings and plays guitar and harmonica. He played and sang lead vocals with Old Blind Dogs. These days he performs by himself. He's one of the great modern Scottish troubadours. Jim's wonderfully unassuming, so full of experience and knowledge, and a joy to talk with.
-Kasie Talbot and Paul Edwards, Celtic Society of the Monterey Bay
Kasie: When did you discover your talent at singing, and did you have to develop it?
I was more interested when I was younger in playing guitar, and I used to play in pop bands and rock bands and stuff and nobody wanted to be the singer, you know, everybody wanted to just play an instrument, and eventually I started singing I think, just because nobody else was prepared to do it. So that's really, [laughter] that's how it worked.
Everybody wants to sort of be the guitar player, you know, but nobody wants to sing, because singing's hard and, you know, you're kind of exposed and you're up there and you're not hiding behind something.
Paul: So how did you find your voice?
Well that's an interesting question because it's something that took me a long time to do. I think when you're younger you tend to sort of mimic people, you know, but eventually you kind of go through that and start to find your own forms of phrasing, and it took me a long time actually to do that, and I think you can hear that in some of my earlier recordings—that I hadn't really quite found my voice.
Paul: Well the first time I heard you, was "Forfar Sodger," on a Green Linnet collection, so it was Old Blind Dogs. It was a great tune, man, and your voice was so distinctive, you know?
Good, good, yeah. Yeah it's still one of my favorite songs, that "Forfar Sodger."
Paul: I really like that one, yeah.
Kasie: What songs that you wrote yourself mean the most to you?
Mean the most to me? Well, I actually wrote a song about, a political song running up to an election in Britain, and the song was called, "Vote A Tory Out," and I managed to get to sing it on national radio and it actually, I think, did a little bit to help actually change the election, so that's probably my proudest moment, but it's not something I ever recorded. It just was of its time and you know everybody kind of got really excited that I was singing the song, so probably that one.
Kasie: And there's also the one about the oil spill?
Eh, yes! Well, you're probably thinking about, talking about "Neptune," the song, "Neptune?"
Kasie: Oh, that's what I meant, yeah.
Yeah, that's a song that I've had lots of really nice comments about and several people have recorded.
That's very flattering when people record your songs. Probably the one, actually, that most people have recorded is, "The Battle of Waterloo," but it's also, it's a double edged sword because people record your songs and you don't like it, you know? [laughter] It's a version of it and you go, "Hmm, I'm not sure." [laughter]
Oh totally yeah, they're all my heroes, people like Andy Irvine, you know, total heroes. One of the first albums that really, actually steered me away from the rock music and into folk music was the album he made with Paul Brady, which is just called, "Andy Irvine and Paul Brady," and that, that changed my life, that album. That was just such a brilliant album. Still listen it, you know? Yeah all these guys, the troubadours. I mean Andy's still kind of the ultimate troubadour, actually still a great, great hero of mine.
Paul: So how about the early celtic tradition? Did you ever go back and look at any of those guys? The ones that would wander from place to place singing or telling stories, things like that, because you do both right? You tell stories and sing.
Yeah, well there have been, even up until quite recently there was a tradition of the travelling people in Scotland, who travelled around doing all kinds of work on farms and factories and stuff and they had a great wealth in songs, and quite a number of the songs that I sing come from that tradition. There's one called, "Tramps and Hawkers," which is a song that was sung by Michael Jimmy McPhee who, that was his life, that he travelled around, basically like a hobo in Scotland, so the actual celtic, this bardic tradition is more a thing of the Gaelic side of things. I'm not a Gaelic speaker or a singer, and it's more the western areas of Scotland.
Paul: The troubadour kind of thing, yeah, so Ewan MacColl?
Yeah, yeah, he, another great hero of mine, yeah.
Paul: A couple of years ago I heard Jonny Hardie doing, "The Terror Time." Oh my gosh, what a song.
Yes. Yeah, he does a lovely version of that.
Paul to Kasie: So why don't you ask the guitar question?
Kasie: I play guitar and I'll be curious to watch you play but I like to always hear about musicians' stories about how they acquired their guitar.
Right. Well the one I've got at the moment, it's a Taylor, and I got it at the factory, which is in—it's near San Diego, El Cajon, or something like that it's called, and I actually met a guy who worked at Taylor, and he said, "The next time you're in San Diego come to the factory, and I'll show you around." So the next time I was there I went to the factory and at reception there was this little stand that said, you know, "Taylor Guitar welcomes Jim Malcolm" [laughter] and I just died [claps his hands] there and then and they showed me around the factory and then, I said, "Well I'd like to buy a guitar," and they said, "Well, we'll give you the best," you know, "deal in the whole Universe," and they did—it was like, it was a fraction of—they practically gave it to me and I've had it ever since and it's been, to be honest it's been an absolute anchor in my life. I haven't had any problems with it whatsoever. It just keeps playing and it's in tune, so that's been a good relationship.
Kasie: I noticed so many parallels between you and Jim Reid, that you both play harmonica and guitar and various things. Did he influence you early on?
Oh totally, yeah. Yeah, he was a good friend of my Mother, and my Mother is a real folky [type], of the sixties. She used to go to folk clubs and stuff and bring back records, and we'd listen to it, and she got to know Jim because he was involved in lots of folk clubs and things, and again it was that period when I was more into rock music and I met Jim and it really was a...he was such an outstanding musician and singer and songwriter, and just a force of nature really. Quite a quiet and a modest guy but when he started singing it was just glorious, you know, it was just a sort of [hands gesturing awe] and, so I kind of copied him a lot. He was a real influence, you know that as they say, what is it? Copying someone is the highest form of flattery—what is that expression?
Paul: Yeah that's it. Well the greatest compliment is being copied. So I have a question too on instruments and that is harmonicas. What kind do you like?
Well, I mostly use a Japanese make called, Tombo, and the reason I use them is that they seem to stay in tune better than Hohner, or the other [brands]. Hohner make lovely harmonicas but I don't find that they stay in tune quite so long, and well that's the main reason I use Tombo, to be honest, and I have got buckets of them at home, buckets of old ones. No literally, buckets and buckets of them at home. I used to go through...I used to buy one about almost every week until I figured out it was the alcohol. If you drink and play the harmonica, it actually, it kind of rots the little prongs. Goodness knows what it's doing to your insides [laughter]!
Paul: So, do you have them tuned or anything?
No, I just...I just buy them and try to look after them, and avoid...it's actually...it's all about dental hygiene in harmonicas [laughter]! So that's it.
Paul: Yes exactly. Do not eat chips and then blow harp.
Kasie: Is this what you wanted to be as a boy? Was this a dream that you had?
No, maybe not as a boy, but certainly, once I really got into folk music, I just wanted to be able to go on tour and places. It's actually not—it's hard work actually, and it's not for everybody, touring. It requires a lot of emotional stamina. It's just, to be away from your nearest and dearest for long periods of time, in a situation where you're very vulnerable, you know, is quite hard emotionally, more than physically or mentally. Quite often, just usually when the sun's going down, and you know, you're thousands of miles away from home, and you see people playing with their kids, and you sort of, "I want my own!" And I think a lot of people try touring and hate it. They just hate what it does to their body.
Paul: Although, it's a source of stories. John Doyle was telling stories about a hotel that's used by musicians, for, I guess it's Celtic Connections or something, Glasgow, and it's just this, it's this pit, this incredible pit, and at some point there was like a garbage strike or something like that, so they were using the second floor as a dump site, and so you couldn't even get to that floor but somehow they wandered into it. So, I think I have another question. What do you think about YouTube?
What I don't enjoy is that people just assume that they can film you and then put stuff up on YouTube and that happens a lot, you know people just suddenly—you don't know whether they're taking a picture of you or filming you and it's just, you know, you can't control it, but on the other hand it's a fabulous way for audiences, and also particularly promoters to...particularly live performances, you can't fake it. You can send somebody a CD, but of course, the stuff you can do in the studio now, you can really make yourself sound great, and you can have a whole lot of great session people, but live footage of you on YouTube, it's kind of proof of the pudding, you know? I think it's a good promotional tool, but I don't know what it's going to do to the sale of music which is a big problem for all us musicians, because it's such a big revenue stream for us, and that's what I worry about is, are people still going to be able to buy music from us, which is important.
Paul: Yeah, I think that's an interesting question. It's literally looking at sales and seeing if they stay constant, or if they pick up or if they decline, so, because if it is then it does become an issue, but we're hoping that pointing people at these YouTube things we get our members and the community excited about, you know, and want to come to concerts and ultimately buy, as well, so we actually, we'll have a link to your Web site as well as several YouTube videos. Would it be better if we sent off the links to the YouTube videos to performers and said, "Is it okay if we use these?"
Paul: Alright, we'll do that.
Yeah, to be honest, you're more likely just to upset people if you just put stuff up, you know, without their permission. Most people are actually delighted if it looks good and it sounds good, but they may have spent a whole bunch of money making some, you know, expensive version of what you've just grabbed, so they may not be that happy, and I certainly have not been entirely happy about stuff that people have put...sometimes the quality is awful, you know, and it just doesn't do you any good.
Kasie: Are you aspiring to get better in any way? You're already very, very good!
Well, I mean yeah, you always get better actually. I think, as long as what you're doing...as long as you're not destroying yourself with what you're doing, you do get better. I'm certainly getting better at—maybe there's a few things I'm not getting better at—but I think I'm getting better at playing guitar and harmonica together. That's something that I've been working at for decades and I've been getting slowly better at it. I'm not sure if I'm any better a singer. I was listening to some stuff recorded five or six years ago and I was thinking, "Hmm, that's, that sounds better," [laughter] so I don't know, that's a good question.
Writing. Songwriting's a funny one as well because as you get older you're supposed to decline as a writer. Young people are supposed to be better at writing than older people. I think there's something to be said about that as well actually. I think as you get older your creativity kind of fossilizes bit, you know?
Paul: It could be that one becomes more self critical, which I think you can get away from. But I think the other thing is just enthusiasm for life. I think sometimes older people don't have the energy that younger kids have, to try all the risky stuff. Go around the World three times.
Kasie: You seem to really love the outdoors, and I go outside a lot to get inspired. Do you go outside to get inspired?
Yeah, I am; I'm actually very inspired by landscape which is why I love California because you guys've got some of the most stunning landscape in the World. It's just so beautiful here, and Scotland too has wonderful hills and mountains and rivers and valleys and fields and farms and I do find that very inspiring, and a lot of the songs, traditional Scottish songs reflect that landscape. They celebrate it. There's a lot of...like the song, "Bonnie Glenshee," "dae ye see yon bonnie high hills, all covered o'er wi snaw," you know, I just...I can look out the window of my house and see these mountains, the bonnie high hills of Glenshee so it's always been a big part of my love of Scottish landscape and Scottish culture. The whole thing's kind of a package for me.
Paul: So we should probably end on, one more thing. What advice would you give to a young musician, or what encouragement?
Ah, don't do it? [Laughter] No, what advice would I give? Practice bloody hard, you know, maybe primarily, because if you get really good, it really helps. [Laughter] And I suppose also, as I say, beware that you may not like the lifestyle of being a musician. It doesn't agree with everybody and lots of people think, "Oh I'd love to be a musician," but actually you know, you spend the whole day worrying about what you're going to do in the evening, wheras most people get up and go to work, and then the evening's their own. You've got to hold stuff in reserve and it's just...I think beware, that no matter how talented you are it just may not suit you, you know, might not suit your personality or your, you know, your disposition. And if that's the case then don't, you know, don't hammer it. Enjoy music as a...music's a wonderful hobby. It can be a great thing to enjoy, and some of the happiest people I know in Scotland are people who have good jobs but also have a really quite lucrative hobby of playing music in Céilidh bands or whatever, and looking back on it, you know, [laughter] sometimes I think maybe I should have done that as well.
Paul: We're glad you didn't! [Laughter] Thank you for the sacrifice, and thank you very much for the interview.
Oh, you're very welcome.