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8th February 2023

In conversation with Fergus McCreadie

Fergus McCreadie talks improvisation, inspirations and recording ahead of his headline show at Band on the Wall
In conversation with Fergus McCreadie
Photo: Dave Stapleton

Fergus McCreadie has had a huge 2022, and is set for an even bigger 2023. The release of his third album, Forest Floor, saw his unique marrying of Scottish folk and jazz music enjoy widespread success, both within the genre and outside of it.

The album won Scottish Album of the Year 2022 and was shortlisted for the coveted Mercury Prize. Ahead of his appearance at Manchester’s Band on the Wall, we sat down with Fergus to explore his inspirations and his approach to live music.


You’re playing Manchester at the end of next month. Could you describe the show to people who might not be familiar with what you do?

So, the music is a sort of synthesis of jazz and folk music. The stuff that I’ve written is like folk music, but the approach is like jazz. I approach it like improvising musicians do. What we try and do with every gig is that we don’t have a planned setlist or decide what we’re going to do in advance or anything like that. We go into it with the most blank slate possible. I think that results in every show being quite different. It’s still the same tunes, but each gig has a different flavour because of the way we’re approaching it. I think that that would be the main thing to expect.


So, with your records are almost like a basis for the live show?

That’s a good way of thinking about it. The records are our material, plus a couple of other tunes swirling around. The records kind of form the base of exploration that can come between those tunes.


What were the sessions like for Forest Floor?

When we put together an album, we prepare a bit more. The live gig in jazz is something that needs to be as spontaneous as possible. With an album, you’re creating much more of a specific thing. When we did Forest Floor, I taught the other two the tunes by ear. I think that was quite an interesting concept, because it meant they could almost write their own part. It was lockdown so we had quite a lot of time on our hands, and we rehearsed quite a lot which we don’t always get to do.


Is there a huge archive from those sessions?

Actually, not really. Truthfully, we’re only in the studio for about two days. Jazz albums are always recorded super-fast because it’s cheaper, and you’re looking for that live, immediate sound. That’s not a reproduced thing. So, it was about two days, and we did a lot of rehearsals leading up to it. You’re capturing a live sound, so once you’ve got a good take, you can kind of move on.


Do you almost approach album recordings in the same way you approach gigs?

I think it’s similar. There’s a difference in that, and this is something jazz musicians say, you don’t want your takes to sound too live. You have to be a bit more concise. So you’re approaching it with a slightly different mindset. But in jazz, the preparation process isn’t really that different between making the records and doing a live gig.


Would you say Manchester is a big city for jazz?

Absolutely. It’s not a scene I know particularly well personally, but I do know of musicians that are in the scene and really like it. There’s quite a lot of good places to play in Manchester. I think it’s better to be not so London-centric [in jazz] and I think Manchester is one of the places where it’s really cool to play.


In Glasgow, do you hang out with your contemporaries quite a lot and feed off of each other?

Absolutely. It depends how much I’m doing my own stuff, but if I’m free and one of my friends is playing a gig I will try and go see that gig. It’s inspiring for me to see my friends and what they’re doing. You can listen to old videos on YouTube or listen to old albums but nothing will be the same as being at it in person. My favourite gigs, with maybe a hint of bias, have been my friends playing their own music. I always enjoy seeing that. I count myself really lucky because my job is super fun. If you go into it with the right mindset, it’s very freeing.


What do you think you would be if you weren’t playing jazz? 

Honestly, I have no idea. I’ve wanted to be a jazz musician for so long. Before that I think maybe I would’ve been a vet or something. If I was to retrain now I would retrain in something like mountain guiding or something like that.

With the Mercury nomination, what was that like? When did you get the call?

I think I got the call in July last year. It’s earlier than I thought it would be. It was a very unusual experience for me. Being in that room with all those people was such a mainstream music experience and I’m so used to the slightly niche-r experience. But being in that mainstream thing was interesting. I’m super glad that I did it. And it’s done a lot for me.


Has it opened any doors for you, would you say?

100%. The main door it opened is obviously more people hearing your music. This tour we’re doing now, it’s a lot bigger venues than we used to play, and we can get them quite full. That’s not something we could’ve done before, so I have the Mercury Prize to thank almost directly for that. It’s changed from us being considered young musicians to just being considered musicians.


With the live show and playing live, how do you get ready, how do you get into the mindset?

I don’t have a pre-gig routine really. If I feel that it’s high pressure, I’ll try and do some deep breathing, that usually helps me. But what I find most helpful is going on stage and just trying to play something with your hands that you know really well, or trying to improvise something that’s not super difficult, and just letting yourself let go as quickly as possible. After that, you can start playing the harder things. I like going out on stage and playing the slowest tune that we have and that helps me get into it.


Lastly, do you have any recommendations in jazz or anything else inspiring your writing?

I’ve been listening to a lot of old music. I’ve been listening to Oscar Peterson, which feels like rediscovering my childhood. He had all these albums called the Songbook albums and they’re just compilations of famous American showtunes. I love that. Quite a lot of Bach as well. And Irish traditional music. A lot of old stuff. I’m not doing a huge amount of writing, but I’m finding it very inspiring for my playing.


Fergus McCreadie plays Band on the Wall on February 26. Tickets here.

Alex Cooper

Alex Cooper

Head Music Editor and Writer for the Mancunion. Once walked past Nick Cave in Zagreb. Enquiries: [email protected]

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