Ricky Ross on songwriting and what he’s learned from 30 years in music
Many of his songs have become embedded in the lives of his fans 30 years after Deacon Blue released their debut album Raintown. With the band going strong and a new solo album taking him back to his piano-playing roots, what lies behind Ricky Ross’s endur
THIS is the difference between experienced songwriters and the likes of you and me. Ricky Ross was waiting at traffic lights on Byres Road in Glasgow when a dog – boundlessly happy, its tail wagging – crossed the road on its own. Its owners, Ross noticed, were a couple of homeless men. It was the sort of thing that would detain anyone else for a few seconds, but Ross’s mind clicked into gear, and a lyric began to form.
Which is why there is a poignant song called Only God and Dogs on his rather fine new solo album, Short Stories Vol 1. Written from the dog’s point of view, its title came about when Ross mentioned the canine’s unconditional love for its owners to his wife, Lorraine McIntosh, and she remarked, yes, it’s something like “dogs and God kind of love”.
“Even as a child,” Ross says, “I was obsessed by the fact that ‘God’ and ‘dog’ had the same letters. Only God and Dogs was a classic example of how a song gets written. It literally caught my attention – the happiest dog you’ll ever see.”
His wife is knowledgeable about homelessness, he adds. “She says a lot of homeless guys cannot get a place in a hostel because the hostel won’t take their dog. So the dog becomes this big kind of character for them. But it struck me that dogs are so biddable. Our own dog is great but I think, ‘You could have landed in different places, and you’ve landed here, and it’s quite nice.’”
The album, which contains new songs, voice-and-piano versions of two of his greatest works, Raintown and Wages Day, and a lovely take on Carole King’s Goin’ Back, was recorded in Hamburg, with strings added in Glasgow. It continues a resurgence of activity by the band he put together in December 1985.
THIRTY years ago their debut album,
Raintown, spent 77 weeks on the UK charts and sold more than a million copies. The 1989 follow-up, When the World Knows Your Name, reached number one. By this time the band was renowned for anthemic, observant, heart-tugging songs that people could relate to: Raintown, Wages Day, Dignity, Real Gone Kid, Fergus Sings the Blues and Town to be Blamed (with its fatalistic sign-off, “Work, work, work/ In the rain, rain, rain/ Home, home, home/ Again, again, again”).
The success of the albums changed everything: Deacon Blue found themselves caught up in constant touring, studio sessions and TV appearances. They were one of the biggest acts in Britain. One admiring US critic said Ross’s themes of being true to an ideal and facing up to challenges were reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s work.
Other long-players appeared – Fellow Hoodlums, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing – but in 1994, the same year in which a greatest hits album topped the charts, the band went their separate ways. It would be another five years before they reformed. A couple of albums were released, in 1999 and 2001, but it was with 2012’s Top 20 album, The Hipsters, that Deacon Blue’s second
act really began. A New House, in 2014, continued the trend, and last year’s Believers, a pristine and urgent set of songs (listen to the way the title track explodes into a skyscraping chorus), gave the band its highest albums-chart placing since 1994. It’s good to have them back.
Ross, who turns 60 in December, has been prolific of late, and not just with these records. Over the years he has released several solo albums, all of which showcase his skills as a songwriter – which, even after all these years are, you suspect, under-rated. (Check out the new album and his superb 2005 offering, Pale Rider, which closes with In the End, dedicated to former band member Graeme Kelling, who died in 2004.)
Producer Paul Savage, who worked on Deacon Blue’s last three albums and on Short Stories Vol 1, says, “The thing I always love about what he does, apart from his wellobserved lyrics, is the way he chooses a chord and a shift in gears – he’s got that down more than most people. Much of the old-fashioned idea of a song is beginning to disappear – there’s not a lot of great classic songwriting any more.
“You can listen to Ricky’s music and the chords, and they’ll move you just by emotion, just by the right chord change. There’s a drive about him but there’s also the talent. Sometimes there’s either one or the other but the great artists I have worked with have both.” Ross is an under-rated singer as well, says Savage. “I think he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves: some of the new songs on the album are incredible.”
AMONG the songs on Short Stories Vol 1, which Ross is touring in November, is one called A Gordon for Me – not, you might think, a reworking of the old Scots soldier song but a piece written for Joe, the partner of Gordon Aikman, the motor neurone disease campaigner who died last February, aged 31.
“I found Gordon a really amazing character, though I didn’t know him that well,” says Ross. “He and Joe asked me to sing at their wedding, which I did.
“I had been in London before that, on tour with the band, and we had gone to a mass on a Sunday night in a little Dominican church in Kensington Church Street [Ross converted to Catholicism a few years ago]. It was one of those dingy ones where you think, there’ll be no-one here, but the priest turned out to be this big guy from northern England. He pulled out a newspaper and said: ‘I was reading this thing today about Gordon Aikman,’ and I thought, ‘That’s Gordon – he’s doing his whole homily on him.’ And he did a beautiful sermon on love and understanding.
“Gordon was making in-roads into places he had no idea about, and that’s what amazed me. By the time he died he probably didn’t know half of what he achieved. Doddie Weir [former Scotland rugby international] is now talking about MND as well. It’s a horrible illness. I thought Gordon was so open and he helped so many people by talking about it.
“I couldn’t make the funeral, sadly, but I have been feeling for Joe. This was a great
The thing I love about what he does is the way he chooses a chord and a shift in gears – he’s got that down more than most people PAUL SAVAGE, PRODUCER
couple, two lovely human beings, and Joe has been through so much, so in a sense that song is as much for him as for Gordon.”
Another new song, At My Weakest Point, was inspired by a woman Ross met while on a visit to Zambia with Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, for whom he is an ambassador. Vainess was her name, and she said her vision was to have her own water supply. Like so many others she makes an hour-long round trip every day to fill a container for her family at the communal village pump. “She really touched me,” Ross says. “You think you know a lot of things, then you encounter someone like her. There are millions of people like her. They are very articulate.” Ross has also been to places such as Brazil, which he visited in 2012 to see how the Landless People’s Movement was helping impoverished Brazilians obtain land they could call their own.
Music has been part of Ross’s life since he was a youngster growing up in Dundee. He has written about family and friends leaving records at his home, which he would listen to attentively: the Beatles’ Abbey Road, Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Thunderclap Newman and Countdown by Benny Goodman. As a schoolboy he spent his lunchtimes in record shops.
When he does his Tuesday-evening BBC Radio Scotland show Another Country, he likes to imagine his listeners allowing the music to take them to places in their imagination. He mentions this when asked about the artists whose songs he wandered into and around.
“You’re imagining in songs so much,” he says. “Randy Newman is a prime example – these little stories that he would tell, I would listen to them and think, ‘What was that scene like?’
“Thunder Road, one of my favourite
songs of Springsteen’s, I used to always [think about that]. Stevie Wonder’s Living for the City – that was a whole picture for me … You know, the guy on the bus who goes to New York.
“That’s one of the reasons why I always resisted videos: I didn’t want to have anyone else’s picture imposed on my imagination.
“We came up on a flight the other week and the air stewardess, who was dead young, said she had played Dignity at her wedding. People say they played the song at their dad’s funeral. And, of course, that’s my song, that’s our song. Any amount of people say, ‘Can you dedicate it for us?’ at a gig and I say, well, I can’t, because that moment in that show has got to be everyone’s.”
Ross has done hundreds if not thousands of gigs around the world (recent locations have been as diverse as Edinburgh Castle and Dubai). Does he ever lose that sense of wonder when an arena full of joyous fans is singing his words back at him?
“You know what? I think the surprise has gone. But I think I got to a point in my life when I valued – not over-estimated or whatever, but just valued – how much love I was getting back from that. Talking about it I find quite moving. Because you don’t have a right to have any of that stuff. It has come because people have taken these songs on. They’ve taken our music and let it come into their lives. All of us in the band feel enormously honoured by that.
“Someone asked me last week, ‘What’s your favourite song?’ I said Real Gone Kid, because although that’s the obvious one, that’s the one that makes people happy.”
He recalls how an old friend, Father Joe Boland, who played a major part in his conversion to Catholicism, arranged a Deacon Blue concert in November 2006 at Kilmarnock prison, where he was chaplain. “Joe said he thought the gig was great. He said there was joy there for people, and where there was joy there was God.
“That squared the circle for me, I think. As a songwriter you always want to push on. You always want to do the next thing, you always want to do a new song. Ask any songwriter what’s his favourite song and he’ll always say the last one he’s written.
“So it’s always harder to go back and just re-tread things. For me, that [prison gig] was a big moment. Over the last 10 years I’ve come to value these moments. Also, it’s maybe because we’re getting older. We lost Graeme in 2004. You never know what lies ahead.
“We came off stage one recent Friday, at Car-Fest, in Hampshire, and we don’t have any more gigs booked. You never know when you’ll do one again. You’ve got to cherish these moments and enjoy them for what they are.”
AUDIENCES at his upcoming solo shows
will see Ross behind the piano, playing songs and telling stories. The night before our interview I’d watched an online video of him performing solo at Cottiers in Glasgow in 2015, followed by the DVD of Deacon
Blue’s celebratory Barrowland gig from December 2016. There’s a great moment in the latter where, clearly lost in the moment, Ross, having jumped off the stage, sprints in front of the front row of fans, touching hand after ecstatic outstretched hand as the band plays on. The contrast between the two Rosses – the relaxed, self-deprecating piano player and the crowd-pleasing showman – is an obvious one, but interesting nonetheless.
“I think in some ways it’s the humour that gets you through the solo shows. It’s just a more reflective state,” he says with a laugh. “You can’t make it something it’s not … Sometimes I think it’s more important to be on your own on stage. If you have a group of musicians, sometimes you talk to them: you’re telling things because you want them to laugh, but when you’re on stage on your own, and there’s no-one to speak to, you have to talk to the audience, so that it becomes a conversation.”
He and McIntosh live in Glasgow with their 16-year-old son. Ross has three grown-up daughters, who live in America, China and Australia. He hopes to mark his 60th birthday by flying to China to spend time with his daughter. It was while he was on a skiing holiday with his son, incidentally, that the germ of the idea for the new album took shape, when he’d open his laptop at night and study files containing scraps of songs.
Over the course of 40 minutes Ross discusses his radio work, the creative songwriting process, and his trip to Syria in late 2009, some 18 months before the civil war. “I often think, what happened to the people we met there? They were so friendly and kind and hospitable.”
Asked if there might be a second volume of Short Stories, he says, “I would love to do another one, because there are old songs I’d like to revisit and there are old songs I’ve never released I would still like to go back to. I’m still enjoying the writing process, but I’ll have to see if anyone likes this one first.”
It’s the great cover shot on Deacon Blue’s first album – that moody 1960 Glasgow cityscape by Oscar Marzaroli, taken from Park Terrace – that leads the three of us – Ross, Colin the photographer and myself – to Woodlands Terrace to see if something similar can be recreated.
Ross mentions that this was where the cover shot of When the World Knows Your Name was taken. It’s a black-and-white, slightly blurred, evocative picture of the band. They were all young at the time: McIntosh, Kelling, Ross, James Prime, Ewen Vernal, Dougie Vipond. So much has changed, of course, but with his new album the man patiently doing the photographer’s bidding has shown that his songwriting talent is as strong as it ever was.
Someone asked me last week, ‘What’s your favourite song?’ I said Real Gone Kid, because although that’s the obvious one, that’s the one that makes people happy
Short Stories Vol 1 is released on Friday. Ricky Ross plays Dundee Gardyne Theatre (Nov 14), Aberdeen Tivoli (Nov 15), Edinburgh Queen’s Hall (Nov 16), Dunfermline Carnegie Hall (Nov 18), Glasgow St Luke’s (Nov 19, 20). Visit deaconblue.com
Deacon Blue’s Raintown spent 77 weeks in the album charts and sold more than one million copies
Top: Ross with Deacon Blue at the time of their second album, When the World Knows Your Name (left to right: Dougie Vipond, Ewan Vernal, the late Graeme Kelling, James Prime and Lorraine McIntosh, whom Ross married). Above: performing at Glasgow’s Hogmanay celebrations in 2006
At the age of 59 Ross has been prolific of late, releasing three albums with Deacon Blue in the past five years besides his new solo album. He also hosts a show on BBC Radio Scotland