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

The Herald Magazine - - NEWS -

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

WORDS RUS­SELL LEADBETTER PHO­TO­GRAPHS COLIN MEARNS

PHO­TO­GRAPH: LENNY WAR­REN

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

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