Following the tragic death of Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison last month, we look back at his life and the deep musical impact he made.
On 11 May, Scott Hutchison, singer and songwriter with Scottish romantic rock band Frightened Rabbit, was found dead in a marina in South Queensferry, having apparently taken his own life at the age of 36. Talking to friends and colleagues, Jazz Monroe traces Hutchison’s life and the deep impact his passionate music and powerful personal empathy made upon many.
When Scott Hutchison sang about depression, the disease seemed terrible and magic. He yelled until dark thoughts burst into colour, as if his throat were condemning his heart and head and the banalities swirling around in it. In his pleas, sorrow began to sound noble, shame conquerable. The Scottish storyteller resisted escapism even as he denounced the world before him, illuminating misspent lives and the possibility of relief. In the end, his indie-pop realism launched its own kind of dreamworld, propelling him across the globe and into an ongoing communion with the thousands who loved him, and still do. “What’s the blues when you’ve got the greys?” sang Hutchison, then 24, on the opening track of Frightened Rabbit’s debut album. Listening back now, it’s striking to feel his raw torment slam against your eardrum, to hear his brogue rattling around the stark recording like an echo in a prison cell. In each line, you feel the blunt force of
the hurt he would spend the next 12 years streamlining into pop music. “I think I’ve given up,” he cries wildly, startling himself, “my body’s given in.” That was 2006, a bleak salvo from one of Scotland’s most promising songwriters. On Friday, 11 May, the 36- year-old, who’d met and exceeded that promise many times over, was declared dead. “Be so good to everyone you love,” he had tweeted two nights before, from a hotel in South Queensferry. “I didn’t live by that standard and it kills me. Please, hug your loved ones. I’m away now. Thanks.” Hope lingered until around 8:30 that Thursday evening, when his body was found floating in a nearby marina. On the day his death was announced, some of Hutchison’s friends, including members of the many bands whose careers he gave leg-ups to, congregated for “a sharing of memories” in Edinburgh. Despite his status as a revered “indie champion”, Hutchison left deeply personal imprints. Mike Palmer, the guitarist in Edinburgh band We Were Promised Jetpacks, mostly remembers his laugh. “I picture his shoulders tight up around his neck and his head tilted back a little, his face scrunched up,” he recalls now. “And how he made a ‘hehe’ rather than a ‘haha’ sound. Making Scott laugh was joyous in itself.” Many commentators, not least the assailants of Britain’s threadbare mentalhealth and social-care services, suggest the suicide crisis among men can be cured with “We need to talk” slogans. But Hutchison, the open heart of Frightened Rabbit, was a man who divulged endlessly, listened keenly, dissected, dredged and documented this stuff for a living. For all his passion, his music was useful, too – songs about love, sex, suicide, poverty and the toxicity of mental illness, all offering listeners a solace that eluded him. “Scott bequeathed to us his armour, gifted us the gallantry he wasn’t able to fully utilise,” summarises his friend Michael Pedersen, writing a week after Hutchison’s death. “For many, this was the will to keep moving.”
Born in the Scottish Borders, Hutchison earned his musical-oddball stripes young. In a small town otherwise convinced pop began with That’s Entertainment and concluded sometime around Wonderwall, he became known, not without sarcasm, as “the Jimi Hendrix of Selkirk”. His mum called him a frightened rabbit – he was so shy that he’d been held back a year at nursery – and it wasn’t until he started a four-year degree, at Glasgow School of Art, that Hutchison began talking for fun. He said later that his illustration course – making children’s toys, cataloguing the social history of chairs – was a “wonderful, eyeopening journey to nowhere”. Although he’d eventually rediscover the hobby, drawing gig posters and album covers, at the time he refocused his faith in music. In 2003, he played his first solo shows as Frightened Rabbit supporting Shitdisco, “in front of five, sometimes six people,” his brother Grant tactfully noted. When Grant moved to Glasgow in 2004, he joined Frightened Rabbit on drums, and the pair enlisted guitarist Billy Kennedy to record the frayed demos later packaged as debut album Sing The Greys. After re-releasing the debut on Fat Cat, the band levelled up with The Midnight Organ Fight, a bracing heartbreak saga recorded in a cupboard under Hutchison’s stairs. Enlisting bands in the local scene, they toured the album around Scotland – a time of “pure magic”, remembers Katie Harkin, then frequently sharing their stages as Sky Larkin’s frontperson. “I was deeply moved by how closely he’d listened to our songs at a time when I wasn’t used to being heard,” Harkin says. “He was a true empath.” At a 2008 show, Hutchison watched support act We Were Promised Jetpacks after a band member ambushed him backstage. A year later, on his recommendation, Fat Cat released the group’s debut album. “We were in awe of him,” Palmer says of Hutchison. “We thought of him as a mentor.” As new
“Scott bequeathed to us his armour, gif ted us the gallantry he wasn’t able to fully utilise. For many this was the will to keep moving.” Michael Pedersen, poet and collaborator with Hutchison
friends flew into his orbit, Hutchison’s occasional dark turns caused concern. “When I didn’t see him for a long stretch, I’d hear stories and worry,” Palmer admits. “But whenever I saw him he seemed put together. He did know the code, that the third or fourth ‘so, how’re you doing?’ meant ‘no really, are you OK?’ And he’d answer. But never when it was really bad.” With The Midnight Organ Fight, Frightened Rabbit found themselves courting expanding American crowds, drawn first by blog coverage and later by song syncs in shows like One Tree Hill. They embarked on a major Stateside tour with The Twilight Sad and We Were Promised Jetpacks, a clan of epic romantics denouncing the mid-decade parade of Scottish indie bands fashioned after Franz Ferdinand. On the road, Hutchison learned to temper his devastating songs with wry stage patter, regaling one crowd with details of a recent sex dream about Jay-Z. Frightened Rabbit played a private show for a couple in Austin, drank petrol in Kidderminster, set scorpions on their own genitals in the Nevada desert. But as this new lifestyle intensified around Hutchison’s remorse-laden heartbreak album, it exhausted them, too. They made a preservative tourbus policy – no talking during the day – and by night drank plenty of whisky (“to remind us of home”). When Hutchison performed Poke, a solo acoustic lament, he sometimes broke down in tears.
Frightened Rabbit were now one of Fat Cat’s most lucrative properties. On the surface though, little had changed for Hutchison. In 2009, he played a homecoming show at Edinburgh’s Electric Circus, asking Dan Willson, who records witty folk songs as Withered Hand, to support. “I went to the venue full of domestic woes, kid stuff,” says Willson today, speaking by phone from Edinburgh. “Scott was absolutely shattered, just off the plane, and I was slightly in awe of him. But
he said some things that really changed me that night.” In the years to come, Hutchison would open crucial doors for Willson, secretly securing his US label deal and later taking him on the road in California, offering up his apartment for accommodation. But that conversation, as they coiled cables before soundcheck, hasn’t left him. “I remember coming home and saying to my wife, ‘It was like an epiphany’,” Willson says. “Ever since then, whenever I was in his orbit, I would light up. I’d feel awake. A lot of people felt the same way, because of his incredible empathy. I sometimes feel like there can be too much.” After the bruising Midnight Organ Fight tour, Fat Cat gave Hutchison a few months to write and demo a new album from scratch. Eager to please, he sacrificed time off and swiftly undertook the task in isolation in rural Scotland. With no phone or internet, he’d wake for porridge at 9am, walk along the coast and begin writing, pausing only to watch Dickinson’s Real Deal over dinner. The resulting album, The Winter Of Mixed Drinks, burrowed into existential and romantic ennui while rejecting its predecessor’s open-chested confessions. He was long unhappy with the results: it was rushed, he said, and over-produced, but came alive on their exhaustive tour, which included a coveted slot on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Despite the three-year gap before their next LP, the major-label debut Pedestrian Verse, Frightened Rabbit found themselves promoting that fourth record without having had a serious break in 10 years. Hutchison began to crack, ending one show curled in a foetal ball. “The irony is people expect it, because it’s emotional music,” Willson says, highlighting the blurred lines between passion and reawakened anguish onstage. “You’re meant to be up there bleeding.” Hutchison recuperated by setting aside Frightened Rabbit for Owl John, a mostly solo project completed in LA, where he was now living with his girlfriend. Despite some Californian alienation, life was good: he’d gone veggie, cut his drinking, temporarily quit smoking. He’d often go out with his girlfriend, getting pissed and starting arguments – an arrangement, he said, that he could hardly have been more pleased with. “That was a happy time for him,” agrees Willson, who joined him Stateside. “A lot of us felt this dark undertow, but he did a pretty good job swimming away from it most of the time.” Hutchison lasted 18 months in LA.
“Some people skim along the surface, right? And it’s great to have people like that at parties. But others feel things deeply, and you could tell that was the deal with Scott.” Dan Willson, Withered Hand
“He couldn’t live without Scotland and Tennent’s,” his brother Grant joked. But the subsequent campaign around Frightened Rabbit’s fifth album, Painting Of A Panic Attack, occasionally veered into crisis. One night, Hutchison publicly dissolved the band, only to retract his Twitter screed and blame “the pitfalls of mixing alcohol, depression and social media.” Last month, the news of Hutchison’s presumed suicide came amid a flurry of new activity: a 10th- anniversary tour of The Midnight Organ Fight, the debut album by his grungey side-project Mastersystem, and sessions for the sixth Frightened Rabbit LP. In his final interviews, his mild sullenness dampened none of his observational nous, that light, playful resignation to our dire existence that Scots seem so easily to conjure. “He certainly wasn’t outwardly dour or grumpy recently,” reflects Willson. “Some people skim along the surface, right? And it’s great to have people like that at parties. But others feel things deeply, and you could tell that was the deal with Scott.”
Last year, Michael Pedersen, a Scottish poet known for knotty rhymes and comic observation, released a book called Oyster with Hutchison’s illustrations. This was among the singer’s happiest work: his teenage art form, revisited in a moment of disenchantment with the music industry. (“Your band becomes a business,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s hard to avoid that.”) On the poetry book’s cover is a “vaginal-looking oyster”, as the author puts it. He’s having it inked soon, his first tattoo. Pedersen went for dinner with Hutchison on the Sunday before he went missing. This was two months after Frightened Rabbit’s last tour, a recurring adjustment period Hutchison once spoke of in weary terms: “I go out on tour and am comfortable there, and I’m happiest when I’m performing, in a way. And I go home and it’s like, ‘What the fuck do I do? Who am I?’” Perhaps still coming down to Earth, Hutchison met Pedersen and the poet Hollie McNish at the port of Mallaig. They ordered a huge seafood platter and consumed it in cheery silence. “God, I really love your illustrations,” McNish said, finally. “They’re so beautiful. What’s your favourite thing to draw?” Hutchison stared off, pondering the question, and the world, for a long moment. In Pedersen’s telling, there was “magic in that wait, beatitude, silence slathered in colour”. Hutchison responded: “It would have to be severed arms. Yeah, severed arms. I love those wee guys.” McNish, mouth agape, said nothing. “Also clouds,” Hutchison added, smiling. “Intricate little clouds. Maybe that’s more what you were looking for.” As Pedersen warmly notes, “By the time the £ 149.50 cleared from my bank account three days later, you had left us and something had left me. But right there in that moment, we were brimful.”
Frightened Rabbit (from left, Simon Liddell, Andy Monaghan, Scott Hutchison, Grant Hutchison, Billy Kennedy); (inset, above left, from top) 2006’ s Sing The Greys album and 2016’ s Painting Of A Panic Attack.
Rabbit in the spotlight: Scott Hutchison at the Handmade Festival, Leicester, April 2018.
Poets corner: (from left, Scott Hutchison, Michael Pedersen, Hollie McNish, Dan Willson), Glasgow, 2017; ( inset, above) Pedersen’s latest collection, which features Hutchison’s artwork.