‘Shelagh’s Song’ was released on Friday 21st May, 2021. Here’s how it all started.
Sometime in the middle of 2017, Fe, James and I went on a day trip to Haworth to visit the home of the Brontës. Typically, I spotted an old record shop on the high street, so I did my usual thing and kept everybody waiting while I leafed through the old, dusty records. One record caught my eye - ‘Stargazer’ by Shelagh McDonald. I’d never heard of it, but it looked cool. And as my motto goes with buying records, “ALWAYS judge a record by its cover.”
Unfortunately it was £80. So I wrote it down in my iPhone to eBay when I got home.
When I looked, I could only find one... and it was £300! I’d made a terrible mistake. I listened to it on Youtube to reassure myself that it probably wasn’t any good and not worth it anyway, but it was annoyingly beautiful. I Googled Shelagh McDonald, and she’s like some kind of character from mythology!
After rocketing to folk stardom in the early 70s, she took LSD, had a bad trip and then disappeared into a nomadic existence for 30 years, during which everyone assumed she was dead.
I HAD to go back and get the record.
It was... a quest.
I set off as early as I could, afraid someone would beat me to it.
That part of Yorkshire gets progressively more like Wuthering Heights the further you venture and the buses got gradually more rickety. At last, I set foot at the bottom of the hill in Haworth and, feeling genuinely nervous, I ascended the cobbled street and thank the gods – the shop was open.
The record was there too.
I bought it.
I had it.
The Holy Grail of acid folk.
For one brief, surreal moment, I stood beside the house of the legendary Brontës, holding a rare relic of the legendary Shelagh McDonald. It felt like I was on the trail of some secret, folky, cult, and people in long, hooded corduroy robes with beards and turtleneck jumpers would spring out at any moment from behind the gravestones to take me away for finding out too much. This didn’t happen, thankfully, but I had a cup of tea and a panini and got on the bus back to York.
So I'd got hold of the super-rare ‘Stargazer’ album and was instantly inspired. One song - ‘Dowie Dens of Yarrow’ - made such an impression that I recorded my own version of it on the ‘Seasons Project’.
I wanted to get in contact with Shelagh to thank her for inspiring me, but she seemed to be as illusive as, well... a folk singer who went missing for 30 years.
I joined a facebook group dedicated to Shelagh. Then out of the blue, an announcement: she was doing a concert! Dutifully, we dropped all plans and went on a pilgrimage to Scotland with our good pal Greg. We waited in our seats at @theaterroyaldumfries and the anticipation built.
A door opened, and we watched in silent awe, as a small, humble lady walked on stage and proceeded to blow us away with remarkable finger-picking and a voice just as strong and hauntingly beautiful as the one which had been cut into the grooves of my dusty vinyl record from 1971.
It was one of those spine-tingling shows I’ll never forget. Chills from start to finish.
After the show, we were lucky to have a chat with her. She signed my fabled copy of ‘Stargazer’ and I showed her the various compilation LPs I’d managed to find (‘Dungeon Folk’ being my favourite – who came up with that idea!?) and we had a natter about her ‘pals’ who pose together on the cover. It just so happens that her ‘pals’ happen to be everyone else’s heroes in the folk world.
She may be a legend, but she’s also a very down-to-earth and lovely person. They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but in this case, I’m so pleased I did.
I saw Shelagh in concert once more, this time with my family in tow, and I was able to proudly hand her a copy of ‘Songs From The Seasons’ with a big grin on my face. I was taken aback when the first thing she said was that she’d already heard my rendition of ‘Dowie Dens’ and how much she enjoyed it. Thanks Shelagh.
On the train home, my clever Mum said, “you should write a song about Shelagh’s life!”
You’ve got to be careful giving me ideas, because I might just do them.
It seemed the adventure wasn’t over yet...
After such a bizarrely fateful series of events, it seemed like writing a song about Shelagh’s life was a great suggestion.
The trouble was, although Shelagh’s life has been incredible, it wasn’t an easy song to write; it had to be done with sensitivity and tact. It’s a REAL story about a REAL person and she may even hear the song... so the pressure was on.
I mulled ideas over as other projects got in the way. Then, a global pandemic happened! Feeling the need to make an obligatory lockdown project, I searched my brain for ideas that were about ANYTHING BUT being in lockdown. And there it was - Shelagh’s Song.
I got scribbling in notebooks, noodling on my guitar and moving mattresses to make a home studio. Three tracks emerged: ‘Storm Cogs’.
Lockdown had been horrible, but this was a little sliver of beauty that came out of it.
Clever Ed Simpson helped mix and master and then came the time to actually release it.
I started to worry. What if Shelagh heard it and found it weird, or creepy. I based the lyrics closely on interviews with Shelagh, but what if I’d got something wrong?
I decided to post in the Facebook group, on the off-chance the message might get to her. I just wanted her blessing, more than anything.
I didn’t hold my breath, though. I hadn’t heard anything about her for years. What I had heard, suggested she had retired from music again, this time for the last time.
Then, I received an email.
Nigel H Seymour, who we met with Shelagh, said if I posted him the song, he would forward it onto Shelagh. The quest continued! I couldn’t believe it! Overjoyed, I packaged up a bundle of CDs along with a home-burned copy of ‘Storm Cogs’ and hurried off to the post office.
After all this, Shelagh McDonald might actually hear MY song about her. Hang on... Shelagh McDonald might ACTUALLY HEAR my song about her.
I was so nervous; it felt like being a student again, submitting an essay, only ten times more nerve-wracking.
This was more important, somehow.
I posted it, and waited.
I had posted my song off, with the promise it would be forwarded to Shelagh McDonald, and I waited.
In the meantime, there was a music video to make! I knew I wanted something to evoke that hazy, 70s vibe that I got from Shelagh’s records. Hinterland Creative were highly recommended and as soon as we got chatting, I knew Stew just got it, and it would be awesome.
A date was set in the diary, and then fate called by again. The plan was to strategically hide the Shelagh McDonald records I had in the background of some shots. The DAY BEFORE the video shoot, I walked into a record shop and what was on a shelf behind the counter? ... Shelagh’s virtually impossible-to-find debut album.
I enthusiastically recounted the whole story to the bemused chap behind the counter (trying and failing not to sound like a crazy folky guy) He rang the shop owner to ask how much it was. He told me. It was expensive. I left the shop.
Fe and I were visiting her sister, Lydia, and her partner Nick. I sat down on a bench beside them and told them the story too. There was an expectant pause, then they said, “so you did get it, didn’t you?” I said I would be back in five minutes.
As you’ll see from the picture, I went back and got it. I don’t believe in fate, but sometimes it does seem like things happen for a reason...
The next day, Stewart Baxter, Luke Hallett and I met at Young Thugs Studios and got to work on the video for ‘Shelagh’s Song’. Those guys are geniuses. Using projections and prisms to manually create all the trippy effects you’ll see, they perfectly captured the spirit of the song, and at midnight, we parted ways feeling pretty proud of what we’d made.