Johnny Lynch (Pictish Trail) – interview
Following the release of critically acclaimed album Future Echoes at the end of last year Johnny Lynch, aka Pictish Trail, is about to embark on a run of live dates ahead of a summer of festivals. We talk pop, the influence of place on his music, writing and recording between Eigg and London, as well as running Lost Map Records.
Sarah Lay interviews for Louder Than War.
“Eigg opened everything up, for me, musically. I started collaborating more, performing with other people.
“By placing myself in such an isolated situation, I made a real effort to become more involved with others, released more interesting music of my own, and have been involved in releasing music by a wider range of artists, too, through the label.
“So many possibilities opened themselves up when I moved here. I think having the space and time to think of ideas, without distraction, really played a big part in that.”
Johnny Lynch, aka Pictish Trail, is at his home on the small Scottish isle of Eigg, in the inner Hebrides. At just 9km from one end to the other and with a population of less than 100 people Lynch made it his base in 2010.
“The community on Eigg is really musical. There’s a weekly choir group, as well as some other musicians on the island – fiddlers, banjo players, a piper, accordion players. There’s a passionate love for traditional music up here, which is something I’ve never really had much experience with – but it’s really cool to see how much enthusiasm there is for it, across different age groups.
“What really strikes me is the breadth of appreciation – people have as much respect for a solo performer, as they do a full band, electronic fusion act. It’s not all to my taste, but there’s a sense that for a lot of folk up here, style or genre doesn’t really come into it. They’re not even purists. They just like a good tune, performed passionately. The ceilidhs that are held throughout the year really bring the whole community together, and it’s a beautiful thing.”
It’s not the first time that the music of a place has called to Lynch. When his family moved from Scotland to America when he was a teenager it was Scotland’s burgeoning indiepop scene which was the comfort and the cause of much homesickness.
“Music’s always been an important part of my life. My older sister’s tape collection was quite formative in my own tastes – Erasure, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, A-Ha, that sort of thing. We had a shitey Yamaha keyboard, and I’d sing my own lyrics over the demo button tunes. When I got to an age where I wanted to buy my own music, I was more into comedy, and I would make up songs in the same vein as Vic and Bob.
“My family moved to America when I was a teenager, and after four years of high school I desperately wanted to get back to Scotland. I was listening to a lot of Scottish bands by this point, buying CDs on import, and feeling homesick – The Delgados, Belle and Sebastian, The Beta Band. When I found out that the Betas had roots in St Andrews, I knew I needed to be there.”
It was at St Andrews that Lynch first started making forays as a musician, first with a friend singing songs he wrote before starting to write himself, adopting the Pictish Trail moniker. Like most starting out he played a few local nights and all-dayers before falling in with the Fence Records crowd.
The label was to become a big part of Lynch’s life. Founded by Kenny Anderson (King Creosote) in the late ’90s from around 2003 Lynch took on admin and day-to-day running of the label. The roster included releases by Withered Hand, Kid Canaveral, and Rozi Plain amongst many others and based where they were in Fife and taking a collective approach the label became its own scene.
“In the part of Fife we were living in, Fence was the only scene going on. No one else was making their own music. It was a really cool thing to be a part of, and is the entire reason I’m making music today, I’d say.
“When I first got involved, most of the scene revolved around playing in one pub in St Andrews – everyone taking it in turns to play tunes. When I graduated from the University, I moved down to Cellardyke with a friend, and started working full time at the label, organising events and setting up a proper web-shop. Within a year, we had put on our first Home Game festival in the neighbouring town of Anstruther, with folk traveling all over the UK to be there.
“In terms of recordings, most of the singer-songwriters in the collective were encouraged to record songs by themselves at home, and then involve other members of the group when playing live. It was a really supportive network.”
After a decade with Fence Lynch moved on, with much of the roster, to form his own label Lost Map Records. This Lynch has run from his home on Eigg, including hosting the festival Howlin’ Fling on the island, alongside his own music.
Last year’s Future Echoes was met with critical acclaim, a rounded album of electro-influenced pop with introspective, but never maudlin, lyrics at its heart. Produced by Adem Illem (with who Lynch played in Silver Columns) and Rob Jones Lynch split his time between writing on Eigg and recording with them in London.
“My work on Eigg is about taking time and thinking things through; my work on the mainland – touring and recording etc – is about doing things, and doing them as fast as possible. I have a son, now, and so I can’t afford to be away from home for long stretches of time – but that’s been something that has given me more drive and focus.
“Future Echoes – was produced entirely in London with Adem Ilhan and Rob Jones. I would take down fragments of ideas, we’d start working on recording over a few days, then I’d go back to Eigg and work on developing the songs. The album took 18 months, from start to finish, but yeah the recording itself was quick. It was quite a long, drawn out process – but, if you pieced all the days together, the actual recording took place within two and half weeks. And relatively easy, I’d say. When it’s just two of you in a room, bouncing ideas back and forth, music tends to come together instantly – the dynamic is exciting. I’m really chuffed with how it turned out.”
And how it turned out was a beautifully crafted album of wistful and warm electro-tinged pop songs. The space afforded him, both physically and for reflection, through his island life comes through in the album without ever feeling too introspective. This is an album which is fun, even when it’s working through the realisation of our own mortality, the creep and the crashes on the way toward it.
A heady and enthralling mix of genres are each anchored in solid melody, making this a cohesive collection, Lynch the magpie picking the shiniest gems to display next to each other, giving us a groove to dance to as our world big and small becomes unsettled around us.
“I’d worked with Adem before, on a synth-pop project called Silver Columns – and, I guess, the sound on Future Echoes isn’t a million miles away from that. Pop music was my first love, and is something I’ve always aimed to make. Being part of the Fence thing, I was regularly tagged as a folk artist – I think having a beard, and hanging around with men 15 years older than me didn’t help – but I’ve never really been that sort of act. Although I think it is fun to play with people’s preconceived notions of what you should sound like.”
The playfulness of the sound stretches to being creatively adventurous too, of still looking for the personal challenge in being an artist. “My writing process is a bit all over the shop. I mostly record fragments of ideas down on my phone, and in notebooks, and put them aside to piece together later. At the moment, I’m writing things ‘around’ the music – ideas for short films, and a live show. It’s proving to be quite difficult, and I’m feeling very self-conscious about the whole process, but that’s what has drawn me to it, I suppose. I go through waves of being really disciplined, and then getting stuck in an admin quagmire. Admin is a really good distraction technique, and there’s always plenty to do.”
Admin will have to wait as Lynch heads out on the road for a set of UK dates in April and summer festival dates beyond. In between he’ll be back home on Eigg, bringing the Lost Map festival Howlin’ Fling back to the island in July as well as working further on his own music.
“I’ve recently done some new recordings, and I’m hoping to release them later in the year – kind of a companion disc to Future Echoes. I spent so long on that album, it’s a world I’m still very much living in.”
Future Echoes is out now and Pictish Trail is on tour as well as performing at festivals across the summer.
- 5 April – The Quay Sessions with Roddy Hart, Glasgow
- 6 April – Gullivers, Manchester
- 7 April – Oslo, London
- 8 April – Riverside, Newcastle
- 12 April, Clarks, Dundee
- 13 April – The Caves, Edinburgh
- 14 April – Brudenell, Leeds.
Interview by Sarah Lay. Sarah is editor of Louder Than War and you find more from her in her Louder Than War author archive. You can also follow her on Twitter or find her full portfolio of music writing here.
Images by Ben Lewis Cormack.