The Isle is full of noises...
Music and creativity on the Isles of Scilly
Almost exactly 10 years ago, I was having a drink in the Turk’s Head on St Agnes in the Isles of Scilly with a couple of long-haired, beardy types. We’d been brought together on St Agnes over the preceding months during a number of ad hoc, mildly random musical collaborations involving Lionel Richie covers, experimental bagpipes and the attempt to keep up with international saxophonist (and St Agnes lover) Tim Whitehead, as he blazed his way through Watermelon Man in front of a very lucky island audience.
As the pints went down, a flicker of an idea occurred to me (all the best ideas are born in pubs, surely). What if the three of us (plus a fourth island-visiting musician who had been responsible for a couple of cracking Africa-based Gig for Ghana celebrations in St Agnes island hall) came together to record an album of music inspired entirely by St Agnes? And what if we recorded the album on St Agnes itself, so as to really capture the spirit of the place?
I had been re-discovering my love of music through the Celtic traditional music of Cornwall but was feeling a slight sense of sadness that, as far as I could tell, the Isles of Scilly had no surviving indigenous music of its own. There was plenty of really great music happening on the islands, from rock to soul to 1920s jazz to traditional folk, but it wasn’t exactly local.
The little seed, planted that night in booze, didn’t wither and die. We were all keen. A good friend from university days agreed to come out to St Agnes to produce the album and we booked a week in an isolated island cottage for the following Easter. Over the winter months we wrote and researched music for the recording session. In a book belonging to his Cornish grandmother, Rough Island Jim discovered the one surviving traditional song relating to Scilly - Scilly Wreck - as well as a further fragment that became the basis for another shipwreck song. Rough Island John and Rough Island Joe produced demos of songs that reflected their own personal experiences of St Agnes and I spent a rough and stormy island winter trying out original tunes that reflected the Cornish music I was listening to, but with an original St Agnes edge. By Easter, we had enough music for a whole album. The start, we hoped, of a recognizably Scillonian music.
When we convened on St Agnes in April 2009, armed with banjos, microphones, open ears and wide-eyed innocence, we had never actually played together as a band (though we had performed in various combinations). The album was arranged, rehearsed, recorded and produced in one great whirlwind week of getting to know each other, eating, drinking and music-making - a formula for freshness and a certain roughness about the edges. The band’s name grew out of this characteristic ‘roughness’, which seemed to mirror the relaxed environment of St Agnes itself. (It was also a secret tribute to one half of a bizarre, if much-loved, pair of cats - Rough and Tumble.) 'Rough Island Band' wasn’t the only candidate for the all-important band name: 'Bomb of Fire' and ''The Sticks that Point' were alternatives suggested by my young excitable children that didn’t make the cut.
The album - Sou’wester Sessions - was released on St Agnes in 2009 in the pub where it all began. It has sold out in physical form though you can still download it here. One of the plans for our tenth anniversary year is to re-arrange and re-record many of the tracks on Sou’wester Sessions, reflecting our increased musicianship and technical know-how, and to release a celebration edition in August 2019, followed by a mainland tour in the Autumn.
Since Sou’wester Sessions, we have recorded another three full-length albums. We have performed numerous times on all five inhabited islands of Scilly. We have played at festivals and venues throughout England. We have had airplay on national radio. We have appeared on French and German TV. We have met lots of Scilly music lovers. We have even been endorsed by celebrity fans, Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman…
There have been Rough Island marriages, Rough Island babies, Rough island housewarmings and an awful lot of Rough Island eating and drinking. As with anything human that lasts as long as ten years, there has been a certain amount of trauma, separation, ill health and challenge along the way. But there has been a disproportionate amount of joy…
It would be true to say that the music hasn’t always hit the high notes - early gigs on the mainland provided the challenge of musically translating Scilly to an audience unfamiliar with the islands. A cringeworthy moment that sticks in my mind was an attempt, during a Liverpool Folk Festival gig, to perform Poor England - an unwieldy song about the wreck on Scilly of the English fleet in 1707 (and potential candidate for official England World Cup anthem) from our second album. The song begins with a hushed a capella section which we hadn’t rehearsed and which turned into a mortifying and seemingly endless attempt to hit the right notes. We weren’t invited back. Apologies, in retrospect, if you were there. There was also the winter gig on St Agnes when the entire island population had been struck down with flu, leaving us with an empty pub to perform to. (We used the time profitably - constructing bizarre melodica and jaws harp cover versions of classic songs - an exercise that led to a video version of Call Me Al, recorded and filmed on Periglis quay that went viral on Youtube, bringing an unexpected international following for the music of a tiny island 28 miles off the Cornish Coast.)
So, ten years later, I am myself a beardy type… As well as acquiring facial hair along the way, I have collected a catalogue of recorded music inspired by Scilly, a memory bank of extraordinary musical experiences and some of the most important friendships of my life. Thank you RIB! And thank you to all of you who have supported us over the last 10 years - here’s to a few more…
Author - Piers Lewin
I am a musician and writer living on the Isles of Scilly. These articles and posts explore music, poetry and creativity inspired by the landscape and culture of the islands.