Review – Findlay Napier – Very Interesting Persons & Very Interesting Extras – by Progradar

The very best songwriters weave incredible stories via their music and lyrics, songs that are immersive, enthralling and compelling in equal measure. You can lose yourself in these mini sagas of life, love, death, hardship and happiness and forget about the real world, if only for a short while.

I’ve been fascinated by music for a lot of years now and that is all kinds of music, this webblog may be called Progradar but it is truly meant for any kind of music that deserves a place on here.

The extraordinary skills of Scottish Folk Singer/Songwriter Findlay Napier were first brought to my attention by my great friend Iain Sloan, a talented guitarist well known to fans of Abel Ganz and The Wynntown Marshals but who has also performed live with Findlay before.

Findlay has a new album in the works but I was drawn to his previous releases ‘Very Interesting Persons’ and its companion piece ‘Very Interesting Extras’ due to the stories of real life characters and the trials and tribulations of their lives.

Here Findlay gives us some background to the project and how it got off the ground,

“‘So tell me about VIP?’

That’s what every journalist and broadcaster has asked me
first and the problem was, and still is, where to start.

I’m going to start with Simon Thoumire. Simon asked me
what I was doing, what I was really doing, with my music
career. With my head in my hands my part answer, part cry
for help was an overly honest ‘I don’t know anymore’.

Simon helped me apply for Creative Scotland’s Advanced
Mentoring funding and Boo Hewerdine agreed to be my
mentor. Boo and I began writing in March 2013 and soon
came upon the idea of writing songs about people who
have led interesting lives. We fitted in sessions between his
hectic touring schedule, my chaotic calendar and the birth
of my daughter Lucy. By March 2014 we had written and
recorded the fifteen songs in this volume.”

Musicians on ‘Very Interesting Persons’:

Findlay Napier– Lead vocals, guitar, ukulele
Boo Hewerdine– Guitar, harmonium, ukulele, vocals
Gustaf Ljunggren– Lap steel, mando-guitar, woodwind, piano, percussion, backing vocals
Hamish Napier– Piano, backing vocals
Roy Dods– Percussion, Radiator
Gillian Frame– Backing vocals
Louis Abbott– Backing vocals

Boo, Gustaf and Gillian also joined Findlay on ‘Very Interesting Extras’.

The first part of the review takes in the ten tracks that make-up ‘Very Interesting Persons’.

‘Hedy Lamarr
Been here before
Can you take anymore?’

“I came across Hedy Lamarr by accident. I was watching a
documentary on BBC4 about TV Smith & The Adverts
and their bass player, Gaye Advert, was described as
looking like Hedy Lamarr. Rather than waiting for the
library to open or calling an expert on films of the 1940s
I looked her up on Wikipedia. I scribbled her name and
‘actress…invented Wi-Fi… many husbands,’ in my notebook
and forgot about her till my first writing session with Boo.”

A plaintive tune with a wistful nostalgia at its heart, Hedy Lamarr is a pared back song of delicate beauty. The vocals are delivered perfectly, the male/female harmonies making the hairs stand up on the back of your neck with their near perfection. A winsome and charming tale of a screen beauty that nobody really knew. It is almost heartbreaking in its emotive delivery.

‘George C Parker was the man who sold New York
To out-of-towner millionaires who fell for his sweet talk
They’d pay for Lady Liberty they bought his every line
He must have sold the Brooklyn Bridge at least a hundred times’

“I’d been planning a song about a con man for a while. For one of our writing sessions I looked up some famous confidence tricksters. George C Parker was one of the mostinteresting of an extremely interesting bunch. His con was
to sell famous New York landmarks, usually the Brooklyn Bridge, to immigrants who had just arrived in America.”

The Man Who Sold New York is a powerful tale of morality driven along by a blues guitar and Findlay’s gritty Glasgow drawl. This song is one of the first that really stood out to me when I heard this album. There’s a metronomic beat that holds you in thrall and a really tasty guitar tone that works on every level. It gives this track a real 1930’s Americana sound to it, the guitar playing on the outro is outrageously good.

‘Poor Mickey Mantle pride of the Yankees
I had a card that you’d signed
The end of America’s childhood
An idol in decline’

“I found that flicking through Tumblr was a really great way
to find inspiring images and stories.

John Dominis’ 1965 photo inspired this song . It appeared
on the Time Magazine Tumblr page. The original headline
for the photo read ‘Twilight of the Idol: A Portrait of
Mickey Mantle in Decline’.”

A heartfelt song about the decline of a baseball great. Stripped right back to mainly vocals and piano, An Idol In Decline has a haunting grace to it. The wistful melancholia that runs through the track really does bring this story starkly into focus and Findlay’s softly delivered vocal is truly earnest and sincere in its delivery. There’s a sad resignation that things won’t ever be the same again, a look back to sepia tinged better days as it comes to a gentle close.

‘Eddie Banjo tramping in the rain
Eddie Banjo picking on a biscuit tin
Who’s good for a handout
Where’s good for a feed
Who’s good for a hard luck story
Where’s good for a sleep’

“My Dad told me about a tramp that used to live in a cave
outside Wick. He would walk the streets, playing a banjo
made out of a biscuit tin, singing ‘You Are My Sunshine’.

The tramp’s real name was Teddy Banjo. When I called my
Dad to remind me of the story he was in an airport and I
couldn’t hear him properly. By the time he got back we had
recorded the song and it was too late to change the name.”

Eddy Banjo is quite an upbeat little ditty, a tale of a hometown tramp that everybody knew. It’s a pure folk track that has you toe-tapping and dancing on the spot and Findlay gives the vocals the full local inflection. Again the stripped back feel of the song really invests it with a touch of joie de vivre and the perfect segue into the ‘You Are My Sunshine’ section had me smiling.

‘What a shame about George
Well he skipped class again
He’s out on the street
Singing songs to get paid’

“The first time I went to Canada I taught at the Sunshine
Coast Fiddle School alongside a banjo player called Chris
Coole. We sat up at night drinking, playing tunes and
singing. He kept singing amazing songs by a singer called
George Jones.

I was hooked and as soon as I got to Vancouver I bought
everything I could find by George Jones. I drove the rest
of the band mad listening to him in the van.”

This country song tells the story of famous singer George Jones and how his life echoed his art. Laid back and mournful, it has a feeling of regret running throughout it. Findlay tells the tale with respect and yet holds nothing back and the music mirrors the repentance and sorrow perfectly. A country song for a tormented country singer who finally hung up his cowboy boots.

‘Left behind the rising sun
Here until the war is won
You said that you’d come back for me’

“‘Words are falling from the sky’ refers to the leaflets that
were dropped to try and convince Hirō Onoda that it was
time to surrender. It is amazing that he lasted so long.

Onoda’s commanding officer had ordered him not to
surrender until he returned. The only way Onoda would
agree to a surrender was if the authorities brought his
former commanding officer, now a bookseller, back to
the island.”

I really love the treatment that Findlay gives of the well known story of the Japanese soldier who didn’t realise that the war had ended. Rising Sun treats Onada with the reverence he deserved and the simple guitar, haunting flute and plaintive, wistful vocals fit the mood perfectly. There’s an air of this song just floating along in the breeze, ethereal refined and insubstantial, an exquisite piece of songcraft.

‘No one else there saw it
Just Gabriel as he fell
Jimmy’s ghost, the man he killed
As the keeper rang the bell’

“The Saturday before the last day of recording Louis Abbott
and I spent the day recording backing vocals for VIP. I told
him that I needed one more song. Louis suggested that
boxers probably lead interesting lives. We jumped onto the
internet and it wasn’t long before we stumbled upon the
story of Gabriel Ruelas and Jimmy Garcia.”

Sweet Science is a prime example of recounting real life stories through song. With a big ‘Heavy-folk’ feel to it throughout from the driven guitar and insistent vocals, you can almost feel like you’ve been dropped right in the middle of a brutal boxing match. Listen to the excellent guitar work and Findlay’s intonation of every word, a modern day troubadour spreading the news across the nation. When songs are this good, you don’t need anything more complicated than a guitar and a superb voice.

‘Cutting the cloth and pushing in pins
Work never ends it just begins
Smoke rises slow and the soot it falls
Valentina’s high above us all’

“‘Valentina’, like ‘Idol in Decline’, was another Tumblr find.
I was drawn to a photo of a Russian propaganda poster
featuring Valentina wearing a space suit. I looked up her
story on Wikipedia and the song sprung from there.

Valentina trained to be a cosmonaut by correspondence
course and by enrolling in a local parachute school. She
funded her studies by working in a uniform factory.”

Valentina is a winsome song, all grace and refinement with the delicate acoustic guitar and Findlay’s graceful vocals bestowing an air of sepia tinged summer days that never end to this fine-grained tale. You have to take the time to listen to the lyrics as you let the music wash over you, leaving you calm and collected and with a feeling that all is well with the world.

‘Put it all on a piebald bow-legged mare
She just backed off put her tail up in the air
I hung my head in shame
There’s only one sure thing
Gonna lose my queen to the sport of kings’

“This came from the second Ely writing session. It was the
day after Sherburn and Napier’s first festival outing at Ely
Folk Festival. On the way down to Ely I read The Guardian
obituary of Sir Henry Cecil and that’s what inspired this
tale of gambling and womanizing. I stress that this song is
only loosely based on his life.”

Let’s head back to early 1900’s America for the pared back, sparse country blues, guitar-picking feel to The Sport Of Kings. The lap-steel guitar is brilliant and gives the song that huge nostalgic feel of old-school saloons and the depression era United States. I found myself reminiscing about the great Bugsy Malone film from the mid 70’s (yes, I am that old to have seen it at the cinema) and gangsters and their molls, an amusing look back at the life of one of horse racing’s greats transported to a whole different era.

‘I know you’ve heard this all before
I cannot tell a lie
Of how I flew with aces high
Young men in the war
But there is nothing you can do
When the bugle calls
You don’t feel quite so brave somehow
When an angel falls’

“The more I read about Jimmie Angel the wilder his story
becomes. There’s still time for someone to make the film.

We squeezed his life into three sections but each verse
could have been expanded into a VIP song on its own.
One of the first recordings of this song, from Boo’s back
garden, contains a marvellous moment when a light
aeroplane passes overhead.”

When I was a boy I was fascinated by the story of how Jimmy Angel crashed his plane into  a waterfall in Venezuala thereby finding the highest waterfall in the wrorld and having his name bestowed upon it so I was really interested in hearing this song. Angel Falls is a tribute the man who was larger than life, a beautiful piece of emotive songwriting and really brings a lump to your throat. The perfectly simple and uncomplicated music brings pathos to the song and Findlay’s plaintive vocal is delivered with poignant sentiment, a fitting tribute to a man who bestrode the world he lived in.

Five extra tracks were released on the companion ‘Very Interesting Extras’, two months after the original album…

‘Suspended from the gods you spin
The rope’s about to break
Bound in danger locked and chained
How will you escape?’

“Although the song is now about Harry Houdini, when
I started it I was using escape artist imagery to view the
troubled life of Amy Winehouse: the idea of giving the
audience something astounding, beautiful and personal
and then the media machine says ‘Okay. That’s great.
What’s next? We want more and bigger and better and
more and…’

The gentle banjo and piano give How Will You Escape an old school Americana/Country feel of the wistful old days, regret and fifteen minutes of fame that never lasts. The vocals are bitter sweet and match the frailness of the music perfectly. It is a graceful track but one which hides much pain and remorse and leaves you feeling slightly sad and sombre.

‘Princess Rosanna graceful and tall
Was she pushed or did she fall
Didn’t make the front page just an inch or two inside
Princess Rosanna drowned in the Clyde’

“I like a snappy title…

This is another running song. I wrote it while running
down the side of the Clyde between Glasgow Green and
Pacific Quay.

Someone had spray painted ‘RIP Princess Rosanna’ in
foot-high luminous pink letters underneath Jamaica St
Bridge. I’ve never really been sure of who Rosanna is. By
the time I went back to photograph the graffiti the City
Council had removed it and all that was left was a faded
RIP and the letter ‘R’.”

A proper singer/songwriter track, Princess Rosanna Drowned in the Clyde is one man and his guitar that has a feel of Richard Thompson or Steven Stills about it. The powerful strumming of the acoustic guitar and Findlay’s dynamic vocal inject it with realism. It gets under your skin, the way this musician can conjure up a story from graffiti written on a bridge, a believable tale of a life lost is incredible and leaves you reflective and thoughtful as it closes out.

‘So Des what’s with the personalized plate
What’s with the paint job, the alloys, on this council estate
So Des is that number, which begins 52,
A badge for the crisis you’re driving into’

“I wrote the words to this while I was out running in the
East End of Glasgow.
52DES was a real number plate of a real dark blue BMW
M sport. I had run up over Haghill, down over Duke Street
and west along the Gallowgate and had seen the car parked
outside a dodgy looking tenement building.
The last line came from every heist movie I have ever
watched. There’s always some idiot who flashes their illgotten
gains too soon. Like Lester Freamon says in The
Wire, ‘Follow the money.’”

There’s a real feel of Oasis’ Half The World Away throughout 52Des, a sort of ‘homegrown’ track where Findlay’s inventive songwriting mind weaves a tale from nothing more than a number plate on a flash BMW parked outside a’dodgy tenement building’. Unhurried and laid back, it has a sarcastic humour at its core but is delivered in a sweet, sugar-coated manner. The elegantly strummed acoustic guitar and Findlay’s languid vocal add a nonchalant touch to this great little song.

‘After the last bell rings
Will I be on my own
Sleeping beneath the stars
Nowhere to call home
A million lights above me
When all I want is one
Will I be on my own
After the last bell rings’

“‘After the Last Bell Rings’ was inspired by two things. The
spark of the idea was a joke Chris Sherburn used to tell at
Last Night Fun gigs. Just as Nick Scott was about to play a
beautiful, and long, slow air on the uilleann pipes, Chris
would invite the audience to stack their chairs quietly
during the performance, supposedly to save time at the
end of the night.
The rest of the song is based round the end of every Sunday
Funday at the open mic night in Bar Bloc, Glasgow. I used
to run the night there with Louis Abbott and Jamie Sturt.
After twelve hours of music and drinking the musicians of
Glasgow still had the energy to keep partying into the early
hours of Monday morning.”

A proper slice of  Americana inspired country music, After The Last Bell Rings leaves you feeling that you really could be in a saloon bar in Texas listening to some good ol’ boys playing this fantastic song. The guitars are note perfect and Findlay has an easygoing, insouciant tone to his carefree vocals. A song for lazy days and drinking whiskey, the lap-steel solo is jaw-droppingly good, breathe in the tobacco soaked atmosphere of the old days and just enjoy brilliant music delivered in a simple but impressive fashion.

‘I don’t why I never grew
The world too much for me
Fell in with clowns and acrobats
Nothing else to be
I saw the limelight of New York
I saw the Golden Mile
A life as memorabilia
I was here to make you smile’

“Film maker Jono McLeod, one of the major pledgers for
the VIP project, asked Boo and I to write him a song. The
song was to be about his Uncle, an actor,comedian and
Very Interesting Person called Jimmy Mac.”

Songs about true life always seem to throw up the most interesting stories and this elegantly delivered tale of Jimmy Mac’s marriage to a circus midget called Winnie Yelland and the media circus that surrounded it is no exception. Brilliant delivered mainly using a simple banjo and Findlay’s cultured vocal, it has a smooth class about it that exudes from every line. When the violin joins in it takes on a touch of the gypsey/traveller music that you would have heard from travelling Circus performers in the early decades of the 20th Century. The charming chorus really lingers on your mind, I found my self singing it for hours after. The addition of a harmonium is just genius and it is that instrument that brings the song, and this review to a most satisfying end.

I’ve found that over the last few months I’ve really taken a liking to the Scottish folk and singer/songwriter scene and , to me, Findlay Napier is right there at the vanguard of these new artists that are coming to the fore. Brilliantly composed songs with humour and pathos, written about people and places that this gifted musician knows and appreciates. You almost feel humbled that he wants to share them with you and I can’t wait for the next chapter in his tales of life and love in Scotland and afar.

‘Very Interesting Persons’ was released on 1st December 2015 and you can buy it from bandcamp here:

Findlay Napier – Very Interesting Persons

‘Very Interesting Extras’ was released on 15th February 2016 and you can buy it from bandcamp here:

Findlay Napier – Very Interesting Extras

Fin has started a kickstarter campaign for his next album ‘Glasgow’ which is going really well and you can join the campaign here: