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Interview & Video Exclusive: The Magnetic North | reviews, news & interviews

Interview & Video Exclusive: The Magnetic North

Interview & Video Exclusive: The Magnetic North

Son of the Orkneys makes musical guide to the spirit of the islands

The Magnetic North brave the weather: Erland Cooper, Hannah Peel and Simon Tong (left to right)

John Charles Gunn’s Orkney: The Magnetic North was published in 1932 as a guide to the islands and their history. Now, along with a dream, it’s inspired The Magnetic North’s album Orkney: Symphony Of The Magnetic North. With former Verve member Simon Tong, his collaborator in Erland & the Carnival, and solo artist and orchestrator Hannah Peel, the Orcadian singer-songwriter Erland Cooper has created a tribute to his roots.

Cooper says he was visited in a dream by Orcadian Betty Corrigal, who hanged herself in the 1770s after discovering she was pregnant by a visiting sailor. Cast out, she was buried in unconsecrated ground with no grave stone. Her body was later found by peat cutters and reburied with a headstone. Her grave can now be seen on the island of Hoy.

John Charles Gunn Orkney: The Magnetic North “Stromness in Orkney is home,” says Cooper. “It is a small, sleepy fishing village. The rest of the world was always going to seem impressive after 18 years of sheltered isolation. I couldn't wait to leave the island as a teenager, being surrounded by the same folk, sea and cliffs can feel claustrophobic at times. Everyone knows everyone. Now, I can't wait to go home. It grounds me. It gives you a good perspective on the world because the pace of life is still so much slower. My first proper trip away from Orkney as a teenager was Kirkwall to London, Gatwick, then New York, JFK. As big a culture shock as you can get."

After the surprise visit by Betty in January 2011, Cooper resolved to make an album about where he was brought up. It would be his guide to the Orkneys, with Tong and Peel on board for the journey. Place names became the titles of the individual pieces. Inspiration also came from the history of the islands, their folk music, poetry and geography. Recording took place in the living room of Cooper’s parent’s house on the harbour at Stromness.

Peel had never been to the Orkneys, yet they seemed familiar to her. “I knew it would be mystical place,” she says. “Every mile, every half mile there’s a 5000-year-old tomb. The air is different. It felt like going home, as I had spent a lot of time in Donegal in my childhood. I discovered you can't make a record about the Orkneys without including Orkney." She wrote arrangements for the Stromabank Pub Choir, who were recorded in Hoy Kirk. Cooper recorded vocals inside The Dwarfie Stane, a Neolithic stone chamber. It’s as well there was shelter, as strong winds meant the photo session for the album cover had to be completed in under three minutes. Nonetheless, a documentary on the making of the album was completed.

A map of the islands will be included with the album. “I’m a wee bit protective about the islands,” admits Cooper. “But I’m excited about people going to the islands, discovering them, following the map. I hope Orcadians see it as a record of the geography, folklore, natural art and landscape. We've made a respectful record."

  • Orkney: Symphony of the Magnetic North is released on 6 May

Watch the video for The Magnetic North's "Bay Of Skaill"

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