Celebrating landmark year

As John McCusker marks 25 years in the music business this year by being busier than ever he admits it's not going according to plan, because he's never had one.

The renowned fiddler, composer and producer is celebrating his personal milestone with his first solo record in 13 years, as well as a tour with his band and a book of his songs.

But that is just a fraction if his multi-faceted life. He continues to be sought after by other musicians to join them on stage or to produce their work.

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As a live and studio guest he has played with Bonnie Raitt, Patti Smith, Steve Earle, Rosanne Cash, Paolo Nutini and Jools Holland, featured on recordings by Mark Knopfler, Paul Weller, Ocean Colour Scene, Teenage Fanclub and Idlewild, and has also performed as a soloist with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra at Proms in the Park, playing his own compositions.

His expanding portfolio as a producer has seen him man the controls for artists including Kris Drever, Idlewild’s Roddy Woomble, Eddi Reader, Eliza Carthy and Linda Thompson.

Currently, he is producing a new album by his wife, the singer Heidi Talbot, in a state-of the-art studio, a converted 18th century bothy attached to their house in the Borders, where he also made his new solo album ‘Hello, Goodbye’, the first release on his recently launched record label, Under One Sky Records.

“I’ve been very lucky, getting to do lots of different things”, he said. “It’s very exciting working with so many amazing people and I’ve been so busy that for a long time it just never crossed my mind to do another solo record, which is why there was such a gap since the last one.

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‘Hello, Goodbye’, which was issued at the end of April, was conceived while John was touring around Europe and the US with Mark Knopfler, one of the highlights of those 25 years.

John, who will help the award-winning Hebridean Celtic Festival celebrate its own landmark this year, when he plays at its 21st birthday, said playing with Knopfler is an example of his career experience of “one door opening as another closes”.

He left school at 16 and a year later joined the legendary Battlefield Band, touring with them for 11 years before deciding to try something different, although he wasn’t entirely sure what.

“I’ve never had a plan in my life. When I left the band I didn’t know what I was going to do. But then Mark called me and asked me to play on his record. It turned my life upside down.”

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He later toured with Knopfler and his band, playing arenas around the world including a double bill with Bob Dylan at The Hollywood Bowl and 20 nights at The Royal Albert Hall.

“I had never experienced anything like that before”, he said. “It was really exciting, but what I was not prepared for was how much I would learn from these musicians. It was like going back to the very beginning when I first joined the Battlefield Band.

John was re-united with Knopfler and his band last month at the Royal Albert Hall when they played at the Radio 2 Folk Awards. He picked up the Good Tradition Award, adding to other honours including Radio 2 Musician of the Year in 2003 and The Spirit of Scotland Award for music in both 1999 and 2009.

His ability to move between musical genres has not only allowed him to work with a variety of artists, it has also seen him branch out into TV and film soundtracks and commissioned work including the Under One Sky project, which united Scottish and English musicians from different backgrounds, including Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis and Blur guitarist Graham Coxon.

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But folk remains his first love and he is excited at the recent revival in traditional music and the success of events such as HebCelt, where the John McCusker Band will feature some of the finest traditional musicians and singers in the UK: Andy Cutting, Adam Holmes, Innes White and Toby Shaer.

“HebCelt is a good example of the thriving scene we have at the moment. It’s great to have seen the festival grow and I always look forward to it and to meeting up with other musicians. It’s like one big musical family.

“I was delighted to get asked again this year. It’s just brilliant and festival audiences are there to have a magic time.”

His book will be published later this year and, in addition to all his other work, John will be keeping busy with his band, as well as a traditional touring project with Celtic music stars Michael McGoldrick and John Doyle and a songwriting trio with Kris Drever and Roddy Woomble.

The 21st HebCelt will be held from 13-16 July in Stornoway.