It’s typical of Dougie MacLean that, when one door temporarily closes, he finds the keys to two other openings.
The time he (with wife and festival director Jenny) would normally spend on preparing for the annual Perthshire Amber Festival, which they have shelved this year after 12 successful events, will instead be used to put the finishing touches to a new CD and continuing to work on the songs and script for a musical.
That’s in addition to his ongoing writing and touring, as well as recording programmes on his own TV station for his legions of fans around the world.
The new CD, entitled ‘New Tomorrow’ is a family affair, recorded and produced by son Jamie MacLean in their Butterstone Studios, while daughter Julia is responsible for the artwork. It features songs written over the last 3-4 years and will be released while Dougie is on tour in the UK and the US this year.
These dates will include two solo headline gigs later this month at the award-winning Hebridean Celtic Festival in Stornoway, which Dougie helped to launch more than two decades ago.
In 1996, he was among the first acts to perform at the inaugural HebCelt and has returned a number of times since, most recently in 2013 when he played with the nine-piece MacLean Project. The same year he was invited into the festival’s Hall of Fame, shortly after receiving the BBC Radio 2 Lifetime Achievement Award.
“It was great to be involved in that first festival and to be involved in the beginning of something”, he said. “It was a big learning curve for everyone, but they’ve done a brilliant job balancing the need to get headliners that get the attention, but also staying true to the roots of the event.
“Much of the ‘festival experience’ is to do with the place, the community and the people, as much as the music on the stage. Lewis has such a great musical heritage; the setting is unique and the adventure of going to a festival on an island all adds to the experience.”
Songs from the new CD are sure to feature in the HebCelt gigs on Thursday, 20 July on the main stage, and the following afternoon, at An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway for the show ‘Story Behind the Songs’ which will give an insight into the inspiration for some of his huge back collection of work.
“People are interested in what made you write certain songs. Sometimes you don’t want to give too much away because people have their own stories connected to songs and it can de-mystify the mystery of what it’s about, but there are plenty of stories to tell in the show.
“There is something lovely about the communication you can get with the audience when you are up there on your own. I performed in bands for much of my career, but I also love playing solo. I’m an old hippy and from that generation where playing solo at a festival is quite a big thing – you get that rapport and interaction with the crowd.”
The featured songs could range from ‘New Tomorrow’, the title track of the new CD and written for his new-born grandson (“I just wanted to tell him who I was”), to ‘Shadow of the Mountain’, inspired by a volcano erupting while he was playing a concert in Anchorage in Alaska in 2009.
“At the time I got stuck in Anchorage for four days. The city was covered in volcanic ash and everyone at the gig had masks on.
“I wrote the song as I thought it was a great metaphor for life – as humans we think everything is in place and then we wake up one morning and it’s all pear-shaped. So, we travel through life in the shadow of a volcano.”
Or, he may describe writing ‘Distant Son’, about living in the west side of Lewis where he and Jenny have had a home for more than 20 years.
“My grandparents were native Gaelic speakers and one of the reasons I ended up there was to better understand the Gaelic culture. I’ve got inspiration for songs there, but it’s also a place I can clear my head and get in touch with another part of me.”
While a ‘re-invented’ Perthshire Amber will probably return in 2018, its absence this year has also allowed Dougie time to develop another project, his planned ‘folk musical’, set in Perthshire in AD83 and based on a love story between a Roman soldier and an Iron Age girl.
“You can probably guess the title”, he said of the show that will feature both old and new songs, including his most famous creation ‘Caledonia’.
“It’s amazing as a songwriter to take one of your well-known songs, put it into a different context and see how it can have a whole different life.
“I’ve had great fun doing it. I love musicals and I have been wanting to do this for years, it’s just taken a long time to find the right story.
“I live just along the road from the remains of a Roman fort and up on the ridge there are also remains of an Iron Age community. I just imagined these people in their roundhouses waking up one morning and seeing 10,000 Roman soldiers down by the River Tay. It must have been like spacemen arriving.
“I love that kind of history - if I hadn’t been a musician I may have been an archaeologist. And there are so many parallels to the modern world. It’s about the big corporation and the wee guy and it’s interesting to use an historical story that also has a resonance with modern society.”
After 43 years as a professional singer songwriter, it’s clear Dougie still has the desire to write and sing as much as ever: “I’m very lucky to have that longevity and I’m very grateful.
“It’s a precarious business, but fortunately I’ve been able to build up a public that allows me to do concerts in places like Anchorage, or Sydney… or Stornoway.”
This year’s HebCelt will run from 19-22 July in the island of Lewis and will also be headlined by The Waterboys, Imelda May and Lucy Spraggan.