Aidan Moffat is contemplating whether devolution makes a certain kind of sound. "There seemed for a long time in Scotland to be an embarrassment in being yourself," says the former Arab Strap vocalist. "When I was young, all Scottish bands seemed to want to be English or American and I found that really peculiar. We're still a fucking miserable bunch, but we certainly seem more proud and comfortable with our own identity than we were in the past."
Novelist Alasdair Gray's dictum to "work as if you live in the early days of a better nation" – now carved on the wall of the Scottish parliament – is finding its most obvious application in Scotland's vibrant arts output. Almost 15 years after devolution and with the SNP government gearing up for an independence referendum in 2014, a period of seismic change is finding a parallel expression through music.
You won't find many bands north of the border hymning independence or singing about the sanctity of the union – it's less clear-cut than that. There is, however, evidence of what folk musician and Burns Unit member Karine Polwart calls "a massive sense of cultural confidence": acclaimed scenes encompassing everyone from cutting-edge electronic artists to million-selling rock bands; collaborations across genres and art forms; above all, a tangible sense of a nation looking to itself for inspiration and validation. "Many musicians are embracing their Scottishness," says BBC Radio Scotland's Vic Galloway. "It's not about tartan, bagpipes and shortbread, but a contemporary forward-thinking Scotland that isn't afraid to sing in its own accent and embrace its own culture."
In the past, Scottish musicians overwhelmingly required the approval of a record industry anchored in the south of England. That has changed, or is at least changing. Selkirk's Frightened Rabbit generate very little heat in the London press but have signed to Atlantic, pop up on Jimmy Fallon's TV show and play nightly to audiences of thousands in the US. They have done it by forging links between their base in Scotland and the rest of the world. Many other bands are embarking on a similar path. Instrumental electro-rock group Errors are typical. Signed to a Scottish label and based in Glasgow, "15 years ago we probably would have had to make that decision to move south," says guitarist Steve Livingstone. "Now there's more confidence about staying in Scotland. You don't have to have an office in London to communicate with the rest of the industry."
Musicians may still need to look south for PR and publishing, but "bands are in many ways side-stepping London," says Galloway. "Nobody will skip it on their tours, that would be petty and counter-productive, but they do their business there then head to New York or Tokyo. They've realised that there are wider opportunities, and that clearly mirrors the political situation."
Meanwhile, a devolved Scotland has shored up its own institutions. T in the Park is the UK's second-biggest live event and globally renowned, while Celtic Connections is one of the leading lights in the worldwide roots calendar. Organisations such as Scottish Arts Council, Creative Scotland and even the National Theatre of Scotland all play supporting roles.
In the bones of the music, too, there are obvious signifiers of a cultural shift. One is a widespread willingness to reclaim traditional music and twist it into new shapes. "For years folk music was the only form that always used a Scottish voice and language, that was the only place it was acceptable," says Moffat. "We've found a new respect for that and its value has come to light again."
Two decades ago the Proclaimers were, notes Moffat, "roundly mocked" for being virtually the only high-profile Scottish act to sing in their own accent; now it's the norm. Language is always political, and the willingness of singers to embrace their natural voice constitutes a clear statement. "Hearing Arab Strap sing in their local dialect gave me the confidence to sing in my own accent and write about where I live," says the Twilight Sad's singer James Graham, who has become accustomed to American audiences "singing back at us in a pretend Scottish accent, which sounds like Groundskeeper Willie. We don't wear a Scottish badge, but if people are put off by the accent they're not going to like our music. It actually feels a bit weird when you hear a Scottish band not singing in their own accent."
Not everyone agrees. Music isn't football or politics, and some musicians worry that overtly transmitting their Scottishness enforces old stereotypes or even leans toward a form of cultural apartheid. For Livingstone, "the accent still has too many ties that aren't particularly positive. I'm not that comfortable with it. It still seems quite cheesy to me, and some bands who sing in Scottish aren't actually using their natural accents. It's exaggerated." Vic Galloway concedes the point. "There are bands out there – I could name them but I won't – who have obviously heard Glasvegas or Arab Strap or Fence Collective and are overdoing their own accent. They sound disingenuous." Moffat acknowledges a "danger that you can end up shutting yourself off" by being too colloquial, "but I don't think that's going to happen. As long as we can maintain an international reach there's no harm in looking to our own culture."
Glasvegas's James Allan believes that the connection between political and cultural change "is probably quite indirect. Your surroundings always creep in, but it's not to do with a specific political vision for the country." He points out that "issues aren't very different throughout the world – the things I sing about aren't exclusive to Scotland". Several musicians emphasise the importance of the internet in breaking borders while making the point that what's happening in Scotland has been happening in other parts of the UK and further afield: more musicians exploring their local culture, more Welsh-language pop and songs with a Mackem or Yorkshire brogue.
Polwart reckons the changes in Scotland run deeper, emphasising a mutually supportive network of artists and an upsurge in collaborative projects like Ballad of the Books and Whatever Gets You Through The Night, a new multimedia endeavour featuring specially commissioned words and music by musicians, poets, playwrights and novelists from across Scotland, including David Greig, RM Hubbert, Withered Hand and Errors. "Communitarianism is a really strong part of our national character," she says. "The links now across genres are incredible and very natural, people are no longer operating in their little pockets. There's a general respect that just wasn't there 20 years ago. It's normal in Scotland and I'm not sure it is normal anywhere else in the UK. It's beautiful and quite special."
Has devolution driven these changes or has culture dictated the political agenda? It's impossible to tell, but it's likely that the same shift in thinking that made the Scottish parliament a reality and has put independence on the table parallels the way Scotland's arts have evolved. "I do feel it's all connected and quite exciting," says Polwart. "It's part of a whole debate about whether there is something distinctly different about the Scottish way of doing things. Devolution is a product of that feeling rather than a cause."
Although she cheerfully talks about holding "two fingers up at what's going on in the London-centric scene," Polwart is adamant that the resurgence in Scotland's national identity is not, by and large, anti-English. "There's none of that chippiness. It's nothing to do with hatred or defining yourself against something else." James Graham agrees that the creative energy is overwhelmingly positive. "There's a collective feeling that something is happening, and I'm proud to be a part of that."
It remains to be seen whether independence becomes a reality, and whether it would prove a blessing or a curse for Scotland. Whatever occurs in 2014, a significant process of cultural realignment is already well under way. "Everyone has big plans," says Moffat. "I'm not sure how I'll vote in the independence referendum, but in the general election Alex Salmond was the only one going: 'We're brilliant.' Everyone else says: 'Times are tough, it's horrible.' He said: 'Fuck all that, we're amazing!' He's a perfect reflection of a new attitude that seems to be catching – and he's right. We should be proud of our culture, and we don't need the approval of anyone."
Posted by MMac