Siobhán Kane chats to Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch about The Celestial Café, a collection of his diaries & thoughts from 2002-2006 which was released earlier this year.
Stuart Murdoch is most well known for being the frontman for Glasgow’s Belle & Sebastian, but in 2002 he started keeping an online diary on the band’s website, and the collection The Celestial Cafe (released on 22nd February by Pomona Books) evidences a funny, lyrical and honest writer, and the process was liberating, as he tells Siobhán Kane.
Since 1996 Stuart Murdoch has been frontman for indie pop band Belle & Sebastian, and has enjoyed and endured in perhaps equal measure, from battling with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome to releasing several critically acclaimed records such as Tigermilk (1996), The Boy With the Arab Strap (1998) and Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003) and curating a festival (Bowlie) among other interesting pursuits. The band have evolved a single-minded adoration in fans, who particularly approve of Murdoch’s insightful, romantic lyrics and a sense of openness and obvious impulse to really communicate, which makes his reading at the Belle & Sebastian-curated Bowlie 2 in December seem like the most natural thing in the world. “It was a different experience, and to be honest I was editing on my feet, because I hadn’t even stood up in front of my wife to practice, and once I started talking, I thought ‘oh this isn’t going to work, I better miss this paragraph, and expand on this’. I think maybe you become a better reader once you have a bit of experience. I wasn’t as enamoured of the reading experience as I thought I might be, actually.”
The diary entries span the years 2002 – 2006, between the end of the recording of Dear Catastrophe Waitress and the beginning of recording The Life Pursuit, a busy period of writing and touring their music, which was perhaps tempered by the desire to write and express in a different way. “It came from a genuine urge to write prose, and that is always going to be about yourself and your everyday experience. I was, I suppose, trying to make it easy on myself. I was using the band experience as a touchstone, because if I wasn’t in a group, I wouldn’t have been able to go home and blog the way I did, as I knew my audience, and so every day I would go home and write. It helped that I was living on my own for that period, and it felt very easy.”
The collection is a charming journey into Murdoch’s often wry take on being in a band, and though he has experienced adulation, he is forever the teenage fan, as he illustrates through this entry after playing the Coachella festival:
May 3rd, 2004, Palm Springs, California, U.S.
I was watching The Flaming Lips afterwards, pondering their stage craft. I was sitting to the side of the stage with the rest of the suckers behind a barrier, thinking if I could get through I could have a seat and see the whole show. I could also see Christina Ricci on the privileged side of the fence, and I was anxious to have words with her. At least I was anxious to sit closer to her for a while so I could kid on I belonged there for a minute or two.
There is so much in the collection, from bouts of self-doubt (at one point he calls himself ‘a bewildered basket case’) to confidence (‘I feel sugar-shit sharp today’) through to philosophical musings on his frequent, long runs (‘while I was out I was wondering why I should be allowed such freedom, but then it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea’), to amusing introductions to anecdotes (‘I’ll tell you a couple of daft things that nearly happened to me in the last 24 hours. I nearly lost a testicle, and I nearly lost my eyelashes. I shall explain’), all of which must have made the editing process quite difficult. “The good thing was that it actually didn’t feel too long ago, not in that spooky way where you feel like a different person, and quite happily the editing was done by a friend of mine, who really had to get stuck into it, I think it would have been very difficult for me to edit and still keep a sense of perspective, I told Sean [Guthrie] to take a third out of it and make it read from part to part quite fluidly, and I think he did that, but I would have found that too hard.”
Murdoch’s talent has always been bound up in the fact that he is completely at one with what he is writing and singing about – something fans identify with; the mess, the thoughtfulness, the failures and the joy. “It’s strange, I didn’t get too much feedback from fans when I was writing the diaries, as around 2002 our website wasn’t that advanced, I might have had an occasional email through, but I really just sailed on, and it was a liberating experience. At first I started to try and explain the helter-skelter experience of touring, but when I came home to Glasgow, I opened up a bit more about various other topics, and it was very good for me personally.”
So many musical biographies tend to make interesting reading because of music’s relationship with individuality and creativity, whether it is Motley Crue’s The Dirt to Mark Oliver Everett’s Things the Grandchildren Should Know, which Murdoch’s book has more in common with. “You know, I didn’t read Mark’s book, but I heard a lot about it, as my wife was on tour with the Eels. She read it, and we saw that programme about his Dad and Physics, which was very good.” Murdoch’s love of Physics is well documented, as in this diary entry.
May 17th, 2006, Stockholm, Sweden
Instead of embracing all things physical, I drifted further away from academia. There was a girl with bobbed hair and a birthmark who sat in the physics lectures. I think I studied her harder than anything that was written on the blackboard. It’s just annoying to admit you’re not very good at something, isn’t it? There’s something about physics, though, that keeps engaging me…see, it irks me to think of myself as a musician. I’m not, I’m not a musician in the way Maxwell was a physicist. If he was a musician he’d be Schumann or Schubert, while I’m just Shit.”
However, Murdoch’s book is different from Everett’s again, because it is almost like sitting at a table in a cosy Glasgow cafe (where the diary entries begin), pot of tea on the go, listening to his delightful, ramshackle tales, though this collection also marks a maturity, something that leaves Murdoch wistful. “In growing up you gain something and lose something, you can communicate a lot more clearly, but there is a murky thing that you leave behind, which is an ability to write good songs, or write better songs. I think the best songs are written by younger people to be honest, where they are trying to work things out, it can be a murky experience, it can be an explosion of emotion. Then you grow up a little bit, and because of that I was able to write these diaries and see a bit more clearly what I was feeling, but I think I have lost something along the way.”
Yet perhaps there are surprising rewards through losing certain things? “I would absolutely agree with you, I suppose you should never be sad about leaving something behind, because you can be surprised by something else. Actually the thing I was most surprised about in the middle of that period was that afterwards I started writing songs for different people, and with different voices in mind, and that became a completely different project, and I could never have seen that coming, and that was very fruitful for me.”
This fruitfulness created God Help the Girl, a film and music project that originated in 2004 amidst Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Life Pursuit, but is very distinct from both of those records, as all songs were envisioned to be sung by female vocalists (Murdoch worked closely with Irish singer Catherine Ireton among others). So far the project has produced a full-length record and EP (both released in 2009) and a handful of singles, with a musical film underway. “I wouldn’t say that the project was influenced by the diaries, but that was the pleasant surprise, it just came along and that was the liberating experience, writing through different characters. It has been quite a happy process. I packed it away this time last year and went to work on Belle & Sebastian, but my producer was still exploring options, and now that I have got a bit of time I have been talking to a line producer in Glasgow, and we have started talking about casting and the whole rough and tumble of pre-production and trying to raise money. I think perhaps subliminally writing the diaries influenced something, but songs are such a unique thing, you can force yourself to write a diary every day, but I don’t see songs in the same way, they come along like butterflies and you just have to catch them.”
Murdoch dismantles some of the mystery bound up about being in a band, by pulling himself back down to earth in a very human way, amidst human concerns.
August 3rd, 2006, Glasgow, Scotland
What a boring old day! I’ve done nothing. I walked down the street and picked up NME because we were in it. (Are you disappointed in me?)
His charm partly comes from the fact that he, like Morrissey (one of his heroes) is completely aware of the frailty of life and the delicate relationship between hero and fans.
May 17th, 2006, Stockholm, Sweden
I sometimes wonder why anybody comes to our concerts, how they can come along, look forward to, and be excited by them. Sometimes the whole thing seems so humdrum, but perhaps it’s the otherness they admire.
“I really do feel that, and you know sometimes I feel I am only ever completely normal when I am on stage and singing to people, as I know they are just like us.” Therefore a collection of diary entries makes perfect sense for a man who has always been so honest, though his favourite books are not necessarily diaries or journals. “My book reading period was the late eighties, it seems funny to admit that, because that would be admitting that I don’t read many books now, which is kind of true as I mainly revisit books for comfort. I think there will be a time again when I go back to explore, but right now I feel like I am on top of my game and have something to say, but back in that day I was always in the second hand bookshops. One that comes to mind straightaway is Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; I really loved first time novels by authors, like Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, I know it is not as well-received as The Great Gatsby, but there is something about it – a young person, trying to find their way, that had a big impact on me. Then again, I always think of my main man, C.S. Lewis, an Irishman of course, who was almost born old, you just can’t imagine him as a young person, it seemed like he was born beside an armchair with a pipe in his mouth. He manages to translate his rich experiences, and it doesn’t matter about his age.” And like Lewis, Murdoch places a strong sense of nature and pastoral imagery in his writing. “I think that happens as you get older maybe. I actually just came out of an operation for an injury I got through football, and am appreciating nature even more; long walks in the country are my greatest pleasure.”
Murdoch has said that when he was writing the diaries, it was a period in his life where the Belle & Sebastian fan was his “muse”, but the same could be said of Scotland’s most famous poet Robert Burns, a writer Murdoch has particular affection for. “I think Burns in particular means something. When people think of Scotland they think of Burns, but I genuinely did grow up in the shadow of Burns. When I was six we moved from Glasgow to Alloway, and lived a mile from the cottage where he was born; so we had Burns readings, poetry and singing every year in the school. As I grew up, I moved out from the shadow of Burns to being very appreciative of him, feeling lucky I was walking along the banks of the Doon, and that our national poet came from there. He is not a complicated writer and that is why his popularity has lasted, he wrote from the heart.” Which is exactly the same impulse from which Murdoch began Belle & Sebastian, and which continues to flourish in his diaries, a genuinely celestial journey into a truly engaged mind.