THE RISKS AND REWARDS OF DOING IT SOLO
A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN DOUGLAS (TRASHCAN SINATRAS)
Deciding to do it solo, just you, your voice and guitar, can be a tricky proposition. You are not only all by yourself, you are completely exposed and vulnerable. The music you take on, yours or somebody else’s, has to be strong, spot on, and it has to make a strong connection with the listeners.
The risk is even greater if you are, like John Douglas, an established artist, whose band, in this case Scottish folk/rock powerhouse The Trashcan Sinatras, has been on the scene for more that 30 years or so and has established a strong fanbase. Add to that the fact that Douglas has successfully collaborated with his personal partner and another well-know artist, Eddi Reader and her band, and has had numerous (live) collaborations with the likes of Norman Blake (Teenage Fan Club) and Martin McAloon (Prefab Sprout).
Yet, with all that in hand, Douglas has recently decided to make a self-titled solo album, just him, his vocals and his guitar, playing a number of new songs, and covering some previously done by Trashcan Sinatras as well as a cover of Prefab Sprout’s “We Let The Stars Go”.
Quite a good reason to talk to Douglas about this album, his thoughts behind it, Trashcan Sinatras, his collaborations and what is coming up next. It might seem surprising that it was only now, decades into an illustrious career, that Douglas decided to do a solop project. “I did go busking in the streets, so I knew I could do it, but it was not something I have done before, and it turned out to be quite a refreshing thing.”
Yet, as he explains, the newness of the concept brought in some nerves. But, as he rehearsed for the recording, everything loosened up. “I just sat with my guitar and played a bunch of songs. And I got I got a lot of enjoyment out of it. I was keen on bringing something new into my life. I was writing songs all my life and at one point I got stuck, so I thought I had to do something.”
The result is actually an album that is quite refreshing as Douglas wanted it to be, the new songs fall in perfectly with the old Trashcan Sinatras favorites that themselves, along with the cover, take on a new light. “The whole thing was very different from playing with a band. I could change the songs very quickly and it was something I couldn’t really do in a band setting.”
For Douglas it all felt like something that was falling into place naturally. Something he also felt when he was invited to play live collaborations with Blake, McAloon and others. “And then I began to say yes to everything. If somebody asked me to do something, I wouldn’t be nervous about it. I just say yes, and show up and did the music.”
Playing to audiences that wouldn’t know the Trashcan songs so much, felt good for Douglas because it helped him choose Trashcan Sinatras songs he would cover on the album, as he puts it, “the songs that were more more appealing to people kind of instantly.”
The whole process of recording this solo album felt to him quite different to the process of songwriting and recording with the band. “As Trashcan Sinatras we work like a real group of writers and players. Everything that ended on our records went through everyone’s critical faculties. If Douglas or another member came up with a finished or half-finished song, other members would chip in and guide the original songwriter or add to a possible gap themselves. “It’s very kind of a communal thing. We’re all from the same town and we’re all roughly the same age and we’ve all kind of went through the same record music appreciation things. It’s all kind of like a different version of myself when we’re all together.”
“I’ve always written songs with my own criteria, but I’ve always taken to the band and they’ve either been finished by the band or accepted by the band. So my process is still the same. But I think it’s slightly different now doing it by myself.”
Actually, there is a song on his solo debut, “Orange Crayons”, that he originally wrote for the band but never made it to any of the Trashcan Sinatras records. “We rehearsed it a little bit, but it never really ticked everyone else’s boxes. Others said that it just didn’t really fit with the Trashcan stuff. It’s just the nature of writing.”
Talking about his musical influences, Douglas, of course points to the 40s and 50s era of songwriting and Frank Sinatra himself, but also to rock classics like Bob Dylan and The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, The Smiths, “everything’s good,” laughs Douglas.
Actually, at one point, Douglas wrote a tribute song to Syd Barrett that made it to a record. “One of life’s outsiders. One of the people that did things their own way and music was the number one driving force. He wasn’t really ambitious or career minded. It was all about doing the music the way you wanted it to be. And here we are, kinda, you know, that’s the kind of path that we followed and a non musical journey. It’s always been about the music first and the character of the music.”
Talking about Trashcan Sinatras and their projects, Douglas first mentions the upcoming reissue series of their albums, starting with Cake. The band was approached by a record label from Glasgow which wanted to release all of the band’s catalogue. The releases are just remasters with no additional material added. “It’s lovely to have your past stuff looked at again, with fresh eyes and kind of given a given a dusting, you know, fresh like a bean. I think it’s good to notice the journey of the band from the early records to the later records, to the more recent records as a nice journey.”
Douglas talked about his musical collaboration with his life partner Eddi Reader. Reader is the sister of Trashcan Sinatras singer Frank, and he has known both of them most of his life, and he and Eddi are now a couple for some 20 years or so. Naturally, through that time they worked on songs together and quite a few of them have ended up on Reader’s records. “Working with Eddi and her band, was quite different than working with Trashcan Sinatras. We and her band would show up in the studio and I’ll show them the song that day. And they will pick it up, and within two or three weeks we’ll have that on a record. With Trashcan it is very different – we’d rehearse a lot and work out parts of songs so they would fit in. Actually, I like both approaches.”
Talking about the upcoming projects, Douglas points at two things – his upcoming solo shows and working on a new Trashcan Sinatras album. “I’m setting up some shows, I’m doing a couple of shows in Glasgow, and later on a bunch in Scotland with a band called Weather Hander, that will actually be all support slots.”
Next year (2024) the shows will be Douglas headliner shows, and he is currently working on a number of songs so that he could play a full-fledged hour and a half show. The work on a new Trashcan Sinatras album is also in progress. The recording process is taking time as two members of the band now live in the U.S., and a lot of communication and music has to be done over the internet. “When we get a bunch of songs that we’re happy with, we’ll go into the studio and we’ve started. We’ve done two studio session so far will be another one and hopefully January or February. And ideally we’d have a record out later on next year.”