Location: The Left Bank, Glasgow
Interview subject: Stuart Murdoch, Belle & Sebastian/God Help The Girl
Background info: Let’s go back nine years. It’s a late afternoon in spring and I’m a passenger in a car. We’ve rolled up to a set of red lights at a pedestrian crossing on Gibson Street in the West End of Glasgow. After a couple of seconds the lights change to flashing amber. There’s not a soul around but the car doesn’t move. Still they flash, on and off, on and off. Why won’t he drive on? It feels like minutes have passed. Nobody says a word. I glance nervously at the rear-view mirror, another vehicle approaches from behind. I crack. “Stuart, I think it’s OK to drive thr-”. The lights turn green. Stuart hits the accelerator.
The last time I met Stuart Murdoch, most of the interview was conducted while he drove around town in his 1973 Ford Granada. Nine years later, I’ve somehow ended up a passenger in his car again, only now it’s a decidedly more modern black Astra, stuffed with Fruit Pastilles and Polo wrappers. Stuart was running late and didn’t want to leave me waiting at our pre-arranged Hillhead Underground meeting place, so he picked me up and we head, with terrifying inevitability, towards Gibson Street. This time the lights stay green.
Stuart takes a right and executes a textbook reverse park. As I open the door to get out, I ask him if I need to push down the button. He shakes his head. We start walking away from the car. “But it’s not locked,” I insist. Stuart doesn’t reply. Without breaking stride, he puts his hand in his left pocket, clicks the key, and the reassuring clunk of the central locking does its job. Smooth.
We head into The Left Bank and the waitress ushers us to a table smack bang in the middle of the cafe. It’s not the most discreet spot for an interview, so Stuart folds his arms over my dictaphone to make this look more like an everyday conversation in a coffee house. The man is clearly clued up in tape recorder camouflage techniques.
“I’ve got a little Toshiba one,” he says. “I quite often get song ideas when I’m walking along, so I turn the thing upside down and pretend I’m on the phone and sing into it. Nobody would know.”
Stuart’s new project is called God Help The Girl. It is a film that the 40-year-old is still in the process of writing, but the soundtrack that accompanies it can’t wait. Fourteen tracks have made it on to the album, which is released on Rough Trade in June, with four leftovers earmarked for a future EP.
Catherine Ireton is predominantly the lead singer, but there are cameos from several others including The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, while two guest vocalists – American pair Britanny Stallings and Dina Bankole – were found through an online competition set up by Stuart.
Did you feel like Simon Cowell sifting through all those wannabes?
“A little bit. But I must admit, I’ve never watched any of those programmes. I am aware that there is a phenomenon called… is it called X Factor? [I nod] This is my little thing and it would have happened regardless of the latest fads. At first I thought I was going to have a girl group, three singers together. They would move into the same house and be a force, but that never happened. We had about 380 audio auditions and 50 videos on top of that. [Stuart sighs] By the end, I didn’t listen to some of them all the way through but I pretty much knew.”
Stuart submitted the first draft of the God Help The Girl film to the producer last October (“he politely suggested I needed to write some more”) and is working on another version.
What’s the concept of the movie?
“The main protagonist is Eve, the girl who sings most of the songs on the record. She starts off in a mental hospital, at her lowest ebb. She’s not too crazy but she’s crazy enough. She’s in there for a long time and she discovers that she can write songs and she sees that as her way of getting out of the trouble she’s in. She makes it out of hospital eventually and runs into James and Cassie and the three of them make music over the course of a summer and become really close.”
If you are familiar with the Belle & Sebastian biography, you might recognise that Eve’s predicament bears uncanny parallels with Stuart’s own life story. Before forming Belle & Sebastian, Stuart spent seven years saddled with ME, a condition that sapped his energy and often left him housebound, crippling him for most of his twenties.
The film is biographical, isn’t it?
[Stuart takes a gulp of coffee] “There are biographical strands with Eve being in such a poor way. But I had to make Eve’s condition more dramatic because I would challenge anybody to write a good drama about ME. It’s like watching paint dry. Maybe one day somebody will make a good film about ME… it would be a sleeper hit [laughs]. Sorry.”
How did you ultimately get better?
“I tried lots of different therapies and doctors and eventually – and this happens to Eve in the story – I went to a healer. She was a Christian healer and I wasn’t a signed-up Christian at the time but the woman said, ‘You don’t have to be to benefit from this so don’t worry about it’. She charged me nothing. She just put her hands over me and said I might feel a bit warm. I was just lying there and felt very relaxed. She spent a whole hour, just moving around. I went away and thought that was the end of it. About a week and a half later I had what could only be described as a nervous breakdown and had the worst six months of my life, mentally as well as physically. But my physical condition got better from that point and I spent the next three of four years slowly recovering from ME. It might sound like a crazy story but she really helped me.”
Do you regard that as the turning point?
“Absolutely. Absolutely! [Stuart gets visibly animated] The turning point of my LIFE. I’ve tried to track that woman down since but she moved from Mosspark and her neighbours don’t know where she went. I think she cut hair in hospitals and while she did that she gave the old ladies healing, although they didn’t know it. I’m not going to name her but I do wonder where she is.”
It was through ME that Stuart met his best friend Ciara MacLaverty, a fellow sufferer who has campaigned vigorously to raise awareness for an illness that she had for 20 years. Her ‘miracle’ fix was a treatment programme, developed by a Scottish doctor, called Mickel Therapy which, incidentally, has also cured two other chronic-fatigue sufferers I know personally. Like Stuart’s healer, Mickel Therapy is unavailable on the National Health Service despite a 92% success rate.
“Back in the day, and probably still to this day, ME was a network because there’s not the support through the NHS,” he says. “So you have to find out things from people around you. Ciara and I formed our own ME club in the West End of Glasgow for like-minded sufferers and we used to hang out. The funny thing is, when I was feeling a lot better and Ciara was feeling really low, I used to try healing on her, just for half an hour. I don’t know whether it did any good but I tried [laughs]. I think you’ll find what’s for you if you go looking for it.”
Stuart has become more open about the subject of religion as he has grown older. After our 2000 interview, he sent an additional quote by email which I segued into the published article. It read: “My favourite book is the Bible, and my favourite book in the Bible is St John, and I’ve lifted freely and happily from that since I read it.” Similarly, religious references have become commonplace in Belle & Sebastian’s songs. If You Find Yourself Caught In Love is a paean to “the man above”, while the band’s last album, The Life Pursuit, opens with the lyrics “morning prayers”. His recent online diary entries are also peppered with religious content: “May 3, 2009: What I meant to talk about tonight was hymns. The greatest hits of God! I’m going to write hymns one day.” And, it’s so blatant you might have overlooked it, his new project is called God Help The Girl.
Do you feel a duty to spread the Word?
“If you’re a Christian, there’s meant to be a feeling of mission. But I think it’s mission enough just to act in a certain way. People will be drawn into stuff if it appeals to them. I would never chase somebody up the street with a club trying to get them to convert.”
Does it concern you that society as a whole, certainly in Britain, seems to be becoming less religious?
“Organised religion has fallen away for many reasons over the past 20 or 30 years. It doesn’t bother me at all. Come on, it’s not like I’ve got shares in the Church of Scotland. People might turn away from the Church but a lot will end up finding spirituality elsewhere. You can’t really expect in this day and age when we’re a world culture for us to simply accept Christianity when we’re a “Christian country”. The areas where other faiths and religions cross over are much greater than many people would imagine. But I can see people’s problems with organised religion, I’ve got no argument with that. I’m not into tribes. I wouldn’t go to war on anybody’s behalf.”
Do you think about death?
“Not so much, but I do have a constant notion about another life, another place. I think about spirituality. It lives with me like another dimension all the time. It guides me along. I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a Holy Joe or pious but I like to lean on that stuff. It makes life so much more interesting. Maybe this developed out of my ME years of nothingness. I wasn’t able to work and live as much as other people. Sometimes you’re only on 30%. You’ve got to fill in the other 70% yourself and that can be when spirituality jumps in, so maybe some people just don’t need it or their lives are full enough.”
Stuart officially joined the Church last month, along with his wife of two years, Marisa Privitera. An American born to Italian-Cuban parents, she appeared on the cover of The Life Pursuit and was pictured topless on the front of Belle & Sebastian’s Fans Only DVD, with her modesty preserved by a carefully-position book.
How did you meet Marisa?
“I met her briefly in Boston and then we met again at the Benicassim music festival in Spain. I think it was 2002. We met at the go-karts and she’d had a couple of gins and I told her to be careful. [He pauses] She’s phoning just now!”
Stuart digs into his pocket and plucks out his vibrating mobile – the kind you’d describe as a ‘brick’ – and has a brief, predominantly one-way, conversation (“Yeah… oh yeah… I’ll do that”) before he takes up the story again.
“She always hates that bit when I say that she’d had a couple of drinks. So she went on the go-karts and smashed it straight into the bales of hay and broke her foot. I was going to Barcelona and she had a couple of days before she went back to the States, so I had to carry her around the city. You get to know someone pretty well that way.”
Marisa moved to Scotland to do a Masters degree in film. They got married in New York and spent their honeymoon in Sicily, where they were invited to a typically Italian celebratory dinner with the extended Privitera family.
“We just had to stand there taking envelopes of money,” he says. “It was like The Godfather. I’m telling you, if you marry a Sicilian, you do OK.”
How did you propose?
[Nervous laugh] “I didn’t exactly get down on one knee but we talked around it for a while. So I said, ‘Look, I’ll get hitched if we go to New York and do it in the public office and we don’t tell anyone’. So that’s what we did. That’s as magic as it gets! She always feels ripped off. She says, ‘I can’t believe I’ve got the most unromantic guy. You write all those songs and you can’t even say such-and-such. If only they knew the truth.’ I can’t imagine being married to any other person because she’s so tolerant of my entrenched ways. I’m a pain in the arse.”
Stuart’s relationship with Marisa and the way his eyes light up when he talks about her couldn’t be more different from his affair with former bandmate Isobel Campbell, which was largely kept hidden until she quit the band in 2002.
“If it wasn’t common knowledge then it was probably my fault,” he admits. “I was a little bit ‘one foot in, one foot out’ with that and I put my hand up and say that’s not an ideal way to run a relationship. It’s definitely not an ideal way to run a band. It had, shall we say, an interesting dynamic that really wasn’t very positive. In saying that, for a couple of years the static between us was like an engine that ran the band for good or bad. I hear from Isobel less than it’s possible to hear from a person who lives in the same town as you. I’ve maybe bumped into her twice since she left, which is quite a feat. Just shows you how much we had in common.”
Is Morrissey still an idol for you?
“Yeah, a little bit. But I wouldn’t really want to meet him. I don’t think he’d be that nice. I’d rather keep him as an idol of the 80s – The Smiths, the first solo album. Whenever Morrissey plays the same festival as us he cancels. Up until a few years ago I would have really liked to have met him and hung out, had a coffee, but like I say, he just kept cancelling when we played. I figured he didn’t want to meet us.”
Do you have any other idols?
“I think Andy Murray is pretty great. Who would have seen that coming? A Scottish tennis player in the top three. It will be a great psychological weight lifted from the country if and when he finally wins a major. I think that would have happened if Colin Montgomerie had ever won a major.”
On April 23, exactly two months ahead of its release date, the full God Help The Girl album leaked onto the internet. However, Stuart isn’t too troubled.
“The hard fact is, we’re going to make a lot less money,” he acknowledges. “Our sales will go like that [arrows hand done], they have done. But up until the point where I’m having to seriously think about getting another job to get by, I can’t really complain. What’s the point in getting mad? The internet is a sort of approximation of what Belle & Sebastian was all about when we started. It’s a democratisation. It’s not so much them and us any more. When we started we felt we weren’t different from the audience and they got that feeling from us, and that has been carried on with the internet. You maybe lose a bit of glamour on the way but it’s good for music.”