In April 2023, Aberdonian outfit Blackledge Falling released its first album, following in the wake of four Eps and a host of gigs spanning ten years. The album, The Kissing Shell is a magical musical journey down the Pictish trail all the way from Aberdeen down to the Firth of Forth. Artist, musician, and the beating heart of Blackledge Falling, Ambient Allie Baird shares his journey across time and music.
The first moments of music
The very first song that I recall writing was a song for a band that I was in at primary school that wasn’t really a band. I certainly couldn’t play any musical instruments. The band was called Scarlet Interview, which was a great name. I was in that band with Andrew Barnett, the younger brother of David Barnett (The Suede Biographer), who was in lots of bands when I was younger, and probably the first person I ever knew who was in a band when I was like 10 or 11 and he introduced me to the Sex Pistols, got me away from heavy metal, etc. I think the first song I ever wrote was about heroin. I was in primary six or seven, a composite class. It was Mrs McNiven’s class. And I wrote a song about heroin, actually it was more of a poem because I didn’t play any instruments.
I think we’d been doing drugs at school or something. Not actually doing drugs at school, that would come much later ha ha, but we were getting told about the various issues around drugs and heroin and stuff, that was a big scare in the 80s, telling you how bad heroin was just before aids came along and took the mantel for scaring the populace. So I wrote that song and gave it to Mrs. McNiven and she didn’t believe that I wrote it. My mum had to get in touch to talk to the headmaster because they didn’t believe that I could have come up with something like that, which I took as a compliment. It just goes to show what you’re up against even at an early age.
So that was the first song I remember writing. I think I even stapled some tin foil to it, obviously as an eleven-year-old pupil you’ve got no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.
Allie Ambient emerges
Right through my 20s and late teens I hit everything pretty hard. Probably drink more than anything, but drugs as well. I got to that stage where my life wasn’t functioning, and I had to do something about it and so I stopped.
With not doing drugs, not drinking you’re left with a lot of time on your hands that you didn’t have before. I was feeling lots of big emotions, as you do when you give up any sort of substance. You get lots of epiphanies, you can have lots of semi quasi-religious experiences as you get sober and approach some kind of enlightenment.
And one of the ways that I dealt with that was writing about it. Usually, if there’s some turmoil in my life, the way that I’ve always dealt with it is to is to write about it, it’s just a coping mechanism that works. And it’s a coping mechanism that sometimes gives pleasure to people.
Most of my songs are definitely not like, ‘she loves you, yeah, yeah’. They have captured moments in my life or moments I’ve been upset about or happy about. My dad was a writer. Baird is actually Gaelic for bard. Not that I’m saying I’m a bard, but my dad was a hell of a writer and one hell of a talented guy.
After I got nine or ten songs together, I got in contact with a couple of promoters and the very first gig I did, was an acoustic gig, just me and my guitar at The Tunnels in Aberdeen. That was put on by John Beverley, aka H23, aka Hen, who had been a promotor at Café Drummonds for a long time and he’d promoted a lot of music over the years in Aberdeen, so he had my demo that Ian McPherson from Bedford Records had recorded. It wasn’t really a demo it was more just me playing five or six songs live in his living room but it did the trick for my first gig.
I knew Hen from my DJing days, He put on three legendary techno trance and ambient all-dayers (this was before trance was a bad word) at Café Drummonds and I think it was more out of the kindness of his heart than my DJing skills but he would let me play the first hour or so. I was playing ambient stuff and they had some amazing DJs.
If there were techno DJs playing on the Friday night, say at the Pelican club, then Hen would get them in on the Saturday to these all-dayers. It was people like Fred Gianelli, Claude Young, Twitch from Pure in Edinburgh. Scanner was booked, Jez Farley from LFO. Real legends in the electronic scene, as well as all the local talent, you’d get Titch from one-up, I’m sure Finney played a couple too.
I thought it was funny the way that Hen did the flyers showing my name first because of the timing. I’d be on like two to three in the afternoon which always looked like I was headlining, which gave me a little bit of amusement.
Once I did my first gig it was all go from there, way back in 2001 2002 at Tunnels in Aberdeen. A lot of people came which was great and I continued doing that, just me and my guitar at various places around Scotland, mostly in Aberdeen. I was quite content with that to be honest. I got a really good response doing that under my DJ moniker Allie Ambient and then a couple of people approached me asked if I’d be interested in getting a band together, which I was, as this would be the next step.
Five guys in a room
So a bass player at my work, Ronaldo Dunn very early said ‘if you’re ever looking for a bass player’, and psychedelic Jim Wilkie had approached me by that point and I knew Jim, I’d seen him in many bands before. I was over the moon that someone like Jim Wilkie was wanting to play with me. These were people that I saw all the time, things would just come up in conversation. These things were very natural, we all smoked pot, we all had the same dealer.
Then I got a drummer, Bob McGregor and this wasn’t under the name Blackledge Falling. The first couple of names for the band were Allie Ambient’s High Society, High Society and Secret Summit 13, which I quite liked. We did that for a while all over Aberdeen and I enjoyed it, we played with some great bands at venues like The Tunnels, Café Drummonds, the usual haunts in Aberdeen and that was fine but you lock five guys in a room and eventually they’re gonna start punching each other. Lots of testosterone.
And I can be challenging, and folk have their own ideas and stuff you know. I’m not blaming other band members for this, I’m sure I’m as much to blame as anybody else but the band practices weren’t as enjoyable as they once were, and I was getting frustrated waiting for other people to do stuff and maybe them not getting quite what I was wanting to do. I was getting frustrated with going to the studios for just for a few hours. I wanted to start something that was just me and to prove to myself that I could do this myself and have 100 % control.
So I started recording on my own instead of going to studios and paying money that would be better off in my pocket. I got into computing purely to aid recording the band and learned how to use an Apple Mac.
Before that you’d go into a studio on a Sunday, you’re hungover from the gig the night before. You’re under a lot of pressure to produce the goods in a short amount of time and that’s not the way to create any art, least of all music.
DIY production – Demonstration 1
I kept on going, not really bothered about gigging anymore. Although, the feeling when you do a good gig and get a perfect response is better than any drug. However, all the stress that goes with that and the stress of practicing with other people and the compromise. I was very, very happy to start going it on my own.
I got a second-hand Mac, I couldn’t afford a new one. I got GarageBand. I mean, the first Blackledge Falling EP was recorded through this cable that was, fuck man, was like 1.49 or something from Christie’s 99p store. It was very cheap but it did the job and I was really chuffed with it.
Up to this point, I had no real experience of recording stuff, and it was pretty hit and miss but I did it every day after work and I got it out and it was received pretty well. Now when I look back at it, sonically, it’s not that great, it’s got a warm feel to it but it was my first attempt and it’s got some great songs on it.
The first Blackledge Falling song was Crucifix 47. Listening back to that I can hear that I’m really going to town you know, it’s the first time that I’ve produced myself and at one point at the end, I think I’ve got about seven different guitar refrains, themes and signatures going together. It’s got synths on it and I’m really pushing myself and seeing what I could do on my own, if need be. It’s quite a wall of sound listening back to that.
So Crucifix 47 was the very first Blackledge Falling song recorded in 2012 at 47 Farmers Hall which is where Dawn stayed and where I moved in with her in Rosemount, when I moved out of Woodside.
The EP, Demonstration 1 had a Bridget Riley cover, it had a hidden song on it and I used lots of loops, rather than real live drums. This came out of necessity rather than not wanting to use a real live drummer, and control I suppose. Very quickly, I discovered making drum loops wasn’t the easy thing that I had imagined it would be in my head.
On one of the tracks, ‘A Mary Jane Scream’ there’s a wee nod to two great Scottish bands, the JAMC and the Primals, obviously. I use that My Bloody Valentine-Madonna- Public Enemy drum loop.
So that was the first EP and I got Jim in to do one guitar bit and Ronnie Dunn played bass on a couple of tracks and Lindsay played some keys but on the whole it was me.
When I listen back to A Mary Jane Scream which is the third track on the first EP, it is a bit raw but it has a beauty to it. It’s quite naive but there’s a charm to it. It’s definitely a beginning. In 2012 that was recorded and the Kissing Shell 2023, just over 10 years later it’s a huge difference.
EP Demonstration 2, Donald’s Way
Then the second Blackledge Falling EP, ‘Demonstration Two, Donald’s Way’ came out. And by this point, I’d already met Heather Lamont who is a singer and multi-instrumentalist. She got on board and she did some singing on the EP. I was probably a little reluctant to share that vocal space initially but I’m much less precious now.
We did an EP called Acoustuka (Live from Dawny’s Boudoir.) It was live with a couple of overdubs, but it was just an acoustic thing we did with Lindsay and Heather and me and that was well received as well.
London producer, Kenny Atkin had been coming to see me by this point and was, in his words a fan. So we started working on a project, the ‘Lows, Highs & Powis Skies’ and that was really the first time we’d worked together. Kenny had taken the second EP and reproduced it or revisited it to give it a bit of oomph. And made it sound much better to the ear. He changed a few bits for the better, extended a few bits here and there. The song, Frankie’s was not nearly as long as it was when it first started. It was great. Then we started working on Lows and Highs and that was great as well. That was with Toby Paterson and that came out as part of the Sound in Print series on Kenny’s Vava Records imprint.
Westburn Waves (Radio Show) by Allie Ambient
I’m sure there’ll be Westburn Waves again next year, but really, the amount of time that it takes to produce Westburn Waves, I could be using that time to record my own stuff. I’m no Deejay A La Fu or Cutmaster Swift, I’m basically playing records I like, I do enjoy that. But, you know, my time is better focused on recording the next album.
One of the reasons I began Westburn Waves was to get me in the habit of doing something regularly again, a commitment every month. I’ve got to produce this thing and I’m trying to do that with the new album. Every month I’m trying to work on a new song. It’s May now and I’ve only got two songs so that’s kind of not working already, but I’m doing my best and that’s all we can do. As the late great Andrew Weatherall stated, ‘fail we may, sail we must.’
The Kissing Shell
I was very lucky that I had folks around me to guide me. I wouldn’t have been able to get The Kissing Shell out if I hadn’t had these people and that includes, Kenny, more than anybody else, for the production and the encouragement and the belief. The belief in me, you know, that’s a big thing. And I will be eternally grateful for that.
Bill Drummond recorded the Selkirk Grace poem on the song John Is Dead which is a tribute to my late great grandfather John Robertson, from Kirkcaldy. Selkirk Grace was on a tea towel that was hung in his kitchenette, so I saw that for a large portion of my life and could digest Burns words over many years. As it turns out, Kenny, his grandma and grandpa had the Selkirk Grace words carved on to a bit of wood or something. That’s interesting to me, that kind of cosmic continuity and it was great to get another Scotsman to recite it.
The spoken word introduction to the Kissing Shell was really the journey from Aberdeen to Edinburgh and the romantic idea at the heart of it. There’s the Pictish trail that runs quite far up the East Coast particularly Fife and all the names I’ve mentioned are obviously East Coast places; stony, Stonehaven ,that’s the first place you encounter from Aberdeen all the way down the East Coast to Fife through Crail, another bonnie place in Fife and then we finally get to the Firth of Forth which is the river you cross on the forth road bridge into Edinburgh so one side of it is Fife, the other East Lothian and Edinburgh.
I would have loved to have released it on vinyl, but financially it wasn’t a viable option. I had no guarantee that over 200 people were going to turn up to the launch. I had no guarantee that people were going to buy the album. As in any expedition in art, you never get that kind of guarantee on returns and if I hadn’t sold any, it wouldn’t have mattered but I have sold nearly all of them.
Earning a living through music
God, I would love to earn a living through music but it is very hard to do. If you’re a young band now trying to go on tour and stuff, you have to have money, you have to have a rich mum and dad and that’s the same of any of the arts. And it’s fucking shit.
It’s the same in comedy if you’re a young comedian now, you need some money behind you. And unfortunately, you’re now seeing more middle class and upper class folks filling the gaps.
Is it possible to make a living out of music? I don’t think so. Certainly, there’s no money to be made through releasing this album. I’m not annoyed about that. That’s just the way it is. Money has never been a driving force for me to make music ever.
When I first started being a postie, I had much more spare time because we’d finish at 12 o’clock, and I had time to concentrate on the music. But as you know, our working schedule is not like that anymore. It’s becoming harder and harder and I nearly made myself Ill in preparation for the launch, just doing stuff after work. I’m fucked after my work, after I’ve walked eight and a half miles as a postie. That’s why I am very, very selfish with my time. I’m in a relationship you know, it takes a certain amount of time. We see you, friends take up a lot of time, rightly so. We see family it takes up amount of time.
So it does get harder, especially as you get older, but in order to answer to your question, can you make money out of music? I don’t think so. Not unless you’re one of these big players. However, to juxtapose, you do have stuff like Bandcamp and things which make it easy for people to get their music online to get it heard.
And that’s going to be the prime source to listen or purchase Blackledge Falling from now on, though it will be available on the Vava website too.
It might be that no one expects us to do anything pertaining to our dream work, ever. We have the option, technically, to stop and give up and just not pursue our goals. But you and I both know that’s not really an option for us. These are our dreams that we’re talking about.