Iain Archer: Instant Magnetism

Ivor Novello winning singer-songwriter on life after Snow Patrol

Iain Archer’s music sounds like ‘Feet on gravel, engines of small boats, the thing you do when the sun is in your eyes, playgrounds, collapsing bridges, small birds, lightning’. So he says.

If you’ve been around the NI music scene long enough, you’ll remember when Archer was a long-haired, girly-faced crooner who penned the unforgettable song ‘Wishing’. The logic of ‘Wishing you were wishing you were wishing you were mine’ occupied many hours of pondering in pubs and festival tents.

Image of Iain Archer jumpingWe’ve seen Archer grow and grow up.  With high profile allegiances like his songwriting collaboration with Gary Lightbody on Snow Patrol’s hit ‘Run’ which won him an Ivor Novello award, and his involvement in the arty ‘Scottish indie supergroup’, the Reindeer Section behind him, Archer’s track record is an impressive one.

These connections also spurred a huge growth spurt in Archer’s musical development:

'They influenced me massively,’ he admits. ‘I wouldn't be doing my music now without them. It gave me huge confidence. I ended up in Snow Patrol for a year-and-a-half. I found out the worth of not being solitary, and it was great, great craic, clanging the guitar night after night, in such a spirited, open band.’

Not resting on his laurels, Archer has just finished mixing some tracks for ethereal sonic group Burning Codes while America gets its first taste of his work with 'Canal Song' being played on hit series Gray’s Anatomy.  (They obviously have an ear for good music – they’ve also been playing fellow Bangor-boy Foy Vance recently).

The Northern Irish Music Industry Commission (try NIMIC, it’s easier to say) have snapped Archer up to play alongside NI’s hottest property Duke Special at the Iota Club in DC. Belfast gig goers will have seen that partnership in action already, with the slightly surreal experience of the Duke and Archer singing ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ at a Christmas gig in the carpeted City Hall. No other duo would get away with that many ‘pa-rum-pa-pum-pums’. 

Bangor-born Archer made his break from NI to the slightly larger city lights of Glasgow where he hooked up with other indie music types and brought out two albums on the Scottish label Sticky Music (where another NI heavyweight, Juliet Turner also started out). After these albums Playing Dead (1995) and Crazy Bird (1996) there was almost a decade gap before his new albums came out. The time in between was marked with musical collaborations, soul searching, moving, discovering and working in a hostel for young homeless people in London.

Many of the experiences of these years are distilled into his music which now has a heartier, more centred tone. If you’re discovering Archer for the first time or catching up on his work, start with the last two albums.  Here’s Archer on his own work:

Iain Archer Flood the Tanks album coverFlood the Tanks is all restraint and introspection. Magnetic North gets away from that. It isn't just about my head. It has narratives, and real, physical situations.’ 

Here’s our take on the last two albums, courtesy of Francis Jones:   

Flood The Tanks is an album imbued with a fragrant melancholy and sweeping grace which received considerable critical acclaim.

It was inspired by the ‘loss of a loved one’ and what lingered was a sombre beauty and unsettling intimacy. Archer's latest release, Magnetic North, isn't quite as singularly motivated, though it finds Bangor-born Archer in no less contemplative fettle.

The age-old narrative of love and loss weighs heavily in the artist’s ruminations. The most prevalent theme here is 'home'. What do we mean by 'home' - is it a state of mind or a geographical point? The titular magnetic north or some strange commingling of the physical, mental and spiritual?

The crevasse between experience and imagination and the bridge of nostalgia that traverses the two is examined with an intense lyrical insight.

This nostalgia takes many forms. The tender reminiscence of ‘Collect Yourself’ - chiming guitars creating a gentle panorama dotted with familiar images, be they the Lagan River or Belfast bonfires.

In ‘Luke’s Point’ the precise, Nick Drake-style finger-picking creates a respectful aural accompaniment to Archer’s hankering for a hopelessly irretrievable past. He describes it as ‘a recollection. Sometimes even just harking after a moment in time is enough to make you grieve.’

First single, ‘When It Kicks In’, is an altogether more raucous concern. Punishing rhythms unite with angular, fidgeting guitar to spark the track into life. The lyric recounts a young Archer’s experience of witnessing a limpet mine exploding on top of a police car.

‘The song’s a collage of those sorts of events. They make me absolutely livid. But at the time, they’re purely terrifying.’

Iain Archer Magnetic North album coverTitle track ‘Magnetic North’ demonstrates the breadth of the Ivor Novello winner's songwriting ability. It’s melodically bountiful and hook-laden, the choruses inescapably beautiful.

The opening ‘Canal Song’ is meandering and delicately expressive, ‘Minus Ten’ with its rueful lyric recalls Elliott Smith whilst the plinking, piano led ‘Arriero’ is a less bourbon-and-cigarette-lunged Tom Waits.

Despite the parade of preceding and commendable tracks, it's the last effort, ‘Lifeboat’, that makes the most potent impression. The insistent chords, luxuriant melody and ineffable sense of humanity is truly beautiful.

In Magnetic North Iain Archer has delivered a dignified, consummately crafted and achingly genuine album, a record to leave the listener in a state of wide-eyed wonder.