Malojian's Musical Masterclass
Stevie Scullion maintains the momentum of a busy year with a songwriting seminar at the Belfast Book Festival
It’s been a busy and productive 2013 so far for Malojian frontman Stevie Scullion, so it’s no surprise when he calls into Café Renoir on Belfast’s Botanic Avenue for a chat that he’s buzzing with restless energy and excited about the rest of the year ahead.
Already there has been the limited edition release of debut album The Deer’s Cry (all 250 copies now sold out), which garnered five star reviews and praise from critics near and far. Radio play on BBC6 Music followed, plus sessions on Radio Ulster.
Steady headline gigs, as well as prestigious support slots to John Grant at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival and Lucinda Williams at the Real Music Club, has gained Malojian wider exposure still.
And if that wasn’t enough, Scullion recently signed a management deal with Donard Duffy of London-based artist management company twenty30, who have plans for a wider release of his debut album in the coming months. 'I’ve never had a manager before,' Scullion admits. 'Or a label. I’ve always done stuff myself. Donard’s sound, though. He has a plan.'
Part of the plan is the release of the Simple Life EP at the end of May, which features album highlight ‘Julie-Anne’, as well as the song which Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody described as 'gorgeous' in the pages of Q Magazine, 'All I Need'. The EP also includes a slower, folky take on ‘Julie-Anne’ subtitled 'The Wake Mix'.
'That was named after the drummer Mikey Mormecha’s duck,' Scullion explains with a smile. 'It was a right wee character. Thought it was a chicken. Then a fox ate it.' He laughs. 'We were at Millbank Studios, which is on a farm, doing some recording. We had a wake for the duck, which turned into a bit of a party. And we recorded that and called it 'The Wake Mix' in honour of the duck.'
Scullion was pleased with the production on The Deer’s Cry album, but is looking forward to it being heard by more people. 'It was only really a local release,' he says. 'I saw what had happened with other local act's albums, good recordings that had been sat on for a couple of years because there was no outlet for them. I didn’t want to do that, but I didn’t want to burn my bridges either. That’s why I only pressed up 250 copies and sold them at gigs and on BandCamp.'
Was he surprised at the positive response that the album received? 'It was satisfying, but you've got to take it with a pinch of salt. I was working on the next album while all the reviews were coming in, so I didn’t pay them much attention. It’s nice to be appreciated, though. They’re the best reviews I’ve ever had, far better than the reviews for Cat Malojian.'
Cat Malojian were the highly rated band that Scullion formed with Jonny Toman back in 2005. The band released two albums and two EPs of bluegrass and folk-inflected pop, which culminated in a support slot to Snow Patrol at Ward Park in Bangor in June 2010, where they played to 46,000 people – the largest ever music audience in Northern Ireland. On the verge of further success, and just after recording got underway on their third album, the band split. So what happened?
'Jonny was getting frustrated because he’s really into trad, even more than bluegrass. The songs were always mine. I’d write them and bring them to Jonny and sit with him and go through his part, something with a bluegrass feel, and ask him to pick a bit of banjo on it, but you’d be fighting to get it. He just wanted to do his own thing and he didn’t want to say to me. At the end of the day it was getting a wee bit weird. I was pushing to get the third album done and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t.'
Scullion and Toman met on the first day of university. A friend of Scullion’s younger sister, the pair travelled from their home town of Lurgan by train and ended up spending the journeys talking about music. Scullion had been a guitarist in local band Viva Remi (named after 1980s Manchester United midfielder, Remi Moses) who split when the singer went off to university.
'I’d been getting more and more into songwriting,' Scullion recalls. 'I’d always been recording stuff at home, and I started singing a bit at parties when I was drunk. Then I got Jonny to come along with the banjo and it started to develop really naturally. I really wish we’d done more recording at home and released some of it. It was rougher, more real than the Cat Malojian records ended up being. They were too polished. Looking back, the Cat Malojian records feel more like demos to me.'
With his latest recordings, Scullion is determined to capture more of a live feel. '‘The Old Timer’ on The Deer’s Cry was recorded totally live,' he says. 'I want to do more of that. We were doing a lot of busking over the winter as a three-piece, with a really stripped down drum kit – just a snare drum – with three-part harmonies on most of the songs. People in the street were really into it.
'The busking is class because it gives us a chance to work out new stuff. We play them at gigs too. But the live thing I don’t think we’ve got right yet. Some of the shows have been really nice, and we’ve got good reviews. It’s all down to money, though. I can’t afford to pay for a steady band.'
The musicians Scullion has been working with, both live and on record, have been given the informal band name of The Glue. Each of them – Joe McGurgan, Mikey Mormecha, Conor Scullion and Jan Lytle – play with other bands and musicians, so it’s a case of everyone pitching in and doing what they can when they can.
'It’s been class working with other musicians and seeing what they bring to the songs,' Scullion adds. 'Even though it’s difficult not being able to secure a steady band, it has it’s bonuses as well. Conor Scullion, who played piano on the album, was too busy for the live dates, so we had to get another piano player in, who plays accordion and has a class voice as well.'
There seems to be a lot of mutual respect in the local music scene in Northern Ireland at present, and Scullion is proud to be a part of it. 'Everybody’s in the same boat. No-one has any money, but there’s definitely loads of talent about, like Mikey the drummer, who plays in Mojo Fury, Pat Dam Smyth, Ciaran Lavery is a brilliant songwriter, Robyn G Shiels is class...'
Next up for Scullion is a trip to Nova Scotia for the Stanfest International Songwriters festival in July. 'I’m a massive Neil Young fan so it’s great to be playing in Canada,' he says. After that, it’s back home for summer gigs at the Dalriada Festival in Glenarm and Gig in the Garden in Belfast.
On the recording front, Scullion already has enough material recorded for two more albums. 'I sent them all to the manager. He likes where we’re going, thinks it’s a natural progression from the first album. I’m trying to do some things differently. There’s a song on the new recordings which kicks off with the chorus. I don’t think I’ve done that before.'
Not one to stand still, Scullion already has plans for new recordings. 'I’ve always had it in my head that I want to do a real Harvest kind of album, and that’s what I have in my head at the minute. That’s where I’m at right now.' And with that, he’s up and out the door. There’s only six months left of the year, after all, and there’s work to be done.
Malojian: The Art of Songwriting & Performance is a songwriting masterclass with Stevie Scullion at the Crescent Arts Centre on Friday, June 14 at 7pm as part of the Belfast Book Festival. The masterclass will include a musical performance.