Modern Studies are a chamber pop band from Scotland-via-Lancashire. Their quietly experimental landscape songs are played on analogue synths, cello, double bass, drums, guitars, a wine-glass orchestra and, at the creaking centre of things, a Victorian pedal harmonium.
The band came together in early 2015, when Glasgow songwriter Emily Scott recruited old pals and collaborators Pete Harvey (King Creosote, The Leg), Joe Smillie (Call to Mind, boss of Glasgow’s The Glad Cafe) and Rob St. John.
Working throughout the year at Pumpkinfield – Pete’s rural Perthshire studio – the band shaped a set of Emily’s skeleton songs. This communal arts-und-crafts-werk resulted in their debut LP ‘Swell to Great’ (named after an organ stop), which was released on Song, by Toad Records of Edinburgh, Scotland in September 2016. Swell to Great was named MOJO’s 19th best LP of 2016.
The band also began an ongoing collaboration with London-based label Earth Recordings in 2015, contributing a Shirley Collins cover ‘The Bold Fisherman’ to the ‘Shirley Inspired’ tribute LP. More releases with Earth are planned for 2017.
A recent past, a decade ago.
A Belfast-born Victorian harmonium is entrusted to the care of Glasgow chamber-folk singer Emily Scott. It looks like it should sound: imposing and statuesque, ornately carved with wax-dripping candle holders, organ stops with enticing names and elaborate levers, yet the years have taken their toll.
The ‘mouse-proof’ treadles are mended with gaffer tape. Its breathing is choked and laboured; a ridiculous amount of pedalling is required to produce even the simplest melody. Most of the keys don’t sound; some muster but a grim rattle. Those tones which can be coaxed from within are off-key in one way or another.
And yet, they fall in love, and conspire together to bring about a skeletal cluster of musical fragments. Slowly but surely the harmonium gives up its provenance. Cigarette cards of moustachioed soldiers tucked between the keys, a Miss Havisham drape of cobwebs, a selection of foxed and edgeworn song-sheets, and a short hand-written history of a short life.
A distant past, a century ago.
A Belfast-born Victorian harmonium is entrusted to the care of Daisy Skelly, a music teacher with a sweetheart lost to the Great War, and who would succumb to typhus in her mid-twenties.
Early 2015 and the harmonium migrates to Pumpkinfield, a studio in rural Perthshire. It becomes the thing around which a constellation of people, instruments and ideas begin to orbit. Fragments become lines become songs.
Modern Studies is a collective comprising:
Emily Scott: Singer-songwriter and classical bassist. Composes in a cupboard. “One of Edinburgh’s most cherished musical possessions. Free from constraint, her unbridled approach to expressionism creates a sound that’s crisp and poignant” (-THE SCOTSMAN).
Rob St John: Wrangler of experimental landscape sounds: “A Lancastrian singer-songwriter with the range, boom and profundity of Ian Curtis, Nick Drake and Stuart Staples whose songs animate geography like Luke Haines do history” (-Andrew Collins, WORD)
Pete Harvey: Proprietor of Pumpkinfield, cellist and arranger of repute. Arranger for King Creosote, Best Girl Athlete, and Lomond Campbell. Cellist with King Creosote, Iain Morrison, the Leg “Terrific, unhinged chamber-punk” (-THE HERALD), and Paul Vickers and the Leg “winningly odd” (-MOJO)
Joe Smillie: Drummer and venue manager, The Glad Cafe, Glasgow. Drums, percussion and vocals with Iain Morrison “Utterly compelling” (-musicOMH), and Call to Mind “Rich in texture and flawless in rhythm” (-MUSIC WEEK)
All images by Paul Marr.