A few years ago, Erland Cooper took off on a journey he knew well. It was a journey he needed to make: he needed calm and comfort desperately in his busy, suffocating life in London. It was a journey to somewhere he’d been many times before, as a child, as a teenager, as a young man: a journey that would remind him of the magic of the landscapes that help us become who we are.
He had come to know this journey as a musician as well, too, but not to the level of detail he longed for, to the depths that he craved. For Erland Cooper, there was no place like home.
When visiting his beloved Orkneys, the place where he grew up, a quote about the magic of the islands leapt out at Erland Cooper from a local newspaper. It came from 20th century writer and journalist George Mackay Brown, and it offered Cooper something new: a nautical map through which he could explore his lifelong obsession with his homeland. “The air, the sea, and the land – I kept imagining myself there, in every place,” Cooper says. “George Mackay Brown became a new guide, a new beacon. He helped me let the Orkneys envelop me.” Sampling the sounds of landscapes to create instruments, moods, tones and drones that could inform his explorations, Cooper found new stories as well as solace as he travelled, rediscoveries as well as retreat.
The experience convinced Cooper to make a triptych. It began in 2018 with the deep, marvellous rhythms of Solan Goose, which explored the birdlife that soared in the Orcadian air. It continued with 2019’s Sule Skerry, which moved its attentions to the sea – to the stormy bluster and gentle ripples of myth that rolled in on the waves. 2020’s Hether Blether completes Cooper’s project, moving us onto the land. Named after a hidden island in folklore, said to rise green and fertile from time to time from the foam, it is an album that sees us encountering the Orcadian people. It finds the legends that have taken root among them, that continue to appear, to flower, and persist.
Like all of Cooper’s projects, Hether Blether is also borne of companionship and collaboration; many old and new friends populate its world. One is award-winning Scottish poet John Burnside, with whom Cooper took a trip to the Orkneys for a 2019 Radio 4 programme, Wild Music; Burnside’s new words swarm and mist against Cooper’s affecting instrumentals. Hether Blether’s opening track, ‘Noup Head’, documents one of these encounters, dredging up the first glimpses of a story that sits behind the album’s rhyming title.
This is a story of a young girl that went missing one day, whose family longed for her, before they found her, on a stormy fishing trip, in an island emerging from the fog. On the new island, she was grown-up, with children of her own. She gives her family a stake to enable them to return to see her, but it is lost in the sea, as is she, forever. “A cold sting on her skin/that takes her back/to something she forgot/ in childhood,” reads Scottish singer-songwriter Kathryn Joseph, deep longing in her delivery of Burnside’s words. Another Scottish musician, Kevin Cormac joins her, recalling “her brothers/calling from the house/so long ago”, as her old life folds “into nowhere”.
The girl reappears, as memories do, as Hether Blether ebbs and flows. She’s there in Burnside’s poetry on the beautiful ‘Longhope’, in “the echo of a child/suspended in a web/of kelp and feathers... a long-lost sister, waiting for the tide/to guide her home”. She’s there in the swell of the Arco string quartet on ‘Rousay’, named after the island on which the girl was born. She’s also there in the album’s title track, where Cooper sings his lyrics against the soft swell of his piano and Moog, Astra Forward’s backing vocals, Hinako Omori’s synths, and Elsa Bradley’s percussion. “From time to time you rise out of the sea,” Erland sings, himself. “Never take your eyes off of me”.
Cooper’s own voice is a point of strength and vulnerability on this final part of his trilogy: Solan Goose didn’t feature his vocals at all; Sule Skerry only featured them tentatively. Here, they are given room to breathe to invite us new paths of discovery and exploration. When they hymn “a sweet isle in my life” on ‘Hildaland’, we go along with them, finding the inhabitants that were said to retreat to a secret undersea kingdom every winter (just as Cooper retreated from the real world through the soft waves of his music). Cooper’s own childhood also bubbles through on the gentle, almost-pop song ‘Peedie Breeks’, a protest song about the need to preserve our coastlines for future generations, named after the local dialect for “short trousers”, meaning children. The song hopes that children will continue to spot birds there with their parents as Cooper once did, and it’s only right that a native six-year-old girl adds sweet backing vocals behind Cooper. Violinists also pluck their strings with bird’s feathers as the song comes to a close, underlining where Cooper’s shivery journey into his homelands began.
Cooper’s voice once felt to him like a beachball on a much older landscape, he says, but he has now realised how much it means to his work. His voice conveys pure feeling, after all, which has always been the most important part of what he has intended his music to do. Sometimes it goes further and darker, but Cooper is not frightened of his voice saying the simplest, most untainted things too. Hether Blether also ends with Cooper singing a lyric borrowed from celebrated film composer Clint Mansell on a song with a title that sounds full of intent: ‘Where I Am Is Here’. The name of a 1964 short by celebrated Scottish experimental filmmaker and poet Margaret Tait, a work all about time and memory, its repeated phrase “love now more than ever” feels like an urgent demand for our times. It’s a natural end-point for a project that began with one man needing to retreat from the chaos of everyday life, to return to where he came from, taking all of us with him, to the very roots of ourselves.
Its last line “time will show you how” also reminds us how the past and present have always connected in our lives, bringing our experiences full circle. It also reminds us how deeply we have dived, how we have fished in such rich, vivid water, in the few short years since we met the Solan Goose, ventured bravely to Sule Skerry, and headed further to Hether Blether
And from here, Cooper has continued to fly. Like a kingfisher, he has flashed by in a rainbow of light, rapidly moving his wings, working on other big projects, like the production later this year of a celebrated Irish play, Portia Coughlan, at London’s Young Vic (Oscar-nominated actor Ruth Negga takes the lead role, and has worked closely with him on its soundtrack). But Cooper hasn’t left the Orkneys behind him just yet. “It’s still with me,” he says. “I’m only just coming to terms with where it’s taken me – from a place of necessary escape, to a very different world.”
This summer, Cooper will also take the whole triptych on tour. This will include a concert at the Barbican, where he’ll be performing with the London Contemporary Orchestra, with the Wainwright Prize-winning author Amy Liptrot (The Outrun), a fellow Orcadian, supporting. Before then, him and Liptrot will be travelling the islands for more inspiration. The resulting summer will be a celebration of the three years, and three albums, that have gone by, and the many years of Orcadian lore, and Orcadian love, that have preceded them.
Cooper loves the Orkneys now, of course, more than ever. He is part of its sea and land, its darkness, its light: and for many more of us out here, so are we. He has helped its stories continue to soar beyond him, to whip and rise from the waves, as they once did, as they do, and they will, for all of us, for all time.