It’s a clear day in Edinburgh, Scotland and Ben Sunderland is sitting atop the rich-green Calton Hill, piecing together lyrics for a new song. The view from the hill provides a vast panorama of the entire city, its ruins, its bustling coffee shops, the ocean…
Edinburgh is known for its beauty and history, but not so much for its music scene. Sunderland’s band, Chasing Owls, has lived there on and off for six years now, and has slowly made a name for itself. Chasing Owls is a Scottish folk band that tells tales of relationships, history, and tradition…remnants of the band’s homeland are sprinkled throughout their songs, and their music videos (check them out below). So far the band has released two EPs, totaling eight tracks of upbeat folk music. They’re one of those bands that somehow turns less positive topics into faster-paced, joyful moments of song, combining layers of guitars with harmoniums and keys. Usually Sunderland writes a melody and main lyric and then brings his work to the rest of the band to finish the song. They often find secluded, less-popular places for recording that they can mold into their own experience.
“We cut one of the EPs in an old flint barn in the deep south of England which was absolutely freezing, then another we did in a converted Rolls Royce garage with underfloor heating! But wherever we work, we’ve found the room is often reflected in the finished sound, which we rather like the idea of,” says Sunderland.
The band’s songs are full of emotion and thought–a detail of which Sunderland is cognizant. When asked whether it is difficult for him to maintain such a level of emotional transparency, he said of his songwriting:
Sure, I think honesty is quite painful, whether it manifests itself in music or wherever, but it’s also quite pure and I find that an interesting dynamic to play with. Having said that, I often write through a range of made-up characters, not identified explicitly as such in the song but during the writing process I often paste my thoughts or opinions on to a sort of hazy ‘other’ that I hold in my head–I guess it’s something of a defense wall that somehow makes me feel more at ease about being autobiographical.
As mentioned, part of Sunderland’s autobiographical moments are caught aesthetically in the band’s music videos, too. The videos for “Train” and “Wedding Song” both incorporate moments of the outdoors, in and around Edinburgh. “We thought about lots of different locations [for shooting] but then just looked out the window and realized the place we were already in was wonderful enough. For that reason we quite like that as well as being videos to accompany the music they’re also something of an introduction to us and our background for those from farther away who might be unfamiliar with these parts,” explains Sunderland.
According to the band, Edinburgh is a fantastic source of inspiration–whether it’s the city itself or the band’s community of friends. Sunderland attests that any outside notion that Edinburgh lacks a music scene is false, and that idea stems from outsiders who haven’t immersed themselves in the community enough:
“Making a name for ourselves in Edinburgh has mostly involved being surrounded by wonderful folks who are eager to continue and preserve a healthy hotbed of creativity in spite of sometimes naive outside criticism. We were really lucky growing up as a band through university as well which is a pretty close-knit community when it comes to the arts, so we always felt well supported during the early days of finding our feet,” says Sunderland.
One of Sunderland’s favorite local venues is a tiny space called Sneaky Pete’s that is located in what he refers to as “sort of the basement of the city,” underneath all the main streets. It’s technically an 80-capacity room, but apparently it packs many more heads when shows sell out. The venue owner, Nick Stewart, has always been very supportive of Chasing Owls and other local bands that want to be heard.
Chasing Owls has played a variety of local shows and gone on various U.K. tours, but they say they’re still just “grateful to get a gig.” As evidenced by their social network profiles, the band often reaches out and shares their music with smaller blogs–a great way to start connecting internationally. In the spring of 2012, the BBC discovered the band and did a video feature with them on “Celtic Connections.” Sunderland says of the experience and the BBC, “I think they generally notice stuff that is getting good organic coverage from the ground up so that means we have the people that believed in and supported us from the beginning to thank for any sort of established national press coverage.”
As for the “celtic” influence in the band’s music, it is very much alive. Sunderland grew up on the West Cost of Scotland where he says folk music and tradition play an important cultural role. He says that “celtic history” is now just a natural part of who he is as a person, and so his music inherently reflects that part of him.
Future shows for the band include more regional tours and local concerts. For Scottish fans, Chasing Owls has a show in Glasgow on October 27. To listen to the band’s discography, the band is streaming both their EPs from their website.