It’s a May Sunday afternoon at Mareel, the airy waterside arts and culture centre in Lerwick, Shetland’s capital. In the main auditorium, with its plush maroon seats, Nashville-based duo Birds of Chicago are in the middle of a soaring sound-check.
While JT Nero’s gravelly voice sounds like it was aged in bourbon casks, Allison Russell’s honey tones seem to come direct from the clouds. Partners in life as well as music, they have described their music as “secular gospel”, but it’s also the sort of folksy Americana one imagines finding in a smoky Nashville basement. Russell seems able to deliver spine-tingling melodies while keeping a constant eye on the couple’s young daughter, who is running around the auditorium with a young boy belonging to local music promoter Neil Riddell.
Up near the back of the stalls, in charge of the blinking sound console, are two more locals. One of them is Tim Matthew, an experienced musician and producer, who used to manage a recording studio in Edinburgh before moving to Shetland almost five years ago. The other is 20-year-old Liam Brannan, who is assisting Tim on sound while also managing the lighting for the evening gig, and helping the Birds of Chicago crew set up their equipment.
With his heavy eyebrows furrowed, he’s intensely focused — less like the kid on work experience, more like the guy you have to ask to get stuff done round here. When chart-topping pop rock band Scouting for Girls came to play Lerwick in 2017, they were so impressed by Liam’s lighting that they took him with them on their next UK tour, meaning Liam soon found himself lighting up the London Palladium.
When we briefly catch up with Birds of Chicago, they seem impressed, too. “The whole setup at Mareel is completely world-class,” says Russell. “The quality of the staff, the sound in here, the dressing room with a view of the ocean… You can tell it’s a community that knows about music, and where people really care about it.”
Finally, with the sound-check over, Liam has a tiny window of time in which to talk to us. He still has duct-tape taped to his trousers, but we escape to a corner where no one can ask him to help with anything. Still, there’s always a danger of interruption: Liam also works as a rescue officer for the coastguard, and always carries a pager with him. If it buzzes mid-gig, he’ll have to rush to the coastguard station. Barely a week ago, he was in charge of logistics while the team rescued a teenage boy trapped on a 130-foot cliff near the north of Shetland’s Mainland. The dramatic four-hour rescue, carried out in pitch darkness, was reported by the Daily Mail.
Away from his three days a week at Mareel, Liam is also a youth worker at the youth club in Cunningsburgh, in the south of Shetland, where he lives with his mum. “I don’t get much free time,” he notes, drily.
Liam is a good example of how Shetland offers both support and opportunity to its young people. Growing up, he inherited his father’s obsession with music, though when they’d travel to see an Eagles gig, or even just a Christmas pantomime in Lerwick, Liam would often be obsessed with the black-clad people running things behind the scenes, or up in the lighting rig. “At home, I’d put on silly little light shows, just using the lights in the house,” he says.
Liam lost his father to cancer when he was just 12, and it clearly hit him hard. “I always tried to keep myself busy to keep my mind off things,” he says. “The youth club became really important to me. I’ve always thought we’re lucky to have these spaces where you can just go and relax, and be accepted. It felt natural to want to help at the youth club, because it helped me so much.”
The other institution that has helped Liam is Mareel. Opened in 2012 by Shetland Arts, the islands’ cultural funding body, the airy modern space has become the beating heart of Shetland culture. It’s not the performance spaces, galleries and two cinemas; it’s as much about the little rooms around the building where local bands can record using state-of-the-art equipment, and students can study film-making or music.
Liam had already been volunteering at Mareel’s technical department when he left school at the end of Fourth Year to come and study his NC in music here. “There aren’t very many places where you can actually study in a working music venue, where there are people in every day doing the stuff that you eventually want to be doing,” he says. “It was so inspiring.”
After finishing his course at 17, an apprenticeship came up at Mareel’s technical department, which included studying sound engineering and production remotely, at Fife College on the Scottish Mainland. Most of the learning, though, was of the hands-on variety in Lerwick. “I find it easier learning in a practical environment,” he says. “It wasn’t a load of essay writing: you were doing gigs, you were doing recording sessions, helping set up lighting, doing loads in and loads out with professional companies. I learned how the whole thing works.”
Now, as a junior technician at Mareel, his role is as varied as the acts he supports. His main role is lighting, but he’ll also help with equipment loads for visiting crews, and show them how all the Mareel equipment works. The crews might be for the Blockheads or the Scottish Opera, but Liam will make sure that Mareel is delivering what they need. He even shares some responsibility for running the technical side of the indie-leaning cinema, and the little open mic stage in Mareel’s cafe-bar.
There aren’t too many 20-year-olds doing a job like this, and Liam admits he’s been helped by local opportunities. “So many people want to do this job, but from what I’ve heard it’s hard to volunteer at events down [on the Scottish Mainland, and in the rest of the UK]. Up here, anyone can come and volunteer with Shetland Arts, and that changed everything for me. When you do a gig, there’s a lot of pressure on you, but I have that experience on the job. This place has been brilliant for me.”
That night, Birds of Chicago play to a packed house, as is often the case at Mareel. Russell’s beautiful melodies could almost be too sweet, but they’re balanced out by Nero’s whiskey voice, and the bittersweet poetry of their lyrics: ‘Chopsticks in a bag of old leather/Alone in his room with the ghost of past summers/He can see her now he can see her now/Sunlight through her camisole.’
In between songs, Russell talks about magical walks on the beach at St Ninian’s Isle, and the hospitality of promoter Neil Riddell and his family, with whom they’re staying. Nero shares wry views on post-Trump America, confident of finding a sympathetic audience (Shetland, which has only voted for the Liberal Democrats since 1950, is about as far from Trumpland as it’s possible to imagine).
As they play, not many people notice the two guys at the sound console, lit from below by the blinking lights. While their eyes are fixed on the stage, their hands seem to be functioning separately, making barely perceptible adjustments. Liam’s brows are more furrowed than ever; like the black-clad people at the pantomime were, he’s in his zone, making sure that everything on the stage is just as it should be.
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