Andy's musical career began some 50 years ago in Lancashire, where he moved from his London birthplace as a small child. He began piano lessons aged five, quickly revealing his exceptional musical talents, which also led to him singing as a boy chorister in one of the top Oxford college choirs. He was sixteen when they relocated once more – this time all the way to Los Angeles, where Andy finished high school and started college, just as the era of flower-power, anti-Vietnam protests and counterculture music hit its peak.
“It was the complete American hippy-road-movie experience – be-ins with the Grateful Dead and everything,” he says now. “I was 17, and supposedly going to college in Boulder, Colorado, but actually spending all my time skiing and hanging out with the wrong people. Then I got my first job in a band, and so I was skiing all day, and playing music every night – just heaven, really. The musical side, especially, was a real revelation. I’d done the hothouse classical thing, working with high-powered teachers and playing all sorts of difficult stuff, so there was an element of simple rebellion from that. But it was also the discovery of the vital social dimension to playing music, the sheer fun you could have with it, that really got me hooked.”
The arrival of Andy’s own Vietnam draft papers brought an abrupt end to this idyll, prompting his return to the UK, where he studied a Bachelor of Education degree in Leeds, specialising in music and linguistics. The seeds of his current reputation as a gifted and inspirational teacher were sown early on: his dissertation subject was “Music as a Language of Expression in Young Children”.
Andy’s next move brought him to Scotland for the first time, to rural Banffshire in the north-east, where he qualified as a ski instructor, and worked as a gardener on a Highland estate. “And that was where I first discovered Scottish music,” he says. “I made friends with some people in the area who played traditional tunes, and they started inviting me along to pub sessions. Again, it was the whole social side of that culture which was the real magic for me; the way people just joined in together, the lack of protocol - that’s very important for me in music. I like music that’s rhythmic and fun and exciting, and not over-complicated, whether it’s trad or rock’n’roll: I like accessibility.”
Before long, though, he was on the move again, firstly to Austria and Norway (lots more skiing), and then to Canada for several years, where he played with “a whole rake of bands, mostly country, blues and rock’n’roll. It was a hectic, mighty, life-changing time; very wide-ranging in terms of both music and experience”. Returning to Scotland in 1987, this time settling in Edinburgh, Andy ran his own music services business for five years, meanwhile getting stuck into the city’s lively pub session scene, before the siren song of the Highlands drew him north again, to his current home outside Inverness.
“That time in Edinburgh was really the start of a lot of the things I do now besides playing,” he says. “All the new electronic and computer technology was hitting the music scene in a big way, and I’d studied that at evening class when I was in Canada. I had one of the first Apple Macs in Scotland, and ended up doing everything from advertising jingles to CDs for people’s weddings.”
As the Scottish music renaissance of the last ten or fifteen years gathered pace, word of Andy’s multifarious talents continued to spread. He has become a regular collaborator with the Highland-based Grey Coast Theatre Company, composing music for a series of their touring productions, while 1998 saw the birth of Blazin’ Fiddles, now ranked as one of Scotland’s top folk outfits, and named as Best Live Act at the 2004 Scots Trad Music Awards. Andy has also played with the cutting-edge roots-fusion outfit Mouth Music, Celtic rockers Wolfstone and the Scottish/Latin big-band Salsa Celtica.
In 1999, having been awarded a prestigious New Voices commission by the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, Andy premiered the widely acclaimed Tuath gu Deas, a choral work for twelve voices, written in Scots, Gaelic, English and Latin. Other major projects include Highland Wedding in 2000, featuring 250 Scottish schoolchildren and performed in London’s Millennium Dome, of which Andy was musical director. Gluaseachd an Chuain Siar saw him in the same role, working with seven top Gaelic singers to create the opening concert of the 2003 Hebridean Celtic Festival, on the isle of Lewis, while The Song of Wick was another grand-scale community production, staged in Caithness.
It was during this last show that Andy stumbled across the Steinway grand he plays on Piano. It’s housed at Ackergill Tower, a 15th century clifftop castle perched precipitously on Scotland’s northeast coast, which is also home to a private musical society.
“It’s a particularly nice piano,” he says, “and perfect for one of the things I wanted to do with the album, which was really to capture that live sound and texture of the hammer hitting the string – and then all the different things that a piano can do with that basic mechanism. There’s a real atmosphere at Ackergill, too: all sorts of horrible things happened there hundreds of years ago, when the local clans were fighting each other. We recorded there in December, too, when it was all dark and stormy, so it really got quite spooky sometimes.”
The material on Piano has been drawn from a variety of sources. Several pieces were originally composed for theatre or dance productions, including the much-loved “Marni Swanson of the Grey Coast”, which is fast becoming a contemporary folk standard. There are melodies lifted from both Highland Wedding and The Song of Wick; others penned in tribute to a person or favourite landscape, between them ranging widely in style from lively dance tunes to lyrical slow airs.
“A lot of them are tunes that had somehow taken on a life of their own, often through other artists having played them,” Andy says. “The way it’s worked out, too, there’s roughly one tune from each of the last ten years, so that feels quite apt, and satisfying. I’m not one for making great statements, but to me the album feels like an expression of where I am today as a musician, and how I’ve got here.”