It’s been sixteen years since Simon Thoumire and Dave Milligan last released an album, and twenty-two years since their first.
Portraits is album #3, and a brand new collection of original music, characteristic of the Scottish tradition but encompassing multiple styles and influences. Each track on Portraits was composed to try and capture the character of a particular person, and to reflect the connections in their lives. You can find out more at https://simonthoumire.ffm.to/findoutmore or click the bandcamp link below.
Their debut album The Big Day In was released back in 2001, and was named as such because it was recorded in a single day. Thoumire and Milligan had previously played several duo gigs, and were already considering some recording. Then they got a call from The Sound Café to say that they had an unexpected opening in their recording schedule, and a piano–on hire from another project–was still in the studio… but for one day only. Well, since the duo had started playing together, they always had an ‘unscripted’ approach to making music, with spontaneity as an integral part of their performances: One day, they felt, would be more than enough time to record an album. So that’s just what they did.
Fast forward a couple of decades to 2020, and the process of recording Portraits couldn’t be more different. It’s an album that has unfolded over a period of three years. It’s fair to say that it has been a ‘lockdown’ project, but the process was already underway before anyone was really aware of the approaching pandemic that would affect the world so dramatically.
Following a rare live performance from Simon and Dave at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival in January 2020, the first sketches of Portraits started in February, just a few week later. The opening track−Simon’s composition Come on, let us sway together−was written as a Valentine’s Day present for his wife, Clare. He sent the music and a recording to Dave and asked him to record a piano part to complete the gift. Inspirited by once again creating new music together, Simon was encouraged to write more; so he began composing ‘portraits’ of some other special people in his life, each time sending a recording to Dave.
Of course, in any other period, they naturally would have met to develop and rehearse the music together. However, within a few weeks−March 2020−lockdown restrictions came in to force and it was clear that no-one would be getting together any time soon. So they continued by sharing files electronically, exchanging scores and making recordings in their own homes. By this time Simon had already written six of his nine compositions on the album, and the two had established a creative process where Dave’s additions to the initial recordings would inspire Simon to rethink some of his original arrangements, before passing it back to be re-recorded again. In some instances the tracks would to and fro several times, expanding each time; until they felt they had reached a good ‘likeness’.
Simon says: ‘As time went on, the compositions evolved further to suit different portraits, and Dave’s reimagining of the music brought a new dimension to the project. Working on this music was not only exciting but also a great source of joy for us. The project spanned from February 2020 to March 2023, and each tune is a reflection of the deep connections and meaningful relationships in our lives.’
Among the portraits that followed in those early weeks were Persephone Nichol-Bose, dedicated to his friend and colleague, Percy; Grace Campbell Grierson, in tribute to his nana who passed away in the 1970s when Simon was seven years old; Caroline Ann Hewat, who was a beloved figure in the Scottish folk music community (and also happens to be Dave’s mother-in-law); Sonny Jim, written as a tribute to James McLaughlin, Simon’s late father-in-law; and David Francis, in honour of his dear friend and fellow musician.
Over the next year or so, the easing of lockdown restrictions inevitably meant that Simon and Dave became increasingly busy with other projects. However, there were more compositions to come from Simon: Louis DeCarlo’s 70th Birthday Strathspey was written for the beloved Edinburgh-based photographer; Su-a’s 50th Year, composed to mark a milestone birthday for Su-a Lee, one of Scotlands busiest and most talented cellists; and, finally, Anastasia McAroe’s Waltz, dedicated to Simon’s own mother-in-law, Anastasia.
The remaining two portraits were contributed by Dave, almost as an epilogue to the project. He wrote King Bill’s Hornpipe, in minding of his late piano teacher and college professor, William Kinghorn; and Misha, dedicated to the extraordinary Ukrainian-born pianist, the late Misha Alperin.
Dave added: ‘I don’t think there was really a point where we felt we’d finished as such, mainly because we didn’t particularly set out to record an album in the first place. But around the beginning of this year, we revisited the recordings and it really felt like an album. Each track was almost like a wee vignette; an honest and heartfelt sketch of someone special, and there was something quite poignant about that.’
He went on: ‘Every one of Simon’s tunes feels like a classic, and I think the consideration we gave to the nuances and character of each portrait was worth the time we spent on it. And the beautiful thing about ‘painting’ with music is anyone can make their own connection to a friend or loved one. It’s a special gift to have the opportunity to do something like that—it can be pretty powerful.’
Portraits is–in many ways–a home-made project, but the music was largely put together during a period of time where almost everything was done at home. It also frames a spell for people all around the world when relationships were often tested to their limits; and our sense of connection was suddenly spotlighted to become one of−if not the−most important things in our lives.