Michael Marra: Authentic voice of Scotland with a distinctive songwriting style

 

The official announcement states that Michael Marra died "suddenly and unexpectantly". It isn't clear whether that second adverb is an error or a quiet joke, but it fits an artist whose career was an expression of chastened romanticism. He once told a BBC Scotland presenter that his philosophy of life was "it gets worse", and that he regarded optimistic expectation as "something you just have to get over". Despite that, and a voice more gravelly than the front drive of a Broughty Ferry villa, his songs were full of an uncomplicated love of life.

He grew up not among the villas of smart Broughty Ferry but in Dundee's Lochee district, where he went to St Mary's Primary and Lawside Academy. His first public performance was at a Christmas party at the city's NCR factory, the later closure of which contributed to Dundee's economic struggles. In recent years, Marra had expressed guarded satisfaction at Dundee's 1990s makeover, but always pointed out that new arts centres and pedestrianised streets could never make up for a lack of basic jobs.

Dundee was likely territory for the nascent punk movement, but Marra's musical interests moved in a different direction. He was influenced by Scottish traditional song and by American folk-blues (which he insisted had Scottish roots), and rockabilly. He formed his first group, Hen's Teeth, in 1971, fronted Tomorrow's Children and then in the mid-70s joined his brother Chris and drummer Jog Ogilvie (formerly of Mort Wriggle) in a group called Skeets Boliver.

Ogilvie was later replaced by Brian McDermott, later of Danny Wilson and Del Amitri; singer Arlene Gowans left the group (which some thought led to commercial disaster) and the Marras, plus guitarists Stuart Ivins and Angus Foy, were then joined by saxophonist Peter McGlone.

McGlone was the subject of a tribute on the 2007 album Quintet, which was devoted to five cherished musicians (including Peerie Willie Johnson and Dr John). In 1977 the group made two modestly successful singles, "Streethouse Door"/"I Can't See The Light" and "Moonlight In Jeopardy"/ "Ain't Been Good To You". Skeets Boliver split in 1979, and Michael Marra made the then inevitable move to London. He recorded his first album as a singer/songwriter for Polydor.

It featured Barbara Dickson on backing vocals and she later recorded one of its best songs, "Taking The Next Train Home", which is what Marra seemed fated to do through life. The Midas Touch was the album's self-consciously ironic title. Marra always gently dismissed any notions that he stood above commercial ambitions in any way, saying that "nobody ever makes a record without believing it's going to be a hit", but he was enough to recognise that his essentially old-fashioned style, clever narrative songwriting and understated theatrical manner was not what the pop industry was looking for any more,

He did, however, establish a strong reputation in a curious byway of professional music, being an opening act for headline bands. He fell out with Polydor and his manager and returned to Scotland, throwing himself into theatre, which remained a passion throughout his life, and working on an emergent music scene in Dundee.

His songwriting began to sound more and more distinctive, often dealing with unlikely encounters in Scotland, and surprising personal juxtapositions, such as "King Kong's Visit To Glasgow" (from the 1996 album Candy Philosophy), "Margaret Reilly's Arrival At Craiglockhart" (from the peerless Stolen Stationery) and his own favourite number, "Frida Kahlo's Visit to the Tay Bridge Bar", which, along with "The Lonesome Death of Francis Clarke" and another visit song about Bob Dylan in "Embra" (Edinburgh), was included on 2002's Posted Sober.

Marra also wrote what has been described as Scotland's alternative national anthem, "Hermless", a delicate paean to ordinariness: "Wi' ma hand on my hert, and ma hert in ma mooth / Wi' erms that could reach ower the sea …"

Scots dialect, or at least powerful Scots accents, did not seem an absolute barrier to mainstream or broadcast network success, as the recordings of the Proclaimers and many television comedies had proved, but Marra's gifts travelled less surely and he concentrated largely on activities in Scotland, working on a new production of The Demon Barber in Perth with director Graham McLaren (with whom he had collaborated on poet Liz Lochead's version of Beauty and the Beast), writing the opera Nan Garland for Dundee Rep and presenting a new play, St Catherine's Day, at Oran Mor in Glasgow.

In 2007 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Dundee, and in 2011 an honorary D.Litt by Glasgow Caledonian University. He continued writing and performing to the end of his life, despite suffering from throat cancer. A 2010 live performance given with the classical crossover group, Mr McFall's Chamber was released on Delphian Records.

Marra is survived by his wife Peggy and by their children Alice and Matthew, who are members of the indie/folk-rock group The Hazey Janes. His niece Jenny is Labour MSP for North East Scotland.

Brian Morton

Michael Marra, musician and writer: born Lochee, Dundee 1952; married Peggy (one daughter, one son); died Dundee 23 October 2012.

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