Ricky Ross Seeks Believers In Troubled Times
The National 15th September 2016

THE Believers, the recent single from Deacon Blue, is right up there with the strongest songs the pop rockers have done over the last 30 years. A journeying track based around an ascending piano figure and the steadfast beats of Dougie Vipond (the very same), the accompanying video by Graeme O’Hara features images of individuals, often children, set against landscapes and industrial smoke stacks.

“Who was this child, what was her journey?/Who were her people, what did she dream of?” Ricky Ross asks.

Blatantly about the ongoing refugee crisis, the criss-crossing strings of guest ensemble The Pumpkinseeds and the ethereal wash of vocalist Lorraine McIntosh’s imbue the song with a surprising sense of hope:

“Go on ahead/I’ll be with you soon enough/Go plant a garden/I’ll be walking with you in the cool of the evening/In the honeysuckle and willow trees.”

Those poignant lines were inspired, not by the countless human tragedies of the displaced, but from a story Ross read about a priest in Indonesia ministering to people on death row.

“[He was] trying to explain to a prisoner who suffered from schizophrenia that he was to be executed,” says Ross.

“He said: ‘I talked to him for about an hour and a half, trying to prepare him for the execution. I said to him: “I’m 72 years old, I’ll be heading to heaven in the near future, so you find out where my house is and prepare a garden for me.’”

Written after completing music for Paul Higgins’ musical The Choir at Glasgow Citizens Theatre in mid-2015, it was the positive reaction to demos of The Believers which spurred Ross to work on the remainder of the album in his favourite writing place – the window seat of the flat in Glasgow’s south side where he’s lived for the past 22 years.

Deacon Blue’s third album in four years, it follows 2012’s The Hipsters and 2014’s A New House. Recorded, like those two, at Chem19 in Hamilton with Paul Savage and mastered, like each of the band’s previous seven, by Tim Young at Metropolis in London, The Believers reaffirms their creative resurgence after a relatively fallow period in the 2000s following the death of founder-member Graeme Kelling.

“Since Graeme died in 2004 we had struggled to find the right personnel,” says Ross. “We felt we either became a ‘real’ band who produced new material or we gave up. The former was the better alternative. I also have to give credit to [multi-instrumentalist] Gregor Philp. Gregor came in as a friend of Dougie’s and quickly became a friend of us all. He helps me hugely with arranging the songs, we co-write on some songs and he brings a musical sensibility which is fresh and original. I love him dearly.”

As well as themes of redemption through love (the delicate, devastatingly pretty I Will And I Won’t) and reflection on times past (the soft haze of A Boy), the album’s bigger, most immediate tracks are powered by a stoic optimism. Whether it’s Gone, with its line: “We’re all reluctant travellers trying to get home”, the big band uplift of Birds (originally titled Birds Over Barlinnie until Ross’s “trusty editor” McIntosh suggested otherwise) or the Springsteen-style piano drive of current single This Is A Love Song, The Believers is an album buoyed by just that – a sense of faith.

“The nagging feeling I had, thematically, was an afterthought from the referendum in 2014,” he explains. “People make more decisions based on instinct and heart than they seem to do based on reason. I imagined a world which was divided by those who feel instinctively hopeful and trusting, working against one which is fearful and suspicious. I guess a lot of the songs came out of that.”

That hope is sustaining during a political situation Ross says gets him down. With the prospect of Scotland being taken out of the EU against the wishes of more than 60 per cent of those who voted, a hard-right UK Tory government until at least 2020 and the likes of the PM and Home Secretary Amber Rudd explicitly taking the UK’s Leave vote as a command to cut immigration, a more humanitarian approach to displaced people looks unlikely.

“I feel depressed by all of it,” says Ross. “I like being European and I liked the emphasis on social cohesion the EU brought to the UK. I still want to be part of the EU and I hope Scotland will still be… we just need to find the right way to do that. I don’t believe Theresa May will find it easy to organise the exit from the EU and I suspect there will be another election before any of this is settled.”

Fingers crossed.

He continues: “People who have fled are remarkable people. I now know asylum seekers who have been here a long time. They are amazing citizens and all the more so because of the strength they have shown in escaping their own crises. We have plenty room and we should be allowing refugees to work and contribute. So many are stuck in an awful place – willing to work and contribute but barred from doing so. We should also not be detaining people. It’s wrong.”