Silver Meadows (Fables From The Institution) – the new record by singer-songwriter Vinny Peculiar – is a tragi-comic masterpiece that tackles the issues of mental health and care in the community.
A concept album that’s set in a ficticious long-stay institution called Silver Meadows, it’s an eclectic collection of songs that were inspired by working as a nurse and visiting his schizophrenic brother in hospitals during the 1980s and early ’90s.
It opens with the stately piano ballad The Institution and takes us on a journey through the corridors, offices and wards of the facility, introducing the characters who live and work in Silver Meadows.
There’s drug-dealing Gerald The Porter, controversial new member of staff Andy, who’s ‘The Saviour of Challenging Behaviour’, and Albert – a troublesome inmate who causes all sorts of problems.
Musically, the record is richly rewarding, with New Wave pop, jangly, country-tinged guitar tunes, ’80s disco and psychedelic leanings.
I spoke to Vinny to get the full story behind the making of his new album…
Congratulations on Silver Meadows – it’s a wonderful record. Can you tell me about the background to it? Why did you choose to make a concept album about mental health issues?
Vinny Peculiar: Thanks for those nice comments – I’m so glad you enjoyed the album. The songs arrived out of nowhere in a two week spell at the start of 2014 – 20 in a three-week period, cut down to the 14 tracks on the record. I was on a bit of a roll. It was, of course, the last thing I expected to write about, after finally leaving the NHS after years of planning to. It’s set in a fictitious 1980s long stay institution – the kind of place I used to work in as a nurse.
The album opens with The Institution and the song addresses hospital gossip, nursing home parties, illicit band rehearsals, an abusive charge nurse, a drug-addled psychologist and women patients who were incarcerated just for getting pregnant. That’s a lot of issues for one song! It was the first one I wrote for the album – it sets the scene and kick-started the rest of the writing.
So we also get new treatments and behaviour modification techniques – Room Management and Self Help Skills Unit – and changes in practice – Community Care and Everyone Has Something to Say.
There are a couple of love stories – The Wednesday Club and Waiting Games – and in The Saviour of Challenging Behaviour, new staff polarise the workforce and challenge the old ways.
The song Hospital Wing was inspired by a young man I met when I started nursing. He was visiting his brother, who was dying on the hospital wing from a rare genetic condition. I can’t recall exactly which one, but, three years later, he was admitted to the same ward, where he too died, peacefully. He had so much dignity – his story has never left me. I have made a video for Hospital Wing with a wonderful group of actors in Bream, in the Forest of Dean – they did a great job. It was fabulously directed by regular Vinny Peculiar collaborator Andy Squiff.
Considering the sensitive subject matter, was it difficult to write the songs? You don’t want to come across as patronising, or cruel, do you? How did you approach the record?
VP: It wasn’t a difficult subject to write about, but, on the other hand, it’s not an easy subject to explain in a succinct, press release kind of way. You’re right – the last thing you want to do is to patronise the people who actually lived through the era and experienced life in those places.
I’ve a lot of mixed memories – good and bad – from that period. I’ve tried to set out a balanced stall and stick to the plot, so when it’s sad, it’s sad and when it’s funny, it’s funny.
There are so many characters in the songs. Are they based on real people you knew?
VP: The characters are stolen from memory, with requisite name changes, and they sort of wrote themselves. It’s a record of extremes, highs and lows, kindnesses and cruelties. I’ve changed names and switched a few details around to protect identities, but the essence of the songs are all true….
Your brother had mental health issues, didn’t he?
VP: My brother died in 2001 – he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and he spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals. I’ve written songs with mental health themes in the past.
Big Grey Hospital, which is on my album Whatever Happened to Vinny Peculiar? is about my brother’s admission to hospital and the powerlessness of families trying to make sense of it all.
Operation from Ironing the Soul has hospital overtones, as does Nurse of Year, so I have skated with mental health imagery in the past, but Silver Meadows is a more concentrated work.
What did you want to achieve musically with this record? It has a full-band sound and great arrangements. There are even some New Wave synths. Can you tell me about the recording process?
VP: I’m really proud of the way it sounds – lots of experimental layers and instruments that I’ve not really used before. It was more of an experimental approach – even proggy in places – and it was crafted with love by David Marsden, in his Southport Studio.
I first met Dave when he managed Pearl Studios in Liverpool in the early ‘90s. Nowadays he has a successful career in film and TV music. We always said we’d do something together. It took us 20 years to get there, but here we are, and we’re exceedingly proud of the album.
Recording started with home demos, then band rehearsals with the rhythm section Bobby Kewley (bass) and Paul Tsanos (drums). They are both great friends of mine and are lovely players.
We recorded the rhythm section at Whitby Studios in Ellesmere Port, with Ian Lewis and Dave overseeing, and then I added most of the electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, and mandocello at Whitby, where I could crank up the volume. We did a few of the main vocals and took everything to Dave’s studio where the parts were edited and new vocals recorded. Dave added a few more guitars and other exotic bits and bobs, including the Moog parts. He’s a proper Moogaholic.
The title track is one of my favourite songs on the album. It has a lovely country-tinged sound and I really like the twangy guitar licks and the gorgeous melody. Can you tell me more about the song, which sees a former patient from the institution returning to Silver Meadows, as he’s unable to cope with normal life?
VP: In the early days of community rehabilitation, it was typical for people to leave hospital and be left to fend for themselves in the outside world. However, without the right support, people would fail and return.
If someone has lived in an institution most of their lives, then they are going to need help to adjust, but they didn’t always get what they needed.
In the song Silver Meadows, a patient returns to what is familiar and where he feels safe – it offers some kind of counterbalance to the bad stuff that’s going on.
I’m glad you like the country twangs. Without wishing to go all Guitarist Magazine on you, that’s my Fender Telecaster Custom 1978 through a Silverface Fender Twin Reverb amp, circa 1976. Although, the star guitar on the record for me has to be my Rickenbacker 360 and what Dave christened the ‘walls of jangle’. It gives it a psychedelic edge. Drummers, do please forgive my ramblings…
The song The Wednesday Club is a nod to ’80s disco, both musically and lyrically. I like the synths and the backing vocals. What were you aiming for with that track?
VP: The Wednesday Club is set in a learning disabilities hospital disco. It’s actually quite a sad song – in spite of its dance-ability. It’s a song about a couple that live in the institution. They do lots of jobs around the place and they’re really able, but no one is quite sure how they ended up there. They fall in love at The Wednesday Club – the hospital disco – but are ultimately separated when they are forced to move to different parts of the country in separate group homes, far away from each other. This happened in the early days of community care and the legislation that drove the hospital closure programme. When we recorded the backing vocals, it was like we’d joined The O’Jays….
There are some dark tracks on the album. The Back Wards is very menacing and disturbing…
VP: In the old-style institutions there were always ‘back wards’, with the reputation of turning a blind eye to bad stuff.
By the time I was working in hospitals, these were much less prevalent, but cruelty and abuse is never far away when you have poorly trained and under-resourced staff with power over vulnerable people.
These things still go on today – look at Winterbourne .
I witnessed some abuse when I was a student nurse – there’s a reference to it in the song The Institution. It was an assault, but no one would sign witness statements, so the case was dropped and I was moved to another hospital to finish the module.
Are you planning to do a stage show / musical based on the album? How’s that project coming on?
VP: The stage play is, as they say, in development. We have characters and narrative and I’m working on the first draft with Liverpool writer Ian Salmon.
It’s very early days. We’ve had a couple of meetings and Ian is fleshing out the dialogue, so I’ve taken something of a back seat these past few weeks.
I’ve no idea how long it will take to finish the musical. We hope that by March 2017 things will have moved from concept to concert hall, but we’ll see…
Will you be touring this album with a full band?
VP: Yes. I’m really looking forward to playing the album from start to finish with a full band. We have a couple of band shows in September, then, hopefully, more towards the winter. And the band will feature in the stage play musical too, if I can prize them away from their respective tribute bands…
Since the last time I interviewed you, sadly, David Bowie has passed away. You must have been very upset. He was a huge influence on you, wasn’t he?
VP: I was really saddened by his death. My generation is the Bowie generation – the alien on Top of The Pops generation. It was impossibly sad knowing his final album was a farewell gift – and that he was orchestrating his own finale, which was just so humble and so brave. He was a consummate artist – always exploring and reinventing – and I doubt we will see anyone else to compare him to in our lifetime.
And now Prince has gone, too… Were you a fan?
VP: I was a fan – not of everything he did, but there was so much to love, and he was such a prolific talent.
Sign of The Times and Sometimes It Snows in April… there are so many more songs. He was also an independent – his own person – and he stood up to the corporate music mogul world of exploitation and refused to play by Tickemaster’s rules. I loved him for all that, too.
What music – new and old – are you currently enjoying?
VP: I like The National – Trouble in Mind is a beautiful record. I know they are not that new, but they are new compared to most of what I listen to. The new Coral album sounds interesting. The last album I bought was, rather predictably, Bowie’s Black Star on CD. I still buy CDs…
So what’s next for Vinny Peculiar? Would you like to make another concept album? Do you have any ideas for the next record?
VP: I hope to complete the recording project I started last year with Mancunian performance poet Tony Walsh – aka Longfella. I’m a big fan of his work.
I’ve also started writing songs based on local place names. I moved house last year and perhaps it’s my way of trying to make sense of it all…
Vinny Peculiar’s new album, Silver Meadows (Fables From The Institution) is released on June 6 on Shadrack & Duxbury Records.
For more information, go to http://vinnypeculiar.com/