East Lothian singer and original Marillion front-man Fish recalls how he nearly died during the making of his final album
From Market Square Heroes to Waverley Steps (End of the Line), in the first of a two-part interview, Fish looks back as he prepares to retire
ONE last album, followed by a tour to promote it and then a farewell tour, all by the age of 65.That was plan, the album was Weltschmerz and then, suddenly, along came Covid and all bets were off.
I’m talking to Fish, for seven years the towering front-man of Marillion and for the last 32, an acclaimed solo artist. The singer, real name Derek Dick, is speaking from his home in East Lothian and the topic of conversation has quickly turned to the devastation the fight against Covid has wreaked upon the live music business. “They reckon one third of musicians are going to leave the business because there’s just no work - it’s just f***ing awful,” says the 6ft 3in tall singer who hails from Dalkeith.
He continues, “I had to call my production manager in Berlin yesterday, I said, ‘Pull all the Summer dates, pull everything, there’s no point in even thinking about it’ - I’ve got a UK tour in February 2021, rescheduled from March this year, and I can’t see it happening with everyone talking about another six months of lockdown. It’s just nuts.”
He adds, “I’m just glad this isn’t 1982 because I would hate to be a young musician in a band who has just finished his first album, has the tour all booked and is about to sail off into the world when somebody goes, ‘Stay in the harbour, you’re no going anywhere.’ That would be devastating and I really feel for those young musos, crews, house crew guys and tour bus drivers parked up all over Europe... but there’s no point in stamping your feet about it, we just have to deal with it.”
It was in 1982 that Fish himself first came to public attention when the single Market Square Heroes proved the breakthrough single prog-rockers Marillion and their loquacious front-man had been looking for. It was the start of a four decade journey that is now about to reach its destination.
Weltschmerz, released on 25 September, brings Fish to the end of the road, musically at least. German, the title of his final studio album translates as ‘a feeling of melancholy and world weariness’. It’s a feeling that is understandable as he recalls the five years over which the album was made, yet despite the reflective finality of the tracks, an underlying hope remains.
That positivity is part of the singer’s make-up and despite the bleakness of the music scene at the moment, he has this advice for any young bands finding themselves in the position he has just described.
“Keep practising and write and write and write, eventually you’re going to find a pearl in there somewhere. It’s going to break sometime, so stay prepared, that’s all I’ve been doing for the last few months, trying to find silver linings in dark clouds. It’s so easy, whether you’re a musician, a post man, a baker, whatever, to get down and float into despondency but you have to keep yourself focused.”
That’s something Fish admits he has found challenging over the five years he has invested in Weltschmerz. It’s been a traumatic time for the 62-year-old who has had the death of his father to deal with as well as bringing his 87-year-old mother who requires permanent care to live with him and his wife Simone. Not forgetting the two cases of sepsis which came close to killing him and operations on his hands and spine.
Consequently the autobiographical nature of the songs on Weltschmerz never far from the surface.
“When I got the album through, my wife Simone and I sat down and opened the first bottle of wine we have had in six months and listened to it. After, there was a feeling of this is it, that’s it done. I’ve made the statement with this album.”
That statement is more personal than he realised while writing it. “These songs are autobiographical. I’m involved in all of them and I didn’t realise that until I sang them in the studio. There’s a lot of self-examination going on and I learned a great deal about myself making this album.”
The ‘sharing’ started with the very first track, the hypnotic Grace of God, a song conceived in the wards of Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary last summer.
“When I got sepsis for the second time, I thought I was a goner,” Fish recalls. “It was only two months after the first time and there I am, in a blue-lighted ambulance stopped half way up the bypass, when I hear them say, ‘Another 40 minutes and this is going to get critical,’ as they put the oxygen on me’.
“Then, being on the ward, it was like, ‘Here I am again, another four or five days in the Royal with the ever present cannulas...’ Then you leave and you see the wheelchairs outside with guys smoking in them and I actually thought, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’. It was actually a bit of a breakthrough, because that was when the floodgates opened and I realised where I was going with this album.”
The origins of Weltschmerz, however, date back to 2015, and another health issue. “I had back issues and shoulder issues and went, ‘You know what, the reality check is that I’m not going to be playing arenas anytime soon. I’m destined to be on a Nightliner going from city to city across Europe for the rest of my life’. I just thought, ‘I really don’t want to be doing this when I’m 65’.
"That was when I made the decision that I had one album left in me. I saw the pain in the world and my life seemed to parallel with it, the death of my father, the illnesses, the operations... that was one of the reasons it took so long to write.”
Struck by “terrible writer’s block” after his father passed away, Fish struggled to get his thoughts down on paper.
“When my dad died in May 2016, for a whole year there were just too many ideas, my head was full of chocolate frogs,” he says. “It wasn’t until 2017 that I got back into it and the song Little Man What Now was the first thing I wrote - it’s one of the foundations of the album. As the album developed, and as I looked back as I wrote, I realised how much of myself I was putting into it. Although the songs are all invested in third parties there were a lot of my own experiences in those songs and it was quite chilling to realise that.”
One of those songs, Waverley Steps (End of the Line) will resonate with many who have ever used the Princes Street entrance to the Capital’s train station.
“There was a soldier with PTSD who was living rough and didn’t want to go into the system, I read about him in the Evening News,” explains Fish. “He spent most of his time at the top of the Waverley Steps, then I read he had froze to death and thought that was incredibly sad. I was imagining how he got there, thinking back..., living in East Lothian I thought about watching the countryside being torn up and turned into private housing estates. I remembered being young and travelling on the East Coast line and how newspapers never say when a death is a suicide... so it’s a song about mental health and a potential suicide. Very dark but with pearls of beauty.”
He thinks for a moment before adding, “I left Marillion after Clutching at Straws, which I thought was the best album we ever did, and I always wanted to finish my solo career on a high and then just walk away with my head held high. Weltschmerz is the album I always wanted to hear when I was 18 and the one I always wanted to make.
TOMORROW: Fish - The farewell tour and life after music
Weltschmerz is released 25 September from https://fishmusic.scot/
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