Turning tales into tunes

Ian McMillan Orchestra''left to right Dylan Fowler (guitar/mandocello), Luke Carver Goss (accordion), Ian McMillan (voice), Clarke Salaman (nyckelharpa/hurdy-gurdy), Oliver Wilson-Dickson (violin) and Nathan Riki Thomson (double bass).
Ian McMillan Orchestra''left to right Dylan Fowler (guitar/mandocello), Luke Carver Goss (accordion), Ian McMillan (voice), Clarke Salaman (nyckelharpa/hurdy-gurdy), Oliver Wilson-Dickson (violin) and Nathan Riki Thomson (double bass).

IAN McMillan’s poetic antenna is never switched off.

This year is the Barnsley bard’s 30th as a freelance poet and writer. For the third decade running he’s managed to dodge, as he calls it, ‘a proper job.’

“I’m watching people all the time,” he says “And I always have my notebook on me. Only today I was at Bolton University and a man asked me if I wanted a lift. I said ‘no’ and continued walking but I could see him behind me. He then jumped out of the car and gave me some poems to read.”

Fleeting characters, such as McMillan’s poetic Bolton stalker, have provided lasting material for the poet over the years, along with his childhood experiences in Darfield, Barnsley. Here, in this tiny South Yorkshire idyll, characters were aplenty, including a cross-dressing gay couple whose eclectic collection of antiques and home has since become the Maurice Dobson Museum, named after one of the eccentric pair.

“They were these two cross dressing men living in Darfield but everyone just accepted them. They’d say ‘It’s just Maurice and Fred.’ But they were quite hard men – ex army, so they could respond if anyone gave them any hassle.”

But such cross-dressing delights aren’t necessarily restricted to Barnsley: “You see characters everywhere. The stuff I write about could happen anywhere though – it’s universal.”

This month, McMillan has teamed up with Sheffield-based composer and musical maestro Luke Carver Goss to reconvene the Ian McMillan Orchestra – a musical phenomenon which, as it says on the tin, involves all manner of instrumentation (including hurdy gurdy, squeezebox and fiddle). Their latest release, Homing In, is packed with musically-illuminated tales of longing, family and love. Songs were penned by both Carver Goss and McMillan and feature debut rapping from fiddle player Oli Dickson.

When the Ian McMillan Orchestra first appeared, many McMillan fans wouldn’t believe it.

“I’ve had people come to the orchestra gigs before and say ‘Who are the other people on stage? What are they doing here? We thought it was just you.’ I don’t think they believed there’ d be an actual orchestra on stage,” says McMillan.

But it’s no ordinary orchestra. Exotic Eastern sounds are juxtaposed with McMillan’s broad Barnsley accent, creating a bizarre, Barnsley-cum-Bombay aesthetic. And it’s not the first time he’s ventured into world of music. McMillan created similar unusual sounds with Doncaster-based The Angel Brothers and tabla player Satnam Singh, releasing tracks such as Captain Beefheart & Mr Neal, a recorded recollection of McMillan’s father’s perplexed reaction to his son’s discovery of Captain Beefheart.

There’s plenty of bizarre and lush musical combinations to be heard on Homing In, which will be accompanied by live dates across the UK.

“The show will be a mixture of glee, delight, joy and happiness,” says McMillan, “with some improvised ideas thrown in by the audience and songs about a huge range of things.”

McMillan doesn’t get stage fright, either. “I’ve had all the bad things happen to me on stage that you can imagine. People have tried to hit me and throw things so no, I don’t get nervous. I think in geological time anyway – no-one will remember what happened 100,000 years ago.”

lIan McMillan Orchestra play at The Greystones on Wednesday.