Stuart McCallum talks about new project The Breath and shares his and Ríoghnach Connolly’s playlist

Manchester-based guitarist and composer Stuart McCallum has released four studio albums and become known for his ability to craft rich soundscapes from electric guitar layering and subtle composition. For new collaborative project The Breath, he has joined forces with vocalist Ríoghnach Connolly and fellow Cinematic Orchestra alumni John Ellis and Luke Flowers, forming a group that is poised between folk, rock, jazz and ambient music. The group was born out of Manchester’s fertile music scene, and is set to the release their debut album via Real World records on 17th June. Ahead of their live show at Band on the Wall on the same day, we spoke to Stuart about his and Ríoghnach’s playlist selections, how the project began and where it may take them.


Tell us about the music you’ve selected for your playlist, and how it relates to or influenced the music you have made with The Breath.


Here’s the playlist that Ríoghnach & I put together of music we were listening to during the writing and recording of the album. Although I can’t pinpoint any specific elements of these tracks in terms of their influence on The Breath, the lyrical, melodic, textural, timbral and rhythmic elements of our music is very much influenced by these artists.
Catrin Finch/Seckou Keita – Ceffylau
Machinedrum – Infinite Us
Gil Scott Heron and Jamie XX – NY is Killing Me
Gerald Finzi – Cello Concerto, 2nd movement
Debussy – String Quartet in G minor, 3rd movement
Steve Reich – Music for 18 Musicians
Vaults – Premonitions
Frazey Ford – Firecracker
Go Go Penguin – Hopopono
Reem Kelani – Galilean Lullaby
Ane Brun – All My Tears


How did the project come together, where did the idea start and who approached who?


 I wanted to do a project with a singer and found Rioghnach on MySpace singing a song called ‘Knocking on Another Man’s Door’. I already had some material that I’d written with any singer, so we tried Rioghnach singing them first, then decided to scrap all that material and start again by writing material together.


What was the writing process like for this project? Were songs worked on communally or did individuals come forward with complete ideas, ready to for the band to commit to record?


Some songs just came out very quickly – we wrote Carry Your Kin in Ríoghnach’s kitchen when she was cooking. I played the chords and she pressed record on her phone and just started singing. After a bit of editing of what she sang we pretty much had the song. For You was the same, but happened during a gig we were jamming at Matt & Phreds. A lot of the tracks took a lot longer, but always start with me and Ríoghnach working together.


How important was Real World Studios on the sound of this project? Did the studio present new opportunities to you, and did it serve purely as a place to record or more? Did you also record up here in Manchester?


Obviously the recording facilities at Real World are amazing, but the whole atmosphere of the place is really inspiring. It’s a residential studio, so you stay in the cottage across the river and have a chef cooking food for you. It’s a very calming place which allows you to focus on creativity. It was great being there and recording in a place where some of the world’s most famous artists have recorded.


With Ríoghnach’s vocals and lyrics at the forefront of these songs, do you consciously adapt your style of playing, compared to the way you may play on an instrumental track? Would it be accurate to say you serve the song in music such as this?


Yes. The focus of the music is the vocals, so the guitar and all the other instruments are there in to support the vocals and the lyrical narrative.


There are some beautiful string arrangements on tracks like Harvest and The Dance is Over. Who was responsible for arranging the album?


I produced the album and did all the orchestral arrangements. Ríoghnach did the vocal arrangements.


What does the future hold for The Breath beyond the new album and the live show at Band on the Wall?


We have other shows in London, Bristol and WOMAD around the release date (June 17th) and then will be touring the UK in the Autumn.