Dundee singer-songwriter Ed Muirhead blends folk and rock influences in his songs, weaving everyday observations with deeper thoughts along to catchy tunes. He’s also recently been writing instrumental music.
Tell us about your day job.
I’m a self-employed musician doing piano lessons, community music for people with additional needs, songwriting, composing, recording, gig promotion and session playing among others.
What does creativity mean to you?
Creativity is making things, changing things, getting stuff from the inside out.
Can anyone learn your craft?
Yes, anyone can learn with enough practice and patience! People sometimes say that being musical is a gift – but in my experience it’s simply based on many hours of play. As a child I couldn’t sing a note in tune, and scored lower in music than maths or physics, but I practised a lot of piano, guitar and eventually singing.
What do you want to communicate through your work?
In lessons, I’m hoping to communicate enjoyment of music – showing people skills and techniques, helping them coordinate their fingers with their ears, and increasing their range of expression. In music sessions and group playing, I’m listening and responding to people, supporting them in their music. In songwriting and composing, I’m giving sound to various feelings, thoughts and ideas, with no big plan, but hopefully creating something meaningful along the way.
Each time a student or client gets a spark of enjoyment from their music, that’s another highlight for me. And here’s some historical ones: back in 1993 I wrote my first song, but it wasn’t till 2009 I played my first solo gig – a last-minute affair when my band couldn’t make it – on that night I was bitten by the bug, and this spurred me to write and play more. In 2011 I released my first album, which led to several more. In 2015 I quit my day job as an engineer to train as a music therapist, and have worked in music since then. Each January I take part in Fun A Day Dundee – this year I wrote a new piece of music each day, and these became a series of 24 tunes for a variety of instruments (“Exhibition Pieces” – inspired by items at The McManus).
What barriers have you experienced in your creative journey?
Barriers is quite a word, I can’t think of any real barriers, maybe there were a few hurdles . . . When I worked as an engineer for 18 years, music was in my spare time, I could have played it safe and said “don’t give up the day job”, but after years of planning (and saving) I did. Writer’s block often comes calling, but there’s always something else to do while you wait for it to clear!
How important is it to be part of a creative community?
It’s a great feeling, and meeting other creative people helps to fuel your own creativity when it looks like there’s nothing much happening! I also really enjoy playing in bands, being a session player or side-man for others, so I can boost my responsiveness and expression – while having less creative decisions to make.
Tell us more about your personal creative process.
It depends on how much creative juices are around – and if there’s any to spare! Recently it’s been flowing a bit more freely, which I’m grateful for – and I’m finding it tends to happen if I put my mind to it. In July after years of not writing any songs, I decided to write one each day, and managed to come up with 22 during walks with our dogs! For these, my process was to sing the songs while walking, write lyrics on my phone, and sometimes record the audio. Later I’d sit with an instrument and find the key, chords and melody notes. For composing instrumental music, like Exhibition Pieces, getting started is half the job, then letting the notes appear and fit together is quite exciting. After the initial setting down, there’s usually a second round of listening and editing to tweak things – some pieces need more than others.
Is performing music for others imperative to your creative process?
Not really, it’s enough to come up with the music, play it, and hear it in the air. If it stopped there that would be fine by me but I guess I feel drawn to realise the music in various ways – writing it down, recording it, performing it – and live performance really takes music to another level. I recently sang at Songwriters Night #5 – my 66th solo gig and it felt like my best yet, it was a real thrill! Recording is a type of performing, but with a big delay – it has its own process, challenges and rewards along the way.
What ignites your passion?
All kinds of things, from thoughts and feelings, to trying to imagine other perspectives, to seeing our dog sleeping in the sun! Creating things can also be a great diversion from feeling hopeless about other things going on – the state of the world, etc . . . I should probably write a lot more here, but the words are not really coming at the moment.
Whose work inspires you?
Whatever I listen to inspires me musically, whether I like it or not, it’s all floating around in there! My piano teacher Mrs Whitefield inspired me from age 7 onwards – she had a sparkle in her eye and a joy of music that flowed through her. Over 30 years later that led to me following in her footsteps and discovering that I also love helping people learn to play music! The only other person that comes to mind is Stevie Wonder. Ever since I first heard his music, and then found out more about him and how he made those early records, he has inspired me, and continues to even now.
How have you honed your craft?
Practice! The more I do it, the better it seems to get. I’ve heard other songwriters say they write less as time goes on – they feel more fussy. I can see how this would affect someone, if they’re always comparing it to what’s gone before, or wondering what others will make of it. I would like to keep making music regardless. The feeling of putting together a song or piece of music gives me enough feedback to keep me coming back for more. These days I also trust my gut instinct a lot more, that’s developed over the years.
What is a misconception about your craft?
Hard to say, I’m not big on paying attention to them . . . maybe that creative people sit around doing nothing most of the time though that may not be a misconception?! Or composers are pompous. Or piano teachers are spinsters. “Step outside your stereotypes” is one of my mottos. I also googled the question, and came up with various comments about being talented, studying from childhood, reading music, being creative, etc – and seems like others agree with my focus on practice 🙂
If you weren’t humble, what would tell us about yourself?
I’m not humble, I’m an egotistical maniac! Like most people, I love talking about myself – check the length of this article!
What are you afraid of?
Not much apart from losing my hearing or the use of my hands! Before last week, I may have said world war but it seems that may be coming along. The way things are, part of me feels “que sera, sera” – maybe I should be afraid of that feeling.
A life without music is…
Hard to imagine. Sitting writing this, I can hear birds tweeting and road workers digging – there’s wee bits of music in both those. In recent years I’ve realised I don’t prize “formal” music or consider it as precious as other music fans do – this certainly came to light in music therapy training (I was a rare non-music graduate in the class). From the time a baby feels its mother’s heartbeat in the womb onwards, people have rhythms and tunes throughout their lives. I love everyday music, and am in favour of more people making their music their own way. So, if life didn’t have music, we’d probably invent it again anyway.
What’s your creative weakness?
Having either too many creative things going on at once – or nothing at all. This probably reflects my mental health at any given time. I’ve struggled with depression at various points, and in my teens had a nervous breakdown.
What’s your creative strength?
It may be learning to cope with many things going on at once! Working in engineering for 18 years developed my skills in organisation, logical thinking, planning, etc… these come in handy when trying to keep track of various projects.
Best advice you’ve ever had…
“You don’t need to know all the answers, just where to look.” A lecturer said that in the first class of my engineering degree – and it can apply more widely too.
The pandemic has taught me…
How fortunate I am. Since the first lockdown I’ve volunteered at a foodbank, packing a lot of bags and stacking a lot of tins! It is providing an emergency supply of food to families in Dundee. I thought demand for it would eventually fade away but people still need help with their daily food. With the coming energy price rises it will probably get more referrals.
What would you say to your younger self?
Don’t be worried about what you think other people think.
Tell us a secret…
Most of the time, there is nothing at all going on in my head. That’s why I write things down, or get them into my heart and bones because my head is typically, “oh that’s a nice blue sky” or, “what are we having for tea?”
What’s your poison?
Whisky, or red wine, but not both in the same night.
In an ideal world…
I wrote a song about this for the new album: “The city streets are paved with gold, kids all do what they are told, politicians listen. Everyone has what they need, there are no signs of greed, people get along. The food banks have all closed their doors, there’s no hunger any more. Every person has a place, there’s no wrong kind of face, people get along.”
Alive, well and healthy as far as we know!?
What are you most proud of?
My kids. And building a patio . . . planning another one this spring.
What are you working on?
My new album “Portraits of People I Never Knew” – recording tracks, mixing, editing. A new collection of piano music called “What do you wonder?”, plus coordinating recording of parts for “Exhibition Pieces” on various instruments. And tweaking the Dundee Music Map, a long-term spider-web of a project linking many bands from the city by their shared members.
Where the heart is.
What excites you about Dundee’s music scene?
There’s a lot of exciting music makers around here. I’m so glad that gigs have resumed after the pandemic, it’s great to be out and about listening to the music happen. It’s so refreshing that there’s still the urge to sing songs, play live shows, form bands, get out there and enjoy it!
Great place to be. I sometimes feel like an incomer . . . arriving here to live just over 20 years ago, though I was born at Ninewells, so I’m actually Dundonian! I’ve lived a few places in Scotland, and worked all over the world, but this wee spot on the river is awesome 🙂