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In the long ago days of early 2020, Tide Lines had one goal with their second album Eye of the Storm: to translate the band’s word-of-mouth success into something verifiable. Into something tangible that would honour their fanbase and reflect their audience’s passion.
Into, in short, a decent showing in the Top 40.
Charting a self-produced, self-released album was a big ask. Then again, the Glasgow-based four-piece had already had serious form at self-starting a phenomenon. Through rigorous songwriting and vigorous gigging, Robert Robertson (vocals, guitar), Alasdair Turner (guitar, pipes), Ross Wilson (keyboards) and Fergus Munro (drums) had built up an intense following at home, and beyond.
Developing the folk-rock roots they’d planted with 2016 debut single Far Side of the World (5.2 million Spotify streams and counting) and 2017 album Dreams We Never Lost, Tide Lines were already pushing out from the Scottish heartland. Robertson sang poetically and evocatively of the Hebrides and the Highlands that all of the members call home, but the band’s eyes were on the horizon.
For sure, these were songs formed in the heart and hearth of the folk music that Gaelic-speaking Robertson had grown up with. But like the music of Van Morrison or countryman Mike Scott and his Waterboys before them, Tide Lines’ songs had a universality that reached beyond cultural boundaries.
Then, scheduled for March 2020, was Eye of the Storm, a rousing collection of tracks that were, variously, as wide as the sky and intimate as home. The stars, and the songs, were aligned. Unfortunately, like all of us, the band’s second album was overtaken by events. As lockdown took hold, Tide Lines faced a difficult decision: hold back the album until they could properly promote it, whenever that might be? Or honour the songs and their audience and push on?
Quickly, the band decided to follow the music.
“Our fanbase are pretty supportive of us,” says Robertson, who formed the band while studying at Glasgow University. “And particularly at that point, they felt pretty sorry for us! We'd announced the album when Coronavirus was just this thing that was happening in China. So we went ahead, and because of that, our fans were obviously sitting in lockdown. So they're thinking: ‘Well, we've got time in our hands. So let's just support the lads.’”
Tide Lines were used to thinking on their feet from day one. Robertson and Wilson first met when the latter stepped in last minute for a gig Robertson had at the Park Bar in Argyle Street, the pair of lifelong musicians rustling up a set within minutes of meeting. Likewise when Munro and Turner joined – within one rehearsal, the foursome knew they were onto something. Later, as the band gained momentum, each member took on non-musical band roles: Robertson on communications, Turner on accounts, Munro on merch, Wilson on studio and technical bookings.
Now, unable to promote Eye of the Storm, their DIY/bootstrap skills kicked in. Tide Lines took to social media – and they took to the skies. If they couldn’t tour the world, the world could come to them.
“We did a thing called the Virtual World Tour, which was just a bit of a joke at first. For 10 nights in the lead up to the album release, we had a wee tartan aeroplane on Google Earth,” remembers Robertson with a laugh, shouting out bandmate Wilson’s graphic design skills. “So I’d fly from my house in Fort William to wherever I was supposed to be that night, then livestream a performance from that place.
It was just Robertson and his guitar, so it wasn't exactly how Tide Lines intended everyone to hear their new songs. But in those long ago days of lockdown #1’s new (ab)normal, the stripped-back performance format proved one ineffable thing: unadorned, performed from his parents’ house in Fort Williams, Robertson’s new songs could travel.
And how they travelled. True to Tide Lines’ hard-grafting, self-starting DIY ethos, their innovation struck a chord.
“Each night of that funny ‘tour’, we had 10,000 views every 24 hours. And of course, we put a link to pre-orders for Eye of the Storm at the bottom at the bottom. So we were just getting pre-orders in all the time. And that ridiculous idea was something that would never have happened if it wasn't for Coronavirus.”
The result: in its week of release, Eye of the Storm reached the giddy heights of Number 3 in the UK album chart midweeks, before finally landing at a hugely impressive Number 12. By default, desperation and tactical graphic design, Tide Lines smashed it (inter)nationally. At a time when good news was hard to find, here was a sparkle of positivity.
As Robertson puts it, “long before Coronavirus, we wanted to make some kind of a statement. And we would have been delighted if we'd been nipped into the Top 20. So Number 12 certainly surpassed those expectations.”
And for their next trick… Having finally been able to tour their Top 12 album last summer and autumn, albeit in truncated, between-variants form, Tide Lines went home. They poured the stored-up energy and momentum of their success into, firstly, buying the Baptist church on the island of Mull that they’d previously rented. Now it was their dedicated rehearsal and recording space. Then, secondly, they began making their third album.
Emboldened by the against-the-odds success of Eye of the Storm, Robertson focused all his energy, ambition, vision and excitement. Rather than that Covid-compromised momentum being wasted, he metabolised it into his songwriting.
The result is An Ocean Full of Islands, a 12-track album written and recorded after the walls had closed in but that is defiantly, gloriously uplifting. First single Rivers in The Light is big, bold, confident, Robertson's bell-clear voice at its most stirring and the sound of Tide Lines grasping the thistle of what they, at heart, are: a rock band in touch with the geography and the culture that formed them.
“That was the one that from a very, very basic stage we decided had most potential to build up into something that would hopefully sound quite big,” says Robertson. A student of American heartland rock as much as he is a student of Scottish “country dance” music, he intuitively understands the emotional mechanics of what makes a song connect with a live audience, whether in pub, club, ballroom or rock hall.
Having put in his 10,000 hours in boozy bar-room hootenannies, from playing the accordion as a pre-teen in his Highlands hometown to multiple indie gigs in Glasgow, multi-instrumentalist Robertson knows of what he speaks. As he puts it of Rivers in the Light: “The melody is constantly rising to a peak middle of the chorus, which works with a big arrangement.”
In other words, Tide Lines know how to move a room.
Support: Joanne by the Chapel