For the last 16 years, guitarist Stevie Jackson has been Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch’s right-hand man. But it’s not just Jackson’s six-string skills that have made him crucial to the Scottish indie-pop icons’ sound — he’s also written and sung some of the band’s most striking tunes. Now Jackson’s songs are taking the spotlight for the first time with the release of his solo debut, (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson, set for a July 1 release on the band’s own Banchory Recordings. With his songwriting about to get more attention than ever, it seems like the perfect time to go straight to the horse’s mouth for the stories behind some of the best Belle & Sebastian tunes to spring from the guitarist’s pen.
1. “Seymour Stein”
When that record came out I suppose it was unavoidable that it would always get mentioned in reviews, because I had the audacity to call a song “Seymour Stein” [after the Sire Records founder], and every single review of it got the song completely wrong. A lot of people thought it was a song that was down on Seymour in some kind of way, like, “Go home Mr. Record Company Guy, we have the indie ethic. We don’t need all that.” In many ways, Seymour was a sort of backdrop for gaining the world and losing your soul, or getting what you want but losing something else. It’s all about getting offered a record contract but your girl’s gone, the idea of the song was like, “There’s the record company guy with all his promises. Well, can you get my girl back?”
2. “The Wrong Girl”
I think I actually had that around the time the group was starting, or maybe just before. We were on our fourth record [Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant], and we were just looking for songs. We needed a song on the record with a chorus, a catchy one. It was an attempt to write a Buffalo Springfield song. Back in the ‘90s or whenever it was I was really into Buffalo Springfield, especially their first record. My memory is I was trying to write a pop song with a country flavor to it, and maybe a kind of Motown chorus.
3. “Jonathan David”
Sarah Martin, the keyboard player/violin player in the band … there was a period where I was staying in a room in her house. And Sarah does a thing where she gets into something, she gets into a record, she’ll play the same record over and over again for weeks, months even. I heard her doing it with [David Bowie’s] Ziggy Stardust. But in the period when I was living there it was the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle, she had a vinyl copy of it and she wouldn’t play anything else. I just kind of assimilated it. So “Jonathan David” was an attempt to write a Zombies song. The piano melody I thought was like something Rod Argent might write. And because I don’t play piano very well, I kind of wrote this little piece and it became my piano practice. Being in a rehearsal room with the band I’d practice it, and it caught people’s ear. The group took it on and helped me finish it, and that became a single.
4. “Step Into My Office, Baby”
That was one of the few instances where me and Stuart actually sat and worked on a song one on one, just the two of us. I had the tune and we’d been talking in a café a couple of days before about girlfriends or whatever; he was just talking like, “You know when you’re gonna get a hard time, you’re gonna get a talking to, when they kind of go, ‘Step into my office.’” I came around to Stuart and said “I’ve got this tune,” and we remembered that phrase he used. So we just sat down and wrote the words together. It’s interesting just watching Stuart work, we both had our notepads and sat in silence for like five, 10 minutes, and in that time I’d written maybe one stanza and he’d done eight. I’ve seen him write a song in ten minutes, where it takes me like a year.
5. “I Took a Long, Hard Look”
That was done at the time of The Life Pursuit. It’s not on the record, it’s on the “Funny Little Frog” single. It’s about trying to say goodbye to geekiness. Growing up I was totally into music, I was into records, and I still am, I used to love reading about musicians and about their lives, and I was right into rock biogs. I came to a point in my life where I was like, “I’ve got to create my own magic instead of reading about other people.” The funny thing was, when we were mixing the record in Sunset Studios in Hollywood, a very famous studio where a lot of amazing records where made, especially in the ‘70s, we were mixing the song, and on the coffee table was this biography about Neil Young called Shakey. And I opened up the book about halfway through, and there was a bit about recording On the Beach, which he actually recorded at Sunset Studios where I am, and I’m going “Fucking hell, that’s unbelievable!” And reading about it I started getting excited. “Oh my God, they were just totally high on tequila all the time and they were at Sunset recording On the Beach.” Almost immediately I’m falling back into it, and I went “No, no, no, forget about it, you’ve got to live your own life.” And that night, when Stuart and I went out for a drink and he said, “What are you having?” I said, “Tequila” (laughs). At that point I thought, “I’ll never escape this fascination.”