Musician sat in a recording studio

Stephen McAll’s album was nominated for the 2021 Scottish Album of the Year

Teenage album dreams 

Growing up in East Kilbride around parents who were into bands like The Beatles, The Kinks and Pink Floyd, Stephen McAll (Constant Follower) has always loved music and been drawn to guitars. I got my first guitar when I was quite young and then an electric at 15. I even wrote an album around that time and wanted to record it.”

These plans were completely derailed when one night walking home from his girlfriend’s aged 16, Stephen was attacked by a gang. The awful event not only left him unable to write, read or play guitar but the severe head injuries affected his memory — all recollection of his childhood or songs he’d previously written vanished.

I spent a long time on the west coast of Scotland recovering. I call it recovery but it was wilderness really. Drugs and drink, trying to self-medicate and cope. It took me 15 years to get back to a place where I wanted to touch a guitar.” 

Poetry provides a breakthrough 

Inspiration eventually arrived with a figure from his past. An old English teacher reached out to him with two pieces of literature that would be pivotal in his recovery and his career as a musician. 

Apparently she and I got on really well and she could see that I was interested in school. She gave me Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and a book of poetry by Norman MacCaig, who is a famous Scottish poet. I might have read them back then, but I can’t remember.”

Musician playing an acoustic guitar

This was still at a point in Stephen’s life when he couldn’t read. The attack from years ago meant he would get to the end of a line and have forgotten what he’d just read. But MacCaig’s poetry stirred something in him.

I saw the poetry book and just thought I’ll give that a chance’ because with poetry there’s a story in each line. I gradually made my way through the poems line by line.”

Within two months, Stephen had written all the songs for the debut Constant Follower album Neither Is, Nor Ever Was. Given he had no memory of previous songs he had written, this really was the definition of starting from scratch but the music came tumbling out of him. 

Something clicked where I thought I’ll write a poem, and it turned into a song — there was a guitar in the room and it just built from there. I didn’t feel ready but the interest in that moment bloomed

Managing Stephen’s health 

Stephen had written the songs for Neither Is, Nor Ever Was but his health struggles at the time meant he was still a long way off being able to record them. One of the consequences of the assault is that Stephen suffers from cluster headaches, excruciating attacks which require an immediate oxygen supply to cope with the pain.

The cluster headaches combined with PTSD from the attack made work impossible. I was living with that condition but semi-undiagnosed. I didn’t have proper treatment for it, had no money and was trying to make music.” Around this time Stephen came across Help Musicians and initially thought the charity might be able to help him manage his health. 

Man standing by a lake

After learning about his past, Help Musicians immediately offered health and welfare support and looking back, Stephen recognises how vital this was in helping not only himself but the loved ones closest him. 

The charity was also able to help Stephen gain specialist diagnosis for the medical issues he was battling. This was an essential step because he could now access proper medical treatment.

Stephen eventually applied for support to release new music and showed Help Musicians the demos he had made.​“The idea was to record three singles and start making the album. I was accepted and right away we went into the studio, ended up recording a full album, mixed the first single and put it out.”

At that stage I was so down. I was suicidal and feeling like I didn’t know where to go or how to do anything. I couldn’t work and my family were suffering but the counselling got me back on my feet again

Approval from Shimmy-Disc 

Events then took a turn for the surreal. NYC-based Shimmy-Disc is one of Stephen’s all-time favourite record labels and he received an email from label producer and founder Mark Kramer. 

I have got 20 Shimmy-Disc records at home. I love Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi, so I thought this was a joke. The email said love the single, don’t need to hear more — let me put the record out’.” 

It simply wasn’t believable to Stephen that he was reading an email from his dream label, so he ignored the initial message thinking it was a mate winding him up. After a few more emails and then a phone call from Kramer himself however, he started taking the situation a bit more seriously – that was all because of Help Musicians.” 

Someone flicking through records in a vinyl shop

Stephen does not feel it is an exaggeration to say that with the support of the charity, he has completely turned his life around in recent years. Where once he felt useless and like he had no direction, Stephen knows music is his purpose because doing it makes him feel so good and healthy. 

There are people out there who believe not fulfilling your potential is one of the main causes of illness, and I know how bad I felt when I wasn’t able to make music and get it out there.”

When you feel like that, you’re on edge all the time. Having control means I’m so much more relaxed around my family. I’m a better dad, more available mentally for my partner and my children

Scottish Album of the Year 

Neither Is, Nor Ever Was featured in the nominations for Scottish Album of the Year which has had a positive impact for Stephen’s profile and opening doors – there’s nothing better than being shortlisted for the award to get people to answer emails and take my calls.” 

He has often struggled taking pride in his musical achievements but Kramer’s seal of approval was the first moment of feeling like, I might have done something good here.” What he is proud of however is the fact that he managed to bring together more than 30 musicians and creatives to contribute towards Neither Is, Nor Ever Was.

Life is good now and I have a great family. We are here talking because of every single thing that has happened. It is part of who I am and I am totally at peace with it. I’m not happy that it happened, but happy that I’m where I am now

Stephen believes that it is important for him to be completely open with the problems and struggles I’ve had because there’s a lot of people out there who feel like they can’t be.” He is eager to share Help Musicians with his friends and do anything I can to get the word out and help people with their applications.”

Through different types of support and even just being a voice of support down the phone, Help Musicians have been a​“beautiful safety net” for Stephen during challenging moments. Equally he knows that we are here if he needs help in the future.

I’m not being supported at the moment but if something bad were to happen, I know who I would call. Help Musicians are there to help, so don’t hesitate to get in contact. It’s not judgemental, it’s a feeling of support unlike anything I’ve had from any other organisation.”

Musician sat on a log playing an acoustic guitar