The Birthday Poems is out now.
Today brings the release of ‘The Birthday Poems’, a collaborative album from alternative music legend Chris Connelly and unmistakable vocalist Monica Queen, who sings the part of Stella Cartwright. Who is that?, you may ask. Known as the Muse of Rose Street, Stella had relationships with many of the poets who would haunt the bars of Edinburgh’s Rose Street during the ’50s and ‘early ’60s. While her love of literature, art and culture was insatiable, inspiring many of them in their work, she was never given credit or encouraged in her own art and expression. She was hugely significant to Scottish literature of a certain era.
Now these two Scottish musical personalities have united to celebrate the 100th birthday of Orkney-born poet George Mackay Brown. This album itself is a fictionalized account of the romance between celebrated Scottish poet and author George Mackay Brown and his muse Stella Cartwright, as well as Stella’s friendship with Edinburgh born poet Stanley Roger Green, spanning three decades (from the mid 1950s until Stella’s tragic and untimely death in 1985).
Named for the poems that George would write for Stella every birthday until she died, ‘The Birthday Poems’ is a song cycle based on the relationship between these highly signifiant cultural figures of 20th-century Scotland. Stella’s voice is sung by Monica Queen throughout this colossal and historically significant 18-track album.
The album is accompanied by two short films. The video for ‘Tae The Poets’, featuring swaggering vocals by Connelly, was filmed on location at Chicago’s GMan Tavern and created by photographer Derick Smith and Matt Walker. The video for ‘My Father Took Me Everywhere’, starring Monica Queen as Stella, was created by Iain W. Mutch / Walkerandwilliam. Inspired by the 1964 short film ‘Palindrome’ by Margaret Tait, it features some of the only known footage of Stella Cartwright.
We present you the track-by-track commentary, penned by Chris Connelly.
MY FATHER TOOK ME EVERYWHERE (MONICA QUEEN AS STELLA)
As a young girl attending Mary Erskine School for Girls in Edinburgh, Stella would ravenously devour literature, art and music. On many nights her father would take her to bars, parties, the theatre and other social and cultural events where she would meet and charm Scotland’s cultural elite.
STELLA, STAN & DOSTOEVSKY (CHRIS CONNELLY AS STANLEY ROGER GREEN)
Stan was an architecture student at Edinburgh College of Art, and wrote in his free time. He met Stella at Paddy’s Bar in Rose Street where they drank, talked literature and ended up at Stan’s bedsit for a (platonic) night after she had missed the last bus.
A MINOR HOOLIE (SUNG BY MONICA & CHRIS AS STELLA & STAN)
A ‘hoolie’ is a party — a celebration or a get-together with friends. One evening, Stella took Stan to the poet Norman MacCaig’s flat for “a Minor hoolie” (Stella’s words). The “star struck” young Stan was amazed to see and meet George Mackay Brown, Robert Garioch, Sorley Maclean, Tom Scott and Sidney Goodsir Smith.
CIGARETTES AT DAWN (READ BY MONICA QUEEN AS STELLA)
There is scant evidence available to us that Stella wrote, but she did. In lieu of giving up my life to try and find and obtain the rights to anything, I decided it would be more poignant and more creative to write in what I think maybe approximates her mind, her process. This poem happens after “the minor hoolie”: all have gone to bed except Stella and perhaps a companion, amongst the empty bottles, the stale ashtrays and the dying embers in the hearth at dawn.
A MAZE AMONGST THE TENEMENTS (SUNG BY CHRIS CONNELLY AS GEORGE)
When George Mackay Brown first moved to Edinburgh to attend the University, he felt depression, isolation and loneliness. He was impoverished and his already weak lungs had to cope with the smoke and pollution of a big city.
TAE THE POETS (SUNG BY CHRIS AS GEORGE)
A very shy George would visit the Rose Street bars and nurse a pint, hoping to meet his poetic heroes. When invited to join the throng one night by Sydney Goodsir Smith, George, cripplingly shy, did not accept the offer. It would take a little time, and a few more pints of McEwan’s Heavy, before George became a part of the group himself.
WHAT STRANGENESS OF LIGHT & DARK (SPOKEN BY CHRIS AS GEORGE)
Remorse and homesickness drench this poem, written by me to approximate the emotion of a cold and remorseful George in his cold room in a Marchmont flat. As his pain grows, his interest in study falters into ennui.
THE LOWLAND FULCRUM (SUNG BY CHRIS AS GEORGE, MONICA AS STELLA)
George Mackay Brown met Stella Cartwright at the Abbotsford Bar in Rose Street, one evening in 1957. Thus the beginnings of the romance.
A RAIN SOAKED IDYLL (SUNG BY CHRIS AS GEORGE)
A Saturday afternoon lovers’ stroll down the Water of Leith, the heavens opened and the couple were drenched. They found temporary shelter in an abandoned railway shed where they laugh, talk and drink bottles of beer.
A PHANTOM MARRIAGE (SUNG BY CHRIS AS GEORGE, MONICA AS STELLA)
Perhaps this is the pivotal song on the record, reflecting a most pivotal time in their relationship. George proposed marriage, but the marriage was not to be. Even though Stella was delighted to be asked, when it became apparent that the wedding was not going to happen, Stella remained loyal, showering George with understanding, friendship and words of great beauty. Her deep well of empathy is undoubtedly one of the reasons they remained close over the span of thirty years until her death.
O BLESSED SAINT MAGNUS (SPOKEN BY CHRIS AS GEORGE)
In which George moves back to Orkney. Ill health and a dislike of the city fuel his homesickness. Although it would be a while before he would write the book MAGNUS, George was already very interested in St. Magnus.
THE POET HERSELF (SUNG BY MONICA AS STELLA)
Suffering through a meaningless and menial day job, Stella spends her nights trying to keep the party going, still a lonely female soul in a sea of men. Her artistic aspirations are still discouraged or ignored. Taking other partners who were already in “committed“ relationships with others, she would ultimately always end up alone.
A DESOLATE SPELL (SUNG BY CHRIS AS GEORGE)
George would write Stella encouraging letters from Orkney, but he still suffered depression and was drinking far too much. He urged her to distance herself from the Rose Street poets, telling her they were not good for her.
LET US BE HUSHED (READ BY MONICA AS STELLA)
In turn, Stella would write George letters of warmth and encouragement, reminiscing of the happy times they had shared in the past.
MY HEART IS A PLOUGH ON THIS WILDERNESS FIELD: (READ BY CHRIS AS GEORGE)
George finds more and more success and becomes very prolific, his historical fiction and poetry garnering prestigious reviews.
SMILER WI’ A KNIFE (SUNG BY CHRIS AS GEORGE)
George always referred to whisky as “the smiler with a knife”. On his increasingly infrequent visits to Edinburgh, his visits with Stella would reveal old wounds and would end up in drunken arguments.
THE BIRTHDAY POEMS (SUNG BY CHRIS AS STANLEY ROGER GREEN)
Years after the literary scene of the “Rose Street Poets” had faded away, Stella kept drinking hard and frequenting the same bars. At a point in the mid 1970s, Stan Green visited her at her flat — only to be shocked how much she had aged, and was walking with the aid of a walking frame.
FROM A DREAMER’S SHORE (SUNG BY MONICA AS STELLA)
Stella died alone in her flat. Many times she had tried to achieve sobriety and it had not worked. Her father, with whom she had been close, stopped visiting with her after her mother’s death. A funeral was held at Warriston Crematorium. Stan Green was the only one of the “old guard” in attendance.