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Frightened Rabbit’s New Compilation Celebrates Scott Hutchison's Life

The Scottish band put together a covers album as a tribute to their most beloved record before the death of their singer last year. They didn't change a note.

by Josh Modell
Jul 31 2019, 4:06pm

Photo by Jimmy Fontaine

Tiny Changes—a collection of covers of songs from the beloved Scottish band Frightened Rabbit's 2008 album The Midnight Organ Fight—wasn’t supposed to feel like a collection of funeral songs. It was supposed to be a birthday celebration for a 10-year-old record. But when the band's singer and chief songwriter Scott Hutchison died of suicide in May of 2018, the tone of the project immediately transformed, even though the music on it didn’t change. It was as if a speech written for a friend’s birthday party was instead delivered as part of his celebratory wake.

Tiny Changes was originally meant to be released in mid-2018. It was a labor of love that the band itself put together, texting or emailing musician-friends they bonded with over a decade of touring. Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie, Julien Baker, Twilight Sad, Aaron Dessner of the National, Manchester Orchestra, and many others jumped at the request—so many that three songs from the album are covered twice.

“We wanted it to be from us,” Frightened Rabbit drummer—and Scott’s brother—Grant Hutchison, said over the phone from his Glasgow apartment. “Everyone was approached by someone in the band. We didn’t want to appear opportunistic by picking whoever was popular or whoever was going to sell the most. I think that’s why people were keen to do it. It didn’t go from label to label or management to management—that just wouldn’t have seemed genuine, and it wouldn’t have excited us.”

Craig Finn, during a panel discussion celebrating the tribute album’s release at Rough Trade in Brooklyn (moderated, full disclosure, by me) remembers thinking that the band had somehow tricked their label into including him. He half-joked, “I thought it would be Coldplay and Radiohead, but those guys said, ‘You gotta put our friend Craig on there, too!’”

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Reverence for The Midnight Organ Fight has only grown since its 2008 release, and for good reason: It’s a harrowing yet hopeful record about a particularly brutal breakup, told with a frankness that still feels welcome but unnerving. It taught us a number of occasionally contradictory lessons: having sex with strangers won’t make you happy (“Keep Yourself Warm”), having sex with strangers might make you happy for a little while (“The Twist”), breaking up is impossible (“My Backwards Walk”), love lost can feel like death (“Poke”), and perhaps most brutally, suicide isn’t the answer (“Floating in the Forth”). Understandably, the album has been poked and prodded and microscoped anew since Scott’s death.

“Lyrically he laid himself pretty bare,” Grant said. “He didn’t hide behind metaphors or abstract lyrics. It was pretty much all there to see. That’s great, but it can also be frustrating because people might listen to our song and think they know who Scott Hutchison is. There’s the flipside to that, where I’m sitting here with 34 years of our relationship that someone can claim to understand after listening to the band for three or four years. But I have to see that as a positive thing, that people have invested time—there is something there between Scott and these people. It’s incredible that we could create that just through music and lyrics.”

After Scott’s death, both the original album and these new versions took on new meaning, but the band and the contributors never considered changing a note or canceling the release.

“The natural reaction is to be somber and still in order to be respectful,” said Katie Harkin, who collaborated on “My Backwards Walk” with actor-comedian Sarah Silverman. “But we’re actually reminiscing about this band that was so kinetic and this person who was so witty and wildly creative.”

Harkin was struck by Hutchison’s generosity both as a songwriter and a person: He encouraged her with his unusual combination of “raucousness” and “vulnerability,” something he encouraged in his audience as well. “He was with everybody in the room, and everybody had permission to feel those things along with him.”

It’s a sentiment shared by every artist on Tiny Changes, though the specifics and shading are different for each. Hutchison the man was generous, wildly funny, frequently self-deprecating. Hutchison the songwriter—and especially lyricist—was those things too, maybe slightly more serious and undoubtedly more open. He was that rare talent that people seemed to love personally and to be truly awestruck by artistically—one of the guys who also had the ability to knock you over with a word or phrase.

Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard was early on the Frightened Rabbit bandwagon, falling in love with Midnight Organ Fight and inviting the band to open for his. When contacted about the tribute, he jumped at it—on one condition. “I said I’d do it, but only if I got ‘Keep Yourself Warm,’” he laughed. “It’s one of the most beautiful melodies Scott ever wrote. I mean this with all the respect in the world, but I never thought of Scott as having a beautiful singing voice. His singing style was really immediate and raw. I didn’t want to try and match the bombast of the album version. I wanted to pull it back, and try to create a closure to the story in my version that felt a little more melancholic than the band’s definitive version.”

“I find that people who write that kind of music also tend to be really funny,” Gibbard continued. “He was always really funny, and a lovely person to be around. I find the whole thing to be an incredibly moving tribute.”

Finn agreed, rattling off some of his favorite Hutchison lines from “Head Rolls Off” and “The Twist” with the same ease and enthusiasm he might for Springsteen classics. “He was funny as a person and he was funny in his songs. His lyrics were also poetic and honest and frank.”

Julien Baker, who turned in a harrowingly gorgeous version of “The Modern Leper,” noted the same juxtaposition. The song’s main character—and let’s be real, it’s always Hutchison—can’t believe that his partner could love someone as emotionally crippled as him, but comes to the realization that perhaps their shortcomings are complementary. Look sideways at it, and you could call it a happy ending.

“His words summoned such exact and intense and familiar feelings,” Baker said. “He could approach a very bleak topic with this clever comedy, and it stripped the triteness or sadness away. Beneath it was nestled this tender, forthright honesty. The metaphor in ‘Modern Leper’ becomes an almost fable-like explanation of sadness or pain. The line at the end—‘You’re not ill, and I’m not dead / Doesn’t that make us the perfect pair’—is half-joking, but the seriousness under the cleverness feels very raw and honest.”

Finn tackled “Head Rolls Off” for Tiny Changes, adding some spunk—something he conceded that he might have done differently had he recorded it after May of last year. The song itself has become a rallying point for Frightened Rabbit fans since Scott died, because its lyrics allow for the notion that life isn’t pointless, and that we ought to do some good while we’re here. The brilliantly straightforward words shrug their shoulders at the very idea of death (“It’s not morbid at all / just when nature’s had enough of you”) and then offers a promise that Frightened Rabbit fans have taken to heart: “While I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to earth.” That line inspired both the name of the tribute album and an organization—started by Scott’s parents and brothers—that hopes to raise awareness about mental health struggles among younger people.

“We want to use the voice that Scott has allowed us to have to give people a voice, to give them a platform to let people know how they’re feeling,” Grant said. “The name is going to have Scott at its heart, but in the future I want people to know Tiny Changes the charity because of the work that it’s done and the change that it’s made.”

Scott Hutchison probably would have approved, especially the part in which good things are done and he doesn’t have to take too much credit. “It will have the message that Scott always tried to spread, of hope and community and bringing people together,” Grant continued. “That’s something that was almost effortless for him, and I don’t think he ever knew he was doing it. The outpouring after Scott died—the messages that we got from strangers, and messages that strangers were sending to each other because of the fans and the community that he built is massive. We have to try and use that for good.”

Hutchison knew and appreciated what his songs—all of them, but particularly those on Midnight Organ Fight—meant to people. He told me in an interview for Noisey shortly before his death that he was grateful to have touched so many people, and that he didn’t take it for granted: “Eighty percent of the conversations I have with members of our audience are about that record—where they were in their life when they heard it, what happened to them, how it helped them, how for some of them it saved their life, or saved a friend or family member’s life. And I don’t say that flippantly, I mean it for real.”

For Grant, the time since his brother’s death has been exhausting, as he tries to balance grief and its attendant emotions with a search for meaning and positivity in an unthinkable situation. He’s been able to compartmentalize Tiny Changes—the album and the organization—into something more celebratory. “I have the life I had with Scott before we joined the band to really contemplate,” he said. “I’ve spent the last 15 months with the ever-present image of Scott as the singer in Frightened Rabbit, and maybe haven’t taken the time to really remember Scott, my brother.”

With regard to Tiny Changes, the album, he says that overall, they wanted to keep the feeling positive. "Life has been pretty dark over that period, so having this release produce as much light as possible was important," he said. "We want the record and the songs to speak not of the tragedy of Scott’s death or awfulness of his depression. For us it’s a celebration and always will be.”