Ocean KineticsOcean KineticsOcean KineticsOcean KineticsOcean Kinetics

Shetland Lives / Eamonn Watt: Drum tutor by day, Virtual Conductor by night

With nine albums and over 100 songs released in seven years, the prolific musician has found contentment in composing on the computer

Eamonn Watt. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

“I COMPOSE in the living room,” musician Eamonn Watt says, somewhat understatedly while he sips a coffee in Mareel. “I have a home studio with quite a minimal set-up. It’s just a mouse, keyboard and really powerful computer.”

With nine instrumental albums released since 2012 – many of which contain admirably complex orchestral tunes – and two songs recently being added to a Spotify playlist with nearly 5.5 million followers, Eamonn has to be one of Shetland’s most prolific and under-the-radar musicians.

But his music is not performed or recorded with real instruments. The living room set-up, which has coined over 100 songs to date, is the home to Eamonn’s musical alter-ego, The Virtual Conductor.

The 26-year-old draws on catalogues of sampled sounds and virtual instruments to create authentic and dynamic tracks, including everything from string sections and trumpets to percussion, piano and bagpipes. It’s impressive stuff, and it’s strange to think it has emanated from a living room in Sandwick.

His songs range from stripped-back piano lullabies to grand, 14-minute classical overtures that wouldn’t sound out of place on an epic movie soundtrack.

The Tale of Buckaroo Bill, for example, flits between galloping Western bombast and the jauntiness of reels, while Bonhoga is a rousing eight-minute classical-themed piano serenade.

Eamonn’s penchant for digital composition began when a love of music intertwined with an interest in computer programming at school.

“I found out about digital composition when I was in the old Anderson High School – around 2010 or 2011,” he says.

“I was doing advanced higher music. We had to, alongside your first and second instrument, compose something. That’s where I found Cubase, which is what I use to compose all of my virtual work, and what I found out about Cubase was that instead of recording a keyboard instrument, you could actually just click and drag notes using the pencil tool. I caught onto this really quickly.”

His first album under the Virtual Conductor name emerged in 2012 in the shape of Bonhoga, which took Eamonn five or six months to make.

The musician, who steps away from the computer to teach drums as his day job, points to movie soundtracks as his main source of inspiration – or the “odd concepts, stories or pictures in my head”.

He gives the example of his song The Witches’ Brew, which “was about a witch trying to make a magical brew”.

Overture: Tsirk Durakov, meanwhile, won the instrumental section of the UK Songwriting Competition a few years ago, which attracted 8,000 entries.

So how long does digital music-making take? “It depends on the complexity of the composition,” he says.

“Usually I can make very quick work on a piano composition, and it always depends how I feel on the day, but sometimes it’s as quick as less than an hour, or other times writer’s block gets in the way and it could take weeks, months or years.”

A specific focus in recent months has been attempting to increase his reach on popular music streaming platform Spotify, mainly by trying to get on playlists people compile.

“Some of the songs are really lucky, and have got on some really major playlists,” Eamonn says. “The biggest one I got from that one was a 40,000 follower playlist, and that got me around 100 streams per day.”

After this interview, though, a giddy Eamonn enters the big league. He receives the news that two of his tracks have been added to a ‘peaceful piano’ playlist curated by Spotify itself, which has nearly 5.5 million people following it.

Aside from the Virtual Conductor, Eamonn also runs the One Man Disco Band project, which gives him a platform to perform some of his digital music live.

It spans disco, funk and soul, and on stage Eamonn plays drums along with the backing tracks – in character too, with flashy suits, light-up drum sticks and sunglasses which display text, all part of the show. It kind of has to be seen to be believed.

“It’s just me drumming along, so I decided to create this entire character who is straight out of the 80s or 90s,” he says.

Eamonn, who studied applied music at the University of the Highlands and Islands, has also drummed – somewhat rapidly – with metal noiseniks Hoygir, while he lays down the groove for Lisa Ward and the XYY.

He first picked up the sticks at the age of eight in a bid to improve his muscle tone.

“I had low muscle tone in my childhood and I received my drum kit and drum lessons when I was around eight to improve my muscles and coordination,” he says.

It is fair to assume that most people don’t spend months and years conjuring up albums and albums of complex instrumental music and conducting virtual orchestras in their living room, but then again, most people aren’t Eamonn Watt.

He comes from a musical family – there’s saxophone, trumpet, guitar and fiddle in there among other instruments – while his sister Roseanne is a celebrated poet. “Dad’s more of a showman,” he adds. “He does the drama side of things. He tries to sing, but he does it in a more comedic way.”

Music has always been a big part of his life, but so has Asperger’s Syndrome.

He credits the condition with giving him a “hyper focus” which has enabled him to hone in on his composition skills, making the process more efficient than it perhaps would be for most people.

Eamonn says he was diagnosed with Asperger’s, a type of autism spectrum disorder which impacts communication, interaction and interests, at just the age of three.

Despite seeing more of the effects of the condition when he was in school, Eamonn says the pros now outweigh the cons – and he thinks the greater awareness of Asperger’s in society, the better.

“The rougher patch of that was in childhood,” he recalls.

“I got fairly bullied a lot because I didn’t really socially fit in. I sort of just didn’t understand why, at this point. But mum got me diagnosed fairly early on.

Eamonn Watt

“The nursery teacher also noticed that I wasn’t sort of going in and socialising with everything, I was more reserved to myself. Mum got me in for a diagnosis at a very young age, which was very beneficial.

“Nowadays, the pros outweigh the cons. With Asperger’s Syndrome you have that hyper focus, which really helps with the composition. It really does help me get these compositions done quickly. I can compose fast, but sometimes when I’m not in the inspirational mood, it gets put on hold for a while. I work in more energy spikes.

“For those who have Asperger’s Syndrome, or pretty much on the spectrum as whole, you have a special interest as well. Mine happened to be computing and music, and that sort of is really self-explanatory.”

He credits getting an early diagnosis with helping him understand and navigate his life a little better.

“It sort of just explains what’s going on, and it gives you a more clearer path on where to go,” Eamonn says.

“If I grew up and didn’t know what I had, I probably don’t know where I would have been.”

Listen to the Virtual Conductor online here, where you can find The Complete Collection – a 109-tune catalogue of every song he has released since 2012.