Breaking the Spell of Loneliness

An album by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot

You can buy CDs here, and stream it via Spotify here. You can listen to two of the tracks via Soundcloud here. There’s a sample from our show here, in the form of a TEDx talk.

Breaking the Spell of Loneliness has won the Fatea Award for Innovation in Music.

The Tour:

… is now over, I’m afraid. We played at about 20 venues around Britain, and loved every minute. We got the members of the audience talking to each other (and to us) at the end of every show, in the nearest bar or pub. We met some wonderful people and learnt a great deal. More importantly, we brought people together who had not met before, and some of those encounters have led to lasting friendships. We are delighted by how it worked out.


“**** It’s a powerful, poignant set, with McLennan’s effectively understated vocals matched against his classically influenced guitar work and harmonica, with sparse, effective backing including violin, harmonium and cello.” Robin Denselow, The Guardian.

an enthralling album … Each song is a short, eloquent and thought provoking essay on the destruction of our humanity and how it can be regained. … It’s no understatement to say that I feel privileged to have been given a chance to write about this album. It’s a challenge. The eloquence of both George Monbiot and Ewan McLennan in raising these issues says far more than any music critic can. Breaking the Spell of Loneliness doesn’t merely tackle the issues raised, it offers solutions; it offers hope. It’s a moving, thought-provoking work that has relevance for all of us.” Neil McFadyen, FRUK

“one of the finest albums of original folk songs that I’ve heard for a very long time.” Rock Society.

“This is one of those rare albums that has really emotionally touched me to a point of nearly crying … This topic is all brought into beautiful sad lyrics, wonderfully sung by Ewan…A brilliant piece of music and documentation of our society.” Michael Moll, Folkworld

“The music is masterful. … These are the ballads of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell reincarnated for our time and our country: they are the sorrows of the noughties and the millennials, in song. Sung in a crisp Scottish accent. I went to see the eclectic duo play at The Berry Theatre in Hampshire, where they put on a wonderful show, blending Monbiot’s serious talk, passionate and political as ever, with the connective power of folk music. It was very raw, and very real, just like good folk music should be. When I first listened to the CD, I thought McLennan’s voice had been enhanced – after all, so much music is highly edited now. But having seen him perform live, I can attest that his voice really is as other-worldly as it sounds, as clear and powerful, designed to reach every corner of the Earth even when it only has a banjo to accompany it. While we were still pondering Monbiot’s musings, the music washed over the audience, and I saw one woman quietly weep. I wondered what her story was, and then realised it probably wasn’t all that different from mine – was that not why we were all here? … I think Monbiot and McLennan might just be onto something spectacular here, something real, and something that is desperately needed by us all right now. Buy the album. Get to a gig. Come and hang out with us at Sidmouth Folk Week. This is the sound of our protest: let’s sing it together.” Zion Lights, Juno Magazine

“**** Of all albums dedicated to various worthy causes, none has affected me as powerfully as this.… It’s a strong album, beautifully played and sung, and arranged sensibly for the right ensemble, to let the subject speak for itself.… It hits the mark precisely, again and again.” Nick Burbridge, R2 magazine

“***** The arrangements are sympathetic to the subject, clear, simple and understated.” Jacqueline Patten, EDS magazine

“There’s a gentle, melodic, laid-back feel to the music which provides the perfect backdrop for appreciating the album’s lyrical content. … Scotsman McLennan, has a voice with absolutely bags of character, that immediately draws the listener in to each enunciated syllable of each line of every song. … an absolute gem of an album.” Darren Johnson, Bright Young Folk

“a fascinating combo which stretches the bounds of possibility. … There’s a real craft in the way McLennan’s music brings out the power of the words. Along with a small band of musicians adding their parts including Beth Porter and Sid Goldsmith. The passion of Monbiot in the championing the cause of the alienated and the desolate along  with the empathy of McLennan and his own personal philosophy and commitment to social justice is a  powerful  fusion. … an intelligent and emotional overview of the modern disease of isolation.” Mike Ainscoe, Louder Than War.

“A fascinating collaboration. It really is amazing stuff … the music is just outstanding.” Bruce MacGregor: Travelling Folk, Radio Scotland

“Beautiful, powerful, thought-provoking”. Frank Hennessy, Celtic Heartbeat, Radio Wales

“a consistently sparkling set … McLennan’s rich, velvety tones were a fine choice to give voice to Monbiot’s thoughtful, questioning lyrics.”
James Miller, Morning Star

“a charming evening … he is starting a conversation; it is up to us to respond.” Clive Davies, The Times

“**** Warm and delicate… A very enjoyable, if occasionally melancholy listen.” Tim Woodall, Songlines

“I find it all hits the nail squarely on the head. It’s a call to action, to mending, and making good. It’s eight good gutsy and pointed songs plus the instrumental Unknown Lament … It’s very good. I wish it was on the radio a lot, and people heard what’s being said.”
Jerry Simon, Stirrings

“a collection of ballads and anthems that are deeply touching in their honesty and poignancy, understated but powerful in their delivery. McClennan’s vocals are sincere and empathic and create an intimate space to explore the issues raised. The traditional folk music that accompanies him is skilled and ensures that this album stands as a musical accomplishment in its own right.” Gabrielle Lewry, Peace News

“an album of music to unite and delight. The collection of songs (and one instrumental piece) is both intimate (speaking directly and personally to the listener) and engaging (stirring the listener into action) … this is an admirable and right-minded exercise.” David Kidman, Living Tradition

“Exquisitely played and sung, it’s an audio experience that is musically and lyrically deeply satisfying and emotionally and intellectually positively disquieting. It’s an album you need to hear.” Nigel Schofield, Tykes News

Here’s the video of one of our songs, Reclaim the Street:

And here’s a short video, featuring some of the music and explaining how it came about:

About the Album:

It is our natural destiny to be apart, to fear and fight each other: this is a claim that has gathered momentum ever since Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan. It is a claim with no foundation. We evolved in a state of mutual reliance. Defenceless alone, we survived  only through cooperation.

But the mythic destiny appears, in the 21st Century, to be approaching fulfilment. Our time is distinguished from all other eras by its degree of atomisation: the rupturing of social bonds, the collapse of shared ambitions and civic life.

An epidemic of loneliness is sweeping the world. The results are devastating: depression, paranoia, anxiety, dementia, alcoholism, accidents and suicide all appear to become more prevalent when connections are cut. To stand back from the state into which we have fallen is to marvel at this misery. It is to witness seven billion people walking past each other.

A new ideology of detachment celebrates social collapse with a romantic lexicon of lone rangers, sole traders, self-made men and women. Corporate lobby groups and thinktanks argue that the defining characteristic of human relationships is competition. They insist that our primary aim is to maximise our wealth and power at the expense of others, to engage in a Hobbesian fight of all against all.

But the levels of altruism and empathy human beings display are unique among animals. While other species might go to great lengths to help close relatives, humans assist people with whom they have no familial connection, sometimes at great cost or risk to themselves: I think, for example, of the Jewish boy my Dutch mother-in-law’s family hid in their attic during the German occupation.

The claim that we are inherently selfish suits those who wish to hold us apart, the better to control and dominate. It persuades them that their ruthlessness and greed are merely a fulfilment of their biological destiny.

So how do we respond to this trend towards social breakdown? An article I wrote about it for the Guardian went viral, and several publishers asked me to write books on the topic. I could think of nothing more depressing than sitting in my room for three years, studying loneliness.

I wanted instead to do something engaging, that might not only document the problem, but help to address it. And what has more potential to unite and delight than music? So I went to a musician whose work I greatly admire, and proposed a collaboration. We would write a concept album, a mixture of ballads and anthems, some sad, some stirring, whose aim was to try to break the spell which appears to have been cast upon us; the spell of separation.

I suggested that I would sketch out the stories and a first draft of the lyrics, and Ewan would turn them into music. It has worked out better than I could have imagined: I hope you will agree that something quite special has emerged from this collaboration.

Our aim is that it should not stop here, that we should use our performances to help bring people together, to overcome our stifling collective shyness and make friends among the strangers in our midst. “Only connect”: a century on, E.M. Forster’s maxim remains the key to happiness.

George Monbiot