The Xcert’s Murray Macleod | Behind The Lyrics

Formed by troublemaking childhood friends vocalist/guitarist Murray Macleod and bassist Jordan Smith after meeting at their deputy head teacher’s office, The Xcerts have spent over two decades carving out their own unique space in the alternative scene.

With the pair moving from their Aberdeen hometown to Brighton in 2006 and joining forces with drummer Tom Heron, the band’s debut album ‘In The Cold Wind We Smile’ was created through a slew of personal tragedies, captured within Murray’s viscerally stark songwriting.

Whether he’s delving into heartbreak, regrets, or the unavoidable feeling of growing older, Murray has developed a penchant for writing songs that are distinctly universal yet increasingly intimate. With The Xcerts’ fifth album, ‘Learning How To Live And Let Go’ set for release later this year, the frontman talks Rock Sound through ten lyrics that are vital to the band’s story so far.

“I’m picking flowers in a junkyard // I’m seeing beauty in the darkness waving // Learning how to live and let go // Of the only lonely ache in my head”, ‘Ache’ – ‘Learning How To Live And Let Go’ (2023)

“My partner and I got together during lockdown but then we went down this really rocky road for the next two years whilst trying to deal with everything that was going on. She gave me a copy of the screenplay ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by Tennessee Williams, and that’s where I took the line ‘picking flowers in a junkyard’ from. I thought that was a beautiful image for trying to find something beautiful in the dark, and it really resonated with me.

Sometimes lines or scenes in movies and books can be profound, and that one hit me like a tidal wave. It beautifully summed up exactly how I felt leading up to the lockdown when my life was pretty chaotic and then during the lockdown too. I love the juxtaposition between the idea of picking flowers in a junkyard, because when you think of a junkyard you usually think of a complete mess. 

That whole section of the song is about how I am trying my best, even though this is really hard. I am doing everything in my power to make life feel better, and that’s why the album is called ‘Learning How To Live And Let Go’. I haven’t learned how to do it yet, but it’s an ongoing process. You’ve got to work to find the beauty.”

“Is this really happening? // Another night spent crying in a bathroom stall with strangers”, ‘Jealousy’ – ‘Learning How To Live And Let Go’ (2023)

“There’s a lot of humour in the new record, but it’s a kind of black comedy. Looking back on the situations that I’m singing about, if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry. If people smirk at something dark I’ve said on this album, that’s the reaction I want. I don’t think I’ve ever been as transparent in a song as I am in ‘Jealousy’, and I wanted to convey that internal struggle of ego and pride. 

I was never a jealous person until I was involved in a complicated, toxic relationship and all of a sudden, I experienced jealousy. It was more internal than external, but extreme jealousy is chaos. I wanted it to be as transparent as possible, and what I say in this line truly happened. I was there in a bathroom stall with strangers, trying to distract myself one night by getting into all sorts of recreational fun, but I realised how messed up I was and started crying. The people there were so confused and spun out, and it was a very claustrophobic setting for me to break down in.

Even though it was pretty tragic at the time, there’s a thin line between tragedy and comedy, and I actually think there’s some humour in it. I think we’ve all been in those situations where you’re in a place and you shouldn’t cry, but you feel it bubbling inside you. As sad as those scenes are, if you can look back and laugh about it, that’s a good thing.”

“There is only you and I know that it’s true // I can see when it alone // We must sink before we float”, ‘There Is Only You’ – ‘There Is Only You’ (2014)

“I’d never suffered from depression until this point, and I never have since, but in 2014 I was going through a breakup, and I moved into this little bedsit flat by myself. It was awful, and we called it ‘The Mansion’ because it was so small. It looked out onto the back of an eerie gothic church, I had neighbours that screamed through the night, and there was damp that was painted over which I was inhaling the whole time. It felt like rock bottom, and what I discovered when I hit that rock bottom is that it’s not where your journey stops, it’s where you grow from. During that period, ‘we must sink before we float’ became my version of ‘it’s going to get worse before it gets better’. It was a personal reminder that it always gets better.”

“I lost love, you lost your father // I know it doesn’t compare, my heart and your despair // But, it’s all part of home versus home”, ‘Home Versus Home’ – ‘In The Cold Wind We Smile’ (2009)

“That lyric is really special to our band and our families. Jordan and I moved from Aberdeen to Brighton when we were 17, and when you leave home it’s so confusing and emotional. You’re so excited about the future but you don’t have the support network you once did, so Jordan and I had to support each other.

We’re so intrinsically linked with Aberdeen. It’s in our blood, it’s in our DNA, and we both adore that city. We look at it very romantically, but when we moved, we still had our families there and we had partners there. There was so much life happening in Aberdeen without us there, and then we had so much life happening in Brighton. Those two lives were separated by so many miles, and it was really conflicting.

Around that time, we were getting ready to go to London to headline a show at the Barfly, and there was a knock on our door at around 11am. It was Jordan’s mum who informed him that his father had passed away. Jordan played that show because he’s made of steel, but it all felt so surreal. My first love and I also broke up during that time, so there were so many things happening that were linked to Aberdeen. We felt so torn because we had new lives in Brighton and were experiencing freedom for the first time, but it felt like a fight between Brighton and Aberdeen as our homes.”

“In your safe place we will hide // In my selfish heart we will die”, ‘Live Like This’ – ‘There Is Only You’ (2014)

“Around the time of writing ‘There Is Only You’ was when I stopped looking for a scapegoat in regard to heartbreak. It’s easy for lyricists to pin the blame on someone else, and that’s why you hear so many records from 2003 with vocalists just screaming at women. I didn’t do exactly that on the first two albums, but I was trying to find something else to pin the blame on rather than accepting that there was a problem with me. Eventually, the wheels started to turn, and I realised that there was one common denominator – me. 

This was my first glance at accountability in songwriting, and I wanted to be as honest as possible and find some poetry in it. I was accepting that if someone sticks around just because I want them to, that love will die. I wanted to hold onto the things that I had and brush over the problems I had in relationships, but I realised that’s so selfish and narcissistic. Having empathy and understanding is tough in the midst of heartbreak when you want to focus on your own needs, but that was a turning point for me.”

“We will find ourselves and we will make things right // We will dream so wild and we will live in light // Show me beautiful”, ‘Show Me Beautiful’ – ‘Hold on to Your Heart’ (2018)

“I was checking in with a friend of mine over text and she told me that her sister was in hospital dealing with some stuff and hadn’t been outside in days. My friend went to visit her, and the first thing that she said was, ‘Take me to the beautiful’. I thought that was such a poetic and profound thing to say whilst being stuck in a hospital, and such a stunning way of acknowledging the beauty of the outside. I think they were only allowed to walk around the hospital grounds, so it was nothing major, but it was the first time she’d been able to breathe fresh air in days. It reminded me to appreciate the little things like nature, living and excitement. 

I wanted to put out that message in a concise way for anybody that was feeling negatively, and that’s why I say ‘we will’ throughout the song because it’s definitive. I wanted those lines to champion everybody that’s going through a hard time and say that it’s okay to dream about getting better, because we will do it. You’ve got two arms around you when you listen to this song, and I want to hold every single person that listens to it and finds something in it for themselves.”

“Heaven called and said there’s room for two // The fight is over, but I’ll still hold you”, ‘Cry’ – ‘Hold on to Your Heart’ (2018) 

“This is about me losing my grandmother and my friend, Tom Searle from Architects. It’d been a while after I’d lost both of them, but I hadn’t felt comfortable singing about it before, so I thought it was a beautiful way to sing about them both. Grief is a tricky and powerful thing, and it’s so hard to navigate life after you lose someone close to you. I didn’t want the grief to affect the writing. I didn’t want to write from an angry point of view even though I experienced that, especially with losing Tom so young. I was really angry and confused. Nothing made sense and it felt so unfair, but with this line I just wanted a very simple and beautiful way to tie those two people we had lost together. It doesn’t matter if they’re here physically, I love them so much that I’m going to hold on to them forever.”

“Bruises fade along with all the pain, but the scars will remain”, ‘The Dark’ – ‘Hold on to Your Heart’ (2018) 

“This is a personal reminder that whatever you’ve dealt with in life, you’re going to be scarred. Even if you heal, you’re going to have these pieces of you that are cut up or fragmented, and that’s just the way it’s going to be. I’ve come to terms with that, and certain aspects of my personality have formed because of trauma.

Before writing that song, I would have overthought every aspect of myself that was cut up and stitched back together. I’d wonder why I was like this, and why I felt like a patchwork blanket human who’d been stitched back together so many times. This was a reminder for me and everyone else who’s listening to wear your scars proudly and not to let those things affect you going forward. It’s about being proud that you’ve survived those traumatic moments in your life, and you’re wearing those scars like a badge of honour.”

“I can see your father painted in the sky // No there was not artist // Not even a last goodbye”, ‘Crisis in the Slow Lane’ – ‘In The Cold Wind We Smile’ (2009)

“When I was 17/18, I was always trying to be profound and poetic. Looking back on a few of those lines where I thought I was Shakespeare, it turns out I was just being cute, but this one I’m really proud of. I love the wordplay of it, because the first line sounds really pretty, but then it’s paired with the simplicity of the second. I look at writing lyrics like writing jokes, and it took me a minute to get the second line. I had the joke, but I needed the punch line.

That was the first time I experienced that feeling and realised that I can use words to completely flip the song on its head. There were a million different avenues I could have taken that song and continued with something that felt pretty, or I could have been cute with it, but it wouldn’t have held the weight that those lyrics have. It was the first time that I had a realisation of what I could do moving forward with lyric writing.”

“I feel a burning pain // The doctor starts to shake // My body’s broken and I won’t be the same”, ‘Listen. Don’t Panic’ – ‘In The Cold Wind We Smile’ (2009)

“This song is about me getting diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. I got diagnosed at 16, and it was an incredibly confusing time. I was so fearful about what was going to happen because I was still in school, and I had to be taken out for five months. I haven’t talked too much about having Crohn’s disease in the past because I didn’t want this ugly thing to be attached to the band, which is something I find so beautiful. There are a few songs that I’ve written about it, but this was the first time I actually faced it head on. 

It’s far from our best work, but those lyrics are transparent. They do the same thing as ‘The Dark’ in terms of wearing your scars proudly. That lyric reminds me that although the younger me singing that was terrified – and I can hear it in my voice – I’m still here. I’ve managed a life with that illness, and I have a great life with this thing that I’ve got forever. It’s nice hearing that line and thinking, ‘As terrified as I sound, it’s all going to work out’. It’s a personal reminder of how far I’ve come with that illness.”

The Xcerts’ ‘Learning How To Live And Let Go’ is out on 18 August via UNFD.

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