Published: July 31, 2004

On tour with Madonna: Lorne Cousin re-invents himself around the world

When he was growing up in Campbeltown, Scotland, if you had told Lorne Cousin that he would be playing the pipes for Madonna in the biggest pop music tour of 2004 he probably would have thought you’d had too much of the local Springbank malt whisky.

But that’s exactly what he’s doing, and we caught up with him as Madonna’s 200-person, 22-truck, two-jet entourage came through Toronto in mid-July for three sold-out shows at the 20,000-seat Air Canada Centre.

Cousin was hand-picked by Madonna early in the year after she had heard him play at Stella McCartney’s wedding in Rothesay, Scotland, one of the most celebrated events of 2003 for the entertainment world. Cousin became an acquaintance of the McCartneys in the 1980s when his father, a veterinarian, looked after the famous Beatle’s farm animals. The Scottish folk group, The Whistlebinkies, featuring piper Robert Wallace, also played at McCartney’s wedding.

“Madonna heard the pipes at Stella’s wedding and decided that she wanted to use them somehow on her next tour,” Cousin says. “So I got a call at my flat one day, and it was Madonna. She asked me what it would take for me to play on her world tour.”

Understandably gobsmacked, Cousin stammered and stuttered and said that he would have to think about it, since he is a successful lawyer with Turcan Connell, an Edinburgh firm, with a career in full-flight after graduating from Glasgow University.

“After four days she called again, and actually left a message on my answering machine,” Cousin laughed. “I called her back, and it was the strangest thing, asking, ‘May I please speak with Madonna?’ to the person who answered.”

After consulting the principals at the law firm, Cousin told Madonna that he would love to join her tour, and that simply covering his present salary would suffice.

The next step in the process was Cousin being flown to one of Madonna’s hometowns, Los Angeles, where the tour was being formulated. He found himself in the Forum arena, where the Los Angeles Lakers play, and which was home-base for two months as Madonna and her musicians, choreographers, dancers, and technicians were developing the show.

When it came time to put together the bagpipe segment, Madonna asked Cousin to perform what he played at McCartney’s wedding.

“She listened to it and said ‘Can you make it bigger?’, which meant that she wanted a bigger sound than just a solo bagpipe,” Cousins says. At McCartney’s wedding Cousin had played with other pipers from the Kintyre Pipe Band, as well as tenor and bass drummers. “She was interested in the swinging tenors and the bass drum sound, too.”

It was clear to Cousin that he needed Scottish drumming help, so one thing led to another and, via Pipe-Major Roddy MacLeod, he was put in touch with Stevie Kilbride of Glasgow’s ScottishPower Pipe Band. On three-days’ notice, Madonna’s people put Kilbride on a plane to L.A. to work directly with Cousin, Madonna, and music producers on several concepts.

The result is a clever bridge between Madonna’s rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and her own “Into The Groove.” The transition features parts of the crunluath doubling of “MacDougall’s Gathering” and the strathspey, “Susan MacLeod,” with Cousin and a bass drummer/dancer – who goes only by the name of “Cloud” – playing on stage over a multi-track recording. The effect provides a rich depth of sound.

Perhaps surprisingly, through the composing and arranging process Madonna wanted to be true to the traditional music of the pipes and insisted on only the real thing.

“She hasn’t messed around with the music at all,” Cousin says. “It’s all traditional piping, and she wanted it that way. Attention to detail is really her strong point. Everything has to be perfect.”

Just as Madonna brought in one of the world’s best pipers direct from Scotland, she similarly found the best known tango dancers to arrange a special dance segment of the show, as well as members of the United States Marine Corps to teach authentic military moves in the “American Life” part of the concert. “She gets the right people,” Cousin says.

Her rule, Cousin says, is “‘If you can hear it on stage, then there must be someone playing it,’ meaning that she believes very strongly that there will be no faking it by anyone in her shows.”

While she demands only the best, Madonna made some concession when she asked Cousin if he could add some Scottish Highland dancing to his stint on stage. Cousin actually created a set of steps based on the limited Highland dance knowledge he gained when his mother showed him a few steps to the Fling when he was a boy. The steps are part of a great dance sequence in which Cousin and Madonna get together for pas-de-bas moves and some impressive squats from Cousin in full dress – a part of the show that brings the house down.

Add “choreographer” to his list of talents.

“Get ready to wait”

Despite considerable perks on tour, it’s not all glamour, Cousin says. According to him a show day takes on a routine in which “everyone gets to the venue around 2:00, there’s a sound-check at 3:00, and then Madonna comes in around 4:30 to run through any segments she wants for an hour or so.” All of the artists then sit in front of the stage and wait to come up if Madonna wants to go through their part.

The sound-check ends at about 5:30, and members of the tour stay at the venue where backstage is a full bar and catering “to the hilt.”

Cousin’s actual playing part lasts about three minutes and occurs about two-thirds of the way through the show in the fourth and final segment of the “Re-Invention” concert, which Madonna has dubbed “Into The Kilt.” “It’s quite good,” Cousins adds, “everyone on stage is wearing a kilt.”

While Madonna’s attention to musical tradition and detail is unrelenting, she clearly is flexible when it comes to fashion. When Cousin first arrived at an early rehearsal with the traditional piper’s attire, he discovered that his fellow musicians and dancers were donning “kilts” that extended several inches below the knee.

“Everyone turned to me and told me that my kilt was too short!” he says. “But they wouldn’t listen when I said that that’s the way it’s meant to be, and Madonna eventually wanted them long, so that’s what we wear.”

After the “Into The Groove” number Cousin returns as a dancer with entire ensemble for “Holiday,” one of Madonna’s earliest and biggest hits.

Glamour and perks

While life on the road can be monotonous at times, there’s a good deal of fun, too, as one might expect.

“Madonna has a private jet and there’s another jet for all of the musicians and dancers,” Cousin says. “It’s well-stocked with food and a bar with anything that you want.” Stretch SUV-limousines meet band-members and dancers to take them to their hotel and other places. “That’s when you feel a wee bit special,” he says, adding that he signed his first autograph in Chicago last week.

The tour recently enjoyed a private-screening of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 in New York, with Moore himself providing commentary before and after the film. Everyone on the tour gets a week off in August, and will be flown anywhere in the world by private plane. Cousin plans to return then to Campbeltown, and laughed when it was suggested that the town might declare the date of his return “Lorne Cousin Day in Campbeltown.”

Nerve-racking

One would think that playing before more than 20,000 screaming fans four times a week could be daunting, but Cousin says he only got really nervous on the tour’s opening night in Los Angeles on May 24. A veteran of competing at the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern Meeting. Cousin admitted that he “couldn’t sleep at all the whole night before.”

But things have gone swimmingly and Cousin has clearly settled into a groove in the pop-star way of life. Even his pipes are looked after by a “tech” – not a dedicated bagpipe tech, but the drum tech makes sure things are in good order, most of all the wireless microphones that augment Cousin’s drones and chanter before massive audiences.

“I had been playing my grandfather’s pipes on tour, but I decided last month that I should go with something a little less personally valuable,” he says. Cousin’s friends at McCallum Bagpipes happily agreed top help out, and owners Kenny MacLeod and Stuart McCallum of the Kilmarnock, Scotland-based pipe maker have supplied Cousin with a complimentary set, complete with custom pipe case and bag cover, all prominently sporting the McCallum logo, of course.

“The tour wanted me to have a back-up set, too, so they purchased another set from McCallum,” Cousin adds, emphasizing that only once has the wireless miking been anything less than perfect in a show.

Unfortunately for Lorne Cousin, the tour is not scheduled to come to Scotland, mainly because of the limitations of venues. London and Manchester are on in September, as well as Slane Castle in Ireland, where the band will be flown in by helicopter to play to what is expected to be a crowd of more than 100,000.

A musical breakthrough?

The fact that Madonna’s integrating Highland pipes into the biggest pop show of 2004 is testament to the instrument’s gradual acceptance by mainstream musicians. It hasn’t gone unnoticed by the world piping community, which has forever bemoaned the instrument and its music not being taken seriously outside of its own world.

“It’s exciting to think that not only has an icon of pop music sought out the bagpipes for use in her music, but has hired someone who can play well,” says Michael Grey of Dundas, Ontario. “I hope she gets past the novelty of it and makes use of the instrument in one of her released singles. Now that would be like a prayer answered for promoters in the piping world. Good for Lorne, too. He’s got to be having the time of his life.”

“The most important thing for piping that will come out of having an expert player like Lorne Cousin taking such an integral part of such a high-profile show is that real piping will be heard by music enthusiasts in numbers previously unheard of for mainstream piping,” says Colin MacLellan of Edinburgh, who is president of the Competing Pipers Association. “It’s not just background music, or part of a soundtrack of a major movie – in themselves major boosts for the instrument – but piobaireachd linked to a strathspey. Real piping! Perhaps millions of people can now realize that there are few musical sounds that can match a good player playing good music on a topnotch bagpipe.”

But what about non-pipers? Says Kim Race of Toronto who attended one of the Toronto concerts: “This was the first time I’ve heard the bagpipes live with any pop star. It was totally unexpected, but it really worked well and had lots of energy. I don’t know anything about piping, but it sounded fantastic.”

As with anything different, there will be detractors. “This guy is gallivanting around like a peat bog fairy. It is just a piece of pop nonsense but his kilt is an affront to Highland dress,” the aforementioned Robert Wallace, principal of Glasgow’s College of Piping, was quoted as saying in Scotland’s Sunday Mail newspaper.

There were naysayers when “Lord Lovat’s Lament” was dismissed as having too much melody, and some traditionalists tutted when the medley was introduced to pipe band competitions. Philosophical differences are part of the healthy evolution of any art form.

For now, Lorne Cousin continues to have the time of his life, playing to and dancing for millions of screaming fans all around the world with Madonna.

Has the whole Madonna experience gone to Cousin’s head? Absolutely not. He is keenly interested in the competitive piping scene, and says he follows it on the road by regularly logging on to Piper & Drummer Online. Despite bringing quality piping and pipe music to millions of people, putting the instrument alongside probably the world’s biggest pop-star, Cousin recognizes it will all end in a few months.

Cousin says, “I’m enjoying it and see it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but, at the end of the day, when it’s all finished, I’ll just go back to a normal life. It’s a good laugh.”

Please pass that bottle of Springbank.

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