A conversation with Julie Fowlis who will appear October 11, 2015 in Harrisburg, PA. “It’s Much Less About Me and Much More About the Music.”

The great Scottish Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis (as heard on the Disney movie BRAVE) and her band will be performing at The Abbey Bar in Harrisburg, PA in a Susquehanna Folk Music Society sponsored concert on Sunday October 11th at 7:30.  You won’t want to miss out on getting tickets to see this astonishing singer! Tickets can be found HERE

JF image PC Michelle Fowlis(2)

Peter Winter, a writer and musician living in Harrisburg, had the opportunity to do an in-depth interview with Julie; covering topics such as where she came from and the deep respect that she has for her heritage, her latest CD, her love of music which has extended to a broadcasting career, and the priorities that she has for her life.

For your convenience we have put this wonderful interview into sections to help guide you to the parts that most interest you.

Happy reading!

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You could say I was slightly nervous going into my interview with Scottish folk singer and multi-instrumentalist Julie Fowlis.  To rattle off Julie’s extensive list of achievements would be to include an award for “Folk Act of the Year” at the Scots Trad Music Awards in 2014, as well as her becoming the first Gaelic solo artist to nab a Scottish Music Award that same year.   In addition to receiving a nomination as ”Folk Singer Of The Year” at the 2015 BBC Radio Radio 2 Folk Awards, Julie is also an experienced broadcaster on radio and television.  She holds a BA Honours in Applied Music, and an MA in Material Culture & The Environment in addition to her Honourary Doctorate of Music from the University in Aberdeen.  Oh, and then there’s “BRAVE” the 2012 Disney/PIXAR film for which Julie provided multiple songs.

 

However, what ever apprehensions I might have been harboring were instantly dispelled when a cheery and familiar “Hello Peter How are you?!” greeted me on the other end of the line at the start of our phone interview.  With occasional sounds of her children in the background of the call, we chatted on everything from the role of Gaelic in modern day Scotland, “it’s a living, breathing, and importantly a modern language as well as being an ancient one,” to our mutual happiness at her latest record “Gach Sgeul/Every Story” being released on vinyl, “I’m glad we did it too.  It was a really fun thing.”  Through out the extent of the interview, I was constantly impressed by Julie’s selfless dedication to not only the musical and linguistic heritage that she champions, but also to her family.

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Who You’ve Come From”-Growing up in North Uist and the importance of knowing your Heritage.

 Peter: You are associated with bringing not only traditional Scottish Gaelic music but also language to the forefront.  How did that all start for you?  In your early years and your childhood, how did you grow up with your traditional music and language? What roles did they play in your life?

Julie:  My mother is a native speaker, my father speaks English, so we had two languages in the house.   Although there was no Gaelic medium schooling at that time, everyone in the community spoke Gaelic and our teacher was a great singer and tradition bearer.  We were in a small school with only 12 pupils and were schooled for seven years, from five years old up to 12 years old, in one classroom for the most part; at one stage there were only two in my class, myself and one other boy.  You don’t really realize that as a child but looking back now, she [our teacher] was just this incredible tradition bearer and singer and she just made song an unofficial part of the curriculum.

Also, where I was raised in the Hebrides there was a really strong tradition of piping and instrumental music as well.  It was very normal for both girls and boys to learn a little bit of piping quite early on, so I was allowed to hear this music from a very young age and I think like so many experiences in your formative years they kind of have a powerful effect on you throughout your life and that’s certainly true for me.

Peter: Were you strongly fluent in Gaelic from an early age or was there a point where you consciously decided you wanted to embrace your native language?

Julie:  I’m not sure there was a definite point, it was kind of a longer process than that.  We were very guilty as youngsters of being spoken to in Gaelic and answering in English (it certainly wasn’t rebelling against anything, it probably had to do with a lack of confidence to speak it!) so there was this understanding and acceptance of the language.  It was probably when I was in my late teens and when I had started university and being away from home as well that you start to realize how important these things are and I made a conscious decision then to make an effort to speak it a little more.

Now, how ever many years later, I have my own family.  I have two children and it’s our first language in the house.  We’re very much a bilingual family; the kids speak English as well, and their father is Irish and he speaks Irish to them so I guess in some ways the kids are almost trilingual.  It’s what I speak naturally to mums at the school and the teachers, and we have a huge community here.  It’s something that is completely normal now but it did take a conscious decision to commit to it, especially with having kids.  I think speaking a minority language you’re always fighting the tide.  It can be quite overwhelming some times because even though you’re involved with a really strong and active and vibrant community, it’s still very much in the minority and it’s almost like there are tiny battles every single day that you have to fight to kind of keep going.

Peter: That leads me into my next question!  I’ve heard you say before that you want Gaelic to be your children’s first language.  Do you think you’ve seen a shift in Scotland to an extent? Are there other people of your generation wanting this language to be more of a part of their lives and their children’s lives?

Julie: I think so. I think it has probably to do with the opportunities being there now through things like Gaelic medium education and musical tuitions through the medium of Gaelic.  Things like that where language is placed at the center rather than being an afterthought.  So I guess there’s more visibility of it because of this increase in opportunities for both kids and adults.  And I guess there is a sort of visibility in the sense that over the last ten years the Gaelic language has become an official language of Scotland, because it wasn’t up until 2005.

Peter: Really?

Julie: Absolutely incredible.  It had no actual legal official status until 2005.  It’s unbelievable.  The language that’s been spoken for over 1,000 years on this island; It is incredible.  And since it has received official status, that has allowed for development in terms of visibility to do with signage and maybe more programming and things like that which are really, really, important.  Especially for youngsters I think, to see that it’s a living, breathing, and importantly a modern language as well as being an ancient one.

Peter: Once again that flows into my next question: So much of you life is caught up with this language. Why do you think that this linguistic heritage is so important?  Why is showing this language as not only an important thing in antiquity but also making it a living breathing entity, making sure that your children are fluent in it and even that it is their first language, why is that so important to you?

Julie: Well I think, again at its simplest it gives you a sense of who you are and who you’ve come from.  And I say “Who you’ve come from” quite deliberately because we have this phrase in Gaelic “Co as a tha thu? ” which translated into English means “where are you from,” but literally translated it means “who are you from” and that is what we say to ask where someone is from.  There’s this sense of genealogy and lineage and who you belong to.  And I guess that only makes sense, when you can understand the language and the place names you come from.  The environment itself, the landscape around you, comes alive when you actually know all these words.  People use them in English, but actually they’re Gaelic words.  They might be geographical terms, or they might be old place names but we’re surrounded by them and they’re used everyday by English speakers, which is wonderful.  However, I think when you have the language, then all these names, all these words, they make sense. They tell you something about your landscape, they tell you about where you are standing, and there might be a reason for the name of that rock, or that hill face, or that loch or that bay.  It gives you a clue as to what went on there, or what went before you.  And I think that gives you a great grounding in terms of your own sense of place, and sense of belonging.  It’s a sense of being settled perhaps.

 

“Well of Heritage”- Compiling an Archive of Scottish Folklore

 

Peter:  One of the interesting roles you have, an extra hat you wear that a lot of other musicians don’t wear, is that you’re also in a way an archivist.  You’re not just performing these songs, but you’re finding these amazing traditional songs and bringing them all to the rest of us.  What are some of the sources you draw from? Is there a physical archive where you can tap into some of these older songs?

Julie: There is.  Of course, I have to say I collect little tiny bits and pieces, but mostly I’m very fortunate to be able to tap into other folk who are doing really incredible archival work.  I’m able to tap into that, and listen to songs and learn stories from other’s people’s work as well, so I definitely don’t want to take any credit for that!  There is one incredible resource that was set up just a few years ago it’s called “Tobar an Dualchais” which is known as “Kist O Riches” in Scots, and it means the “Well of Heritage.”  This is a website that was set up to digitize and make available online tens of thousands of recordings that had been made in Scotland from the 30s onwards by incredible characters (there really very few characters when you look back there were just a handful of them) who went out of their way when native speakers were passing on and we were losing pockets of culture.  They went around and from the 30s onwards they collected songs and stories, historical information, information about place names, legends, folklore even things like recipes and local gossip and information; really, really important nuggets.  And they were all documented within different archives and collections.  One of them being the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, one being the BBC Archives, and the other main one was the National Archive, The National Trust for Scotland Archive in the Island of Canna collected by John Lorne Campbell.  These were all put together and they were digitized.  There’s a team that spent many years digitizing all these old reel to reel tapes and cataloging them properly and then uploading them on to a website and they are now free for anyone around the world to listen to just at the click of a button.  I think we’re now at almost 45,000 items, recordings, on this site and it’s an absolutely incredible resource.  It’s one of the most advanced digital archive projects in the world.  I worked with them for a year as artist in residence, and I’m very, very proud to be associated with them.

 

“I Seemed to Have These Songs all There”-Collecting Songs and Recording an Album at Home

 

Peter: For the last album “Gach Sgeul/Every Story,” were there in particular any interesting sources that you used to discover songs for that record or maybe a place you weren’t expecting to find a song that made it onto the album?

Julie: I think that album kind of came together whilst I just had my first child and just after a couple years of her being a baby and a toddler I fell pregnant and had my second child.  I kind of felt like I was on a bit of a personal journey through that time and music definitely wasn’t my main focus.  The children were my focus.  But whilst that was all happening, whilst I was on that personal journey, different songs came to me at different times from different people, and when we decided “OK it’s time to do an album” I seemed to have these songs all there.  And so it wasn’t sort of a conscious decision to search for songs for an album but they came to me in different ways.

Some I learnt whilst I was the artist in residence at “Tobar an Dualchais,” some of them came whilst I was working on a great BBC project which was called “Hebrides” in English and “Innsean an Iar” in Gaelic, which was a nature program actually, but that included performances from singers singing songs that were very much rooted in terms of the environment; songs about nature, or bird song, or the change of the seasons, or the sea; things like that.  It was a lovely series that brought together culture and environmental issues and nature, and some of the songs on the album came from that working on that project.  So I guess it just all came together quite organically.

Peter: Going into the record did you have a pretty locked in sense of what tracks were going to be the album? Sometimes you hear stories of artists recording way more than they actually need.  Did you have a strong sense of what was going to constitute the album?

Julie: I think we did have quite a clear sense of it.  We had a list of 25-30 songs to begin with and before we got anywhere near the studio, we whittled them down to the 10 or 11 we wanted to be on the record.  We ended up with the 11, so it was kind of as we planned.  I guess having kids kind of focuses the mind in a way that we had never been able to do before.

Peter: Going along with you talking about working while having kids around, you decided to record this album at home.  I was wondering if you could talk a little about that.  There’s a story about how one of your daughters is actually on the album?

Julie: It was actually the first day of recording. I wanted to do it at home because I wanted it to be relaxed and know that the kids are OK, and we had friends and family members looking after the kids while we were busy recording.  Typically the first day in the studio (typically for us anyway) is always really slow and you never get very much done, and it’s only the second day that you really get into it.  But quite untypically, the first day had gone exceptionally well.   We had got a whole song down in the morning and we hadn’t really expected to.  So we moved onto another song and thought, “well let’s just keep going.”  And so we start the second song and everyone was feeling really good, but this time it was bedtime for my youngest (she was only a year at the time) and I guess she just wanted her mom, naturally, and so I was kind of caught between wanting to put my wee one to bed but yet keep all the guys and the engineer.  Everyone was kind of poised, ready to go, so I felt kind of torn between the two.  So I just had one of these baby carriers and so I picked her up and as soon as I did, she settled and was instantly quiet and so I thought, “Let’s just risk it.”  And I just took her into our little studio space, with the backpack on, which is probably not great for the lung capacity actually.   She fell asleep whilst we were recording the track, and so I joke that if you listen closely you might be able to hear her.

Peter: That’s fantastic.  Speaking about that album, first of all I just have to compliment you, it’s such a fantastic record.

Julie: Oh thank you!

Peter: You’re welcome!  I love how so many people associate you with keeping these traditions alive which is so wonderful, but I don’t think enough gets said about how subtly and tastefully innovative your newest album is.  It’s really intimate, but you also have these big sounds and up to five fiddle parts at times. On some tracks, (and I saw this on a vide for Celtic Connections 2014) you have a vibraphone player at points?

Julie: Yeah There is!

Peter: It’s amazing!  I think so many times people try to expand this idea of acceptable traditional instrumentation, and it kind of blows up in their faces, but you guys did it so well and it just fits in the mix.  Whose idea was that? Who wanted to have mallets and vibraphones?

Julie: Well I guess again like so much in trad music so much happens because of friendships in quite an organic way; the scene is so small.  We worked with great bodhran players in the past, but quite often with slow songs we were kind of thinking “is there a different way we can bring in percussion that doesn’t sound too orchestral?” something that just kind of blends into this kind of acoustic sound we are trying to make.  And Iain Sandilands, who is the percussionist on the album, he’s married to a great friend of mine who appears on the album as well (actually she plays fiddle in the band RANT who came up with the string arrangements).  So we asked Iain if he would just like to come along and try some things out, and we knew what he does, and that with his understanding of the trad world coupled with his incredible musicianship and training we just knew it would work.  He is an incredible musician; he can be very, very understated, but yet very, very powerful because he is so understated.  Some times you’re not even aware he’s there but then you realize that there is this beautiful sound going on and it’s him that’s making it.

Peter: It’s so good.  Some of the most uptempo styles of songs you do are traditional “mouth music” and “working songs.” I was wondering if you could explain those for someone who was unfamiliar with them.

Julie: There are different categories of those up beat songs, one kind of umbrella is “working songs” and under that umbrella there are different types of work songs so there might be what we call waulking songs, there might be milling songs or rowing songs, songs for churning butter, or for cutting grass. Things like that, and they all have different rhythms and the idea is the song would have been sung to the work being done.  So therefore that’s why the rhythms are so different.  So they represent a way of life that is almost entirely gone as machines and modern ways come into replace traditional methods.  These songs retain those feelings and the rhythms, so they always hold a great interest for me.

The other really up-tempo type songs are the mouth music, what we call “Puirt à beul” which literally translated means “tunes from the mouth” and these are the kind of up-tempo tracks that we like to sing because they are really good fun they can be quite challenging, they’re tongue twisters.  They tend to have a funny story.  I’m always amazed and impressed by them cause when you see the translations of them, you think they are really simplistic, almost silly throwaway songs, but when sung in Gaelic, there’s quite often different methods such as rhyming, internal rhythms, and alliteration that are used to create interest and to create certain sounds and rhythms that can make them really, really challenging to sing I have to say.  So they are actually really clever little pieces of composition.

 

“Coming at it From a Different Angle”-Broadcasting Career

 

Peter: You’re involved in a lot of broadcasting, getting to interview lots of different artists, I saw you in a picture recently interviewing The Punch Brothers which was like for me, “Oh my gosh all my favorite people in one picture.”

Julie: They’re great guys!

Peter: Oh My gosh, I think the Julie Fowlis/Punch Brothers musical collaboration has to happen at some point.

Julie Fowlis: Oh I would love that!  That would be great!

Peter: Yeah Please! For Crying Out Loud! Anyway, Not a lot of musicians get to do that, to wear both hats.  You are being interviewed by me right now, as you’re often interviewed, but also you get to talk to your peers in this same way.  What do you like about getting to interview other musicians?

Julie: It’s a bit odd, because I wasn’t trained in broadcasting or journalism, and I totally fell into it by accident.  I think the first thing I ever did was I had to stand in and do a radio program.  I had never done anything like it! I think they just asked me because I was a performer and I guess they thought I might be able to handle it you know.  And the next thing all of a sudden I had like eight shows and I did the same thing the following year, the thing kind of snow balled, and it was almost as if it happened without me really realizing it you know? But now I kind of feel a little bit more comfortable wearing that hat.  And I always used to feel that I was just a musician who was, we have a phrase here that is “flying by the seat of your pants,” I always used to feel like that.  But now I guess I feel a little more comfortable with that hat on.

This summer being at Cambridge (Folk Festival) it was lovely to be working with a really great experienced broadcaster, radio character and celebrity Mark Radcliffe who’s a well-known voice and face here in the UK.  We kind of balance each other out because I’m coming at it from another angle than him.  I guess the battle for me is to always not keep the interview too “in house,” and not music speak all the time because you’re trying to present them to a wider audience who really have no or little experience of, say, The Punch Brothers, where if it was me in a room with them, I’d be wanting to talk about tunes, and rhythms, and songs, and harmonies and things but you have to take a little step back and try and remember who is listening to this.

 

“Everything Else in a Bundle”-Defining Yourself as Person and Artist

 

Peter: You have many different roles:  Preserver of heritage, singer, broadcaster.  At the end of the day who do you see yourself as?

Julie: I guess my default answer has to be “a mother.”  I think that’s who I am first and foremost now.   I think I’m a mum to my two kids first and foremost.  And then thereafter, I think everything else in a bundle.  I was always so wracked with nerves and lacking in confidence when I was around other instrumentalists I used to say “Oh I’m a singer really who just plays a little bit” and then when I was around singers I would say, “Oh I’m an instrumentalist really, I’m not really a singer” I would always try and play down what I do.   I guess I’m kind of old enough now to say, “You know, I have a crack at the singing, and I play a bit of instrumental music, and a bit of broadcasting.”  I think having kids puts everything into perspective.   I am very, very fortunate to get to do all these things within my job, and I go on to do the best that I can.

Peter: “Gach Sgeul/Every Story” is getting amazing reviews, and you’re the first Traditional artist to win the National Scottish Music Awards.  There are a lot of people bringing folk music in the forefront, but you are exclusively singing in a specialized minority language and yet your music seems to resonate so broadly.  Why do you think people are drawn to your music despite the fact that there exists this language barrier?

Julie: I think definitely it’s much less about me and much more about the music.  The music is so powerful, and I think the music is so honest.  You can spot manufactured music, and you can spot real music.  Music that was created for the want of making music.  It wasn’t created for money, it wasn’t created for fame or fortune, it was created for the love of making music.   For putting a child to sleep, to pass the time while you were doing a hard task, out in the fields or milking cattle.  This is music that is very true and it is very honest, and I think that’s what speaks to people.

Peter: My last question! When you’re not playing music or keeping your kids in line, what are some of the Julie Fowlis albums of 2015?

Julie: I have to be honest and say one of my albums of 2015 is by my husband’s band Danu from Ireland.  They had their 20th anniversary this year and that record is in the car all the time.  The kids love it, it has incredible musicianship; that album is really fantastic.  It’s a really complete piece or work I think.  As a musician, I’m guilty of putting on a few tracks of something then putting it off then putting on a few tracks and turning it off.  There are very few albums I hear nowadays that feel like a complete piece of work, you know? Definitely “Buan,” which is their new album, feels like a piece or work to me.  Of course, going back to The Punch Brothers isn’t that [The Phosphorescent Blues released January 27th 2015] an incredible record?  Totally amazing.  There are so many now I’m trying to pick, those would be two that stand out for me this year.

Peter: Julie thank you so much for taking the time to do this!

Julie:  Not at All! Lovely to chat to you!

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Tobar an Dualchais, The Scottish Archive Julie speaks of is truly an amazing resource and can be found HERE.

 

An excellent video interview and full band performance of Julie Fowlis and her band performing at Celtic Connections in 2014 can be found here:

 

Peter Winter is a writer and musician living in Harrisburg, PA.  He writes about a variety of music on his blog, All The Day Sounds

And tweets @peterwinter38

 

 

 

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