Interview: Julie Fowlis
It’s been a hectic couple of years for Scots singer Julie Fowlis, but as Nadine McBay finds, awards, worlds tours and honorary degrees are just the start of it
Julie Fowlis is right to describe the past couple of years as being a ‘bit of a whirlwind’. In recent months the crystalline-voiced musician has earned worldwide acclaim for her second album Cuilidh (pronounced ‘cool-ee’), was named BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year – a first for a Scottish Gaelic singer – toured the US and Europe and attracted a raft of new fans with her startling cover of The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’. Just in the past couple of weeks Fowlis has re-started her folk and roots programme for BBC Radio Scotland as well as being appointed an honorary fellow at the University of the Highlands and Islands where she is a postgraduate student.
‘I’m not sure what I did to deserve it,’ she says with typical modesty. ‘I was very humbled. Just when you do something that you can’t believe there’s always something else to keep you going, keep you interested and excited.’
It’s something of a surprise then that Fowlis didn’t feel the weight of expectation bearing down on her too heavily for Cuilidh’s follow-up, Uam (‘From Me’), the release of which coincides with this tour.
‘With Cuilidh, there was the pressure of the ‘difficult second album’ syndrome, whereas there was some stability with this record,’ she says, describing Uam as ‘a snapshot of where we are in time’. ‘Even though we’ve always worked with brilliant musicians, for the first time ever we’ve got a solid touring band behind this record, as well as lots of special guests, which allowed us to have a bit of a play and see what happened in the studio.’
As well as featuring Fowlis’s core touring band of her bouzouki-playing husband Eamon Doorley, Dublin guitarist Tony Byrne, bodhran-player Martin O’Neill and Highland fiddler Duncan Chisholm, Uam reels and swells with special guests. They include Gaelic vocalist Mary Smith, Irish accordionist and fiddler Sharon Shannon, Phil Cunningham, whose tender piano playing accompanies Fowlis on Perthshire love song ‘Bothan Airigh am Braigh Raithneach’, and Eddi Reader who duets with Fowlis on the bilingual ‘Wind and Rain’.
‘Eddi is very generous with her music: we met her at Celtic Connections and we recorded the track the next day,’ explains Fowlis. ‘It’s about a jealous girl who kills her sister, all very gruesome and dark.’
The version the pair recorded is of an Irish-American song Fowlis translated into Gaelic – fitting considering that there are variations of this ‘jealous sister’ song found in the language. Indeed, the track that follows ‘Wind and Rain’, ‘Thig Am Bata’ is one such variation, originally from the Hebrides. It is sung, like all the tracks on Uam (excepting ‘Wind and Rain’), in Fowlis’s hypnotic Gaelic lilt. The first language of her mother, Gaelic was consciously reclaimed by the North Uist born Fowlis as an undergraduate.
‘I went to school as an English speaker and wanted to pick up Gaelic again but was told it was a dying language,’ she explains. ‘Now I use it everyday and it’s just a part of my life as English is – perhaps more so in some ways. Now we’ve got to the third album, people are not so surprised that most is in Gaelic. It’s more accepted now, which is great. I’m not having to prove a point any more.’
The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Tue 27 Oct.