New folk music: James Yorkston, Hanna Tuulikki and Alex Neilson on their musical influences
Some recommendations from three strong voices in contemporary folk music
Scotland’s contemporary folk music is vital, dynamic and genre-defying. It re-animates mythic realms via acid-washed folk-rock (Trembling Bells); applies Gaelic customs to avant-garde art forms (Hanna Tuulikki, Muscles of Joy); celebrates punk and DIY pop doctrines (James Yorkston, Wounded Knee, King Creosote and Pictish Trail’s Fence Collective); mines and advances oral traditions (Alasdair Roberts) – and it resonates with mainstream promise (Rachel Sermanni), sublime protest poetry (Karine Polwart) and live exhilaration (Lau). Here, three exceptional modern artists tell Nicola Meighan about the Scottish folk and art that most inspired them
‘Jimmy MacBeath and John Strachan were Bothy singers, born in the 19th century in north east Scotland. They were unrelated, unpaired – never sang together as far as I know. MacBeath was itinerant, a tramp, while Strachan was a laird on a farm, comparatively well-to-do, and they bought with them vast repertoires of song. Macbeath’s reflected his sometimes uncouth or bawdy audience, while Strachan learned songs from his mother and farmworkers and sang them in a plummier voice.
I love their use of Doric and the beggar’s cant, full of beautifully descriptive language, but they also had the ability to convey a long song themselves – no bells and whistles, guitars and drums. The singing of traditional song was mostly always performed that way of course, but their styles are natural and un-staged – there’s no heightening of pitch or warbling of voice – it’s just them, sing-speaking their songs. As a guy who can’t sing in the X-Factor sense, I take great relief and confidence in the gravelly mutterings of this pair and others like them.’
‘When I first listened to Gaelic psalm singing I was struck by the powerful unearthly sound created by a layering of voices that rise and fall like waves on the shore. Sung unaccompanied and led by a precentor, the magic happens when the congregation sings. Each individual joins in with their own spontaneous response to the melody, singing the same phrase but at different speeds and with varying degrees of ornamentation. The result is a complex monophony that is fiercely passionate yet tenderly plaintive.
The ideas of spontaneous response and layering have influenced how I write compositions and the way I sing. Gaelic psalm singing led me to dig more deeply into Gaelic vocal traditions, especially those where land, sea and birds are evoked through song. As a direct result, I’m now working on a large-scale project, Air falbh leis na h-eòin | Away with the Birds, exploring the mimesis of birds in Gaelic song and influenced by the structure of psalm singing.›
‘As The Incredible String Band, Mike Heron and Robin Williamson gave the hippy generation some of their most emblematic anthems. In tunes like ‘Maya’ or ‘A Very Cellular Song’, with their epic perspectives, pantheistic lyrics and synthesis of psychedelia with the folk musics of the world, ISB achieved in a couple of ditties what most bands struggle to explain over entire careers. The breadth of their appeal is beguiling, with residents of the House of the Holy as differing as Robert Plant and Rowan Williams professing a long-term love affair with the band.
The pair seemed like perfect foils: Robin the self-styled seer, reporting back from a dream of pre-Christian Britain; Mike with a drug-abetted child’s-eye-view of the world. Equal parts charity-shop prophets, omnivorous appropriators of musical form and intrepid cosmonauts of inner-space, their slight differences in approach only served to strengthen their musical alchemy.
Their re-evaluation of Britain as a place of myth and arcane imagination was a great inspiration to me. This is music rooted deep in the black, black earth and its only limit is the blue, blue sky.’
Trembling Bells’ album with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, The Marble Downs, is out now.