Hi everyone! First I’d like to say that I am so glad that the Traditional Music Forum exists, doing what it does.
So, mental health is on the agenda of late. We’ve seen a vast increase in the number of people with issues that we can now highlight as “mental health problems” within and outwith this scene. I have been an open sufferer of mental health issues since 2011 and I’m so proud of all those whom have helped brush away some of the stigma that surrounds it. Having the confidence to share my inner thoughts has helped me to deal with a whole host of problems within.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy was my first port of call.
I had worked based in Glasgow for almost 10 years by that point and had struggled with lack of stability, lack of financial regulation and a lack of confidence in self. I have since realised we are not alone in that experience. At the time I thought I was in the wrong, not only acting in a self-destruct manner but also suffering from self-deprecative thoughts on a regular basis and finding myself in a cyclical torrent all the while putting on a confident/brave/carefree facade.
I later learned this is a very common issue in the fight against one’s “artistic resistance”, from “the war of art” (a fantastic wee book suggested to me by Hamish Napier). It highlights the internal struggle between artist and cause/reason/drive to create whatever may be in your heart/mind/fingertips. Reading this book opened up a new way of thinking. Understanding that so many creatives have come and gone before us really helped. Their struggle at the cost of their aspirations, their drive for recognition and difference from other creatives who have gone before, allowed me to write-off a whole host of issues I was having as a creative in this industry.
It is an industry, the music industry. The difference between us and those who feel they are destined to be “famous” or “popular” or “liked” even, is that we have a cultural axe to bear. We feel that however we came to realise our abilities we did it through the hard work and struggle of hundreds of humans before us. We must not forget this. Everything we do is a fight for unquestionable recognition from ourselves for what we do. Only once we become worthy of ourselves do we become worthy of criticism and by that point you have already criticised yourself to the nth degree proving to yourself that what you are doing is WORTH IT. Long before this point, however, we are culturally significant. Everyone is.
My struggle has not been whether or not what I do is worth it. My struggle has been with living up to my own understanding of what the “universe expects” from me. I was an entertaining child, apparently blowing my own nose at 2 (and my own trumpet at 34), I just kept on surpassing the mark throughout my developmental stages. Eventually I reached a stage where even I expected more from myself because I had always managed to exceed the mark. At that point i felt “the system” had failed me. “It” expected things that I had shown myself capable of and when I didn’t hit the mark I felt incompetent.
That still happens to this day. My incompetence is only seen by me and the path I have chosen rarely shows up the cracks in my ability to perform (as was my curse at an early age). I had to over-act in order to exist because performance had become a part of my being, not just something I was good at. It became how I learned from other humans, it became how I engaged other humans and made them like me, it became how I made friends, it became how I managed to get by, despite my lack of understanding in certain situations.
Innes Watson is not broken (he says, in the third person) but he is struggling (always has and always will) with the responsibility of having to understand and explain who he is all the time. He is capable of survival, of adapting, of acting and encouraging. Without this he would not have lasted as long as he has. I have. I have endured.
I believe we are on to something absolutely extraordinary here. It will take effort to succeed on the most valuable and significant cultural voyage we all embark upon each day. Go Trad Music, it’s life changing. Working together is a vital part. Share your experiences, pass on your stories, live your life as if it’s the one you are supposed to live – because it is. You have one chance on this fickle earth and woe-betide anyone who wastes that. I should take my own advice sometimes. My soapbox is short, but it is a soapbox nonetheless…
SOME THOUGHTS ON MY APPROACH TO MUSIC MAKING – by Rachel Newton
(Above: album artwork for West by Somhairle MacDonald)
I am just about to head out for the second half of my album launch tour for West, a solo album I released in September last year. I thought I’d write a bit about the thinking behind the album and how I approach my projects.
I have tried to achieve something different with each solo album I’ve made. My first was really a mixture of all the ideas I had in my head that I hadn’t been able to fit into the various bands I was in. I’d demoed the arrangements beforehand and had a pretty good idea of what I was going to record. the second was based on a Celtic Connections New Voices commission so was a bit more scored out and performed live in advance. The third I had no plan for whatsoever until I went in to the studio and threw in ideas with co-producer Mattie Foulds and it was massively enhanced by my guest musicians Lauren and Mikey responding to my ideas there and then.
With my fourth album West, I wanted to build on the experience of making something largely improvised or created in the space, but with the challenge of it being a completely solo album featuring just myself and the harps. To make this something special for me if nothing else, I decided to record the album in my grandparents’ croft house in Achnahaird, Wester Ross where I’d spent all my school holidays growing up. Making up the arrangements for the songs in such beautiful and personal surroundings definitely informed the music on the album. I worked with Mattie again on this project and he brought up his recording equipment and set about the unenviable task of building a studio in the house.
I’ve always really enjoyed sitting at the harp and just playing with no real plan or direction – it’s kind of my version of meditating. On the album, I’ve taken that approach to record a few short tracks where I set the harp levers in the key of the previous track and just recorded what came out. I named those tracks after some of the mountains that can be seen from Achnahaird as that was my view at the time. It felt like quite a personal thing for me to share these recordings, but it made sense to do this on West because that was the nature of the project.
Making music that is very niche as many of us do, it feels important to have other motivations other than selling tens of thousands of albums and appealing to a mass audience. For me, that is to learn from each project and push myself in different ways. I try for this in the bands I’m in too, playing in bands like The Shee where our arrangements can be fairly complex and technically challenging to playing with The Furrow Collective which focuses on the song and the value in our years of singing harmonies together producing a more intuitive approach.
After my solo tour, I’m looking forward to starting work on my next solo project, which will be something completely different again and is slowly starting to take shape in my head. It’s hard to find the time to work on solo projects when you’re a self-employed musician travelling out on tour a lot, but I find the experiences I have playing and travelling with other projects and bands informs my work and hopefully if I let an idea work away in the background, it’ll come out in the end in some shape or form. For me it’s about keeping it varied and challenging in whatever small way possible and making some kind of meaning for yourself in the music you make, which will hopefully come across and speak to others in turn.
Below: A Token from Rachel’s 4th solo album – West
Last week I was visited by a lady called Sinead from a charity called Help Musicians. This is the second visit I’ve had in the last year. They do their best to visit everyone they’ve helped, as they can. The visits are free of judgement and are informal. They are organised simply, to check in with you to see how you’re getting on and if and how their aid has been of benefit.
They provide a very wide range of services to all musicians of all genres and at any stage in their career.
They can help with financial ‘crisis’ which can occur when you are unable to work due to short term or long term physical or mental illness.
They work with older musicians who, for example, are dealing with much longer-term illnesses and may need financial support or assistance with home care.
They provide initiatives for young musicians trying to establish themselves and develop their careers.
In my case, they have provided me with a therapy grant to help me cope with chronic abdominal pain I’ve been living with for the past 4 years. This therapy has really helped me to keep my head ‘above water’ psychologically. It has definitely helped muster the strength to use my energy economically.
I’m not completely able to do as much as I used to (re. Work, socialising, exercising) and I’ve had to make quite a lot of big physical changes to my diet, working hours etc.
The therapy helped me gain confidence to speak openly with colleagues and employers about working with them within my new ‘frame-work’. It has also helped me remain grateful for what I can do and reduce my frustration at not being able to do other things.
I’m hopeful that the long waits for test and scan results, appointments with consultants etc will eventually amount to a diagnosis and an effective treatment. (And I won’t have to spend the rest of my days half-asleep or actually asleep on strong prescription-painkillers.)
In the meantime the charity have offered a further therapy grant as this is ongoing.
How amazing is that?
Without the help that this organisation provides, many musicians may have become laden with debt and/or guilt & shame in themselves as a result of not being able to work to their capacity. Most other jobs out there provide sick-leave when workers need time off to receive treatment or rest and recover from illness.
There’s no need to suffer or force yourself to ‘keep going’ when you aren’t well. Call these guys, go and talk to your GP and once you’ve asked for help, you’ll get it. You will not be judged or turned away!
I’ve learned (often the hard way) that your health is literally all you have. Like other jobs, you can go back when you’re stronger. Take responsibility for your health, use the resources we are lucky to have in this country. If you know anyone else who might benefit – spread the word.
I’m practicing here.
I find it difficult not to say yes.
If feels good to say yes when someone asks me to do a gig, or play on a recording, or produce an album, or do just about anything that makes me feel valued. It’s a buzz knowing someone likes what you do and wants a piece of it. It’s good for the ego, isn’t it? Plus there’s the other upside, making some green and paying the rent. In fact there are lots of reasons why YES seems to be the only possible answer. Hanging out with friends, travel, working in cool studios, playing beautiful venues, meeting new people, experiencing different cultures. It’s the dream, right? How could anyone say no?
But I need to learn how to say this word.
No. No way. Absolutely Not. Nix. Negative. It doesn’t feel nice to type, let alone say.
I like to be positive. Like all of us, I have my moments of negativity but given the option I like to try and stay optimistic. So what’s the problem? That’s a good thing, right?
I do know how to say no, in fact there’s one situation where I excel at saying no – when it’s me that’s asking. I’m very good at moving me to the back of the queue.
Hi Dunc, it’s Duncan here. Any chance you could hold these dates to work on some cool new music?
Maybe… I tell you what. I’ll not put it in my diary and if anything else comes in I’ll just say yes to that and not make arrangements to find another time to work on this cool new music.
Pretty much what happens.
In 2011 I realised I needed a boot up the arse. I had been writing some tunes here and there, some weird guitar tunes, a short commission for Gordon Duncan – A National Treasure, attempts at writing tunes for Box Club or Croft No Five, but I wanted a challenge and to write something a bit more substantial. Time to jump in with both feet.
I called the head honcho of Celtic Connections himself, Mr Donald Shaw. I asked if he would consider me for the New Voices series. (In my mind the New Voices series is one of the festival’s finest assets. A test bed for emerging composers, a warm, welcoming and forgiving crowd ready for adventure, a safe space to try new things out on a great stage. Trad music in Scotland would be a bit less adventurous without it.) He agreed, and asked me to get back to him with some thoughts about what I had in mind. I started composing to see what would come from it. After a few weeks of incoherent musical ramblings I had the idea of creating some semblance of order by creating a sort of film score for a non existent film and inviting the audience to use their imagination to create their own plot. I would call it Infinite Reflections.
Six months later I was on stage with a band playing my music. I had spewed crotchet after quaver onto multiple pages and the musicians were all doing a brilliant job of turning it into music.
Six months from nothing to the best part of an hour of music. It was a lot of work and it came with some serious ups and downs over but I had done it.
After the gig we all went for a celebratory dinner. I sat with Angus Lyon who had done a New Voices the year before. We vowed to record our pieces and launch the albums at the festival the following year. We stuck to our promise, and even followed up with a tour of both pieces, sharing a band to perform them both. It was a huge success! Proud as punch! Onwards! World domination is ours for the taking! etc.
Fast forward to summer 2018. I’ve written a couple more tunes and done a grand total of no more gigs in my own name.
I did have a lot of conversations with different people about, how I was about to start working on a follow up to Infinite Reflections. I just needed to finish producing album X and then I would get to writing, or as soon as this tour is over I’ve got time at home. I’m gonna do some serious writing. I believed it too.
In reality I had spent the following six years saying yes. Saying yes to everyone else. I mean, some of those yes’ lead to truly great things and unforgettable experiences, but I’m pretty sure I could have lived a fulfilling and comfortable life without taking on everything I could squeeze into my diary.
Six months ago the head honcho himself, Mr Donald Shaw, phoned me.
Celtic Connections are commissioning a few people to write some music or create some sort of new collaboration. Would you like to be one of them?
I did what I do best. I said yes.
The following six months came with the same highs and lows as before and a lot of creative time shoe-horned between touring, recording and teaching commitments, but once again I found myself on a great stage surrounded by incredible musicians turning my hard work into some really cool sounds. It was hard work but I had done it. Milestone was born.
I’m really proud of this new music. The project needs work, it needs refined, but it’s a statement of who I am. This is me.
I’m excited to do more with it.
I’ve heard it said by so many that it sounds trite, but I’m incredibly grateful for the support of Donald and Celtic Connections. If I hadn’t been asked to do it I’m fairly sure I’d still be talking about a follow up to Infinite Reflections without much to show for it. But how do I change this? Why is it that I need someone else asking for the goods before I’ll prioritise my music before everyone else’s? Why do I need that looming deadline before I’ll grant myself the time to invest in me. And how do I keep that momentum up?
7 years it took me to create something new. That’s almost how long the Beatles were around for, from Please Please Me to Let it Be. (I’m always amazed by how much they evolved over such a short space of time). I’m not asking myself to release three albums a year. But I would like to do better than one every seven.
In order to do that I need to make more time for writing.
To do that I need to learn how to say no. But not to me.
To me, I need to say yes.
Duncan Lyall launched his new project Milestone at Celtic Connections 2019.
An unclassifiable mix of folk, electronica and funk, the band features Jarlath Henderson, Patsy Reid, Lori Watson, Angus Lyon, Chas MacKenzie and Stuart Brown.
It’s a really scary thing moving to a new place, especially when you didn’t study there and don’t have many connections. You get the feeling you’re starting from scratch and it can be overwhelming and potentially a bit lonely being ‘the new one’. This is basically what I felt when I moved to London.
I was reluctant at first, scared to lose my identity as a Trad singer, and scared to lose connections. It wasn’t easy, but new experiences rarely are. The thing is, I’ve probably made more connections than ever before and I’ve been better than expected at keeping in touch with people since making the move. The reason probably being that I was out of my comfort zone, which gave me that sink or swim feeling, and constantly made me think of the old chestnut – distance makes the heart grow fonder.
London is a cool and interesting place. I’m constantly finding different and amazing locations and communities every time I leave the front door behind. But I instantly became aware that there was a lack of Scottish Culture and Tradition in London – which amazed me. I saw this as an opportunity to create a cultural hub in the city. I reached out to Anna MacDonald (singer, harpist, co-founder of Play for Progress and general business witch), also living in London, and quickly found that we shared the same opinions and interests of keeping Scottish traditional music, language, art and culture alive in London. Very soon after, we created The Association of Exiled Scots. We formed the company to create a community away from home for ‘Exiled Scots’ the world over. Our mission is to promote Scottish Music, Language, Arts and Culture, as well as nurture Scottish talent by providing a platform for performances, exhibitions and bespoke in-conversation events.
There are some wonderful organisations in London that are connected to Scottish Culture, such as Còisir Lunnainn (London Gaelic Choir), Comunn Gàidhlig Lunnainn (The Gaelic Society of London), Scotland House and London Scottish House, along with some others. But the main aim of The Association of Exiled Scots is to be inclusive and join the London Scottish diaspora together to create that feeling you get when you’re at the song session at Duke’s bar with everyone singing The Parting Glass at the end of the night.
From being in a new place, I’ve found the confidence to go out and create work while still enjoying myself. That’s one of the reasons I started the function band Owl Weekend. My favourite line up being vocals, kit and brass (trumpet, alto sax, trombone and tuba) because why not?! Creating opportunities like this for myself seems to have given me the confidence to do more, such as perform more of my own material and play an instrument on stage for the first time in a long time.
I’m still very much connected to Glasgow and my home in the village of Cardross. I come home at least once a month to attend the Atomic Piseag rehearsal in Oban and to work on a wonderful Gaelic Song collection with Kenna Campbell. I’ve also been guest lecturing at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland with Alistair Paterson, which is where I learned so much about what I do and it’s lovely to come full circle and see others who are inspired to learn more about their craft. I’ll also be touring with Glasgow based band Fourth Moon in 2020. But right now, I’m recording, filming and performing new music and working towards an EP and full album of my own material. Which is actually something I’ve never really done as I’ve always enjoyed the camaraderie that comes with working within a band.
I feel I have a new found confidence that comes hand in hand with a new place, I no longer feel worried about mixing my own songs, with Gaelic and traditional songs, because music is music and merging styles and influences is ultimately what makes for an amazing, inspiring and individual performer.
Without going all Wizard of Oz Dorothy on you, there really is no place like home and it’s been a long time inspiration for me. I’ll always be flying the Cardross/Helensburgh/Glasgow flag, but a change of place has shifted my perspective slightly and opened up my mind creatively to new opportunities.
So I think all in all what I’m trying to say is, it’s ok to be scared and hesitant about change, but don’t hold back in expressing yourself as an individual and a performer, and don’t wait for a new place or time to find the confidence, just go for it. If you feel you need a change of scenery or want to try a new place, just try it.
In all honesty this blog has taken me weeks to get round to. I’ve changed my mind so often about what to write. Fortunately, the other night I watched a TV programme about Billy Connolly called ‘Made In Scotland’. This gave me the idea that I should write about ‘Inspiration’……’Being inspired’………..
Now, I’ve never been a big fan of Billy Connolly. I never really watched his comedy shows. I’m not sure why this was? I was never really into watching comedians. I didn’t think of Billy Connolly as any more than a guy who stands up on stage and shouts at an audience for 3 hours. This doesn’t really matter. I’m not writing this about how I now appreciate how funny this guy is, or even how much he has become a cultural icon. I’m writing this because when I watched this programme I was moved and inspired. I was inspired by how this guy, a regular guy like most of us, pursued his dreams, how he was inspired by his upbringing in Glasgow, his environment and the everyday people that surrounded him. I was moved by the way he perceives life, and also where he is now at the other end of his life. His words were…….”There is no denying it, I am 75, I have got Parkinson’s and I am at the wrong end of the telescope of life, I am at the point where the yesteryears mean more than the yesterdays”………”I’m 75, I’m near the end, I’m a damn sight nearer the end than I am the beginning but it doesn’t frighten me, it’s an adventure and it is quite interesting to see myself slipping away.” I found this outlook to be poetic and profound. Throughout the programme he shows a genuine appreciation for all the places and people that he has experienced on his journey. The programme shows Billy visiting various different artists of different walks of life and different trades. His enthusiasm for their talents and their expression of life is beautiful. He has a real deep interest in their humanity and how they express themselves through their art. What inspired me was his appreciation and respect for others, his interest in others and his willingness to share his talents, stories and experiences. We should show interest in others, respect what others have to offer, be intrigued by what’s happening around us. Billy reminded me to pursue inspiration.
There is an incredible depth and beauty in being inspired. It is a moving experience to see, or hear something that really resonates inside. This is a feeling that we should be seeking out on a daily basis. It’s the spark of creativity, the fire that drives us to put everything into what we do. We should always be looking to others, always learning, always finding inspiration in the folk that have come before us, the different walks of life, the diversity in humanity, the places and the people. We are so lucky to live in Scotland and to be submerged in a scene of such rich tradition, culture and talent. We are, on a daily basis, surrounded by inspiring people. We really don’t have to look far!! I’ve been very fortunate over the years to have been able to play music on and off stage with my musical heroes, people that I have looked up to from a young age. I was lucky enough to have been taught and influenced by my greatest musical hero, Gordon Duncan. Gordon was someone that I looked up to and that I aspired to be like. I remember the first time I heard his album, ‘Just for Seamus’. He had given me a copy on cassette. I listened to it in the car on the way back home from pipe band practise. This is the first time I had ever experienced the feeling of being profoundly inspired by music. It was like nothing that I’d ever heard before. This moment shaped the way that I moved forward with my own music. From then on Gordon shared his music and experiences with a few of us, myself and Ross Ainslie in particular. He gave us our first ever experience of going away on tour as “professional” musicians (aged about 15?), or so we thought at the time. It was a rocky experience to say the least but it gave us our first taste of being on the road and playing some big festivals. We spent most of the trip avoiding catastrophes, but it was exciting and new. I knew then that this was how I wanted to proceed. This was the kind of journey that I wanted to set out on, experiencing the world, meeting interesting people and sharing music. Gordon was an inspiration not only as a musician, but as a human. He was incredibly humble and quite a shy, unassuming guy. He worked as a bin man in Pitlochry and like Billy, took great interest in his surroundings and the everyday folk that he met on his rounds.
Through Gordon, I was also introduced to the music of another of my heroes, Duncan Chisholm. Gordon was, at one time, the piper in a band called Wolfstone, in my mind, the greatest Celtic rock band that ever existed……but we don’t need to get into that!!! Duncan is one of the founder members of Wolfstone and an incredible musician in his own right. He has a musical style that is incredibly moving and poignant. He paints pictures with every note that emanates from his fiddle. I have been very fortunate to have had the honour of playing gigs with Duncan’s band over the last few years. I’ve found great inspiration in the descriptive nature of his music, the way he tells a story, how he gives you a sense of place and atmosphere. For me, this is what great music is all about. Creating a feeling, allowing the listener to be put in that place along side you. Duncan is a true master of his craft. There is a commonality shared by these folk and it’s not the fact that they are all musicians, or artists of sorts. It’s their incredible human nature. It’s the intrigue, the sharing, the respect, the appreciation, their outlook on the ever changing world. These are the things that inspire me.
So this blog is a wee rant…….a reminder………Go out and be inspired!
Playing Gigs to Make Money to Buy Strings to Do More Gigs to Break More Strings – by Luc McNally
My name is Luc, I play the guitar and bouzouki, and the guitar-bouzouki, as well as singing. I grew up in Dipton, an ex-industrial village in County Durham, and lived in Newcastle for a year but I’ve been in Glasgow for 6 years now. I really, really love music.
I’m writing this from the back of a van on the Autobahn. I’m 6 gigs into a 19-long stretch in Germany with the ‘Young Scots Trad Awards Winner Tour’ (disclaimer: I haven’t ever won a Trad Award) with Paddy Callaghan, Charlie Stewart and Iona Fyfe; which is a pretty lovely band to be put into!
Celtic Connections, which was pretty full on as always, finished a day before this tour began so my guitar and I are both weary in body but fairly invigorated in general. I’ll be turning 25 tomorrow (the 13th), and so far, my life as a musician has mostly resembled this situation, albeit with different combinations of people and not usually for such a long stretch of time!
I’ll start by describing the nature of these gigs. Here’s a rundown of the format:
Charlie (15 mins)
We had a setlist at the beginning but that soon got discarded. Charlie and I have played together so much over the last 5/6 years that we can practically throw together a set on the spot, consisting of some tunes and songs as set pieces, mostly held together by some improvised bits and pieces and general messing about. We’re not too good at hiding our slight dishevelment and disorganisation but quite often audiences seem to enjoy this.
Iona (15 mins)
Iona has an incredible voice. Again, I’m very comfortable with her material because of the last 2/3 years of gigging so for this segment I get to close my eyes and attempt to complement some poetic and sweet ‘sangs’. Sometimes I forget I’m meant to sing backing vocals too and have to scrabble around for my vocal mic when I come out of the trance.
Paddy (15 mins)
Polkas, slides, a hymn, loads of reels. In other words, mega fun. As well as being an incredible button box player (I used to try to play this instrument, but Paddy tends to put my knowledge of it into STARK RELIEF) he builds the best rapport with any audience, tailoring his patter to the situation and never failing to get a laugh. Him, with Adam Brown on the guitar, playing tunes was one of my first memorable Glasgow experiences so this segment of the show is a buzz for me!
THE REST OF THE SHOW
A mixture of the above, also very good craic. I am exhausted by the end and my guitar is too. <Internal monologue> I hope Charlie and I sold enough CDs to pay for the pack of strings I just destroyed.
All in all, doing what we love for decent pay. The other 21 hours of the day are spent in the aforementioned van, in various bars, and in whatever room I end up in, trying to write music. I think I suit this way of life alright, but I do miss being able to go walking about whenever I want, so I do that whenever I can.
Aside from what I’m doing at this very moment, I thought I’d give you an impression of what my day-to-day looks like as well. I do lots of playing when I’m at home, as well as locking myself in my room with various instruments, mics and a laptop and pretending I know what I’m doing with recording and mixing. That’s a work in progress.
My bread and butter, though, is sessions. I tend to host 3-5 of them a week and if I’m bored or sleepless – happens a lot – I’ll go to others to listen or join in. You’re spoilt for choice in Glasgow, with some of the best tune players and backers out and about all the time. A text around or a glance at social media tends to reveal who is where and what they’re playing. And if there’s any pints left on the drinks tab. This, more than anything, has been my education in music; it feels a bit like the coalface for new tunes and songs. The ones that people don’t get sick of stick around and become part of the tradition. That’s the thing that sets trad music apart from other forms of it to me. Running concurrently with the trad sessions is a thriving jazz scene, which for me is fascinating having no education or ability with that discipline. If the trad session is full or you’re a bit sick of tunes, or like me you want to learn something, you can go to a ton of different places to hear some of the best young improvisers absolutely blowing the mind of anyone who’ll listen. What a place Glasgow is man.
I don’t really know what I was trying to say with this blog. I don’t really have any complaints about how it’s all going, and maybe I’ve just described a segment of my life, but I hope some of it was interesting to you anyway. I’m always up for meeting and playing with new people so if anyone wants a tune or a pint or a general chat, I’m around. Maybe in one of the sessions or a park. Cheers to Tina Rees for asking me to write this – it’s helped pass a fairly interminable car journey.
I’m not very savvy with formatting but I’ve included a link to my Facebook and Instagram pages, where I tend to put up videos of music stuff as regularly as I can as well as news about gigs and that. Well done if you made it this far down the page. Love yas.
Bogha-frois: Traditional Music Is For All Of Us – By Pedro Cameron
As I write this, I am still reeling from one of the best nights of music I have ever been involved in. The past Sunday (February 3rd), the last night of Celtic Connections, the fruits of 9 months of labour came into being.
I am a fiddle player, a singer-songwriter (under the moniker Man of the Minch), and the organiser of a traditional music project called “Bogha-frois” (the Gaelic world for rainbow), which originated as a workshop programme which aimed to create new music based on the experiences of its participants, all of whom belong somewhere within the wide spectrum of the LGBT+ community.
Supported by Creative Scotland and Outspoken Arts Scotland, the project aims to tell the stories of the LGBT+ community in the folk tradition. We brought together a group of folk and traditional musicians who identify as part of the community and held 3 days of workshops at the Scottish Storytelling Centre – led by myself, Rachel Sermanni, fiddler Laura Wilkie, singer Josie Duncan, accordionist Grant McFarlane and multi-instrumentalist Marit Falt.
Over the three days, something magical happened. The musicians involved were wonderfully talented, warm, fascinating people – each with their own unique perspectives. We turned poems about topics as far ranging as protest and dating apps into beautiful, epic songs in both English and Gaelic. We combined Scandinavian, power-ballad-like fiddle tunes with songs about newfound freedom. We wrote songs about the walls we build around ourselves, and the toxic messages purveyed by Piers Morgan.
A little context. I have been playing fiddle on the outskirts of the folk scene for years, and as part of the Glasgow-based Americana outfit The Dirty Beggars. I have always felt that my sexuality was something to hide in the scene. I have played countless gigs and jam sessions where I have consciously tried to suppress any signs of stereotypically “gay” behaviour. Perhaps this is my own prejudice on what I perceive the folk audience to be. I have always felt alone – that my love for the Scottish music tradition was at odds with my sexuality.
Of late, I have watched with great admiration the fight for gender equality in folk pioneered by the BIT Collective and the Women in Trad movement. However – initially I viewed this as a barrier. If women are still fighting for equality in the scene, what hope do we have in the LGBT+ community? That despondency quickly turned to determination. I participated in the #womenintrad conversation held on Twitter by Hands Up For Trad and brought up my thoughts on this. Do we fight for one thing at time? Women in Trad first, then the LGBT+ community? Someone responded that it was important that the ladder is not brought up behind them and I suddenly felt galvanized. I knew I had to do something and there must be more people that felt like me.
Traditional music has progressed sonically in leaps and bounds in recent years with bands like Niteworks, Inyal and Kinnaris Quintet bringing the sound solidly into the 21stCentury. It’s time to bring attitudes with it.
Fast forward to the 3rdof February. Thanks to the support of the festival, we were able to bring the music created at the workshops, as well as host of other traditional music stars to the Strathclyde Suite as part of Celtic Connections. As well as the participants of the workshops and its leaders, we had stellar performances from Mischa MacPherson, Kim Carnie, Anna Massie, Donald Grant, Eric Linklater, Nic Gareiss, Joseph Peach, Alistair Iain Paterson and Gillian Fleetwood. We played songs about love – historical and present day. I have never felt such love and community on stage (from both fellow musicians and the audience) in all my years of playing traditional music. I have received messages from other musicians who no longer feel afraid to be themselves – and feel ready to come out to the community, both traditional music and LGBT+.
I heard recently from the Michigan born dancer Nic Gareiss that he was once told that there were “no gays in Scottish Folk Music”. This couldn’t be more wrong. Not only are the a great many – they are some of the absolute best musicians on the scene.
I always felt like an outsider in the folk scene, it’s both ironic and beautiful that it is this, the rainbow, which has helped me and many other musicians find their place.
Here’s to more of Bogha-frois. It’s not my project anymore. It’s for all of us, just as folk music is.
My name is Maeve Mackinnon and I’m a contemporary Gaelic singer from Glasgow. I’ve always had a love of fitness, and over the last 12 years of gigging I’ve made fitness a part of my daily routine, regardless of where I am in the world. As well as teaching, I’ve been lucky to tour nationally and internationally with my own solo project for the past 12 years and released three solo albums along the way. In early 2015 I started touring with the amazing dance show, The Stepcrew, and these days I find myself on the road in the USA and Canada with those guys about 5 times a year. I decided somewhere along the way that no matter which timezone I was in, lack of facilities, adverse weather conditions or time of day, it’s possible to get a bit of exercise into your daily routine.
When I was starting out in this game I knew nothing about self-care and I made a number of mistakes, including having a poor diet and existing purely on alternating adrenaline and anxiety. These sorts of habits would invariably lead to the body being deprived of proper nutrition, depleted adrenaline and healthy brain chemistry, resulting in “downer” spells. Although I always kept my “oar in” with exercise, I got back into it in a big way when my father was diagnosed with cancer for the first time, and I credit exercise with getting me through the tougher times in my life. Hopefully my sharing what works for me might resonate and help other musicians or touring artists to maintain a sense of balance and head space in their working schedules.
When you’re touring you need to create a routine that works for you, really in order to maintain some form of consistency in often hectic travel or gig days. If you don’t create routine there’s a danger of developing addictions or other mental health problems. I’ve not always had the best relationship with exercise or food myself, but it’s a work in progress.
It’s very difficult to control what you eat when you’re on the road and prior to a tour I tend to get a bit anxious about this. I have IBS and I have to be very careful about what I consume as certain foods can trigger a bad reaction. The biggest traps I’d say are service stations when on the road (see Mohsen Amini’s “health” blog for reference), and I used to be bad for ordering fried food and wine from restaurants after a gig and then wonder why my dresses didn’t fit me a couple of weeks into a tour, even with exercise. Due to all the additives found in food (more on this later), I’d massively recommend eating and drinking freshly–made food all the way. Your system will thank you for it, especially if you’re jet-lagged and tired.
Let’s be frank about this. Sometimes the idea of a work out is the last thing you want to do. I’m thinking of my own experiences, for example of arriving in San Francisco after a sleep-deprived 10 hour flight having sat behind a screaming child the whole way. But here’s what I do know. You never ever regret having done a work-out. I have gotten through some tough and not-so tough times in my life by relying on the endorphines released by exercise.
Here are 6 tips that regularly get me through touring:
1. Check the facilities
Before going on tour, check your “tour book” or schedule to find out what hotels you’ll be staying in, and google them. In the USA most hotels have pools and some have a gym, so I always make sure to pack my runners, gym gear and a swimsuit. If the hotel doesn’t have any exercise facilities for example if you’re gigging in mainland Europe, make sure to take your trainers anyway, and a fleece, depending on the weather, so you can at the very least have a half hour walk or jog.
2. Plan your day
Find a way to fit exercise into your day. There have been times on tour I’ve gone for a swim at 11pm, or gotten up that wee bit earlier to fit in a half hour work out on a travel day. I tour with professional dancers who practice Yoga in their down time and there’s also an app you can download called the 15 Minute Workout. No matter how jet-lagged you are, you won’t regret having done this. And if it’s after a show, you can always join everybody in the bar afterwards and feel like you’ve earned your glass of wine!
3. Medical kit
I’ve been caught out a few times without basic medicines when I’ve been on the road. I was once bitten by a large spider during an outdoor gig at Winnipeg Folk Festival. My ankle swelled up like a balloon, I had no antihistamines on me and the boys in my band kindly referred to my“cankle”. After that I learned to pack a wee emergency kit of medicine. This includes paracetamol, Voltarol gel, a wee throat spray and various vitamins and supplements. I’m very aware that vitamins and supplements can be a controversial area and fall into the alternative medicine bracket for some people. My Dad was a GP with a degree in sports medicine and nutrition. He was vehemently against taking alternative medicine as well as vitamins and supplements as he believed there was no scientific basis to their effectiveness. However I’m a wee bit superstitious about some things so I continue to take things like Omega oils and Vitamin C just in case!
4. Hotel breakfasts
I’m not a breakfast person, but I force myself to eat it when I’m on tour. If we’re leaving the hotel at a reasonable hour to do a travel day, I normally pack the night before, check what time breakfast is on until, do a work-out or a swim earlier in the morning and grab some toast and a coffee on my way out the door. It’s a good wee money-saving trick and means you’re not ravenous with hunger twenty minutes into a 6 hour journey. For the horribly early starts I usually buy and stash a multipack of cereal bars. There’s nothing worse than leaving the hotel at 5am and there’s no breakfast available.
5. Avoid corn syrup
I am allergic to corn and the single worst ingredient I have discovered touring in the States is corn syrup. It is terrible for you and appears in absolutely everything processed in America; all snacks, most yoghurts, breakfast cereals and most carbonated drinks including Diet Coke. The use of corn syrup in foods came about from a surplus of American corn starch production, and it’s got sort of an all-purpose useage as a sweetner and savoury additive too. Unfortunately in the US most venue riders contain mainly corn-syrup products, so check the label and avoid it if at all possible. Check out this article for more information: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/20-foods-with-high-fructose-corn-syrup#section5
6. Adjusting time-zones
A few years ago I listened to a podcast by the musician Janek Gwizdala featuring the celebrated musician- turned nutrition and fitness expert Jeff Rothschild. It has absolutely changed the way I think about nutrition and particularly the importance of adhering to your circadian rhythm.
What I know works for me when adjusting timezones is to stay up as late as you can on the day you arrive, try and get some exercise, eat only when you feel hungry and don’t go to bed until after dinner. Otherwise your body has no idea what time-zone its in, you’ll be waking up at weird times of the night and feel generally spaced out and useless.
The Last Ship: from slip jigs to the slipway, a folky’s voyage into commercial touring theatre – by Sally Simpson
This time last year I was asked if I’d be interested in being the fiddle player in the on-stage band for The Last Ship, a touring musical with songs written by Sting. The Last Ship tells the story of a shipbuilding community in Wallsend, Newcastle, and the impact of the impending closure of the shipyards. The central love story follows Gideon, a sailor newly returned from many years at sea, who is less than warmly welcomed back by feisty childhood sweetheart and pub landlady Meg, as he gets to know his (SURPRISE!) daughter. It looks at a community led by a hardy yet caring foreman and his indomitable wife, struggling to know what to do when their reason for being there is taken away. To quote the show ‘it’s what we do – we build ships’. Musically, it’s Sting crossed with English folk (thanks to Kathryn and Peter Tickell’s involvement in prior developments of the show), all beautifully orchestrated by Rob Mathes – a name you won’t know but should. Folk music in theatre has been an interest of mine since living in Sweden, where there’s a lot of crossover between the two, so this was pretty much the most attractive job offer that could possibly have dropped into my inbox on a cold January day. I say cold, I was using the folk-musician’s work-shy winter to wave farewell to my savings and was backpacking in New Zealand…
My first feeling in the face of a wonderful opportunity is panic. Sad, I know. But my head immediately filled with all the what ifs. What if I couldn’t dep out my regular teaching (two days a week)? Would it be worth losing it for? What if they picked someone else? What if my folky fingerwork wasn’t good enough for playing MT (musical theatre) scores and they sent me home packing after the first call? Not least, what would my bandmates back in Glasgow say, and could I get out of prior commitments? It’s a pretty big deal for an up and coming band who’re trying to make a name for themselves if one band member ups sticks and ditches you for a four-month tour. So at 5am NZ time I phoned my parents, because no matter how old you are, Mum has the answer. The answer turned out to be that I was being ridiculous and it’d all be fine. Always worth checking…
So, teaching depped out (many thanks due), bandmates spoken to (thank you HEISK, Westward the Light) and prior commitments sorted, I packed my giant yellow suitcase and dragged it through the dregs of the Beast from the East to head to Newcastle for a couple of days’ rehearsal, a week of previews and then four weeks of shows, followed by three months touring the UK. And beyond that, I was diving headlong into the unknown. It struck me as I sat on the train south that the only time I’d headed into a situation I had less idea about was moving to Sweden on exchange. I knew almost nobody, had no idea about the music, and didn’t quite know how I’d ended up there. At least this time round I spoke the language. Well, ish. What immediately ensued was a crazy few days of rehearsals and the only time I’ve ever seen an entire pile of sheetmusic thrown in the air – satisfyingly dramatic. And then before we knew it, it was preview time.
A bit of background on the production; it featured a six-piece band comprising of keys (also our Lord and Master, the wonderful Richard John MD), drums, double bass, guitar, melodeon and fiddle. I felt like I’d won a competition to be in this situation, but as well as being fantastic musicians my bandmates were also as kind and good humoured as I could possibly have hoped for- and God knows they would need that for four months in my company! The music itself couldn’t have been much more of a joy to play. Folky enough that I wasn’t fighting back the grace-notes and could tap my foot freely, technically demanding enough that I could really get my teeth into it and challenge myself. So, as much as imposter syndrome had set in, it was being kept at bay. The band were on-stage for the production, intermittently visible behind moving gauzes forming the backdrop to the set. We were occasionally in the pit when stages in other venues were too small for us, and the lowest moment was hit when we found ourselves in a sort of curtain-based tent opposite the quick change area backstage in a heatwave. Toasty. Visually the show was stunning, with the ever changing industrial backdrop and shifting interior sets created by projections by 59 Productions, known for their work on the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. I’ve only ever seen it from behind the gauze it was projected onto, but even then it was incredible- check out the production shots here http://59productions.co.uk/project/the-last-ship/! There was a (brilliant) cast of around 18, whom I wish I had the word count to introduce individually, some of whom doubled up as instrumentalists for a few numbers. Then there’s the crew on top of that – a hefty number of folk all in all!
Thus followed four brilliant weeks of shows in Newcastle, opening night excitement, a few (…) visits to Lady Grey’s on Shakespeare St, more cheesy chips than I care to admit to, a green room birthday picnic, and many lovely stairway jam sessions. Sting (The Gaffer) was around for much of our Newcastle run (and would join us roughly once a week throughout the tour), and it was clear how much the show means to him. It’s hugely personal. He’d sit at the edge of the band listening throughout the night, and after joining the cast for the curtain call he’d immediately come back and make changes/ suggestions to the scores. It was a privilege to watch him and Rob Mathes at work, total musical greats.
I remember the high of getting through our first public performance – there were numbers the band had never rehearsed and it was proper squeaky bum time (for me in any case). The audiences in Newcastle couldn’t have been more supportive. The show gets quite political, dealing with a story that whilst fictional, is based on stories that are true for many people in shipyard towns – or indeed anywhere where the industry has moved out and left a gaping vacuum where people used to have purpose and identified themselves by their work. Seeing men who’d never been to the theatre before bawling their eyes out at the show was so moving and affirming. Even after four months, I ended each show with goosebumps and often tears in my eyes. This is a story that matters to people, and seems to motivate change and compassion. Our director, Lorne Campbell of Northern Stage, said that he’d never had so many letters about one production, including from audience members saying they’d been motivated to go out and do good in their communities on leaving, giving to food banks and the likes. I know that making music makes a difference to lives, but it can be hard to feel you’re making a tangible difference at times. It was great to be part of a creative endeavour in which you can see that change or effect immediately.
On the final night of our sold-out run in Newcastle, we were playing through the pre-show music with the actors casually moseying onto stage and having a bit of interaction with the audience when my E string snapped. I smugly patted myself on the back for ensuring I knew where I was putting my spares when I’d packed my dressing room bag. Off I went, to find I had a G, D and an A. No E. The show was now late starting, the auditorium was packed and it was the first time in a couple of weeks that Sting had been in to see it, and he and Trudie were with high-profile friends in the audience. Panic set in. The (long-suffering) Company Manager calmly said we needed to start, I gabbled something about having put out a call for help on Facebook, thrust my phone at him and went to start the show with 3 strings. I managed to muddle through the opening numbers switching octaves or using positions to get round the missing string, but the seventh number in the show involved a lot of high position work and would be impossible to deliver convincingly with three quarters of an instrument. I could’ve kissed the stage manager as he crept onstage half an hour into the show with a violin, but he’s probably very glad I didn’t. Whilst I sat on-stage playing in a state of panic, the folkies of Newcastle had been on the case via Facebook, and I shall be eternally grateful for the many many offers I got, and to Freya Rae who jumped straight in her car and dropped a fiddle at stage door for me. Nobody could believe it’d worked out. Here’s to the Folk community, Freya, and Facebook! Incidentally, Sting promised he’d buy me a spare fiddle that evening which never materialised, must follow that up…
It’s funny how quickly you get into a sort of routine. In my everyday life there’s very little routine, as much as I try to enforce some. I teach two days a week and the rest of my time is spread between bits of freelance work – bands, gigging, ceilidhs, whatever comes my way. And whilst it’s a lovely jumble of things and the idea of a 9-5 style routine scares me, there was something I loved about getting into this theatre based routine. The show goes up at the same time each night, a few matinees a week, there’s the cast warmup, half hour call, quarter call, five minutes and then beginners, and then you play the same content as the day before, although it often ends up more eventful than intended, and everyone on stage tries to keep it fresh. In-between times you sleep in, try (and fail) to stay on top of other work and friendships ‘back home’, buy spare strings, do meal prep, buy more spare strings, hang out with the cast baby (that’s right, two of our company brought their 6-month old bundle of absolute joy on tour- BEST. HUMAN.EVER.), work out (or watch Netflix) or try (and again, fail) to win the love of little miss Minnie, our smallest company member at around 20cm tall. She’s a mini dachshund, who despite our dreaming never made it into the show, but followed her actor-human around devotedly when he was off-stage. So, with all this routine, it felt funny to be upping sticks and moving on to our next venue. Newcastle had spoilt us. However, this is the sort of routine that you can take with you on tour. The constants in your life stop being about home, or seeing friends or family, they’re more about the friendships you forge within the company, and your day is scheduled round the constant of the show. You learn to make yourself at home in a new theatre pretty quickly. With the exception of a theatre mid-tour where the band were in the pit and a mouse ran from under the MDs platform towards the end of the show. I did the rest of the show nervously anticipating the snap of one of the many mousetraps…
We toured on a weekly basis, doing 8 shows a week Monday to Saturday. Sunday is your day off, but it’s not really, because it’s travel day. We docked at Newcastle, Liverpool, Birmingham, Northampton, Leeds, Nottingham, Cardiff, Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow, York and Salford. As organising our own accommodation was our responsibility, Theatre Digs Booker became my best friend. It’s a sort of Air BnB for theatre workers, and the variety of people who’ve decided to open their homes to us flakey creatives is really interesting. I lucked out with my bookings and stayed in a wide variety of lovely homes with great hosts. Examples include an Archdeacon and his wife in their big manse, a young couple and their greyhound Zelda who welcomed me into their terraced house in Cardiff bay, and a flat in Leeds that seemed to have been untouched since the 1970s. Other cast members weren’t so lucky, but everyone loves a good digs horror story. Another bonus of touring is that it offers you the chance to see all those friends whose birthday drinks or visits home you miss, and you can catch up with the family you only see at Christmas. Barely a week went by that I wasn’t touched by the effort friends and family went to to visit me or the show in a city near them, go for lunch, bring care packages, open their home to me or bring a crowd to see the show. It’s a privilege to be able to see family and friends due to work, especially when that work so often prevents you making it to major events too. As with most touring, or even more generally life in the arts, when it’s good it’s really good and the bonuses are brilliant (experiential not monetary!), but you have to make the most of them as the troughs can be as low as the peaks are high.
It was tough adjusting to new audiences after the brilliantly enthusiastic reception we’d had in Newcastle and Liverpool. Whilst I believe the show is pertinent everywhere, it’s not as personal further afield, and doesn’t have the jazz hands and sequins some people might expect from a musical – there’s a lot more to MT than clichés. It’s very very human. Audiences were still great, but we’d learnt to feed off our crowds up north, and I think for me in any case, it’d become part of how I validated what I was doing. Some venues were known for having audiences who would be pretty quiet and you’d never in a million years get a standing ovation – you’d want to check them for a pulse but they’d be singing the show’s praises on the way out regardless.
It’s hard to know what to say about the whole experience (‘Can’t be that hard Sally’, I hear you say, ‘you’ve droned on about it for 1903 words and counting, and your friends haven’t been able to shut you up for months’. Fair point.). Commercial touring theatre is such a different world from folk clubs, ceilidhs and festivals, and I’m not sure that this show was necessarily representative of it anyway. I’m told it’s rare for a company to be as close as we were, or to feel as passionate about the show as we did. Maybe every company says that. Ask another shipmate and they’d probably give you a very different account of it all. But I don’t know. I know I was partly blinded by my naïve excitement at being part of it all, but I definitely feel like it was something special. Our voyage ended back in July, but The Last Ship is setting sail for Toronto very shortly, with a Canadian band and quite a few cast changes. I’m glad it’s got plenty of wind in its sails, and I’m excited to see where it goes from there, albeit sad to be waving it off from the shoreline.
It’s clichéd I know, but I’ll end with a list of things I think I learnt from the show, before this blog entry becomes as long as the tour itself.
So many of us have imposter syndrome. It’s probably what keeps you working to be better, but if you listen to it enough to believe that you really are unworthy of what you’re doing it’ll paralyse you.
When you’re seeing the same people every day, especially if they’re people who didn’t know you a month ago, it’s important to make time for yourself amidst all the excitement and chaos, and to check in with friends and family back home. If you define yourself by the people you’re around it’s difficult when the contract ends and you’re not quite sure what your constants are any more. But then, it’s hard to know how to define yourself if not by the people you spend time with and the work you do, especially when you’re not home. Oops, I’ve gone philosophical.
The kindness of strangers can be a beautiful thing
Theatre really can do justice to complicated social issues and bring people together
Some audiences are quiet. Doesn’t mean they hate you.
Ups and downs are par for the course.
Befriend the crew. Lighting, wardrobe, sound, stage management. They work hard, they make you look/sound good, or more importantly, keep you safe, and they don’t get to take a bow.
Always ALWAYS carry a spare E string.
So here’s to all the cast, band and crew of The Last Ship 2018, and to those making the onward voyage to North America. Fair winds and following seas.
TRACS (Traditional Arts & Culture Scotland SC043009) brings together the Traditional Music Forum (SC042867), the Scottish Storytelling Forum (SC020891) and the Traditional Dance Forum of Scotland (SC045085). TRACS is based at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, which is a partnership project between the Storytelling Forum and The Church of Scotland (SC011353).