Even amid the wealth of gifted musicians thronging today’s Scottish folk scene, singer Maeve Mackinnon stands out as an exceptional young talent. With a repertoire spanning Gaelic and English-language material, both traditional and contemporary, she’s won acclaim equally for the eloquent emotional connection she forges with every song, communicated in a bewitchingly honeyed, husky yet vibrantly earthy voice, and for her music’s dynamic interplay of boldness and sensitivity.
After winning major praise for her 2007 debut album Don’t Sing Love Songs – culminating in her winning Up and Coming Artist of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards, and a prestigious Classic Album show at Celtic Connections 2008 – she released the eagerly-awaited follow-up, Once Upon an Olive Branch, garnering four and five star reviews and lucrative tours abroad.
This year brings new promise, as she begins work on her hotly-anticipated third solo album. Album no.3 is based on the themes of work and exile, predominantly in Gaelic.
“Gaelic waulking songs have always been my big love. I’ve been very lucky to have had access to some great tradition bearers over the years as well as places like the School of Scottish Studies, and their online archive Tobar an Dualchais. The idea behind the new album is really to go back to where it all started for me with the love of these songs. The rhythms and melodies in Gaelic work songs have an indigenous purity to them and I recognise the same patterns when I listen to other indigenous music, particularly Native American songs and slave songs. The stories, melodies and rhythms convey so much- there’s darkness, there’s humour, battle, romance and tragedy. And no matter if you speak Gaelic or not, I think people can hear that in these songs”.
“A STUNNING VOICE. . . SURELY DESTINED FOR GREATNESS” (THE HERALD)
Growing up, singing was an integral part of the domestic fabric – “I just sang all the time, around the house when I was a wee girl: you couldn’t shut me up” – a pastime which, for Maeve, gradually acquired a deeper significance during regular family holidays on the Hebridean island of Jura, home to just a couple of hundred souls. “Mum and Dad had been going there since before I was born, and it was a place that stirred up a lot in me,” she says. “I was always quite shy and self-conscious about singing in front of other people, but at ceilidhs in people’s houses on Jura they’d always persuade me to do a song, gave me loads of encouragement, which really helped bring me out of my shell.”
It was also on Jura that Maeve was first inspired by Gaelic song, partly from listening to a friend’s grandfather, the island’s last surviving native Gaelic speaker, and partly through hearing Capercaillie’s 1992 hit ‘Còisich A Ruin’ – the first Gaelic song to reach the UK Top 40 – on the radio there the summer she turned 11. “I remember it really vividly,” she says of the latter. “I was just completely blown away: I’d never heard anything like it, though I knew it was Gaelic – and I knew I wanted to hear more.
“Dad’s father was from Skye, so there had been Gaelic speakers in his family, but his dad was of the generation who were discouraged from using it. Mainly I just loved the songs and the sound of the language, but looking back now, given how Gaelic seemed very much in decline at that point, I think the underdog element was also part of the appeal – not that it became a ‘cause’ or anything, but it kind of chimed with all the politics stuff at home.”
She began learning the language aged 17, and just a couple of years later – despite her complete lack of formal music qualifications – won a place on the Scottish Music degree course at Glasgow’s Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), majoring in Gaelic song. After graduating in 2004, she gained a year’s scholarship to continue her studies at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the pioneering Gaelic college in Skye. She was taught at the RSAMD by two of Gaeldom’s most highly esteemed singers, Kenna Campbell, of renowned Skye dynasty the Campbells of Greepe, and South Uist’s Mairi MacInnes. “They certainly put me through my paces,” Maeve says appreciatively. “It was a really productive time for me, not just for my singing, but my confidence as well. Besides the actual teaching, it was just the whole thing of being surrounded by loads of really good musicians, all in the one place: it just makes you want to improve.”
“A RESTIVE, SENSUOUS PLAY OF BRIGHTNESS AND SHADE, LYRICAL SWEETNESS AND GRITTIER SINEW” (SCOTSMAN)
Soon after completing her degree, Maeve was a finalist in that year’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year contest, run by Scotland’s Hands Up For Trad development agency. Though she didn’t win, the distinctiveness of her performance so caught the ear of the organisation’s director Simon Thoumire (also MD of leading folk label Footstompin’ Records) that he signed her on the spot to record Don’t Sing Love Songs – subsequently hailed by Scotland On Sunday as “one of the most absorbing albums to be released in Scotland in a long time”.
In addition to building a solo career, Maeve has found herself increasingly in demand across a variety of other projects. She’s toured with the acclaimed North American show The Stepcrew, Latin-Scottish fusion supergroup Salsa Celtica, and recorded with the likes of flute/whistle supremo Mike McGoldrick. With touring including the acclaimed film/music show The Island Tapes, a recent cross-cultural Scottish-Irish lineup, Nasc and folk/electronica outfit Sketch her steadily growing reputation was further affirmed by two more Scots Trad Music Awards nominations, for Gaelic Singer of the Year, in 2008 and 2011.
Song-writing has been a more recent development. She was first commissioned by BBC Scotland, with funding from Creative Scotland, to compose The Exile, an ambitious original song suite linking the experiences and cultures of Gaels and Africans displaced to the New World, featuring four movements, three languages and two choirs.
“I was kind of forced into it and really liked the challenge and the process, so it made me want to do more.”
Following Maeve’s appointment as an Associate Gaelic Artist by the National Theatre of Scotland, the piece is currently under development, and self-penned songs have steadily started to make an appearance, such as the title track of Once Upon An Olive Branch.
“SASSY, SMART, BEAUTIFULLY ARRANGED MUSIC. . . MAEVE’S VOICE CAPTIVATES” (LIVING TRADITION)
2015 proved a bittersweet whirlwind of a year for the singer from Partick. Amidst the highs of extensive touring in the USA with the acclaimed show The Stepcrew, appearances at major festivals with Salsa Celtica and debuting as Gaelic soloist at the prestigious Edinburgh Royal Military Tattoo, came the untimely death of her father In September 2015. Two weeks later she was on a plane to Dublin to study under the renowned Frank Merriman at the Bel Canto School of Singing.
“Singing’s such a vital part of my life, in so many ways,” she affirms. “When I’ve gone through changes or difficult times, I’ve been able to channel it singing. And having the chance to communicate the stories within the songs to so many other people – that’s given me the most tremendous highs. I just feel very privileged to do what I do.”