PREVIEW: Maeve Mackinnon keeps challenging herself
Tom Murray, Edmonton Journal March 20, 2013
When: Friday, March 22 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Festival Place, Sherwood Park
Tickets: $20, at the Festival Place box office, or Ticketmaster
EDMONTON – Maeve Mackinnon might be among the most important Scottish folksingers
of her generation, but donʼt make the mistake of too quickly pigeonholing her.
Sure, she sings as much in Scottish Gaelic as she does English, and sheʼs recorded
albums that delve deeply into her countryʼs musical heritage, but that doesnʼt mean you
can simply slot her in as just another traditional singer.
“Thereʼs a continuity that youʼll definitely hear in my solo music, but I think itʼs important to
be as different as humanly possible in the other projects that I do,” she explains over the
phone from Whitehorse, where the Glasgow-born singer and her band are lodged as they
tour through the Yukon. “I suppose there are people who come to hear me because I do
sing in Gaelic, and thatʼs important to me, but thereʼs more to it than that.”
Inspired by listening to native Gaelic speakers on the Isle of Jura, as well as hearing the
band Capercaillieʼs 1992 hit Còisich A Ruin, the first Gaelic song to reach the U.K. Top 40,
Mackinnon began learning the language as a late teen. Pairing it with an interest in Irish,
Scottish and English folk music, in 2007 she released Donʼt Sing Love Songs, for which
she was awarded Up and Coming Artist of the Year at the Scots Trad Awards.
The accolades have continued as sheʼs embarked on special projects like BBC Radio
Scotlandʼs special program The Exile, a song suite that links the experiences and cultures
of Gaels and Africans in the New World, featuring four movements, three languages and
two choirs. Mackinnon has also taken part in musicals like Donald Shawʼs Argyll
Rhapsody, as well as the Scottish Operaʼs touring production of 1719 and the National
Theatre of Scotlandʼs production of Smiler. In between, sheʼs mixed among many other
young musicians, Scottish or otherwise, seeing how far she can push her musical
“Thereʼs a strong contemporary element in the Glasgow scene,” she notes. “Itʼs also a
fairly young scene, and one of the places to be in the U.K. if youʼre into folk music. Thereʼs
been some astonishing innovation here, in my opinion, and I think that when youʼre
surrounded by that, you canʼt help but have it influence you.”
For Mackinnon, the use of Gaelic is tied up in cultural pride and love of language, not
“Itʼs important to conserve language, but we also need to move with the times. I really
donʼt see why people shouldnʼt be able to break out of this mould of Arran jumpers
(sweaters),” she says. “I remember years back, people were outraged by the band Runrig
when they first came on the scene, because they dared to sing rock music in Gaelic. I
mean, this was their right, because they were native speakers. Now, after so many years,
theyʼre one of the most celebrated Gaelic rock bands ever.”
Mackinnon is clearly a restless sort, drawn to different projects with different musicians,
deliberately stirring up sounds outside her normal area. She has a number of them on the
go right now, including Sketch, which mixes electronics with acoustic instruments. Thereʼs
also The Island Tapes, originally brought together to score music for five silent films about
five Scottish islands; Nasc, a cross-Gaelic quintet featuring Irish and Scottish musicians;
and her own trio, which will be performing at Festival Place on March 22.
The trio is touring her second album, the five-years-in-the-making Once Upon an Olive
Branch, which features Mackinnonʼs own excellent first songwriting attempts among
classic traditional numbers like Gilleasbuig, She Moved Through the Fair, and Dick
Gaughanʼs The Fatherʼs Song. She flirts with jazz and funk among the fiddles and
whistles, and in songs like Exile (from the BBC special sheʼs developing) she perfects a
worldbeat fusion that places Africa next to Scotland and Ireland in a way that makes
“Itʼs important not to fall into formula. You have to keep challenging yourself. I understand
why it happens, because formula does sell to a point, but for any musician who isnʼt just in
it for the money, itʼs imperative that you not get stale.”
© Copyright (c) Edmonton Journal
Q & A: COCHRANE EAGLE: Kathryn McMackin
What drew you to music?
I started singing in Gaelic parrot-fashion before I started to learn the language but I’ve had a passion for the music since I was a small child. I was obsessed with the Scottish supergroup Capercaillie as a child and I remember being first drawn to the unusual melodies and rhythms as well as beauty of the language. But my father’s family was from the Isle of Skye so I think the music and language are very much in my blood! There was always some sort of music on the hifi at home when I was a wee girl and I was always singing around the house. I’ve always been able to remember melodies and words very easily and most songs have stuck with me.
What’s your earliest musical memory?
My earliest musical memories are of my mother singing to me to lull me to sleep, and also being taken to Dick Gaughan concerts and other political concerts as a toddler. I used to have a fold-up doll’s house and I would be sat playing quietly at the back of the hall. I think a lot of his music was seeping into my subconcious even at that stage.
Who are your musical influences?
Growing up my main big influences were Dick Gaughan, Capercaillie (and the singing of Karen Matheson), Martyn Bennett, Alyth McCormack, classic rock such as The Beatles, The Eagles, Bob Marley, Sting, Sheryl Crow, and in recent years, I’m influenced by everybody I gig with, and particularly Kathleen MacInnes and Karine Polwart.
What was the inspiration behind Once Upon An Olive Branch?
The making of this album was fairly laid back and we recorded songs I’d picked as we went along as well as trying out a few of my own songs. As the album neared completion we realised quite a lot of the songs on the album were songs I’d loved as a child, and there were two common themes running through the album; “longing” and “hope”, which tie in nicely with the idea of home and nostalgia.
You perform songs in both English and Gaelic – which do you prefer?
I like to sing in both languages but I think definitely there is a bewitching quality about Gaelic song that draw the listener in. The metres and scales of Gaelic song have a very ancient indigenous, feel and it’s something you’re drawn to as a listener and sometimes you can never quite put your finger on why.
Why Gaelic? Did you have much exposure to the language growing up?
I grew up in Glasgow but I was exposed to Gaelic language every year on holiday on the Isle of Jura. My dad’s dad was originally from the Isle of Skye, but the language had been lost somewhere along the way. My way into Gaelic language was my interest in the songs, but at the time I didn’t know any other young people in Glasgow who sang in Gaelic, and much less, anybody who was interested in traditional music, because at the time traditional music wasn’t particularly “hip” or “trendy”. So I started learning songs “parrot-fashion” from phonetics in order to perform them at school shows, and I was helped by the school librarian’s father who was a Gaelic speaker. I then learning Gaelic formally from the age of 17. I think the Gaelic bug was definitely in my blood somehow!
Have you always been so connected to your Scottish heritage? What does it mean to you?
I am part Swedish as well as Scottish, but I definitely feel more connected to my roots as a Gael and it grows every day in terms of language, who you associate with, music, way of life, culture… All eyes were on Scotland last year with the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence and it’s fascinating to be living through this part of history just now. There is a definite resurgence in a cultural pride as well as a political awakening for many people.
With turns at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and Sabhal Mor Ostaig Gaelic college — how did that deepen your connection to Scottish tradition and Gaelic music?
Being at the RSAMD was pretty humbling as it brought me into contact with some phenomenal musicians and really made me aware of how important it is to keep striving to be a better musician. The traditional music scene is very very strong in Scotland, and Glasgow is home to a really innovative young music scene. I’ve had very worthwhile stints living in places such as Skye when I went to the Gaelic college, and that was incredibly sobering in terms of linguistic learning curves and I’ve met some amazing Gaelic teachers, linguists and intellectuals in the process, but I came back to Glasgow ultimately for the music.
What’s the process you use to create your music?
My actual song-writing method is a complete “work in progress” but I normally compose lyrics and melodies by myself and then I work on the actual song arrangements with a guitarist or producer. I find I have to be completely alone and get myself into a particular head space in order to compose. Sometimes it can be an uncomfortable process, but other times it’s very elating!
I’ve noticed your music is often about human interest issues rather than personal anecdotes — why?
I only started writing songs fairly recently so the majority of my album songs are existing traditional songs, mostly murder ballads, and the odd love song. In terms of my writing, I feel you are in a very privileged position when you’re an artist getting radio and TV play and I think it’s right to use that now and again to raise awareness of important issues going on around the world. I was brought up in a very politically aware household and to my mind I think there are far more important, pressing issues that we could be focusing on in the world, rather than somebody writing yet another song about a failed relationship.
You’ve garnered accolades and recognition for your work — is that what music is about for you? Why?
I think it would be very unhealthy to go into this business seeking accolades and recognition- that would be going into this for the wrong reasons. You have to enjoy what you do, be realistic about what you can expect and constantly be striving to improve. My mantra is never be complacent, because it can become very dangerous and you can lose all momentum. I consider myself very lucky to be doing what I love doing and travelling the world. I’d say 80% of this business is admin, driving, tour organising, financial figures, filling out funding applications and teaching, so you have to learn to be a good all-rounder. Only 20% is the actual performing bit. I think you have to be slightly mad to want to be in this business, in the best possible way! But doing a good gig can be so rewarding, and if you’re making music with the right people it can be an absolute joy.
What can audiences expect from you in future work?
I begin recording my third album in early 2016, then I’m heading back to the USA for some touring with The Stepcrew, and various other festivals and gigs sandwiched in between. I was on the road a lot in 2015, but when I’m not on the road I run a teenage Gaelic choir in Perth and an adult choir project in Glasgow. I also do volunteer work as a panel member for the Children’s Hearings System Scotland, and I serve on the board of a third world aid charity, Spirit Aid. We’re hoping to release the third album in Autumn 2016 and I think that will certainly keep me out of trouble! 🙂