Joy To The World
Joy Dunlop | Press Article
From The Herald, January 2, 2013.
Joy Dunlop is marvelling at the musical riches of her native Argyll. Growing up in Connell, near Oban, the Gaelic singer and television presenter became familiar with the songs that were sung at school and at ceilidhs in the village. It was only when she went on to study in Glasgow and especially at the Gaelic college, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye, however, that she realised that these songs were not part of some universally known repertoire and that they are, in fact, particular to her own area. And as she’s discovered, there are many, many more where they came from.
On her latest album, Faileasan (Reflections), Dunlop celebrates Argyll’s Gaelic heritage on eleven songs drawn locally. Had unlimited funds been available, she could have produced a boxed set as the eleven tracks she chose were whittled down from a “short list” of ninety-five.
“People know about the Highlands and Islands being full of music and song,” she says. “But I often feel that Argyll is a forgotten part of that culture and even the people who live there might take what they have for granted. I know I did that. Then, when I went to study at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, I found myself singing songs that I thought everybody in the Gaelic world knew and discovered that they were unique to Argyll. It made me want to find out how much more hidden treasure there was.”
Dunlop isn’t a native Gaelic speaker. She learned the language through music from an early age when a woman in the village who was originally from Islay invited the children from the local primary school round to her house after school on Mondays and taught them phonetically.
“Our school was tiny – there would have been about twenty-four pupils in all at its full strength – but we always competed in the Mod and the year the Mod came to Oban, I was nine,” she says. “That was the year I made my solo singing debut, although I was always singing. I knew all the choruses to the songs people sang at ceilidhs – I’d just make up my own verses.”
At that stage Gaelic didn’t offer the career choices that were to become available through Gaelic media. There was one obvious local Gaelic success story, Capercaillie, but to Dunlop and her pals, these were people they saw around, doing everyday things. They had no idea how internationally famous they were.
“I got a lot of my Gaelic vocabulary from singing,” says Dunlop. “But I decided if I was going to sing these songs, I had to really know the language. So I took an immersion degree at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and from there doors began to open. Opportunities to present radio and television programmes came in and I started to get invited to sing all over.”
Indeed, Dunlop is something of a one-woman Gaelic industry. She worked as Gaelic development officer in Argyll from 2004-2010 and has done similar work in Canada and New Zealand. She’s written newspaper columns, appeared in the popular BBC comedy PC Alasdair Stiubhaird, sung at festivals on both sides of the Atlantic and keeps busy in her spare time with various Gaelic choirs.
In 2010, she won the Gold Medal at the Mod and released her first album, Dusgadh (Awakening). She wasn’t planning to release a second album so quickly but Faileasan (Reflections) grew out of her passion for researching her native culture and enthused by the quality of the songs she discovered through spending time in the School of Scottish Studies’ archive in Edinburgh and through searching the online song resource Tobar An Dualchais, she decided she should share them.
“It was really a kind of pet project to begin with,” she says. “But then I thought it would be good to record some of these songs with musicians from the area because I know there’s a west coast style of playing but there’s also a particular Argyll style and I wanted to capture that and make the recording as authentic as possible.”
The album was also recorded in Argyll, at An Tobar arts centre’s studio on Mull, and while the standard of musicianship is high, with contributions from Capercaillie’s Donald Shaw and Karen Matheson, Lau fiddler Aidan O’Rourke and Brave soundtrack piper Lorne MacDougall, the atmosphere in the studio was, says Dunlop, very informal.
“It was like an old fashioned ceilidh,” she says. “There were singers from some of the choirs I’m involved in on the sessions who had never been in a recording studio before, and it was great to see them getting really involved in the whole experience. The next stage is to take these songs to Celtic Connections, with a smaller ensemble, and I’m really looking forward to letting the audience hear them because although the subjects they deal with are universal, the locations they’re set in and their origins give them a very distinctive Argyll flavour.”
Faileasan (Reflections) is released on Sradag Music.
Pure Joy at Celtic Connections
Joy Dunlop | Interview
Jolene Cargill caught up with Joy Dunlop (pictured) to have a chat about Celtic Connections, her new album and recruiting for MI5!
Joy Dunlop has many strings to her bow. The Scottish singer is in demand as a teacher, translator, speaker and presenter.
Currently filming a series on Scottish weddings for BBC Alba, Dunlop jokes that she will not be short of a gig in future. “If I ever need an alternative career maybe I could become a wedding coordinator!”
The first time I interviewed Dunlop I confessed straight off that I didn’t feel qualified to interview a multi-award winning Gaelic singer, step dancer and rising star. The second time round it’s no different. I still don’t speak a word of Gaelic and Dunlop towers a good few inches above me.
Dunlop finds her height can be an amusing ice breaker; she is just over least 6ft tall. She chose the opening song for her new album Reflections because the title made her laugh. “The title was ‘If I marry at all, I won’t wed a tall girl’. I just thought it was so funny and couldn’t resist putting it on the album!”
Faileasan ‘Reflections’ is an enchanting concept album. It harks back to a rich musical repertoire, mostly undiscovered outside Dunlop’s native rural Argyll. The collection of lesser known songs in the album are a kind of love letter to the West Highlands; the picturesque villages; the strong community spirit and the Gaelic music and Ceilidh culture.
After an intense period of production Dunlop is taking time out this week to perform at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow. A seasoned international performer, Dunlop will be in her element at the major annual music festival and is thrilled to be on the line up with former Runrig frontman Donnie Munro.
This year marks twenty years of the festival with 18 days of concerts, ceilidhs, talks, art exhibitions, workshops, and free events to get the City on its feet with toe tapping traditional folk tunes, roots and world music. “There is some truly amazing music at Celtic Connections and it’s right on our doorstep!”
It’s a fitting time for Dunlop to celebrate Celtic music and its connection to cultures around the world. With her new album Reflections, Dunlop has embarked on a journey to pay tribute to her native rural Argyll and its distinctive musical sound, described on the album sleeve as West Coast flavour.
Her debut CD Dùsgadh (Awakening) was a hard act to follow. It was named ‘Roots Recording of the Year’ at the Scots New Music Awards and was Album of the Month in The Scots Magazine. It also received a four star review in the Scotsman and won the coveted Fatea ‘Tradition Award.
“I think everyone can relate to strong sense of home wherever their home is. Every time I go home, it feels like I never left.”
Dunlop offers something completely different with Reflections. As a concept album about a place it’s a departure from the universal themes often explored in concept albums however, the album goes right to the heart of traditional folk music.
“It was actually during a tour of Argyll singing a collection of local songs that the idea for the concept album was born. We were singing this collection of local songs and one of the venues asked if we had CDs. I hadn’t thought of that! But it made perfect sense. We were reaching people through the concerts and had all this material.”
To do justice to Argyll’s unique cultural standing Dunlop sourced every part of the album from the area, from the musicians to the photography on the CD.
“We have a wealth of talent with musicians like Karen Matheson and Donald Shaw. I just got in touch and asked them, any chance? I was delighted when they said yes straight away. There’s a real mix on the album of professional singers and locals, including the all male choir that I conduct.”
Dunlop even got her family involved. She asked her Dad, a retired electrician, to work on the album sleeve photography. “We told him we needed him to light up a Forest at night. Off he went and worked with the photographer. I think he had fun prancing about with cables out in the woods!”
The result is an evocative album, redolent with melodies and stirring harmonies. Dunlop’s vocals effortlessly cast a spell while the musical arrangements bring a fresh, modern quality to the traditional songs. And that reimagining is captured visually on the sumptuous album cover; Dunlop is pictured at night in front of a backlit Forest resplendent in a fairytale-like silver dress.
At the pre-launch tour of Reflections in Mull, Oban and Dunoon the audience response was through the roof. “I think locals really understand the ideas behind it. Folk were singing along. It totally worked and it felt right. People felt they were part of something special. It just seemed to click for them.”
Reflections’ epitomises everything folk; it takes the listener on a journey through lullabies and darker romantic ballads to traditional mouth music.
“Mouth music is often funny, light hearted or has a secret meaning. And it’s usually quite upbeat, so you can dance to it. I love the fact that we have a strong Cèilidh tradition. People know the songs and if you start singing, will join in on the choruses. I actually appreciate that so much more after visiting areas, Gaelic ones included, that don’t do this.”
Living in the West end of Glasgow, Dunlop loves the vibrancy of City life. At the same time, she has a growing appreciation for the strong sense of community at home. And that’s an integral part of what she celebrates on the album.
“People look out for each other. Me and my family joke about it. I have a Bush Telegraph thing going on. Well, I don’t know, but let me just ask my Auntie Betty.”
“Usually if folk ask ‘where do you live’ what they are asking is ‘where are you from?’ In Gaelic it translates as ‘who are you from?’ Folk want to know who your family is and there’s a respect for your lineage. I always say Connel would be a great place to recruit for MI5. It is funny! And it’s definitely something I appreciate the older I get.”
Sourcing the material for the album gave Dunlop the freedom to explore in new ways how this vast musical heritage captured that precious sense of community. And it’s clear from the thoughtful composition that ‘Reflections’ has been a deeply personal project.
“I hate using the word organic because it can be a bit over used but that’s what it was. In a way it’s an odd concept to make an album about a place but it just felt very natural to me to pay tribute to the place I grew up and all the music I have always loved.”
Dunlop admits that at first she thought a concept album about a place could be “a bit odd”. And with an all Gaelic track listing it would be easy to argue that Reflections misses an opportunity to reach a wider audience by being too exclusive. But Dunlop hopes the local aspect of the album is not a barrier. “Its music you can enjoy wherever you are from. The local aspect is an added bonus.”
“I think everyone can relate to strong sense of home wherever their home is. Every time I go home, it feels like I never left.”
Making an album about her home gave Dunlop a chance to tap into a childhood that was spent roaming around outside, exploring the hills and inventing games to play. But it also marks a deepening lifelong love affair with Gaelic music and culture.
“I was raking about in the archives at the School of Gaelic Studies for days. And I found so many songs I recognised from when I was young. There I was in a wee room singing away to myself!”
It was in Argyll that Dunlop first fell in love with Gaelic. As a pioneer of the language across broadcasting and education Dunlop is at the forefront of Gaelic development and is proud to be a heart-on-her sleeve champion for Gaelic music as a way of bringing people closer to native Scottish culture.
Now a popular international performer with a big following in Ireland, the US and Canada Dunlop is used to performing to diverse audiences – and she is always heartened to perform for those who don’t speak Gaelic.
“The music can be enjoyed in itself. I find people are just drawn to the music. And it can also be a way into the language. I know loads of folk who just started out playing the fiddle and ended up wanting to learn Gaelic. The music and the language are all wrapped up. I think that’s ultimately very special.”
Just for fun Dunlop teaches and sings with choirs around Argyll including the all male choir who feature on Reflections. While working on Reflections she worked with the choir to produce their debut album to celebrate their tenth anniversary. As conductor for the choir Dunlop is known as the ‘boss lady.’
“Somehow I ended up singing on the CD too! It’s all live material of mostly choral songs. It was fun and we worked hard on it. I ended up proof reading Gaelic at 3 in the morning.”
After Celtic Connections and a performance at Coda music shop in Edinburgh, Dunlop will just about have time to catch her breath before she heads to the North American Folk Alliance Showcase in Toronto at the end of February. But touring doesn’t mean a creative hiatus.
“I like the idea of a cross collaboration between Gaelic and another style of music. Writing songs for the last album has given me a taste for it. I have ideas just sitting there in the back! I will just let them brew for a bit!”
The Herald Magazine
Joy Dunlop | Interview
Lifelines article appeared in The Herald Magazine, 2nd October 2010
My work diary is always packed. I’m a Gaelic music singer, a Gaelic language teacher, a translator and interpreter, a Scottish step dancer, a Gaelic journalist, a Gaelic choir conductor … I could go on. I’m lucky I have a good mix of teaching and performing, a bit of everything, all connected by Gaelic.
My first foray into Gaelic singing was when I was in primary school. The Mod came to Oban, near where I grew up in Connel, and the whole school – about 20 of us – performed as a choir. Then I started solo singing with the local choir and kept going because I enjoyed it. I never planned to do it as a career.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I thought about medicine, and right up to fifth year was going to do that. Then I took sixth year off to go to Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college on Skye, and loved it.
Everyone in my family likes music, and some of us are lucky enough to make a living from it. One of my three brothers, Andrew, is a classical concert pianist. He lives in America but whenever he comes home, I rope him into performing with me.
When i was little I didn’t speak Gaelic because my parents didn’t, but although the family didn’t have the language, we were in a Gaelic setting. We went to all the ceilidhs. I could sing you all the Gaelic songs even though I didn’t know what they meant.
I sing old gaelic songs rather than write my own music. I like when people know the songs and can join in. It’s nice to hear someone say, “I haven’t heard that song in years but I remember my mother or my granny singing it.”
I like the beautiful but sad songs. I know I’ve cracked it if there’s someone in the audience crying. There’s something about the old songs that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
My tag-line is: “Have Gaelic, will travel.” I have been lucky to take my work to some amazing places worldwide.
I worked in Canada in 2007, spent a month in New Zealand in 2008 teaching Gaelic, and in November I’m off to Ottawa, Canada, to judge a Mod competition. There are so many Scots in these places, and in many ways they’re more Scottish than we are. They can trace their roots back hundreds of years.
I’ll be doing a bit of everything at the upcoming Mod in Caithness, including adjudicating the children’s singing competitions, doing solo singing and conducting choirs. It’s such a friendly event, and people come from everywhere in the world to enjoy it.
Speaking the same language
Joy Dunlop | Interview
Speaking the same musical language… Muirsical Conversation with Joy Dunlop
Joy Dunlop’s acclaimed debut album Dùsgadh (Awakening) deservedly won the Roots Recording award at the 2011 Scots New Music Awards.
Fiere, the Scots Gaelic singer’s collaborative album with modern folk duo Twelfth Day (Catriona Price and Esther Swift) followed in 2012 and was as creative and interesting a mix of traditional and contemporary folk girl power as you will hear.
But with Faileasan (Reflections), Joy Dunlop has produced her most beautiful work to date and her most traditional – in just about every sense of the word.
The songs, the musicians and every part of the album (from the recording to album design, photography and cover) were sourced from the Argyll area.
A young Joy Dunlop was clearly captivated with, as well as surrounded by, the Gaelic music traditions of Argyll where she grew up, but the musicality of Argyll is relatively unknown outside the area.
The singer decided her second solo album should make amends for that; Faileasan is Joy Dunlop’s reflections of the traditional, musical heritage the famous Scottish region holds so dear.
But Joy Dunlop is so much more than one of Scotland’s finest and most beautiful Scots Gaelic singers.
She also works tirelessly to promote Gaelic through song, media work, teaching and language workshops.
Joy spoke to FabricationsHQ shortly after returning from Toronto and the North American International Folk Alliance – which is where we started our conversation…
Ross Muir: The North American International Folk Alliance event is far more than just a set of artist performances. Could you expand on just what it entails and why it’s such an important event?
Joy Dunlop: Well the Folk Alliance is a conference, really, but it’s also an opportunity to showcase to “international buyers,” as they call them – agents, festival directors, people who book House Concerts.
It was predominately North American artists, both Canadian and American, but there were musicians from all across the globe. Five bands from Scotland were there to promote Scottish music.
And it’s really important because it widens the horizons that wee bit; it gives you the chance to showcase for people you would never normally perform in front of.
RM: So it’s a win-win for you and the other Scottish artists – the Alliance helps promote Gaelic music and the people who are picking up on this can re-promote it in other areas…
JD: Yes! And I met so many new people there; people that I would never have had a chance to meet otherwise. And a lot of folk had never heard Gaelic music before but it was received really well.
We got amazing feedback from those that enjoyed the music, the language and the step-dancing – despite the fact that none of them are Gaelic speakers, or Scottish! But they were receptive to our music.
RM: And you’re not just a Gaelic singer as your mention of dancing confirms. In fact you are almost an Ambassador for the Scots Gaelic language and are involved in workshops, tutoring, teaching and education programmes – spreading the Gaelic word in every way you can…
JD: Yes, I do a lot of different Gaelic activities – teaching songs in schools, teaching songs to adults, Gaelic language teaching for both schools and adults. I do a lot of media work as well now for BBC Alba, the Gaelic television channel. So I’m very lucky that I get to do lots of different activities and they are all involved with Gaelic.
I think it’s very important to do what you can to promote the language and I enjoy meeting people and working with different folk.
RM: You clearly have many strings to your bow but I think your greatest strength is your singing voice.
You have a wonderfully emotive vocal, expressed so beautifully on your latest and, for me, strongest album to date album Faileasan, or Reflections.
Faileasan is not just a fine example of a traditional Scots Gaelic album; it’s a fine example of a traditional Scots Gaelic album from Argyll…
JD: Well I had wanted to do a project that promoted the Gaelic heritage of Argyll for a while – we’ve got a really strong song heritage and I had been thinking that maybe folk didn’t know that.
The songs of the Highlands and Islands are very well documented but I think that, quite often, Argyll is a forgotten area. So basically I did a lot of research, looking into material from the whole of Argyll.
Because Argyll is enormous, it spreads from Oban all the way down to Campbeltown and there are so many islands around the area as well.
The first thing I did was to compile a list of songs that I knew and loved; then I was really lucky that I got to go in to the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh. I did a good bit of research in their archives.
Next I tried to represent as much of the area as I could – songs from mainland Argyll, songs from near Oban, from Taynuilt and Easdale down to Campbeltown and Kintyre.
Then I picked songs that dealt with the islands – Mull and Tiree, Coll and Colonsay. I tried to get a good geographical spread but I also wanted to pick songs that represented different types of genre, because there are so many types of Gaelic songs out there.
The hardest thing to do though was to try and whittle it down to just enough songs to go on an album.
I had a short-list of eighty songs (laughs) but I had to get really, really tough and go “ok, these are the ones that I want to put on the album.”
RM: That’s an immense number of songs to work through, especially for someone who clearly loves music, loves singing and loves those songs. That must have been an extremely difficult task.
JD: Definitely! It was enjoyable, don’t get me wrong, but I could make this album a series of albums – there is just so much out there! But we did get to the point where we found songs that were quite beautiful but were also quite similar to each other. So we had to be tough and go “well, we’ve got a beautiful love song but we probably don’t want another beautiful love song from a similar island.”
Or we had a song that was maybe in praise of an area but had another song of a similar genre.
So it was really difficult and I did swither about a few, but I’ve got this list of songs that I’m going to learn. They’re just so beautiful!
RM: Well that’s the beauty of the research you did – the number of songs you can now add to your live repertoire.
JD: And in fact that’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve done a few concerts around Argyll, which is what I wanted to do first, tour around the area. Obviously you need more songs for a live concert but I had so much material that wasn’t the issue, it was cutting them down that was the problem – “what are we going to losethis time?”
RM: Yes, we have such an encyclopaedia of songs in our heritage if we go back far enough – across the entire country, not just from Argyll. But you’re very much an Argyll girl, coming from the village of Connel. You must have been surrounded by the Gaelic culture, the songs, the language, from an early age.
JD: Yes. We grew up going to cèilidhs so it was just natural. We were used to going, hearing people singing, playing music and learning a lot of the instruments. And I had been singing at the Mods since I was really wee – that’s actually how I started singing in Gaelic – so when the Mods came to Oban, when I was about eight or nine, we had the opportunity to take part.
And we were really very lucky that there were all these people there, willing to help us out, and that material was always around. But it didn’t seem like anything particularly different, a lot of people did it so it wasn’t as if we stuck out doing a lot of music. And there were so many wonderful musicians!
Argyll is a very musical place so we went to cèilidhs with many of the musicians from around the area.
It was very natural to just go to a dance and take part, or just go to a cèilidh and watch folk sing or play.
RM: It was simply part of your life.
JB: Yes and it was something we enjoyed. It wasn’t “let’s do something really crazy now – let’s go to a cèilidh!” (laughter). There were so many around and it was something we enjoyed doing as a hobby.
RM: And that enjoyment comes through in your singing as was first heard on your debut album Dùsgadh.
That album was self-funded and self-released so how surprised, and pleased, were you that Dùsgadh garnered so much critical acclaim and picked up a couple of awards?
JD: I was really chuffed and I was lucky that I got so much feedback for Dùsgadh; folks seemed to enjoy it.
The good thing about doing it yourself is you can produce it the way you want it and you’ve got one hundred per cent control. And I like that, I like to be involved in everything I do, I like to have my own opinions on the arrangement side of things. I like to do what I hear.
But it does mean if you want that total control you’ve got to fund it yourself, which is quite terrifying, but I had decided that’s what I wanted to do.
And managing to get a couple of awards for it and some lovely reviews was the icing on the cake.
It’s not why you do it but it’s nice when someone says “I liked your work” or “it really touched me.”
RM: Well the traditional music scene is not my first love but I do appreciate it and Dùsgadh certainly caught my attention.
Part of that came from being able to hear your own appreciation for the music and the songs – as opposed to those that, for want of a better expression, ‘go through the motions’ when they are singing.
JD: No, you couldn’t, the songs are so personal…
RM: Yes, exactly. Personal, expressive, every song tells a story. You have to be almost within that story – you couldn’t get away with going through the motions.
JD: And I think you can tell when that happens; just sort of singing through it, seeing how it goes.
I do think you notice that. But I’ve done competitive singing and part of that, always, was expressing yourself and I think that did help – relating those songs to your audience.
I’m always trying to tell the story to my audience and I’m also aware most of my audiences don’t have Gaelic. So although you are trying to give them an overview of the song before it starts, really you are trying to put forward the story when they do not understand the words.
So you do put yourself in the writer’s position. You try – well I try anyway – to express and intimate the meaning of the words, because the words are beautiful; you want to get that across.
RM: Yes, it’s such an expressive, colourful language. When people ask me about the Gaelic – and I don’t speak Gaelic, sadly – I always describe it as not just a beautiful language but a very musical language, it lends itself to music and a lyric.
JD: I always think Gaelic, even spoken Gaelic, is lilting and I express that when I’m teaching.
English is very syllabic – spoken with pronouncement – every syllable is very clear. With Gaelic it’s more of aflow and that can be quite hard, until you click into it. That’s why I like to hear a native Gaelic speaker speaking English, you hear that lilt! It’s a language thing. I know a lot of people at concerts that have said “I don’t speak Gaelic but I really like the sound of the language – it sounds lovely.”
RM: Exactly, it’s an attractive language and that draws people to the best Gaelic singers or those that also sing in Gaelic – you, Julie Fowlis, Karen Matheson. There’s something attractive in the voice and lyric.
And even if you don’t understand one word, you understand the musicality of the language.
JD: I totally agree; I think it pulls people in even if they don’t understand the language.
RM: You followed Dùsgadh with Fiere, a collaborative project with Catriona Price and Esther Swift, the modern folk duo Twelfth Day. Fiere was an album of original music built around words and poems in Gaelic, Scottish and English by Scottish female writers.
How did the collaboration with the girls come about and how did the concept materialise?
JD: The girls studied at the same university as my brother did; they were all classical musicians originally. So through the wonder of social media (laughs) and having something in common we started chatting.
I think I was going down to Manchester to perform at a cèilidh and the girls were based there at that point, so we said “do you want to meet up” and we got on really, really well.
From there it became “let’s meet up again and maybe do a wee song together.”
So I picked a Gaelic song – the girls don’t have any Gaelic – and said “let’s just play around with this.”
We enjoyed working together and it was something very different for them, working with a Gaelic song.
And for me it was nice to work with people with different influences; I like to do something a little different.
From there we talked about different, creative projects and the process became very organic – I hate to use that word as I think it’s very over-used – but it just grew from there. And we felt it would be good to do some writing but use material that was already out there. We all like poetry and thought “why don’t we try and make some songs from poetry.”
JD: Originally we weren’t even doing it to release an album. We were just doing it for us because we enjoyed working together and the challenge of creating new songs. It was only when we were quite far in we realised we had quite a lot of material and we thought “well, why not record this?”
But it is quite different and I think there are a lot of Gaelic speakers who don’t get it, but I liked doing something a bit different and treating the songs in a different way.
So, yeah, it was just this idea that sort of grew legs!
RM: And an idea that worked pretty well. Of course poetry is a form of artistic expression and the number of musicians I have spoken to – whether in relation to classic rock, melodic rock, progressive rock, pop or traditional – who have taken poems as lyrics and woven them into a workable musical form is extraordinary. It’s simply mixing those artistic expressions and getting it to work.
JD: Well we enjoyed it and we were working with such lovely lyrics. I’m definitely a lyric person.
The girls work more musically and it was interesting to see how we all dealt with the songs, because we divvied them up and came at them, creatively, from very different angles.
I’m very melody based. I’m looking for a melody, everything else builds around that, whereas the girls – and they even look at them differently from each other – are looking at the process from a music side and working a melody around that. So that was really interesting, seeing how different people work.
And how the creative process worked between different musicians.
RM: Musical fusion is associated more with rock music but what you are talking about is a form of fusion – fusing other peoples’ abilities and musicality to form one cohesive piece.
What I also found with Fiere was that, first time around, a lot of it was quite discordant. But once I played it two or three times and caught the counter-melodies, the rhythm of the songs and the fusion of styles, it all started to fall into place.
JD: A lot of people have said that and even family came up and said “you know, I didn’t get it at first.”
A few even said they didn’t like it because it is so discordant and different; even strange at times.
But then, later, folk would come up and say “oh, I’m really enjoying this now.”
It had taken that wee while to grow on them, for ears to maybe become attuned to the different sounds.
I wouldn’t say you instantly listen and go “oh I one hundred per cent get that” because there are a lot of layers in there and it does take a few listens.
But I think you’ve got the choice sometimes to either go for something simple or take a chance and go “well, we like this; for us it works.” We’re finding people respond and, live, people definitely respond.
But I know that as a listener it’s not the easiest album straight away to get into!
RM: It’s actually very progressive. That’s another word usually associated with rock music, or a specific genre of rock music, but, for me it stands more for progressive, open-minded thinking and creativity in any form of music. And the sign of a creative album is when it’s not an ‘instant’ album.
Usually when something is instantly enjoyable it’s also because it’s instantly disposable.
The strongest albums that stand the test of time are the ones that take two, three, four, ten or even twenty plays to pull out all the nuances and layers and get the best from it.
JD: I’m one of those people who like to take away an album and play it to death – to really get into it and play it on repeat. And I think that goes back to when I was very young and maybe only got one album a year (laughs), but that was all you had! You maybe got one for Christmas and that was basically my listening until the next Christmas, or until I could save up enough to buy another one!
And I still buy physical CD’s. I like looking through the booklet sleeves; I like the whole package and reallylistening to the music. But I think for some people, especially in the age we live in now, they’re looking for very easy listening and just downloading something.
RM: Yeah, the fast-food approach to music. We are in an era where music is made to be watched and not listened to. I want albums that fashion won’t discard. I want albums you won’t get tired of.
But now it’s about marketability and not creativity.
JD: I think so too. But from a creative side, for people really listening to music, I would always think “enjoyit.” And it’s not a bad thing that it may take a wee while to enjoy it more!
RM: I’d like to play a track from Faileasan and I’ve chosen the lullaby Crònan Charsaig. Beautiful song.
JD: It’s funny – in Argyll it’s quite a well-known song, I’ve heard it sung so often. But outwith the area nobody seems to have heard of it at all!
RM: It was musical news to me. I couldn’t have told you if that song was written fifty years ago, a hundred years ago or just last week…
JD: Yeah (laughs), and what’s really amazing is it was written by people from the area for a woman that I know really well! But you might be speaking to people from outside Argyll who say “I’ve never heard that before,” whereas it’s quite a common cèilidh song for us. And it is beautiful.
RM: Another interesting track on Faileasan is An Roghainn, The Choice. That’s another song featuring poetry as lyrics but this time by Sorley MacLean, one of the most significant Scottish poets of the twentieth century…
JD: Yes. I do like working with poetry.
RM: And the music was written by Argyll and Capercaillie musician Donald Shaw?
JD: Donald wrote the melody and the arrangement on Faileasan is similar, but not the same, to the first time I heard it performed, which was part of a Celtic Connections concert featuring the poems of Sorley MacLean. And I totally fell in love with it.
RM: Hearing you speak so fondly of those songs brings me back to something we spoke about at the start of our conversation – showcasing and promoting the Gaelic language and its music.
Around two per cent or less of the native population speak or understand Gaelic. While it’s great that singers such as yourself and Julie Fowlis are out there helping to keep Gaelic and its history alive, would you like to see us doing more as a country to spread that word?
JD: Definitely. I do think the introduction of the Gaelic Medium Education programme has been a real help; you have more young people coming through that are fluent in Gaelic. And BBC Alba, the Gaelic channel, that’s a huge help as regards raising awareness. But yes, I would like more to be done because I always find that when I’m teaching in schools or organisations people are always receptive – I’ve never gone anywhere, be it a concert or a workshop or a school, where anyone has gone “I don’t like this.”
And sometimes I’m going in to a class of Primary Seven school children, predominately boys, thinking “ok, right, let’s see how this goes” (laughter) but I have never had the situation where anyone said “Nah, I don’t like this.” And by the end of the class everybody is singing!
I think that the language and the music is accessible, but it’s getting the word out there, raising the profile and just doing more.
RM: That’s the perfect phrase to use – raising the profile – and with the hot topic of Independence across the entire country right now it seems an opportune time to do just that, whether you be pro Independence or not.
JD: Well, I don’t like the idea of language being used as a political tool, personally, but I think that any large-scale event should be used to promote our native culture, be that the Commonwealth Games or any other high-profile event.
And some people have very strong political standings, so you wouldn’t want a negative backlash if folk are aligning Independence with Gaelic. But I do think there are a lot of very good opportunities out there, like the Celtic Connections music festival, to promote the language and the culture. I think that’s great.
That should obviously be encouraged.
RM: Absolutely. I was born, bred and live in South Ayrshire but as a school pupil I didn’t have the opportunity to learn Gaelic should I have wanted to; it wasn’t on the school curriculum.
And that’s really what I’m driving at – having the option to learn the language available to the entire country and the opportunity to learn more about Gaelic culture and its heritage.
JD: Interestingly I work a lot with North Ayrshire Council and they’re great, they are doing so much for Gaelic. But that’s the thing – you go in to a school and they are so receptive because they don’t have it at any other time. And that’s what’s difficult – there is only so much one person can do – so I think there should be even more opportunities and even more school awareness.
You can actually go in to schools and say “do you know what Gaelic is?” and some people are not sure. But I do a lot of Gaelic singing in schools and they love it, it’s fabulous and the children are wonderful.
And the teachers’ have no Gaelic but they do it phonetically and pick it up so well.
So it’s promoting, developing and raising the profile to make people aware it’s a thriving language that is totally viable in this day and age.
RM: Group singing is such a great way to express that and get children interested. And that leads to something else you are very much involved in – choirs. You organised a pilot scheme for the National Youth Choir of Scotland, which led to the first ever National Boys Gaelic Choir…
JD: I did, yes! NYCoS wanted to run a pilot scheme for a boys Gaelic choir, so I ran and taught at the initial weekend for that. It was great and they really seemed to enjoy it. Working with a group of boys who could really sing was wonderful!
And, again, it’s about finding ways to make it more fashionable, make it interesting, more viable.
RM: I love the sound of a good choir, choral arrangement or powerful multi-voiced music.
And it’s great to hear it worked out so well with the boys Gaelic choir.
JD: I do a lot of work with choirs, adults and children. And I listen to a lot of choral music.
But from the participation side just singing, or community singing, singing in a group, it’s just such a great feeling. Whether that’s singing a part in a professional group, or just a sing-a-long in a pub after a cèilidh, I think there’s something wonderful about community singing and the coming together with other folk.
And I think there should be some sort of requirement that everybody has to do that (laughs), because I feel so cheered up after it! And everybody else would, too!
RM: I would agree with that. I didn’t go any further than a couple of years after school with competition choirs, but I quickly lost the discipline and therefore any ability to continue.
But it is such a wonderful, uplifting and emotive thing to be able to do – or even just to listen to.
JD: And it’s something that can be done pretty much for free, as long as you have some music and a set of ears. And you don’t need to buy any instruments!
RM: Well that’s the thing about the voice – it’s the most natural musical instrument and those with that ability should use that ability.
JD: I think so. I sometimes drive crazy distances for choir practices, but when I get there I remember why I did it and feel so much happier when I come out! It’s uplifting and everybody really enjoys participating.
RM: And interest in choirs or choral gatherings is on the up. Probably because of TV shows such as Last Choir Standing from a few years back and, more recently, The Choir programmes with Gareth Malone. That sort of publicity has certainly helped.
JD: Yes, definitely.
RM: The music of the Gaelic language is usually quite melancholic, or is set in ballad or lullaby form, but there is also Puirt à beul – “mouth music.”
That’s a very fast and vocally dexterous singing style that singers like yourself and Karen Matheson do wonderfully well. There’s a great example on Faileasan that we’re going to feature but, firstly, how hard is it to master Puirt à beul?
JD: Well, you’re learning the words, but the words themselves aren’t difficult. They are never particularly deep and meaningful but they are fast – quite quick, quite nimble.
I love singing Puirt à beul and I think having a natural love for it helps, but sometimes it can be difficult fitting all the words in! And Gaelic is a very precise language, diction is so important.
In English nobody cares if they can’t hear half your words (laughter), but Gaels are listening for every sound, every nuance. So that’s the hardest thing, getting it crisp and getting your music nice and light.
In a way it’s easier from the language side – in that it doesn’t tend to be such difficult words – but it’s getting it up to speed and controlling it!
RM: It’s about getting your rhythmic cadence right more than the words…
JD: You’ve got to be in control of the speed and the diction, that’s the hardest bit.
RM: Of course you make it twice as hard for yourself because you step-dance as well as sing; as far as I know you are the only person that does both…
JD: I do, yes, I step-dance too (laughs)! I don’t physically do them at the same time but I’ll go in and out –sometimes I’ll sing and then do a wee bit of dancing, then go back into a little singing again…
RM: Would you consider trying both together?
JD: I have tried but it’s exceptionally difficult! You have to be really, really fit and obviously you’re moving around a wee bit so it doesn’t really work. Foot-tapping would be fine but when you’re actually bobbing around the place (laughter) it’s too difficult to do them both together, for a long period of time.
You could maybe do a couple of lines or a verse, but after that it would get a wee bit dangerous (laughs)!
RM: Well with step-dancing, singing, choir work, teaching and workshops… do you ever pinch yourself, Joy, and wonder how a wee girl from Connel ended up promoting the Gaelic and singing in various parts of the world, from Nova Scotia to New Zealand?
JD: Definitely. I do realise how lucky I am to be able to do something that I love, as a job, and getting these wonderful opportunities. Especially when it includes travelling to places like that – I love travelling.
But if you had asked me a few years ago, or when I was at school even, I would never have thought I would be getting work travelling the globe, promoting Gaelic. And getting paid to do it!
RM: Always a bonus (laughs).
JD: Yes (laughs)! But I am so lucky because I could be in a job that I didn’t enjoy, hating or dreading going to work every morning. But I don’t have that and because I work freelance – I work for myself – every day literally is different, the next day could be something entirely new. But that’s wonderful – I like that.
RM: And what does the next day hold for Joy Dunlop? What’s on the horizon?
JD: I have a lot more performing to do. We have concerts here there and everywhere then a tour of Austria in the autumn time, which should be great, and I’ve never been over there before.
I’ve been doing a lot of travelling recently but now that I’m back I’m looking to tour England, Ireland and further afield. So I need to get down to a lot of organising and get things on the go!
I’m also doing some presenting for BBC Alba – we’re filming at the moment for that.
But really it’s just seeing what comes next. Obviously I have a few wee things to do but I like to play it by ear!
RM: Well let’s hope what comes next is an opportunity to come down here and talk to South Ayrshire now that you have made such great inroads with North Ayrshire.
In the meantime, Joy, continued success and keep spreading the Gaelic word…
JD: That would be great and thank you so much, it’s been great to catch up and chat!
Muirsical Conversation with Joy Dunlop