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