Lucid Culture


Sixteen Questions for Julie Fowlis

Singer Julie Fowlis hails from the Scottish Hebrides islands, where she grew up absorbing a culture handed down through the centuries via many different customs and art forms, but especially through music. She’s been hailed as the “first crossover Gaelic artist,” won this year’s coveted BBC Radio 2 Award as Best Folksinger of the Year, and has an avid following in the United Kingdom. With a show at Joe’s Pub on September 21 at 9:30 PM, she’s bringing her fascinating, rustic sound to New York. Here, she explains why she sings in her native Gaelic, and why she hasn’t come up with a dance routine or learned to lipsync:


Lucid Culture: Why did you decide to release an album with lyrics in a language spoken by only a tiny percentage of the inhabitants of your own country, let alone the rest of the world?


Julie Fowlis: It wasn’t really a decision that I thought much about really!  To me, it was the obvious language to sing in, and at the time, I didn’t really think about the consequences, positive or negative, of that decision.


LC: Did you grow up speaking Gaelic?


JF: I did grow up with Gaelic, but English as well.  I would say that English was my first language whilst growing up, but I certainly always had both from an early age. 


LC: Other than in your songs, how frequently do you actually use the language in ordinary conversation?


JF: I use Gaelic much more now as an adult – in everyday conversations with my family, friends, work colleagues, etc.  It’s a very old language with an ancient culture and interesting history, but it has a place in Scotland in every modern sense too – from the world of the internet and websites to social networking to text messaging!


LC: You grew up in a very remote part of the world. How much of a role did folk music play in your childhood, and has this changed subsequently for children there today?


JF: Music played a very important part – we were so fortunate to be surrounded by singers and musicians, particularly pipers, and this had a huge effect on me.  I am happy to say that it still plays a central role in the lives of the younger generation today.


LC: Here in the US, it’s frequently considered uncool for young artists to pursue music that’s old or has fallen out of fashion. Was this a situation you were ever faced with?


JF: Absolutely.  It has only very recently become “hip” or “cool” to pursue traditional or folk music, and speak Gaelic for that matter.  The Gaelic culture and language has suffered terribly in our colourful history, but I am happy to see it now supported and nurtured, in the hope that it can survive and continue as a living, breathing language.  I was often given a hard time for playing music in school, but am glad now that I persevered and ignored them!


LC: You’re being pegged as the “first crossover Gaelic artist.” Besides you, how many other Gaelic artists are there, and can you tell us about them? 


JF: There are many, many Gaelic artists – both singers and instrumentalists.  It’s a vibrant and exciting scene, even though it’s still comparatively small.  Everyone usually knows everyone else – it’s a lovely scene.


LC: In addition to being a singer, you’re a multi-instrumentalist. What do you play, and how did you manage to pick up so many in such a relatively short period of time?


JF: Mmm…ok, here’s the list – in order of when I picked them up: bagpipes, piano, oboe, cor anglais, whistles, Scottish small pipes and a wee bit of the melodeon (button box). I love learning new instruments – it keeps me occupied!


LC: Do you consider yourself primarily a performer or an archivist?


JF: Ooh, a tough one.  Performer I think, although I spend an awful lot of time poring over books, reading articles, speaking to the older generation and recording their tales, songs and chat.


LC: Unlike the rest of the world, the US government doesn’t do much to support its own up-and-coming musicians. Have your local or national agencies been supportive of your work, and to what extent?


JF: I have to say that I have been supported in many ways by several organisations – particularly the Scottish Arts Council and our local Enterprise Company, Highlands and Islands Enterprise.  I have always acknowledged this support – and am quite happy to state that they have made all the difference to me as a performer trying to earn a living within the arts.


LC: What audiences have been the most receptive to your work? By contrast, have you ever had to deal with a crowd who just “didn’t get it?”  


JF: Sometimes the best reactions are from people who have never heard the music before!  It’s always great to play at home though – when people can not only understand what you are singing about, but they will often know the composer of the song or who it’s about.  That makes it all the more meaningful.  It’s fun to play to new audiences though and try and take them by surprise!


LC: Many of the songs in your repertoire, especially the “mouth music” numbers have a very earth, vernacular feel. In translation, how much of that gets lost? For example, is the gentleman in one of your songs who is spreading manure really shoveling shit?


JF: Ah ha – he certainly is.  I would say that if one doesn’t have an understanding of what a song is about or more importantly, why a song is composed in a certain way, then yes, the meaning is lost. That particular song you are referring to is an example of “puirt-a-beul” or mouth music, which is an upbeat way of singing songs to dance to – therefore the meaning of the words is not the most important thing but the rhythm of the words – it’s like singing a tune rather than playing it on an instrument. So it can be about anything that fits rhythmically. Even shoveling [shit].


LC: To what degree have your explored writing your own material?


JF: Not much – I have written a few tunes and a few songs, but it’s not my main focus.


LC: Do you plan to continue to perform and record in Gaelic, or would you consider expanding into English or even other languages?


JF: Never say never!  For now, I am happy to sing in Gaelic, and content when I get the chance to collaborate in Irish/English/French or whatever with other musicians.


LC: Are you concerned that some people might perceive you as a one-trick pony or a one-hit wonder?


JF: Nope, not at all.  I have never set out to play music with an agenda – if folk like it,  great, I am delighted – but I am not about to compromise what I do musically to please anyone.  What would be the point in that?  If I had wanted to hit the mainstream I would have ditched Gaelic long ago, learned to lip-sync and developed a dance routine.


LC: Is there one particular achievement in your career as a musician that you’re most proud of?  


JF: Performing on the launch of the new Gaelic TV station BBC ALBA which starts on Sept. 19th.  It’s a huge honour to be involved, and an exciting time for all us Gaels!  Receiving invitations to go to Glastonbury Festival and to be on Jools Holland was pretty cool too.  Touring in America has been something I have wanted to do for ages, and I am so happy to be finally making the trip this month.


LC: New York musicians are always conniving about how to get celebrities or other famous musicians to endorse their work. How did you get Phil Selway of Radiohead to come onboard for you?


JF: We met at the annual BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, and he was genuinely a very nice guy. We spent a good while chatting away, and he was describing how surprised he was that everyone at the Awards Ceremony were actually talking to one another, and how different it was to the mainstream way.  He was kind to come onboard and say nice things about us.


LC: [now this is where this becomes seventeen questions for Julie Fowlis – ed.] How do you say “my hovercraft is full of eels” in Gaelic?


JF: Tha am bàta-builg agam làn easgainn

September 16, 2008 Posted by | Music | 1 Comment

In Memoriam – Richard Wright

Iconic rock keyboardist Richard Wright, the sonic architect of Pink Floyd, died yesterday at his home in England after a brief battle with cancer. He was 65.


A founding member of Pink Floyd in 1965, Wright was at the time a bluesy, psychedelic organist. In 1968, shortly after Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett became unable to lead the band and was replaced by guitarist David Gilmour, Wright became fascinated with the latest development in electronic keyboards, the synthesizer. Over the next several years, he would become the world’s most imaginative synthesizer pioneer, an artist whose influence remains to this day. 


Throughout his tenure with Pink Floyd, Waters’ eerie, densely atmospheric layers of a wide variety of keyboards gave Pink Floyd their signature sound, a rich wash of textures against which guitarist David Gilmour’s anguished wails stood out in stark contrast.  Wright was neither a particularly fast nor virtuosic player, but his remarkable grasp of technology, ear for orchestration and impeccably subtle, tasteful playing remain unsurpassed. In addition to being the first keyboardist to record a synthesizer in stereo, Wright arranged his parts so that he was able to replicate many of them live, note-for-note, using several separate banks of keys.


Wright was also a fine, understated singer and an excellent songwriter. Credited as a co-writer on many of Pink Floyd’s songs, he wrote the melody to what may be their alltime greatest composition, 1973’s Us and Them (from Dark Side of the Moon), in addition to the macabre instrumental The Great Gig in the Sky (also on Dark Side of the Moon) and the fiery Summer ’68 (from Atomheart Mother, sampled by Canibus thirty years later). Many of the band’s finest recorded moments are Wright’s: the organ swells on Atomheart Mother; the worldless excursion through the airlock on the intro to Welcome to the Machine; and the lush arrangement of Comfortably Numb, among many others. In addition, most of the high vocal harmonies in Pink Floyd’s recordings are Wright’s.


Wright also recorded two underrated solo albums: the sophomorically titled Wet Dream, from 1978, is a melodically rich collection of slow, thoughtful, atmospheric piano-and-guitar ballads; Broken China, from 1996, blends stormy, ambient instrumentals with ominous, stately art-rock anthems and features Sinead O’Connor’s best moments as a vocalist.


Wright left Pink Floyd in 1983 and was replaced on the album The Final Cut by Michael Kamen. He rejoined Gilmour shortly thereafter in the regrouped Pink Floyd without bassist/frontman Roger Waters, continuing to tour and record with the band until just months ago.


Our deepest sympathies to Wright’s family, his former bandmates and Pink Floyd fans worldwide.

September 16, 2008 Posted by | Music | Leave a comment