"Whether you're singing in Gaelic or English, the same things move us all..." hmv.com talks to Julie Fowlis
A stalwart of the British folk scene since the arrival of her debut solo album in 2005, Julie Fowlis is perhaps best-known to most as the singing voice of Highland princess Merida in Disney's animated adventure Brave, as well as one of the leading lights on the Gaelic-language folk scene. But for anyone with a passion for folk music she's also known as an experienced broadcaster and this week Julie hosts the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2018, set to take place tonight at Belfast's Waterfront.
Ahead of this year's ceremony we caught up with Julie to talk about what we can expect from the show's live performances and why the future looks bright for British folk music...
So you're co-presenting the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2018 this week with Mark Radcliffe, can you give us a bit of background on the awards themselves? They've been running for 19 years now, right?
“That's right, yeah. I guess mostly it's a celebration, I mean I know the awards are the main thing, but it's really an across-the-board celebration of folk and acoustic music in these islands, and really drawing attention to what's happening in this scene. There are so many great things happening and so much great music being made across Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales, so it's really a time of year when we get to bring a lot of that onto the stage and let the wider world know what's happening.”
There are a few live performers lined up for this year, who should we be looking out for?
“Well, there's a live performance from Dónal Lunny, who of course is receiving a lifetime achievement award this year, and he has been kind of a lynchpin in terms of traditional folk music, Celtic music or whatever you want to call it. The name doesn't really matter, it's more about the force of traditional music and he's been at the forefront of that for close to 40 years now. He's really an iconic character and somebody who continues to inspire musicians across the ages and across different genres as well. He can be a shape-shifter working between different genres, but I think he really embodies that passion and openness to different music, and of course he's supremely talented, so it'll be great to see Dónal performing.”
“I guess the other thing to look out for would be the Good Tradition Award, where the Armagh Pipers Club are being recognised this year. They're an incredible bunch of musicians who've been around for years now encouraging and supporting traditional music in Armagh, they produce incredible musicians and I guess they serve as a reminder of how important music at a community, grassroots level really is. They're inspiring kids and giving them access to music in the first place, but also providing them with support and tuition, and also the inspiration to become professional players and to take the tradition forward.”
One of the awards is the BBC Young Folk Award, can you tell us a bit about this year's nominees? Is there anyone you're really excited about?
“Well, I say this every year but there are so many that could be on that shortlist, it's such an incredible youth scene that we have at the moment, much more so than when I was that age, there are an incredible number of talents coming up and that shortlist is a great example, I think. There's a great spread in terms of what they can do and I have to say they're all brilliant. The Young Folk Award competition, every year it blows us away with the level of musicianship, and they seem to get younger every time! They seem to get better every year too, it's an exciting one to watch and it's lovely to have been involved with those awards for several years now, especially when you see some of those who have won the awards several years ago now coming through and being recognised as professional performers in their own right, It's an amazing thing to see.”
Nick Drake is this year's inductee into the Folk Awards Hall of Fame, whose life and career were cut tragically short, but he seems to have been a huge influence on later generations, do you see this award as a recognition of that?
“Yes, and of course he was never really recognised in his own time, which is perhaps the greatest tragedy. One of the things about folk music is that it feels like it's quite a natural thing for folk musicians to look back at what has gone before and learn from that. I think his influence in terms of songwriting and interpretation is huge and I think it's absolutely right that he and his music should be recognised in this way, and it's great that his sister will be there to accept the award on his behalf.”
Your material in particular tends to focus around more traditional songs, albeit performed or recorded in a more contemporary way - how much were you influenced by people like Nick Drake, or some of the other more mainstream folk musicians?
“I guess in all honesty the kind of folk music I was listening to in my teens very old and very traditional, and when I say traditional I mean particularly unaccompanied or a cappella singers from the Hebrides. That was the kind of tradition I was surrounded by, and in terms of the musicians I was listening to they were still very of a Gaelic ilk. That said, I was listening to a lot of acoustic singer-songwriter type stuff from the 60s and 70s, but not necessarily 'folk music' per se. I guess it was only in my twenties that I began to learn a lot more about folk music of other countries around us, but it was always Gaelic Scotland that I knew best and was most influenced by. I came to the music of people like Nick Drake and Anne Briggs relatively later on, I wasn't growing up listening to that music but it was a joyous find in my twenties and even into my thirties I was discovering music that other people had probably been listening to their whole, but that one of the joys of music isn't it? Discovering something new, whether it's something that was composed last week or something that's new to you, but was composed fifty years ago.”
How did you go about sourcing the songs that you covered or interpreted on your latest album, Alterum? Are they all traditional folk standards?
“No, not at all. Well, I guess in some sense they could be, with the first song on the album the story is one that appears in folk tales, not just in the Gaelic tradition but in other traditions as well, so it could be a standard in that sense. That version would be one that's relatively well-known in the Gaelic tradition but perhaps not very much outside that”
There are a couple of English-language songs on there too, how do you go about balancing that with the Gaelic language stuff?
“Well, people have been asking me to sing in English since I started out and I guess I only ever wanted to sing in English for the right reasons. I didn't really have a natural connection to a body of work like that, the most natural thing for me to do as a young singer was sing in Gaelic, that was what I knew and what I'd always wanted to do, so despite much advice to the contrary I continued singing in a non-English language. But I think, four albums in, that I've probably made my point.
I've never said that I wouldn't ever sing in English, but I only wanted to do that for the right reasons and if the right songs moved me, and I guess this time around for whatever reason, maybe my age or just wanting to experiment a bit more musically, I decided to put the two English songs on there, but also one that's sung in the Galician language as well. I guess that was my little way of saying that you don't have to be singing in the dominant language all the time and, you know, given all the huge shifts that are going on just now in politics, in terms of borderlines and identity and all of that, the older I get the more I learn about the people singing these songs all over the world, and it becomes clearer to me that everybody is kind of singing about the same things. Whether you're singing in Gaelic or English, the same things move us all, no matter where the borders lie or where the boundaries are.”
Do you think you might consider doing a purely English-language album at some point?
“Yeah, absolutely, and I think musically speaking it's always good to keep it fresh and interesting. One of the things I love the most, especially at this stage of my life and career, is to collaborate with others. For example, one of the things I'm looking forward to most this summer is collaborating with some long-term friends of mine, a band from Quebec called Le Vent du Nord, we're performing a double bill together at the Edinburgh International Festival. I've performed with them before and I get to sing in Québécois, a little bit of French, it's really really fun.
And likewise, on the back of the Transatlantic Sessions tour I got to sing with the Grammy-nominated Secret Sisters, Suzy Bogguss and Jerry Douglas. I love to sing their songs, which are very much rooted in country music, Nashville and all of that. My love is for good music, and that could be in any language from any place, so no, I definitely wouldn't say no to an all-English album.”
Julie's latest album Alterum was released in October 2017 and you can find it here in our online store.
The BBC Folk Awards ceremony takes place in Belfast tonight and will be live on BBC Radio 2 from 19:30 (BST)