Joy Dunlop emerges from the Gaelic culture in which she has been immersed throughout her life to present her debut album, Dùsgadh (Awakening). Born and bred in the Argyll village of Connel, and educated at the Scottish Gaelic College, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Joy boasts an understanding of the Gaelic language and culture that is both instinctive and scholarly. Having spent her early years winning much acclaim at local Fèisean and Mòds, Joy has shown her appreciation to the Gaelic community with a commitment that has seen her involved in the teaching of both Gaelic language and song, bringing her youthful energy and zeal to the promotion and development of Gaelic culture, both at home and overseas.
Joy talks with an indisputable warmth about the strength of her roots and her rural upbringing: “Argyll is a rural area with very strong Gaelic and Highland influences, made up of many small, close-knit communities. Connel itself is a very small village (there was only one other boy in my primary school class) but one with a real community spirit and a strong link to the language and culture; as a result, I’ve been involved in music and Gaelic all my life. This was a very normal thing though, most people either played instruments or sang, and we were always attending cèilidhs and dances. I was heavily involved with music and Gaelic, singing in the high school Gaelic choir, competing at music festivals, playing in classical concerts, and was also part of a band called Ceòl Gaire, with my brother Andrew and several friends. I was lucky enough to have many opportunities to perform with them around Scotland, at festivals and concerts before we all left school.”
Having been surrounded by Gaelic throughout her childhood, Joy cemented her commitment to the language after leaving school, by following an immersion honours degree in Gaelic Language and Culture at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. This was followed up by an impressive array of jobs that found Joy further exploring the reaches of Gaelic across the globe, starting closer to home as a short course organiser at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and then as a Gaelic Development Officer for An Comunn Gàidhealach (organisers of The Royal National Mòd), but also traversing the globe to promote Gaelic in places such as Cape Breton and New Zealand. Joy explains that these experiences were very much two-way traffic, learning much herself in the process: “These were all amazing jobs from which I learned so much and met so many inspirational people. I feel really honoured to have had these chances and would love to go back and re-visit them sometime in the future. I actually used a song and steps that I learned in Cape Breton on the album and have wonderful memories linked with those tracks.”
Joy has been involved in competitive Gaelic singing since an early age, and now combines her skills as both performer and organiser at events such as the Royal National Mòd, showing a sense of respect for the discipline that such events promote: “although there’s a huge amount of preparation and work involved, competing at this level is a great catalyst for never becoming complacent. The Mod is such a fantastic vehicle for Gaelic and Gaelic song; when I look at what it has done over the years to promote and protect our culture, I feel really lucky to be involved. It’s ever growing too, in number and success; choirs especially are pushing the boundaries of Gaelic choral music every year. The sense of community and inclusion help to make it one of my favourite festivals.” Joy also acknowledges the less formal aspects of music that she has been involved in, that have shaped how she hears her native music, and ultimately determined the music that would find its way on to her debut album, including playing at several festivals of international renown, and time spent on the road with harp-player Rachel Hair and guitarist, Paul Tracey.
So, it comes as no surprise that Joy should now turn to a more personal celebration of her Gaelic roots, and her debut album, Dùsgadh, is the perfect embodiment of years of osmosis and endeavour. Joy had very particular ideas about how she would go about recording this project, both in terms of selecting the songs and musicians, arranging the music, and making sure that her fellow musicians were fully engaged with the project. “Choosing songs can be one of the most difficult tasks as there’s such a plethora of beautiful and diverse songs to be found in the Gaelic culture. I decided to firstly choose songs that I love. As this is a self released and self funded album I didn’t have to follow anybody’s directions or restrict myself in any way, which was a real luxury. I wanted to have an interesting selection of songs, a mixture of subjects and styles, tempo and type. I looked for songs that would work with instrumental accompaniment and others that could stand alone. I then had to cut down my shortlist from forty-five to twelve!”
To ensure that Dùsgadh bore the sound that Joy had in mind, she hand-picked musicians from amongst Scotland’s finest and most innovative players. Particularly noticeable are the classy violin and viola arrangements performed by Patsy Reid, who deploys her classically trained sensibilities to stunning effect, lending a real depth and ensuring that the Dùsgadh stands out from the usual trad/folk sounds of the day. Joy’s brother, Andrew, adds piano and harp, and was instrumental in assisting Joy with some of the arrangements on Dùsgadh, demonstrated to particularly stunning effect on “Nochd Gun Chadal,” where the crystalline tones of Joy’s beautiful voice combine with Andrew’s gracious and elegant piano. “I do love working with my brother Andrew; through years of performing together we have a great musical bond and understanding. I chose to work with people with whom I have a strong musical and social relationship. They’re a real mix of classical, jazz and traditional players which produced a wonderful, fresh angle when interpreting the songs. Obviously I had ideas about how I wanted them to sound but everyone brought their own ideas to the table and got really involved.” The mix of styles certainly shines strongly throughout Dùsgadh, with Joy’s Gaelic song sounding equally at ease whether in more familiar surroundings, or being teased across sultry lounge-jazz arrangements, as on “Taighean Geala.”
Whilst not being afraid to experiment with innovative arrangements, Joy was equally keen to ensure that the integrity of the material remained intact: “I tried to interpret the songs in a way that exhibited them, but still worked with the words. I didn’t want to lose the meanings as the Gaelic is so compelling. In my opinion, Gaelic songs have the most powerful marriage of beautiful tunes and emotive language. For me, the words and sentiments are always to the fore and determine how I work with the song. The lyrics always tell a story; the songs are sometimes heartbreakingly sad, wonderfully clever or unashamedly passionate, and that was always in my mind when interpreting them. I actually printed off translations for all the songs when we were working on the arrangements so that everyone knew exactly what they were about; I felt that was very important.” Joy is also pretty handy on the dance floor, and wasn’t afraid to bring together her fancy footwork with her equally dextrous vocals on a set of mouth music that combines pulsing dance steps with this distinct Gaelic singing style: “The step dancing and Gaelic puirt a beul track where I explore the relationship between the rhythmic mouth music and the percussive feet sounds is probably unique, I don’t think anyone’s ever done both themselves before – not that they were recorded simultaneously, I must say!”
Joy is very down to earth, and sanguine about her hopes for Dùsgadh, wishing to add her unique portrayal to a reinvigorated canon of Gaelic music that proves ever more popular and enduring. “Hopefully it will introduce or re-introduce songs and ideas to people, and explore the inherent beauty and richness of the Gaelic song culture. I love singing these songs and hope others will get the same enjoyment out of listening to them. Gaelic language and culture is a thriving, vibrant force and one of which I’m thrilled and honoured to be a part.” And in describing her culture, Joy also manages to describe the very personal qualities that she herself brings with Dùsgadh: a vibrant collection of material that showcases the spirit of a thriving, young generation who embrace their Gaelic culture with big hearts and open minds.
Review by Mike Wilson
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