A huge crowd-pleaser at this years’ Celtic Connections, Patsy Reid, Catriona Macdonald and Marit Falt, aka Vamm (an old Shetlandic word meaning to entrance or bewitch), call on both Scottish and Scandinavian traditions to create a unique sound, strong on harmony and melody. Their self-titled debut album, released in April, combined traditional tunes, with occasional originals and well observed contemporary covers by the likes of Aidan O’Rourke and Jim Sutherland (who produced a couple of tunes for Pixar’s Brave). The trio play just one show in England over the summer, as part of Oxfordshire’s Towersey Festival, 22-26 August 2013.
Fiddle player Patsy, whose CV includes such names as Bella Hardy, Treacherous Orchestra, Tim Edey and Breabach recently spoke to Folk Radio UK about their origins and music:
How did Vamm come about?
First of all I left Breabach and Catriona had left Blazin’ Fiddles and we decided we wanted to start something smaller, something harmonic based … without sounding disrespectful, more … thoughtful, less pumping. With a smaller band, it’s easier to explore, do something with more colours, if you know what I mean. Catriona knew Marit from the Newcastle folk degree. She played bass string mandola. We tried it out and when we heard the instruments together we just said, we’ve got a band! The two fiddles weave in and out of each other, and of Marit too, there’s this three-way conversation.
Is that what makes Vamm sound so unique?
I think it is the instrumentation – the låtmandola [a Nordic mandola] is not a common instrument, no-one in the UK is playing one. But there’s not just Scandinavian or Scottish in there, the material is drawn from anywhere. We go with the concept of good tunes. If it’s a good tune, we’ll play it, whether it’s from Iceland or Scotland or wherever. We are playing contemporary folk music, that’s what we do, but you can’t pinpoint what we do exactly. In Breabach, we’d think of a tune and maybe say ‘that doesn’t sound like a Breabach tune’ – we don’t want that with Vamm.
Did the spring tour see any changes to your setlist or the way you play?
When you do a tour you do two 45min sets – it’s not a CD or a festival set. For our first 2x45s, there was the odd solo creeping in, but now – after the tour – we’ve got more that 2x45s, there’s new songs replacing old songs, it’s great. There were all sorts of opportunities to jam together, which is what it’s about, jamming, rather than just do scheduled practices.
For a band with an album out and a growing reputation, you’re fairly quiet over the summer – how come?
Catriona moving to Norway doing research for university has kind of put a spanner in the works [laughs]. But we’ll rehearse when she’s back mid-August for Towersey. Then there’ll be a tour from mid-November for a couple of weeks. But her being away does mean we have a quiet summer. We did the album and by the time we’d finished, most of the festivals had [booked up], but hopefully from November to summer 2014, it’ll be an express train and we’ll pick up lots of gigs.
You must be looking forward to Towersey then?
Towersey’s fabulous, one of the big festivals, one of the best. We’re hoping people will be looking forward to see us as it’s really an exclusive – that’s a reason for people to go [laughs]. I was there some time ago with Kathryn Tickell, which was so good. It just seemed packed, in a good way – you could access all different things, the food, the performances, it was all so easy. And it felt homely, it felt friendly. It was packed without being big, like some festivals – it’s definitely one I’d go to as a punter .. and I wouldn’t say that about every festival [laughs].
With so much else going on, where does Vamm sit in the scheme of things for you all?
We all do [other] things, but Vamm is our main focus. We all have other things going on, we’re not sitting at home on our own with nothing to do when we’re not doing Vamm. I’m working on solo stuff and releasing another solo album and Marit is playing in a duo with Rona [Wilkie]. To be honest, I think it’s healthy to not be in one band. It’s nice to have a break after a month touring, you come back refreshed and with new material – with Skype and MP3s flying back’n’forth. We’re not putting all our eggs in one basket [laughs]. Variety is the key. I also teach as well – I used to teach music but now I teach fiddle and violin, just in my house. I have about 20 people, and whenever I’m free I teach them.
What do you like most about the album?
I love the fact that the album is what you get – there’s no overdubs. It’d be so easy [in a recording studio] to add another harmony part there, but the album is an actual representation of what we do [live], which is quite unusual I think. We all love everything about it. The thing is it’s got a lot of variety.
Any one particular highlight?
I s’pose there’s a set of jigs – The Winning Ticket – it has a variety of tempos, rousing fast stuff, then slows right down, and the fiddles sound like a string quartet! I think that represents Vamm best. But it depends what mood I’m in – sometimes it’s the slow stuff, other times it’s the other stuff … it’s all good! It caters for every mood [laughs].
Interview by: Dave Freak
These two tracks appear on Vamm’s self-titled debut album released on Vamm Records 22 April 2013
Vamm appear at Towersey Festival 2013 on Friday 23 August, in The Big Club, along with The Unthanks and Dan Walsh. Tickets from £30. Other acts appearing at the five day festival (Thu 22-Mon 26 Aug 2013) include Spiers & Boden, Show Of Hands, Mama Rosin, War Horse, Martin Simpson, Elzia Carthy and Martin Carthy, and Lucy Ward. For more information, including the full Towersey Festival line-up, see: www.towerseyfestival.com