This year has been a busy one for Emily Smith with the wonderful Echoes and her Ten Years compilation. Emily took some time out for an FRUK exclusive, filling in the story so far.
The title of Ten Years says it all, do you remember your first tentative steps into the professional musical world?
I do indeed, I graduated from RSAMD, now called The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in 2003. Having won the BBC Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year Award the previous year I had been building up to thinking about playing music full time throughout 2002.Winning the award gave me the confidence and also a platform to launch my career. I put my band together in 2002 and enjoyed playing folk clubs and festivals that year. Once graduation came around though I decided that would be the best time to see if I could make a living from music full time before I had the security of knowing what it felt like to have a regular wage from a ‘normal’ job, I also had no idea what else to do, so thankfully the music path worked out!
There was a book a few years ago with famous people writing a letter of advice to their younger selves. If you could do that what would you be saying to the younger Emily starting a career?
I think I would say to her talk to people in the music business! I don’t come from a family or an area that has a particularly strong link with folk music, my family have always been extremely supportive but looking back I think the younger Emily would have benefited from a bit of guidance from experienced people in the music scene. I don’t have any major regrets but I was quite shy when I started out, still am to a certain extent, and if I’d been a bit bolder I think I could have made more of some opportunities that were offered to me at that time.
What do you think were the most important milestones along the way? Tell me also about some of the musicians who you have worked with and learnt from.
The first important mile stone was winning the award I mentioned above in 2002. It really was a deciding point for me about whether to consider music as a career. Setting up my own record label in 2005 was another milestone as with all the hard work that is involved in running and releasing my own music I’m glad I made that decision early on. There are lots of great memories from tours over the years, I loved going out to Australia and New Zealand for the first time in 2004. Other accolades along the way like being voted Scots Singer of the year in 2008 and having two nominations at the BBC Radio 2 folk awards in 2012 were great too.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with many great musicians over the years, Jamie McClennan was in the original line up of my band, initially as a fiddle player, and has been with me ever since. Jamie and I have learnt a lot together and I couldn’t be where I am without his support; he now plays fiddle and guitar with me, records and produces my albums and behind the scenes manages our graphic and web design. The line up of my touring band has changed several times for various reasons, it’s great to work with different musicians which tend to change with each new project or album.
At the moment we regularly play with Matheu Watson, a fantastic multi-instrumentalist. My new album Echoes released earlier this year, features several guest musicians, many of whom I have admired for a long time such as Jerry Douglas and Aoife O’Donovan. I continue to learn a lot and gain information from two wonderful traditional singers Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre. Alison was my Scots song tutor when I was at college and she instilled in me the passion to not only learn trad songs, but also to looking into the source and history behind my material.
When you started the compilation what were you aiming for? Did you listen back to all of your recordings? If so how did that feel? Were there things that surprised you? Do you listen much to your own recordings?
I had an idea of some of the songs I definitely wanted to include on the album when I first had the idea, songs that have been popular over the years such as Caledonia and The Silver Tassie. There were also songs that had marked milestones such as Edward of Morton (it won the Folk Category of the USA Songwriting Competition in 2005) and Sweet Lover of Mine (Radio 2 folk award nominee for Best Traditional Track). I did listen back to all my records, just the once through though! It’s nice to re-visit recordings once they’ve been out into the world, they bring back memories of what was going on in my life at that time, albums are like snap shot photographs to me and it’s lovely to have that kind of musical timeline to look back on.
You hit a nice blend of original material, Burns songs and the tradition. Is that a difficult balance to achieve and do you think your audience expects you to favour one over the other? Perhaps that varies from place to place.
I have always and a mix of trad, original and Burns material in my repertoire, I enjoy singing other types of songs too but there comes a point I think where the choice needs to link together somehow and that’s what’s great about the folk scene. That said, it can be difficult sometimes to find the balance between them all and it does also ebb and flow with where my passion lies from one album to the next. It does sometimes change from place to place too, when I tour overseas I’m often marketed as a ‘traditional’ singer so depending on the occasion we sometimes lean more towards the trad/Burns material than elsewhere.
My favourite two songs of yours from this collection are Sweet Lover of Mine and Audience Of Souls, which are as good as anything I know. Tell me a little about them, and the process of bringing them to life.
I wrote Audience of Souls I think back in 2007, at the time we were living in a small rural village in a cottage that backed on to an old graveyard. It was such a peaceful place and the song came out of a visit one afternoon to the graveyard where I got to wondering what all the folk who have lived their lives already would think of how we live today. Sweet Lover of Mine is a ballad I collated from several versions of the song The Elfin Knight. I love the imagery involved in the impossible tasks set between the two ‘lovers’ in the song. The melody is my own.
Following on from that, the latter is a trad re-write, what is your approach to the tradition? Do you look for a distinct Scottish or local tone, is it subject matter, or something else that makes a song stand out?
My approach involves most of those elements, sometimes I come across lyrics I like and set them to my own tune, sometimes I hear a song on a recording and just want to sing it as is. With trad material I do tend to look at sourcing Scottish versions first and if it has a local link all the better as it has always been a passion of mine to try and source songs from my home region of Dumfries & Galloway. In the beginning I was very much attracted to songs by their melody, it didn’t really matter to me what the lyrics were about if I loved the melody, I think probably because my route into trad music was as a box player. Now though, I’d say both definitely go hand in hand.
Do you feel a special kinship with Burns?
Robert Burns is a big part of my musical heritage, even though he was born in Ayrshire he spent most of his adult life in Dumfriesshire and I grew up just 10 miles from where he farmed. As a child we were taught a handful of Burns most popular poems and songs, I’d say to the point of being sickened by them so when I first started out he featured very little in what I liked to perform. As I got older and especially when in 2009 Jamie and I decided to release an album of lesser known Burns material (Adoon Winding Nith) I found a new appreciation for his work both as a writer and also as a song collector. He must have been such a charismatic character to have lived the life he did, such a shame he died so young. I love the fact that he was inspired by the same landscape as I am, he walked the same roads that I travel today at home.
Arguably Echoes is the most adventurous thing that you’ve done to date (Do you agree??), were you deliberately aiming for a different sound with that record?
I don’t know if I’d say it was adventurous as such but we were definitely aiming for a different sound, we wanted something that was still very much rooted in Scotland but not necessarily of the stereotypical sound you might expect with an album of (mainly) traditional material. Echoes was recorded over the space of a year, partly due to me becoming a mother during that time, so we had plenty of time to let the songs settle, go back and change things, invite the guests we wanted to perform and just generally sit on it for a while which doesn’t always happen as we usually have a set deadline which is upon you before you know it! I’m really pleased with the end result, the material for Echoes seemed to come to me rather than lots of listening or trawling through books and I think the combination of musicians worked out perfectly.
What have you got lined up for this year and future plans?
Having done the bulk of my touring in the spring of this year when Echoes was released I’m now looking forward to a few festivals over the next few months. This weekend I have my first visit to The Wickerman Festival and then a special live performance for Radio Scotland’s Iain Anderson show coming live from the Commonwealth Games on 30th July. We have a run of dates at The Edinburgh Fringe in August in a show called Footprints for which we collaborated with four contemporary dancers who choreographed some beautiful dances for our songs and tunes. Heading towards the end of 2014 I have various shows in Scotland and Northern Ireland and we round off with a tour of our Christmas show which we’ve done locally for the last four years, this year we’re taking it on the road. We’re currently booking tours in New Zealand (Jan/Feb 2015) and Germany (March 2015) and then back home to some more UK dates in the spring.
Interview by: Simon Holland
Ten Years is released today (23 June).
Tour Dates 2014:
26th Jul – The Wickerman Festival, Dundrennan
11th – 16th Aug – ‘Footprints’ Dance Project, The Edinburgh Festival Fringe
3rd Oct – Newtonabbey, Theatre at the Mill
25th Oct – Perthshire Amber Festival, Blairgowrie Town Hall, Blairgowrie
26th Oct – Castle Menzies, Weem, nr Aberfeldy