In the sleeve-notes of her debut album Fickle Fortune, Robyn Stapleton speaks of how themes familiar to age-old traditional songs carry relevance today and how she herself has found that fortunes can indeed change quickly. The album reflects this idea, featuring a collection of predominantly traditional songs which tell ‘stories of twists of fate and changing fortune’. Just over a year has passed since the singer was titled BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year and she has since featured at Proms in the Park alongside Katherine Jenkins and also on a number of radio shows. The album features songs sung in Scots, Gaelic and English with inspiration drawn whilst studying in Limerick and from the Irish influence felt in her hometown, Stranraer.
Robyn is joined by four accomplished young folk musicians who ensure vocals are always to the forefront of the arrangement. The accompaniment is varied, providing a full band sound or offering minimal support where appropriate.
The widely-known ballad The Two Sisters makes for a bright opening – although a dark tale, Stapleton has adhered to a familiar version, set to a lively tune, which she first heard performed by Clannad. The musicians elaborate on a straight arrangement which features a hearty instrumental led by Stephen Heffernan on accordion and Kristan Harvey on fiddle. This is followed by Bruach Na Carraige Báine, a mournful Irish song of impossible love learnt at the Irish World Academy in Limerick. The Gaelic song is paired with a sensitive guitar-accordion dialogue which although attractive as an intermediate between verses, perhaps distracts from Stapleton’s vocals.
Written in 1849 amid a time of industrialisation, The Shuttle Rins speaks of changing working conditions faced by the weavers of the time. As in the previous track, Bruach Na Carraige Báine, the accompaniment has been limited to guitar and accordion and is this time subtle and pared back allowing her voice to shine through. Following this, a further song of Irish influence, Blue-Eyed Nancy includes piano accompaniment from Alistair Iain Paterson, which is both beautifully responsive and moving. The song lowers the tempo and eases the listener into the next track – MacCrimmon’s Lament. The song was written by Sir Walter Scott in memory of Donald Ban MacCrimmon after hearing him play the stirring melody at Dunvegan castle in Skye. An emotional highlight, the lament is sung a cappella, as learnt from the singing of Jeannie Robertson. The quality of Robyn’s singing is fully evident; the song showcases her control and the purity of her voice.
Bonnie Woodhall, a traditional song from Lanarkshire, laments the loss of a local young soldier from the mining community of Monklands. Stapleton first heard the song whilst living in Ireland and her telling vocals are beautifully supported by delicate guitar accompaniment and an emotive fiddle section. The mood is lifted by Jock Hawk’s Adventures in Glasgow, a lively traditional song which was of part of the set which won her the title of Young Traditional Musician. Supplemented by cheerful accompaniment, her clear and dancing vocals tell the tale of a ploughing lad’s various misfortunes in the city.
A moving story is told in Noran Water, which hears the settling combination of the harmonium underneath gentle string parts. The lyrics derive from ‘Shy Geordie’, a particularly beautiful poem of Angus poet Helen Cruikshank. Another traditional Scottish song, the child ballad Willie O’ Winsbury, carries too the central theme of changed fortune, this time with a positive outcome. Her warming vocals are underpinned by carefully built layers of fiddle, accordion and guitar. ‘What a Voice’ is a stirring piece, hearing vocals tastefully underpinned by harmonium accompaniment. This interpretation of the traditional song was inspired by Martyn Bennett’s arrangement on his album, Grit. The penultimate track features a song heard from a recording of the first People’s Festival Ceilidh in 1951; Skippin’ Barfit Through The Heather beautifully describes a woman’s contentment with nature and is sung unaccompanied. The final track, The Lads That Were Reared Amang Heather hears the full band reassembled – Stapleton’s lilting voice is backed by rousing accompaniment which brings the album to a spirited close.
Both the fine collection of Scots and Irish songs and the varied repertoire provide the perfect showcase for Stapleton’s vocal talents. It builds on that reputation and praise she’s already achieved through the prestigious BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician Award. This eagerly anticipated debut album points to a very bright future ahead.
Review by: Alice Tait
Fickle Fortune is out now via Laverock Records
Order it via Amazon