Following on from our review of Karen Matheson’s outstanding new album, Urram, we’ve been given the chance to dig a little deeper and ask Karen to expand on the influences behind Urram. Heritage, family, poetry and friendship have all been significant factors during the creative process – a process which started with an unexpected journey through family history, progressed to a treasury of Herbridean music and culture, and culminated in recordings that saw Karen united with old friends and forging new, exotic musical partnerships.
Unfortunately, Karen’s parents both recently passed away within a short time of each other. Many of the photo’s adorning the sleeve of the album were unearthed by Karen at the time. I wondered whether Urram was a planned progression from previous solo work, or did her parents’ passing and the discovery of the old photo’s invoke a change of direction?
“My parents passing and the finding of the old photographs and doing research into my family tree sent me on a very different path creatively. I had been in the middle of a solo album when my mother got ill, which was the usual mix of English contemporary song and traditional material, but the subsequent emotional journey made me want to explore the more traditional elements and the passing down of a culture and a heritage. The parallel between the Gaelic culture and that of other indiginous cultures was key. Having already enjoyed collaborations in the past with the likes of “Hijas del Sol” from Equatorial Guinea and played many Womad festivals over the years, the opportunity to work with Seckou Keita, and Soumik Datta was very exciting. The ancient sounds of the African harp and the Indian sarod sit so beautifully with the traditional Gaelic melodies”.
Those international flavours have, for a long time, been an aspect of Karen’s work with Capercaillie and in her solo projects. What makes Urram even more special is that along with the influences from different cultures Karen seems to be finding an even deeper understanding, and affinity with, Gaelic culture. Already famous for exploring the Gaelic heritage for her inspiration and music, there are aspects of Urram that show the beginning of an exploration that’s even closer to home.
“Yes, the Gaelic heritage has been hugely influential in our music both in finding the old songs themselves and in writing new material based on the themes and style of the ancient songs. Maybe things have gone full circle in that we started out with purely Gaelic trad material, went on to explore more contemporary song and now I find myself driven to look back again at the things that have made me who I am, the culture my parents left me, and the humbling effect of being able to sing these songs”.
In 21st Century Scotland, the Gaelic language and its rich heritage of music and poetry benefit from a surge in interest and an awareness of the need for that heritage to be kept alive, to keep moving. The current generation of young Gaelic singers and writers thrive on that increased interest. The image of a successful and respected Gaelic singer – growing up steeped in the language and the poetry, may not be as applicable to Karen who, despite a strong sense of her Hebridean heritage, grew up on the Scottish mainland before there was such a level of support for the language. Was the language as all-encompassing, then, as it is for many of today’s artists?
“I was very fortunate to grow up in the small Argyleshire village of Taynuilt and although there were very few Gaelic speakers, it was a community, which nurtured and promoted traditional music. Firstly through a Gaelic speaking schoolteacher from Strontian who was pivotal in the revival of Gaelic music in the area and then latterly through Donald’s [Shaw] own parents, who were key in the upholding of the weekly village ceilidh. I was at an advantage in that my mother was a native speaker from Barra and her mother, my grandmother, came to live with us too which meant that they would speak to each other in Gaelic (usually so that we didn’t know what they were saying!). My mother was of the generation that were shunned for speaking Gaelic publicly and when she came to the mainland to work with the other island girls, was forbidden to speak it. This had a profound effect on her and she struggled to see the benefits of passing it on to me. The music however whetted my appetite and no-one was more surprised (and delighted) than she at the revival of the language and the music, and the pride with which the current generation carry it forward”.
Urram is instantly recognisable as Karen’s work, and shows the same passion for, and pride in, her Gaelic heritage; but it’s also full of fresh influences and continues to prove that Karen’s approach to music is a multi-cultural one. The contributions from Seckou Keita and Soumik Datta give the music some unique and wonderful twists and turns. How did those collaborations come about and how difficult was it to achieve that perfect blend of Gaelic/Indian/African sounds?
“The collaborations with Seckou and Soumek came together in a very natural organic way. Both the sarod and the kora have very strong melodic personalities and can switch from accompanying to playing melody very easily. This worked so well with the Gaelic melodies and we made that the template before adding anything else to the tracks. I think this creates a very warm, natural feel. I chose the songs specifically with the instrumentation in mind. For example, Maol Ruanidh ghlinneachain with its hypnotic cadences weaves beautifully in and out of the tumbling kora and the sarod mimics the melody brilliantly in the mouth music piece. Seckou plays some mean percussion too and I’m only sorry we didn’t have time to put down some of his sublime vocals – that’s for next project!”
It’s always good to hear a musician talk about their next project, when their latest is only just coming to light. It shows an ability to look forward, a passion for keeping the creative process alive. In addition to the fascinating list of guest musicians, though, there are old friends on the album too. Bass player Ewan Vernal and guitarist/songwriter James Grant have been regular contributors to Karen’s work. Was it exciting bringing these old and new influences together?
“It was brilliant to have the ‘usual suspects’ on the album too, and Donald not only as musician/arranger but with his lovely natural style of production. Ewen Vernal is an astonishing musician and is pivotal in ‘grounding’ a track. Was lovely to have James Grant guesting on Saoil a mhor, playing a blinding electric guitar solo. Innes White, Matheu Watson and Sorren MacLean, new to the fold and injecting a lovely fresh feel to these old songs. Signy Jacobbsdottir some wonderful perscussion and last but not least the fabulous Mr MacFall’s Chamber – sheer class!”
Ah, yes, Donald Shaw… box player extraordinaire, composer, producer, musical director of Celtic Connections. If only he was a fiddler we could make relevant jokes about having so many strings to his bow. Karen and Donald have been making music together since they were at Oban High School. They’re now married with a son, Hector. Still working together, still a close as a couple can be after 30 odd years… there must be something magical there?
“Haha! I think the key is in the 30 years! We’ve worked together for so long I think we can sort of pre-empt each other. It is a nice feeling, I guess musical respect comes into it somewhere too, allowing each other space to grow and develop. It was interesting working on this project just the two of us – could have been a recipe for disaster but we made it through!”
Following the natural order of things, I’m sure we’re all hoping that there will be a chance for live audiences to enjoy these wonderful songs. Are there any plans to bring the mutli-cultural approach taken with Urram to a live audience?
“Hoping to perform it live at Celtic Connections in January with Soumik and Seckou and if the opportunity arises to take it to festivals – absolutely!”
That should be something very special to look forward to. Celtic Connections audiences can always be sure of some very special events to enjoy. Karen Matheson sharing a stage Seckou Keita, Soumik Datta and probably a good many friends who’ll be in Glasgow at the same time, is bound to be a popular, and exceptionally enjoyable, event.
Interview by: Neil McFadyen
Photo Credits: Jannica Honey, Lieve Boussauw