My first listen to Summer Isles, the second solo album from highland composer/instrumentalist Mairearad Green, took place just as a thin red band of sunrise was appearing on the horizon. With the steady beat of Mairearad’s opening chords on accordion, the light keyboards and the rich warmth of the melody flowing from Mike Vass’s fiddle, I could easily imagine my inland sunrise to be coastal instead. It was the perfect start to the day, and the album.
Mairearad Green grew up on the West Coast Coigach Peninsula of the Scottish Highlands. She’s well known for her imaginative and skilled accordion playing, and as a talented piper; but in addition to being a keen, and much sought after performer, Mairearad’s passion is musical composition. In 2009 Her first solo album, Passing Places, was commissioned by Celtic Connections as part of their New Voices initiative, and earned her the title of Composer of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards.
Mairearad regularly performs in a duet alongside Anna Massie (our review of their last album Best Day can be read here), as a member of The Poozies and has appeared as a session musician on some of the finest albums to come from Scotland in the last few years.
The Summer Isles are a small and breathtakingly beautiful archipelago just south of the Coigach Peninsula. During late 2014 and early 2015, Mairearad spent every spare moment near her parents home in Achiltibuie researching and composing Summer Isles. Using her Grandpa’s old house as a studio and with the help of the Creative Scotland Quality Production fund, she spent her time soaking up inspiration from local literature, history and, of course, the islands themselves.
That evocative opening for the album, Island Folk, was originally commissioned by the Highland Seashore Biodiversity Project for a delightful short film by SubseaTV, Highland’s Hidden Homes. Although a prefect prelude to Mairearad’s album, it barely even hints at the treasures that await as the album progresses.
The first of those, Star Of Hope, was featured on Folk Radio UK as a Song of the Day in January. Named after a trading boat from Orkney that used to visit the main island, Tanera Mor, the song features vocals from King Creosote and presents an immediate contrast to the laconic opening with punchy, poppy electric beat from the drums and bass of Scott MacKay and Ross Saunders; and a thoroughly well populated chorus.
Stone and Struggle explores the island’s history in more general terms and was heavily influenced by a day trip to Tanera. Jo Nicolson’s clarinet responds to Mairearad’s plaintive vocal like a warm breeze. The immediate vocal opening emphasises the human history flowing before our eyes; from the middle ages to bustling 18th century fishing port.
“The pier is never still
The waves are kind
And the sails are full”
Mairearad credits the writing of Sutherland poet Jan Kilpatrick as major influence on her own song-writing, and has used three of Jan’s poems as lyrics on Summer Isles. A Tanera Talisman employs soft keys and string-wrought atmospheres in a catalogue of local idylls. A soft, dreamy, delightful song. Equally gentle, initially, is Blessing on Tanera. Reedy chords and Mairearad’s voice, stay steady while piano and percussion build intensity and harmonies are layered. The third of Jan’s poems used is The Island. Its drop in pace follows on perfectly from the earlier, upbeat Star Of Hope. Pat MacGarvey’s banjo is more in evidence this time and as a soft chant emerges, the gentle swell of the song takes on a waltz
“The Island, the ruins, the memories”
Mairearad was joined on vocals by Skye based composer, songwriter and producer Hector MacInnes, and his lead vocal for the love song Grace Darling is a gentle breath of wind on the shore. It’s song that makes you want to explore the story behind it, and I can’t resist quoting Mairearad’s own blog entry…
‘…I was reading the book of poems by my relation Neil Macleod for a second time, I got really intrigued by his love interest in one of the poems ‘Tè nan Gòrm Shùilean Meallach’ (The Maid of the Lovely Blue Eyes) The poem is about the girl who rowed him and his brother from Ardmair to Isle Martin to work each day. He referred to her as Grace Darling.’
The blog opens a wide window on the creative process behind Summer Isles and is well worth reading.
Red Throated Diver brings the island fauna into view as clarinet sings over softly upbeat keyboards and bass, and lain Hutchison’s warm production technique really proves its worth. An inventive change of pace takes us on a short waltz with Mairearad’s accordion to close. That same warmth comes to the fore in Home, where Hector’s third vocal contribution takes us back to Tanera’s history and another song inspired by Neil MacLeod. His book of poems Trowel in my Hand was written around the time of the clearances in 1842 from Badentarbet bay to Tanera. The song closes the album with a dream-like reflection on the value of home.
“No Earl or Duke deserves this land of generosity
home, to me, is this island”
The most adventurous track on the album opens with a short skirl of pipes and hand-claps. Seanchaidh quickly develops into a keyboard-backed piobroch. Pipes don’t always fit in a contemporary setting and can sound forced. In this case, however, it’s a framework that’s wrapped warmly around the pipes. With its minimal keys, atmospheric vocal and ethereal canntaireachd pipe chants it works perfectly and is an approach to music I’d love to hear Mairearad explore in more detail.
In Passing Places Mairearad took her home on the Coigach Peninsula as inspiration for an enthralling mix of jigs and reels, jazz and folk, departures and returns. For Summer Isles, she’s taken what seems like a whole new approach to writing, a wealth of new influences and woven a warm, finely crafted tribute. It’s as enchanting as the islands that inspired it and as full of riches as their history. Whether recording her self-written songs, or setting down music inspired by other writers, Mairearad Green captures the life and spirit of the islands.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
For Mairearad’s upcoming live dates please visit: www.mairearadgreen.com/gigs