Back in June, Folk Radio UK reviewed a significant album release from native Gaelic singer Christine Primrose (review here). Gràdh is Gonadh – Guth ag aithris (Love and Loss – A Lone Voice) brought the pure unaccompanied beauty of Gaelic song to a modern audience. In a collection of fourteen songs of love, loss and parting, the album served as an indispensable introduction to the art and a reminder of Christine’s groundbreaking album from 1982, Àite mo Ghaoil (Place Of My Heart). To follow up on that review, I was thrilled that Christine agreed to answer a few burning questions about her background, her music and her influences.
From her childhood on the Isle of Lewis Christine was a prize-winning Gaelic singer, at a time when Gaelic song was not widely known. Having grown up as a native Gaelic speaker the language was as natural as drawing breath. I first wanted to ask whether Gaelic song itself was also a major aspect of that upbringing?
“I grew up in a Gaelic speaking community where singing was a major part of that. I think that in every oral tradition singing is quite natural and it doesn’t cost any money! When I look back on my childhood and early years I feel that my singing style has been strongly influenced by psalm singing. In our church, we had a precentor who sang out the line and the congregation would sing it back. This form of singing has many embellishments and a freestyle which seems to influence my way of singing especially the slower songs. I have listened to other genres of music all of my life from blues to rock to the traditional music of other countries and get enormous pleasure from doing so.”
At Folk Radio UK we cover music from a wide range of cultures and in a wide range of languages. Gaelic, though, seems to hold a special significance. As a non-Gaelic speaker, I’ve always felt that even spoken Gaelic has a music to it, that there’s something intangible in the language that comes from somewhere beyond melody. I was keen to know whether Christine agreed.
“Having sung in many places around the world it took me a while to understand why people without the language and knowledge of the culture could possibly be interested in what I sang, I have now realised that what they connect with is their authenticity. Not everyone gets it I know, but that will always be the case. Songs are very often telling of people’s heartfelt experiences, songs borne of one tragedy or another. It was a way for them to express their grief and in some way was quite cathartic.”
Often pronunciation of song titles is an issue for us non-Gaelic speakers. Luckily, Christine is more than willing to help. To that end she has produced a short video taking us through the song titles on Gràdh is Gonadh:
Although traditional Gaelic songs, that have been sung for generations, seem to be the most important aspect of Christine’s music, Gràdh is Gonadh benefits from a generous proportion of contemporary and 20th Century songs and poetry. I asked Christine whether that contemporary voice still holds to the spirit of the tradition?
“The songs on Gràdh is Gonadh came about in a very gradual way. I believe that timing is very important and I just felt the time was right to record an unaccompanied album where I felt I was emotionally ready to express certain Gaelic songs in how best I could. The majority of Gaelic songs don’t need accompaniment anyway but there are some songs within the tradition that lend themselves very readily to accompaniment and that’s perfectly fine and there are others that don’t benefit in any way whatsoever, in my opinion.”
Staying with the subject of the album’s modern songs, the two recordings of William Campbell‘s beautiful tributes to his late wife have, like the poems themselves, a thirty-year gap. Was finding a traditional melody for Gad Ionndrainn’ (Missing You), any more or less daunting than composing the melody for Gràdh Maireannach (Everlasting Love)?
“I am always aware that it’s a privilege to sing of someone’s personal experience and I try to be as respectful as I can with that.
“I wanted to tell the story of the bard with just the voice and that was why I chose those particular songs. There are two songs on the CD that were composed by the same bard, William Campbell. The first one, which is a bonus track, Gad Ionndrainn, he gave me and asked if I would record it. I remember reading the words whilst he was with me and an existing melody seemed to just find it’s natural way onto the words, we both agreed that it was perfect for it. Many years later he gave me the Gràdh Maireannach song. I decided that I would have a stab at composing an original melody and did just that. He liked it so that was good enough for me.”
The album title itself reflects the widely held view of Gaelic song as a form that’s dominated by songs of sadness. Is this really the case and, if so, why?
“Someone once told me that sad songs don’t make you sad, rather they release a sadness that’s already in you. We must also remember that Gaels have a great sense of humour and there are many songs that reflect this and they certainly do have their place, I just get more satisfaction singing the slower sad ones.”
Christine’s first recording for Temple Records brought traditional Gaelic song to a wider audience, and to a new generation of singers. Since then, Gaelic songs have enjoyed a wide range of interpretations. This brought me to the subject of Christine’s work as a teacher of Gaelic song at Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye. To close, I asked whether the importance of keeping the traditional, unaccompanied approach to song alive, and respecting that heritage, goes hand-in-hand with encouraging a contemporary interpretations. Christine’s response was as open and welcoming as her music…
“At Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, where I teach on the BA Trad Music Course, I always have a mixture of both contemporary and trad songs. It’s important that you keep those songs going. We are only vehicles carrying those songs for a while – let’s sing them as best we can, we owe it to the generations that have gone.”
Christine’s contribution to Gaelic song received further recognition recently when Hands Up For Trad announced her induction into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame. (announced here). Joining the likes of Billy Connonly, Rab Noakes and Cathy Ann MacPhee; it’s a fitting accolade for someone who not only continues to record and perfrom exceptional music, but also devotes her life to sharing and teaching that music. In Gràdh is Gonadh – Guth ag aithris (Love and Loss – A Lone Voice) Christine Primrose‘s devotion Gaelic song shines through.
Gràdh is Gonadh – Guth ag aithris (Love and Loss – A Lone Voice) is available to order via Temple Records here.
Photo Credit: Steven McKenzie, Cànan Graphics Studio