Julie Fowlis – Alterum
Machair Records Ltd – 27 October 2017
The irresistible allure of Gaelic song presents itself in many forms, but when that enchantment comes through the voice of Julie Fowlis, there are few who fail to fall under the spell. The title of Julie’s fifth studio album, alterum suggests change – a moving forward; perhaps a surprising choice, given that for over ten years the career of this gifted North Uist singer, musician and broadcaster has been a constant moving forward.
There’s a hint of elemental magic in the album’s opening song, as in A Phiuthrag ‘s a Phiuthar a woman calls to her sister from her entrapment in a fairy hill. The gentle lilt of the song is delivered in a duet with Mary Chapin Carpenter and beautifully set among Donald Shaw‘s string arrangements. A wide sound with a gentle voice, to open an album that certainly seems to take Julie on some unexpected journeys, including English language songs for the first time.
That opening brought the unexpected pleasure of hearing Mary Chapin Carpenter sing in Gaelic, but she also joins Julie for one of the album’s songs in English – Archie Fisher‘s Windward Away. From a leading light of the Scottish Folk scene, we move on to an equally revered name south of the border. Julie learned Go Your Way from the singing of Anne Briggs (who Folk Radio UK interviewed here), and on listening you can’t help thinking it’s a blessing that a voice as fine as Julie’s doesn’t restrict itself to singing in Gaelic.
This linguistic freedom of expression has one final outlet, as Julie teams up with South Uist singer Gillebrìde MacMillan for Camariñas, a song in praise of the Galician town of the same name. The combination of Gillebrìde’s Gaelic translation, Duncan Chisholm‘s fiddle and Aoife Ní Bhriain‘s viola adds a flavour of Gaeldom to an elegant dance that could easily be rushed, but the pace stays resolutely gentle. Julie and Gillebrìde first performed the song for the ‘Facing the Atlantic’ project at Stirling’s Tolbooth Theatre; exploring the historic and cultural connections between Galicia and the Western Isles.
Of course, it’s her gift for modern interpretations of Gaelic song that has earned Julie most acclaim, and those are well represented on alterum. Duncan Chisholm and Michael McGoldrick join in for Fear A Bhrochain / Dòmhnall Binn, a puirt à beul with undertones of Indian folk from Julie’s shruti box. Another piece of traditional mouth music, Thèid Mi Do Loch Àlainn, enjoys a gentle extended introduction before an upbeat song with a chorus of off-beat strings join to give the song wings in a rich and exciting combination.
The same string section of Greg Lawson (violin), Fiona Stephen (violin), Kobus Frick (violin) Rhoslyn Lawton (viola) and Su-a-Lee (cello) provide an almost orchestral opening for Dhèirich Mi Moch, B’Fheàrr Nach Do Dh Èirich (I Rose Early, Would That I Hadn’t). Among the soft melancholy of another early rise, Dh’ èirich Mi Moch Madainn Cheòthar (I Arose Early On A Misty Morning), layers of vocal from Julie and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, and a low/high whistle duet from Julie and Michael McGoldrick burst quietly into harmonious song. With little more than a simple drone for accompaniment, Julie’s voice is crystal clear for Òran An Ròin (Seal Song), and another tale of the supernatural that reaches deep into the soul.
Perhaps the clearest lesson in how to build a contemporary song around a traditional one comes as Donal Luny joins on bodhrán for An Aghaidh Fàilte Na Mòr-Thìr. As the waulking song skips along contentedly the sound grows, piece by piece, with fiddle and low whistle injecting a sense of pace. As for an original modern song, Julie has that expertly covered too. Cearcall Mun Ghealaich (Circle About The Moon) features the poem of the same name by Skye poet Catrìona NicGumaraid, over Donald Shaw‘s piano. Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh joins Julie for the carefully structured layers of vocal, closing the album on a lingering, celestial note.
As Julie Fowlis continues to develop her broad repertoire of Gaelic song, alterum succeeds in exploring connections with other languages, cultures and art forms that enrich her music even further. As the specially commissioned work of Highland photographer Craig Mackay that adorns the album demonstrates, the universal themes of transition, loss, spirituality resonate in any language, including music and art. Above all, though, alterum is, quite simply, an album of the most beautiful music.
Pre-order Alterum: Amazon