Iona Fyfe – Away from my Window
Cairnie Records – 24 March 2018
Aberdeenshire singer Iona Fyfe is still only 20 years of age, and yet she’s already amassed an impressive CV. She started off as BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award semi-finalist in 2015, then 2017 was a big year for her when she was nominated for Scots Singer of the Year at the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards and then finalist in the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year. She then scored a hat-trick by winning the Molloy Award at The Trip to Birmingham Irish Trad Fest that same year…
Away From My Window is Iona’s debut full-length solo record; I choose that wording carefully, for apparently there was an EP (The First Sangs) released back in 2016, followed last year by another EP (East), this time under the Iona Fyfe Band banner and in the company of Christopher Ferrie, Charlie Grey and Callum Cronin. For this new album, though, Iona encompasses altogether more ambitious musical settings, engaging a roster of serious talent comprising several names familiar from bands like Dosca, Dallahan, Rura and Gnoss – including Tim Edey, Luc McNally, Ross Miller, Simon Gall, Graham Rorie, Charlie Stewart, Callum Cronin, Aidan Moodie, David Foley and Jani Lang (the latter also being responsible for the album’s production), while also retaining fiddler Charlie Grey from her earlier Band (trio) lineup.
Iona describes Away From My Window (which was premièred at this year’s Celtic Connections) as “a concept album which celebrates folksong revivalism and encourages the idea that folksong is an ever-changing art form, which ebbs and flows with time and genre”. It gives voice to the ballad tradition of Iona’s native Aberdeenshire (especially that region’s tradition of bothy ballads), remaining sympathetic to and respectful of that tradition. All the while Iona offers her own innovative contemporary-flavoured interpretations of this material, much of which is sourced directly from the region’s noted tradition bearers. Two of these singers give due context to individual tracks, appearing in the form of archive samples in order to set the scene: Stanley Robertson introduces the album’s title song by giving timely and heartfelt advice to a prospective exponent of the song- and story-telling tradition, while the first verse of Lizzie Higgins’ own 1969 recording of Bonny Udny prefaces Iona’s own quite special account of this well-travelled ballad (she amalgamates the versions sung by Lizzie Higgins and Jane Turriff).
Of the remaining tracks, all but three are based on traditional sources. Iona opens the disc with a lively account of Guise Of Tough, likely in tribute to the mighty singer Jock Duncan (who, she tells us, so terrified her 14-year-old self when adjudicating a bothy ballad competition!). The version of Glenlogie that Iona sings, while derived from the singing of the redoubtable Peter Shepheard, Tom Speirs and Arthur Watson, instead uses a melody resembling that normally associated with the ballad Annachie Gordon. Iona first heard Banks Of Inverurie sung by her fellow Huntly singer Shona Donaldson (I first came across it in Gordon Easton’s recording), whereas The Swan Swims is a variant of the Twa Sisters ballad that Iona came across in the version by Pete Coe and Alice Jones. The final selection on the disc is the bothy ballad Pit Gair, given an exhilarating treatment strongly featuring border pipes and mandolin.
I find it impossible to go any further with this review without turning the spotlight firmly on Iona’s exceptional singing. While her tone is youthful and abundantly charming, the sense of assurance in her delivery is astonishing for someone of her tender years. On the variety of moods required for the selection of songs she tackles here, Iona proves herself more than able to cope with, and rise above, the demands and challenges they present, and her aim is true throughout. As is her native accent – though (miraculously) that never proves impenetrable to the listener. In short, the listener’s attention will be totally engaged all the while Iona is singing, and she is rightly placed at the forefront of the recording stage even though the musical backdrops can sometimes be quite fulsomely scored – as on Glenlogie or Away from My Window for instance, which deploy a creative string arrangement, or the aforementioned Pit Gair. Elsewhere, the scoring tends to be that of chamber-folk rather than a more traditionally inclined soundscape, an impression accentuated by the presence of piano within the texture on several songs. Importantly though, these textures support Iona’s voice rather than distracting from it, even though their intricacy might lead the listener to be otherwise misled.
In its latter stages, the album shifts focus away from the traditional ballads and onto covers of more recent compositions by Michael Marra (Take Me Out Drinking) and Aidan Moffat (And So Must We Rest), both delightfully done with an authentic parlour-folk lilt. Then follows a song from Iona’s own pen (Banks Of The Tigris, a commentary on the conflict in Syria), for which producer Jani has provided an unusual, almost other-worldly setting involving programming (it reminded me a bit of early Peter Gabriel adventures) – an interesting experiment for sure, but in the end the strength of this song is such that I was left wondering how much more effective it might have sounded if it had been sung a cappella instead. Iona’s adoption of a melody somewhat akin to Blue Bleezin’ Blind Drunk is another factor in the sense of unease conjured by this song, and I look forward to hearing more of Iona’s own writing in the future. It adds another dimension to Iona’s stated exploration of her changing and broadening musical style – much as I’d still welcome hearing her in a more traditional (or a cappella) setting too, especially as her voice develops and matures.
Having praised Iona’s singing and the musicianship on display from her support team, I must finally draw your attention to the extremely high quality of the presentation of this disc – it comes with a full-colour booklet containing notes on the songs, their sources and Iona’s anecdotes where relevant, together with complete texts. An object lesson in how to release an album, one that both demands to be taken seriously and affectionately enthuses in order to ensure maximum listener pleasure from its contents. I’ll be very surprised indeed if Away From My Window doesn’t feature in the year’s best-of lists.
Order Away from my Window here: https://ionafyfe.bandcamp.com/album/away-from-my-window