Thursday, April 10, 2008

Maeve Mackinnon - Emotional Connections

Whilst I was up at Celtic Connections this year, it was my absolute pleasure to spend some time in the company of the lovely singer, Maeve Mackinnon, and have a good ol' blether about music! The article that resulted from this interview is featured in issue 78 of The Living Tradition magazine.

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Maeve Mackinnon - Emotional Connections

Maeve Mackinnon has been paying her dues, singing across Scotland since her late teens, taking in College courses in Gaelic and gaining an honours degree from RSAMD along the way. This culminated in the release of her debut album, Don't Sing Love Songs, in summer of last year, which was met by much critical acclaim and has continued to attract interest. I first caught Maeve at Celtic Connections in 2007 where she was debuting material from her album before its release. Towards the end of last year Maeve was honoured with the Up and Coming Artist of the Year award at the Scots Trad Music Awards, and then, just one year on from my first encounter, Celtic Connections festival director Donald Shaw afforded Maeve the opportunity to perform a prestigious Classic Album gig at this year's festival, alongside Lauren MacColl who was invited to perform When Leaves Fall at the same gig. That's quite some journey in one year! I was pleased to catch up with Maeve at this year's Celtic Connections and find out a bit more about her blossoming career in music.

There is currently a clear fascination with traditional music among young, exceptionally talented and technically capable instrumentalists, and I asked Maeve to what extent she feels the voice is important as an instrument and what place the singer holds in this particular context. 'I always thought that it's the job of a singer to be that connection between the musicians and the audience. People are moved by vocals; that's what I believe anyway. People can really connect to the voice, and people listen to words.' Maeve's own connections have been made across an eclectic array of genres: 'I'm really in to old recordings. I came across some really old Paul Brady recordings and I love listening to old bluegrass and country. I really enjoy listening to a lot of singers that other people might find a bit rough round the edges -- I love to hear raw emotion screaming out of songs. One of my favourite singers of all time is Ibrahim Ferrer; I could listen to him forever. There's certain singers who just have this absolute power that just grabs you.'

This eclecticism was certainly apparent in Maeve's debut album, running the gamut from traditional Gaelic song to American folk ballads and drawing on influences as diverse as field recordings of Barra waulking songs to tracks from Dolly Parton's recent forays into bluegrass. I asked Maeve what it was that drew her to a particular song. 'You really have to connect with a song and really listen to what the story is coming out of the song. As a student I didn't connect so much to what I was singing about, and then I think as you get older you get this real emotional connection with your music, or certainly that happened with me. I remember that after I'd been in the Young Trad competition, I met up with a friend of mine who works at the BBC, and he said to me "you're a great singer, but you've not had enough shit in your life." At first I was quite taken aback by that statement but now I know what he means; if you've lived a little you can connect to the songs a lot more. I have been driven by a lot of quite dark songs; certainly the album is quite full of dark subject matter. I think as a musician you go through stylistic phases of what you like to cover.'

Another aspect that drew much attention to Don't Sing Love Songs is the interesting and innovative arrangements that gave the album a very distinctive sound, receiving the noteworthy praise of many music critics. Maeve told me more about how the arrangements came about, and the vibrant musicians she was able to work with. 'I'd been working with Ali Hutton for years and years, since we were both students. When I asked Ali to be on my album, he suggested that I should ask Duncan Lyall to produce the album.' Duncan Lyall is the bass player with the young, Scottish accordion sensations Box Club, and has also played with Croft No. Five, being a graduate of Strathclyde University's Applied Music degree. Ultimately, the production of Don't Sing Love Songs was to be shared between both Lyall and Hutton, with the addition of Patsy Reid on strings and Martin O'Neill on percussion. 'Martin had previously been in a band with Ali and Duncan and the three of them work really well together, they sort of follow each other's lead almost without even thinking.' I asked Maeve where the impetus for the sound of the album came from, something that sets it apart from many releases in the genre. 'I really wanted strings to be at the forefront of the sound and I really wanted a lot of bass, because the songs are very dramatic. We didn't want it to be a run of the mill album and a lot of it is very quirky. Duncan and Ali worked really hard to come up with a lot of the string arrangements and Patsy was able to play them all and come up with her own ideas as well.'

'We recorded the bulk of it at Angus Lyon's cottage in Lamington, which he has turned into a studio, and we were able to go down whenever we wanted and we could spend maybe a week at a time; some days we were working for like twelve or thirteen hours straight, so it was very intensive and by the end of it we were all ready to kill each other!' This being Maeve's first venture into the recording studio, it was very much a learning experience for her; 'I look back on that recording and my singing's far better now than it was when I recorded the album. I really learned to sing when I was recording that album; You become so aware of everything you're doing with your voice and control of your breathing and these were all things I had to work on and it certainly taught me a lot about the things that I had to really focus on if I was going to move forward.'

Maeve is not a native speaker of Gaelic, indeed she didn't begin to learn it formally until her late teens, so it might be seen as a brave move that she chose to record over half the album in Gaelic, and one that has attracted some criticism from certain quarters. 'I was a big fan of Capercaillie and I remember hearing them on the radio when I was a kid, they had a top-forty hit with Coisich A Rùin, and I remember hearing that and thinking that it was incredible. I went to Sabhal Mòr Ostaig one summer and did a couple of Gaelic courses and then straight after that I started at Clydebank College doing a diploma in Gaelic for a year. I started at RSAMD in 2000 and I had maybe two or three lessons a week in Gaelic for four years and I had a lot of brilliant tuition in Gaelic song from the likes of Kenna Campbell and Mairi MacInnes and really learned so much, but at the end of the course I just knew my Gaelic wasn't up to scratch.' Not one to be put off, Maeve's admirable determination and commitment to the language found her back at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig for a further year in 2005; 'That was an incredible but very challenging year though, because I was having to do quite a lot of work at weekends, teaching and singing, and I'd started putting down the album at this stage. The great thing was that I got so much out of that year in terms of language and now I work in a Gaelic unit in a primary school, doing Gaelic language support.' Despite Maeve's obvious passion for and commitment to the language, the fact that Maeve has recorded in Gaelic, whilst not being a native speaker, has drawn some criticism. 'I think it's very easy for people to criticise who might not actually be ‘out there’ themselves. I'm not a fan of public forums where people can write under pseudonyms. I say if you've got something to say, put your name to it. Not doing so renders whatever you have to say completely illegitimate and I can't take it seriously. I welcome constructive criticism. Certainly, I'm always learning with my Gaelic and I've never claimed to have impeccable Gaelic. I've been involved at Fèisean nan Gàidheal for about six or seven years now, I've been teaching and doing classes and I always like to give back what I've taken out, that's always been really important to me.'

Maeve's early Christmas present arrived at the beginning of December in the form of the Up and Coming Artist of the Year award at the 2007 Scots Trad Music Awards. 'I was really chuffed about that; really so pleased. I'm not a huge fan of competitions; I did the Young Trad competition and I felt physically sick for about a week. I just didn't expect to win, because there were so many great artists in the same category as me. It's a lovely accolade to get and it was good craic as well.' Maeve's return to Celtic Connections in 2008, to fill one of the Classic Album slots at the request of festival director Donald Shaw, finds her career gathering further momentum. The festival, and in particular the support of Donald Shaw, obviously provides an invaluable advantage for young artists. 'It's given me a huge helping hand with what I'm trying to do in promoting my music. Lauren MacColl (fiddle player) and I had talked for a while about getting a double-bill together, and she and I both happened to have albums out at the same time and we happened to both send them to Donald Shaw. Neither of us were really expecting anything, but he came back to us and offered us the gig, then he phoned us back and offered us the classic albums gig. We've been very lucky to get a lot of exposure and Donald has mentioned Lauren and I quite a few times, so it's been a huge helping hand. We got a full-house for our gig and a five-star review and now the two of us are planning a couple of tours together.' This helping hand almost brings Maeve's story to date right back to the start; her early fascination with Capercaillie being the start of her journey and the latest chapter being the admiration of, and encouragement from, one of Capercaillie's key players. 'There's something really special about that for me.'

So how does Maeve Mackinnon build on these successes? How might she appeal to a wider audience beyond the Scottish music scene? 'I'm happy with the way things are going with the album, I would really like to look at the possibility of going over to the States as well as trying to get some more gigs in England.' Maeve is certainly under no disillusions about the task ahead of her if she wishes to build on her present successes; 'I feel quite strongly about the whole image thing and marketing. I think that in folk music, it's had that woolly jumper reputation for so long and it's not like that any more. So why not use trends, get some edgy pictures done and do your website up? It's about image as well as your music; even if you've got the most incredible sound, it's got to be about the whole package.'

Beneath the glossy album artwork and the adventurous arrangements lie years of commitment and hard work, and an undeniable passion for both singing and the Gaelic language. With a continued drive and dedication, it could be a very musically rewarding career ahead for Maeve Mackinnon.

Photo by Lieve Boussauw

You can visit Maeve's MySpace page here!

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