This is really exciting – it’s only ten days to go until the Songs of Separation project. This is a gathering of musicians from across the UK, to arrange, rehearse and record an album of mostly traditional songs, exploring themes – social, political, economic, personal – musically exploring human experience over generations, as told to us through songwriters of years gone by. This promises to be the experience of a lifetime – and I am delighted to be playing with some of my musical heroines.
The idea germinated back in 2013, about 8 months before the Scottish Independence Referendum, as I watched the political manhandling of the potential separation of Scotland. I was thinking a lot about the ‘structures’ in our society that somehow ‘hem us in’, how we are, en masse, quite easily manipulated. I was reflecting on the role of music in society – how, particularly in folk music, the role of the songwriter has been to reflect something about ourselves to us, to comment on society and the structures of control therein.
During this time, I moved to the Isle of Eigg, a remarkable place that has taken its own future into its hands – by ridding itself of a laird, and almost feudal system, almost 18 years ago. It is an inspiring island – somewhere that people have been able ‘try out’ solutions to the problems the world faces today – the need for clean energy, self-governance, community-driven policy. It’s ‘separation’ from an antiquated system has led to its success, and its distance from the mainland has given rise to innovative and green solutions (because these make the most sense, in a self-sustaining community). It is not to be idealised; like anywhere, it experiences challenges, but some of the achievements of this small community show us the way to a better future.
I had been fortunate to work with some of the musicians on the Songs of Separation team – Eliza Carthy, Rowan Rheingans, Kate Young. I’d been inspired by others – Karine Polwart, Hazel Askew and Hannah James who, with Rowan make up the trio Lady Maisery. In fact, Lady Maisery had a lot to do with the idea of an album that raises important social issues; their album ‘Mayday’ had a huge impact on me, and continues to do so. Hannah Read was an obvious choice – a fantastic Scottish fiddler with a beautiful voice, Hannah had spent much of her childhood on Eigg. That connection felt important. Jenn Butterworth, guitarist, came highly recommended by just about everyone, and Mary Macmaster, harpist, is a legend in her own lifetime – she’s even played with Sting!
At the same time, I was reading a lot – Pema Choudron, Clara Pinkola Estes, Ekhart Tolle, Proust – people who make us think about what it is to be alive, whose writing can help us consider how best to go about this thing we call ‘life’. This area of personal development, along with lots of yoga and meditation, seemed to tie into the SoS themes and I hope we will explore the ‘connectedness’ that underlies the key theme: the notion of ‘separation'(personal, political, social, economic, gender releated etc) and how songwriters over generations reflect to us similar human responses to these issues. It shows us that we are not so separate at all.
Watch out for the album, Songs of Separation, to be released in the autumn of 2015.