Well, it’s been a bit busy here for a few months now. I’m up to my ears in all things ‘Songs of Separation’. SoS is a project I’ve been working on since 2013, involving ten fantastic female folkies. With Eliza Carthy, Karine Polwart, Kate Young, Mary Macmaster, Hannah Read, Hannah James, Hazel Askew, Rowan Rheingans, Jenn Butterworth and myself gathered together on the Isle of Eigg, we made an album exploring the musical traditions of the UK, with songs which prompt reflection on the many types of separation we experience as we go through life. It is a project with strong political drivers, many songs are ‘calls to arms’ or action.

It’s been my ‘big project’, from concept to production, and now (unexpectedly) we are taking it out on the road! The album launches on 29th January, with a tour.

Find out more about Songs of Separation and its aims, both musical and wider, here.

One of the spin offs of the SoS project has been this article, in the highly respected Songlines magazine. It’s quite unusual for bass players to get any kind of feature, I’m not used to it, so it feels quite weird. I enjoyed the process of working out what my favourite albums are, which musicians inspire me and what I’d have rather been if I wasn’t a musician! Still feels weird though…

Danny Thompson Project – double double bass and a studio

Danny Thompson and Jen Hill

A quick update, because I really ought to be playing the bass (rather than messing about online). TOMORROW I hit the studio with Danny Thompson, the most incredible bass player, mentor and friend. This is a dream come true, and I keep thinking I might wake up at any moment!

I’ve been supported by Creative Scotland to undertake an ‘Advanced Mentoring’ project, working with Danny to pursue a real interest of mine: the role of the double bass in Scottish traditional music. Danny and I have spent 18 months meeting up, sharing music electronically, and I have been composing, arranging and singing daft bass lines down the phone at him. My playing has been affected massively, I feel more confident, more genuine in my choices, more able to ‘throw out the rule book’ and much much more creative as an individual.

The work grew from my collaboration with Damian Helliwell’s Metta (tunes below), wherein I was using the bass in a variety of ways, moving away from the heavy ‘ceilidh style’ of playing (strong 1+3 beats, to help the dancers), and towards a more contrapuntal approach, where the bass part works in tandem with the melody line, creating a second tier of melody, if you like. At the same time, in other tunes, I’d ‘groove’ rather than play a countermelody… it all depends on what serves the tune. Some people love this approach, and others (more dyed in the wool) are a bit challenged by it… so having Danny on board made everything seem possible, and enabled me to develop my style with confidence and joy.

In the next few days, I’ll be recording two airs, arranged for two basses. We’ll be joined by Angus Lyon on keys and possibly box (depending on what we decide and what he’s up for!), and I can’t wait to share the results. These tracks will be used on a future album, focused around Scottish trad, which will (I hope) make you dance your socks off.

I’d like to thank individuals at Creative Scotland, in particular Brian, David and Emma.

Here’s a wee vid for your enjoyment

Creative Scotland logo

Songs of Separation!

Songs of Separation header logo

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.

Working with young musicians

Feis Eige basses concert

I get so much joy from working with young musicians!

Fun, inspiration, insight into music and the many ‘reminders’ of the positive role that music can play in people’s lives are encapsulated in a good lesson or workshop. Teaching recharges my own batteries, and my commitment to music and to passing on the skills I’ve been lucky enough to have given to me, by the teachers and players who inspired me along the way. I’ve been fortunate to spend the last 15 years working with lots of young musicians, through samba workshops, strings tutoring (e.g. Tinderbox Orchestra) and singing.

One of the highlights of last year, since moving to Eigg, was being involved in the Feis – a youth music course for young people that specialises in traditional music. This was very much breaking new ground for Feis Eige, who would usually focus on ‘trad’ instruments – button box, fiddle, guitar and gaelic song. Seven young people learned bass over three days, culminating in a concert where they performed a trad tune, in two parts, along with some more modern numbers, Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’, and ‘There Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone”, by Bill Withers – with the audience joining in on the vocal line – a memorable moment!

Both the young people and the audience enjoyed it so much, I am hopeful that Feis Eige will be able to include the instrument in the future, now that the young folk have got a taste for the bass!

And I love how bass players come in all shapes and sizes, as seen above!

What would the Wailers say?!

I have had the good fortune to listen to a lot of reggae through my life.

In fact, it’s been one of my ‘constant’ genres of choice, since I went to my first reggae gig at 6 years old. Others genres come and go, but reggae remains, always uplifting, always taking me to a place of ease and always delivering those fat, lazy, deeply pleasing bass lines… lines that your average Joe (non bass player) could sing to you, they are so ‘sunk into’ our shared musical culture. These lines create the ‘feel’ that is absolutely integral to the reggae / rocksteady sound.

Imagine my surprise then, when the Gaelic supergroup Daimh requested a very well known reggae riff, to be played along with a Gaelic song called Oran na Cloiche.

I guess, as it might for many bass players, this challenged me. Not in terms of the actual playing (I was well up for grooving that collection of notes, in that order), but in terms of the sense that we might be ‘cheesin’ it up’; that we might somehow be misusing someone else’s musical heritage, misappropriating an iconic riff (for comedy purposes?).

Heritage is really important in these parts (West Highlands of Scotland). I’m still on a journey of understanding around the attitudes in traditional music, which can mean that certain things are simply not accepted, because they differ from what’s gone before. And then, you find other things that are a total goer, when you wouldn’t think they would be, like this incredible beat-box-meets-gaelic-rap scenario, featuring 16 year old Lewis MacRae:

So, did I ‘Stir it Up’?, I hear you ask. Well, yes. Yes I did.

But only after I’d had a brilliant lyric-related realisation, thanks to Kathleen MacKinnes’ translation of Oran na Cloiche. It turns out that it’s all about a stone that has been taken from Scotland and is being returned (could it be the Stone of Destiny, stolen from Scotland in 1296 by the English, and stolen back as recently as 1950?):

A’ Chlach a bha mo sheanmhair
‘S mo sheanair oirre seanchas
Air tilleadh mar a dh’fhalbh i

Mo ghalghad a’ Chlach
‘S gur coma leam i ‘n Cearrara
An Calasraid no ‘n Calbhaigh
Cho fad’ ‘s a tha i ‘n Albainn
Nan garbhlaichean cas

The Stone that my grandmother
And grandfather used to talk about
Has returned as it left
My brave Stone
And I don’t care whether it’s in Kerrera
Callendar or Calvay
As long as it’s in
Steep, rugged Scotland

That made me think of the great Bob Marley song ‘Cornerstone’ (“The stone that the builder refuse, will always be the headcorner stone”), which advises us to overcome our aversions:

“…the things people refuse
are the things they should use
do you hear me?
hear what I say”

Given that advice, I figured Bob, Pete and Bunny (and either Aston ‘Family Man’ Barratt, or Robbie Shakespeare – the two bassists on the Catch a Fire album) – probably wouldn’t have minded that much. That’s my excuse, anyway.

Songs of Separation – Good to Go!

Songs of Separation header logo

I am really excited to tell you about a new piece of work – Songs of Separation – that will bring together ten of the UK’s celebrated female folk musicians, to rehearse, arrange and record an album of traditional songs which touch on this complex and fascinating theme. The project begins with a period of research and sharing of songs, culminating in a week of rehearsal and recording on the beautiful Isle of Eigg, in the north west of Scotland.

The idea came in the run up to the Scottish Independence Referendum, when I could see a huge ‘separation’ between the people of Scotland and England being created by very different media messages that were being received through mainstream media sources. I was hearing hugely different interpretations from intelligent, socially-minded people on each side of the Scotland-England border, and I was astounded by the growing distance this seemed to create. It occurred to me that the tools used to separate people, through media and politics, included fear-mongering, mis-information and the encouragement of self-centered values.

At the same time, I was drawn to thinking about ‘separation’ in a wider context; personal, political, economic, gender related, opportunity related…and how these play out in people’s lives. Conversely, it occurred to me, not all separations are negative, but can instead represent emancipation; freedom from a situation that no longer serves.

I’d recently been working with Rowan Rheingans from Lady Maisery, a brilliant three piece from England, and had been overjoyed to hear what they had to say (or sing) about social separations on their album ‘Mayday’. I’d worked the previous year for Eliza Carthy, who has an incredible gift for exploring difficult themes through her songs (‘Breadcrumbs’ and ‘Tea at 5’ being just two examples). It suddenly reminded me that the folk music I had loved growing up told me something about the world, and prompted me to think about things more deeply. I wanted to do something musically to mark this important time, and I wanted to work with like-minded, thinking musicians, in order to do so.

Over a year later, we’re ‘good to go’, with a fantastic group of musicians whose music prompts deep reflection, who have something to say and who are, as they say, great craic!: Karine Polwart, Eliza Carthy, Mary MacMaster, Kate Young, Rowan Rheingans, Hazel Askew, Hannah James, Hannah Read, Jenn Butterworth and myself on bass. We’ve been fortune to gain funding from Creative Scotland and Enterprise Music Scotland, and are hoping for the final piece of the financial puzzle to be solved by Arts Council England. Fingers crossed!

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