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Iona Fyfe - The Real Deal

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2018 was a remarkable year for Aberdeenshire singer Iona Fyfe. It kicked off in January with a ‘live’ performance of her album, Away From My Window, at Celtic Connections, and ended in December with her walking away with the Scots Singer of the Year prize at the Scots Trad Music Awards. In between, she toured so extensively at home and abroad, including appearances at prestigious events like the Festival Interceltique de Lorient, that one paper said she “made Metallica look like skivers”. Post Trad Awards she has been congratulated in the Scottish Parliament, released a new EP, and is preparing for her finals at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in July.

In conversation with Hector Christie, those things and more are shared, including what she'd listen to on a desert island, The Gruffalo, Lady Gaga and the renaissance of the Doric language - the latter sparking off theories about Doric aficionado Bram Stoker and a Doric Dracula.

In the previous edition of The Living Tradition I made reference to Iona Fyfe bringing her “cool authority” to traditional music, and “standing on the shoulders” of previous greats as she forges a fresh chapter in the carrying stream of tradition. On her Away From My Window album she comes as close as is possible to doing just that. Here, she digitally samples Stanley Robertson and Lizzie Higgins, using archive material, whilst using unmistakably modern accompaniments and arrangements to develop those songs and put her own imprimatur upon them. On Bonnie Udny, for example, the Higgins sample seamlessly segues into Iona's own take, using six ‘cream of the crop’ musical accompanists. Anyone fearing gimmickry or compromises for the sake of modernity can relax, however; this is about natural evolution rather than revolution and it is this very song that earned Iona an 100/100 points in the solo ballad competition organised by the Buchan Heritage Society in 2016 - an unprecedented mark.

She opines, “Only when you've got to the innards of a song, understand it thoroughly, and have sung it till it's part of you, are you entitled to do something different with it. You just can't mess about with those songs.” How the two samples are used reveal an outstandingly creative mindset that blends joyously with a deep commitment to her cultural heritage. This commitment has been recognised not just by her winning the 2018 Scots Singer of the Year at the MG Alba Awards, but by a formal recognition by the Scottish Parliament in the form of the motion S5M-15027 which congratulates her and, “…appreciates her efforts to showcase Doric and Scots music, and wishes Iona every success.” (To readers who might be baffled by the “Doric” reference, a full explanation is given further on.)

I've arranged to meet Iona at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, the UK's year-round centre of remembrance, a 150-acre site of 30,000 trees and 360 monuments. This setting was chosen because of her composition, Banks Of The Tigris, written as an emotional response to the never ending holocaust that is the Syrian war. We head first to a haunting set of monuments depicting the pity of war, and end by bolting through foul weather to their café for coffee and chat.

Iona has a nasty cough (not greatly assisted by being dragged around a soaking memorial ground) and expresses her dread of a forthcoming tonsillectomy. The operation is set for later in the month and comes only after nine tours with tonsillitis. She'd been asked in advance to think about what records she'd take to a desert island as a possible ‘in’ to the interview, but this proves unnecessary as conversation flows freely and lengthily, and it's nearly three hours later when we get a polite set of nudges that the place is closing. The list is included here, nevertheless, as it may give a clue to possible future developments.

Early background

Iona was born in Huntly in Aberdeenshire, which along with Fyvie is probably mentioned in more ballads than any other place in North East Scotland. Her parents weren't particularly musically inclined but were generally supportive, although her mum thought music as a career wasn't a “real job”. Her uncle, however, had a dance band and when she was “about four or five” was influential in getting her entered in a Doric poetry competition at Keith Festival, which she won. The following year, “I was back wi' anither bit o' poetry, and a wee sang - people said, 'awwww, look at the cute wee bairn' and that maybe had something to do with me winning again.” Gradually Iona embraced a life where she “gaed tae ballad competitions, folk clubs an singaroons wi' native and visitin' tradition bearers in Aiberdeenshire.”

And later…

As she grew up, her dad would drive her to many of those events and leave her in the safe hands of some of those native tradition bearers, such as Danny Couper, Joe Aitken and Geordie Murison, among others. She still regards those “weel kent” faces as her adoptive family, with an obvious and great fondness for them (and an awe for their whisky consuming abilities). She has a fund of anecdotes about those days such as the occasion when she entered the bothy ballad competition adjudicated by the legendary Jock Duncan in the category for seniors “and the terrified 14-year-old that was me”.

At the age of 17 Iona moved to Glasgow to pursue a degree in traditional music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (R.C.S.). She'd auditioned at 16 having chosen this path over law or politics which her grades would have enabled her to do, but “when I got in at the first try, I decided just to go. Moving from Huntly definitely made me very homesick, but I started to appreciate my roots and grounding in tradition even more.”

Work

Iona has a work ethic that the Scotland On Sunday newspaper memorably described: “…playing to thousands of people on a touring schedule which would make Metallica look like skivers.” She attributes some of this to, “that background of coming from a council house type of thing which is having to constantly prove yourself by giving your very best - I did that even with physics which I bloody hated.” This dedication is reflected time and again in her approach. She took two years to produce her début CD through painstaking attention to all its details including the sleeve notes which, “had to be meticulous 'cos you just can't mess with those songs. You don't want to get anything wrong that'll offend anyone.”

Talking about her songwriting, she acknowledges, “I definitely want to write more, but feel creatively burnt out right now; trying to juggle touring, recording, the launch of a new EP and my university course.”

The 17-year-old who embarked on a course at RCS may have had limited life experience, but when it came to traditional music, was no wide-eyed ingénue. She’d already been performing for a decade, mixing with authentic traditional singers and musicians, and in the trajectory of her career in music, the course may attain the perspective of a 4 year ‘blip’, when she comes to look back. At present she obviously enjoys the course work a great deal, although I have a sense that she has already attained much of its goals including the ability to handle the business / administrative / logistics side and market herself and her music. Not only is the work ethic in evidence here, but also her adept use of social media. Iona herself brings up her extensive use of social media platforms. “I'm very much at home on social media - I grew up on it.” If you Google her name you quickly realise how true that is. It’s simple to ascertain what's on her immediate radar, and to go back through various phases of her career in recordings, videos, interviews, short film excerpts made for specific groups, and performance excerpts from clubs and festivals. The “growing up” part is verifiable, and you can witness the evolution from a slightly geeky youngster through coltish teenager, to the modern young woman who would look as much at home fronting an indie band as a folk group, and whose quiet composure is reminiscent of Saoirse Ronan.

This ‘life in front of the lens’ phenomenon is what gave the early blogger, Justin Bieber, his huge following, as people watched him as a kid progressing from someone playing guitar and singing in his bedroom to performing on international stages. In this way the reader / listener / viewer / interactor becomes a follower; comes to identify with the subject and emotionally invest in them, rejoicing at their successes and mourning their losses.

Awards

The MG Alba Trad Awards are a few days away when we meet. Iona is up for 2018 Best Scots Singer of the Year, and there is no getting away from the importance of that award to her. As noted in the previous Living Tradition, awards and competitions are subjects that can provoke controversy. My own belief is that in the Scottish traditional music world, they were started for the best of reasons, i.e. to raise the profile of a music recognised as excellent by a relatively small number of aficionados and give it at least parity of esteem. Whilst there is no doubt this has been successful, there have been some unintended consequences.

Nobody wants to see the slick promotional campaigns that attend the Hollywood Oscars and the gushing and often false bonhomie that attends the actual ceremony. Yet I've become increasingly aware that nominees find themselves in the position of having to canvass support from potential voters. This used to take the form of almost furtively beseeching audiences at live gigs to vote, but with the advancement of social media and the normalisation of voting for / against people on televised equivalents of the Roman Games (“a reference to a popular television show where cockroaches are consumed m'lud”) the “vote for me - please” season has become part of the scene. It’s perhaps too easy to sniff disdainfully, yet with a “people's vote” there is a real possibility that the award will go to the best campaigner rather than the best player or singer. If you're a young, full time musician, however, and event organisers expect to see evidence of awards, and actually ask for a list of achievements, then you ignore such developments at your peril, as the other person walks off with the prize. There is something in our popular cultural DNA that wants the modest Tom Hanks / Sandra Bullock figure to win without being seen to diminish themselves by overtly soliciting support, but with the unleashing of competitive campaigns, that toothpaste has long left the tube and can't be squeezed back in.

(A few days later she does win, and this win could have additional significance because of its possible boost for the unique local heritage of Scotland’s North East and the Doric language in particular.)

The Doric language

On 8th September 2018, The Times newspaper ran the headline, “Mither Tongue: Doric is given official status”. The article began, “For decades it faced ridicule and was forbidden in schools, but now one of the native tongues of northeast Scotland has effectively been recognised as an official language. Doric, a dialect spoken from Montrose in Angus to Nairn in the Highlands, will be acknowledged alongside English and Gaelic.”

Iona is a fierce advocate of the language and laughingly recalls being teased by fellow touring musicians as being a “Doric Nazi”, and when I ask her just how much Doric is currently being recognised, she unhesitatingly replies, “not enough”. She does acknowledge that advances have been made including small but important steps such as the translation of the children's book, The Gruffalo, into Doric. Further progress includes the introduction by Aberdeen Council of a Doric language strategy that ensures that Doric is taught to pupils in its 152 primary schools, whilst Aberdeen University has launched evening classes in Doric and hosted a performance of Handel's Messiah that was sung in the dialect.

Encouraging though those developments are, it's a bit premature to break out the bunting as there have been false dawns before, when certain writers - native and otherwise - sought to champion the language. Bram Stoker, for example, wrote two novels in Doric. He fell in love with the village of Port Errol (now Cruden Bay) in 1893 on a walking holiday, and in fact started writing Dracula there in 1895. Stoker showed how well he'd absorbed the dialect in The Watter's Mou' and may have kindled some interest, which was short lived, but imagine how much more an impact there might've been if his magnum opus had been written in Doric.

Take this passage in English: “When I asked him if he knew Count Dracula, and could tell me anything of his castle, both he and his wife crossed themselves, and, saying that they knew nothing at all, simply refused to speak further.” Then translate it into Doric: “Fin I spiered at him if he kent Count Dracula, and kid he tell me ocht o' his castle, baith he an his wife crossed theirsells, an, sayin' that they kent nithin ava, jist widna spik farther.”

Now for the classic historical “what if?”. What if a Doric Dracula in print had crossed over into film? Just imagine the impact of the cross-wielding Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) confronting Dracula (Christopher Lee), snarling “g'waa back min”.

I'll return to the main story now after saying that this language, so different from Gaelic, deserves all the champions it can find, and it has found one in Iona Fyfe.

Iona's distinctiveness

I thought the discussion on Doric essential to a full understanding of Iona's appeal. Students from music courses in different parts of the country qualify in their dozens every year, many with voices that range from the pleasant to the beautiful, whilst not necessarily having that distinctive something that makes them distinguishable from others. Here Iona comes into her own. She has a fine voice, but it is also a voice steeped in the singing traditions of the North East, and it is this, along with her ability to combine passion or delicacy with a bristling sense of self, that makes her at once authentic and interesting, and has caused Prof. Margaret Bennett to remark on the “poise and confidence beyond her years”. Part of the Stanley Robertson sample has him intoning, “when yer tellin a story or singin a song, yer the vehicle by which a tribe comes through ye.” Iona says, “I knew I'd heard Stanley say it but didn't know where, and searched for hours before I could locate it.” It had obviously contained a deep truth to her, although in terms of her tribe, we're talking more geographically than biologically. It underlines her authenticity, however - she's ‘the real deal’. Although recognising that folk song is an ever-changing art form, whether it be from Aberdeenshire or the Appalachians, she holds a strong voicing of place and a desire to keep her “ain tongue” alive.

The Bothy Ballad

Dick Gaughan grasped the class conflict at the heart of some of those ballads in his rendition of Sleepytoon, which reveals the exploited farm servants using defiant humour in such songs as one of the few cathartic routes of hitting back or making life more tolerable (as some blues songs do).

Prior to that, the now long departed Grampian Television station contextualised such songs in the most debasing manner. Programmes such as Ingle Neuk or Bothy Nichts featured men and women dressing up as depictions of a backward yokel culture, complete with false moustaches amongst the melodeons and haplessness amongst the hobnails. They created a patronising ethos akin to the old American minstrel shows, or the bumpkin character that Minnie Pearl (complete with a hat still carrying its price tag, and ear splitting yells of “HOWDEEEEEE!!”) depicted for years at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, and that undignified representation of bothy ballads lasted well beyond the lifetime of the TV shows, and echoes still persist.

Contrast that with Iona. It transpires she is an admirer of both Lady Gaga and Dolly Parton, “not just their music but the fact that they're forthright independent women who've made their way making the music they want to make and presenting it the way they want.” (She additionally admires Gaga on a number of levels, including her quiet altruism and the way she's handled her condition of fibromyalgia.) This independence clearly applies to Iona, who walks her own walk when it comes to presenting herself, whether it be music or style she's concerned with, and from that position she's able to reinvent songs with dignity. Another fine singer from Huntly, Shona Donaldson, won the Bothy Ballad Champion of Champions competition in 2016 - the first woman to do so in 34 years - and Iona has continued to thrive in what was a male dominated tradition and her singularity of impact in doing so is unrivalled amongst her peers. In her hands, for example, the old bothy chestnut, Guise Of Tough, is no longer a leaden plod but a fresh sprightly sound bringing to light the song's wry narrative with a light touch whose very impudence in rhyming “clatter” with “tattie chapper” raises a grin.

Moving on

If folk music is a genre, and Scottish folk music a sub-genre, then Doric must be a sub-sub-genre and, within that, bothy ballads with their esoteric agricultural language of “heid horsemen” and “penny fees”, a relatively small niche. There’s much more to Iona than bothy ballads and even the repertoire of the North East, however, and she tackles Scottish songs from a wider canvas. More recently, she has also been drawing upon Appalachian oikotypes (stories that jump across national boundaries and cultures in different countries but have cultural aspects specific to that culture e.g. a Chinese Santa) thus drawing upon the repertoires of non-Scots tradition bearers. When I ask about a change in direction on her new EP, Dark Turn Of Mind, she corrects me. “A change of direction is wrong. Yes there are some changes in instrumentation, and I'm drawing from wider sources, but to me it's about something fresh and different whilst recognising the universalism of ballads.” People can easily put singers and musicians in a ‘genre box’, and she's concerned to escape such pigeonholing, but “without losing the integrity or appreciation that I grew up around, and that's what my new EP is all about.”

I don't think there is much to worry about regarding any such losses, or of any squandering of her strong foundation in pursuit of changing fads or fashion. Bob Dylan's words on this score strike me as uncannily apposite:

“May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift”
- (From Forever Young by Bob Dylan)

Could've been written for her.

Iona's Desert Island choices

1. I Will Lay Ye Doon Love - The Exiles (1967 album)
2. When I Was Noo But Sweet Sixteen - Jeannie Robertson (Songs Of A Scots Tinker Lady)
3. The Battle Of Harlaw - Old Blind Dogs (Five)
4. The Wife Of Usher's Well - Hedy West (Old Times And Hard Times – 1968)
5. Glenlogie - Back Of The Moon (Luminosity – 2005)
6. Bonnie Udny - Lizzie Higgins (Princess Of The Thistle)
7. If I Die Young - The Band Perry (The Band Perry)
8. It Is What It Is - Kacey Musgrave (Same Trailer Different Park)
9. Barbra Allen - Dolly Parton & Altan (Heartsongs: Live from Home)
10. Jaqueline - Sarah Jarosz (Undercurrent)

By Hector Christie

Published in Issue 127 of The Living Tradition, February 2019

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