For the last 20 years Scottish folk band, Malinky, has made a name for itself as one of the great champions of traditional Scots song. As the band prepares to launch its 20th anniversary album, Handsel, I caught up with two of its founder members, Steve Byrne and Mark Dunlop.
For the last 20 years Scottish folk band, Malinky, has made a name for itself as one of the great champions of traditional Scots song. As the band prepares to launch its 20th anniversary album, Handsel, I caught up with two of its founder members, Steve Byrne and Mark Dunlop. They start by telling me a bit about the early days - the line-up back then consisted of Steve, Mark, Karine Polwart and Kit Patterson. Mark begins: “As I recall, the scene at the time comprised either instrumental bands who did the odd song (e.g. Deaf Shepherd), or purely instrumental acts."
“I agree,” Steve continues. “We were definitely in a period where the sound of the classic instrumental bands was starting to come back into vogue, and I’d felt personally the need for a mainly song-based band to counter that to an extent. I’d been in Edinburgh studying at the School of Scottish Studies for about two years when I met Karine at sessions and I think our first kind of ‘arrangement’ together was a version of The Bonnie Lass O’ Fyvie downstairs in the Oak. Karine got a floor spot at Edinburgh Folk Club in the autumn of 1998 and she was keen to do it with a band, so called on a few people like me who she had encountered in sessions, we met for rehearsal and whoosh, we had a gig 10 days later supporting Robin Williamson. At that time, we were all otherwise engaged – Mark as a town planner, I think Karine was still working with Women’s Aid, I was a student and Kit was a computer programmer.”
“Initially, I think expectations were limited to auditioning for the newly-announced Danny Awards at Celtic Connections, in memory of Danny Kyle,” says Mark. “The fact that we won a ‘Danny’ within three months of getting together meant things gathered momentum quicker than they would have otherwise done. There’s no denying that Karine’s voice was what made us stand out – that, and being a young band pushing a song-based sound. I think it’s fair to say we were rather unique at that time, so the scene seemed keen to hear us and give us a fair crack of the whip. There was a certain element of being swept up in the first year - winning the Danny, getting bookings including Lorient, getting a deal with Greentrax, and planning and recording the first CD, getting to know Davy Steele, releasing Last Leaves. It all just fell into place, really. I’ve always felt grateful that the first band I played with worked out so well – that’s been down to the people who’ve been in the band. We’re at a stage now where we’ve gelled in terms of personalities and we don’t have to get to know one another because we’ve been all over the world together, slept in dodgy accommodation together, seen the best and worst of each other...”
“That’s right,” says Steve. “I guess I’ve always been an admirer of the longevity of certain bands and acts. I’ll be honest, there have been a few times where I’ve wondered about the sense in continuing the band, as the scene has changed and we’ve hit a few hurdles on the way. But by doing a few simple things like learning (although it may have taken a while) that it’s nice to be nice, to follow up with people and organisers later on, to take some elements of direct control, and also trying to get some of the organising right, like maintaining a good mailing list and fan base. Some of those basics can make a huge difference in your ability to sustain a band for a good while.”
Mark continues: “By the time we hit the first big bump in the road, which was Karine and Leo (McCann – who joined the band in 2001 for a few years) leaving, the remainder of us believed in the band enough to keep on doing it. Eventually the band had enough presence and creative momentum to keep sustaining itself.”
Over the years there have been several changes in personnel, but the current line-up of Steve, Mark, Fiona Hunter and Mile Vass seems fairly stable, with the four having worked together for a long time, and having a fairly distinctive Malinky sound.
Steve tells a bit of the story. “The first official gig of the initial line-up was on 9th February 1999 at Montrose Folk Club. We did a few notable gigs in that time: Celtic Connections supporting Boys Of The Lough, Lorient Festival, Tønder and Cambridge festivals. Around the same sort of time, Karine joined Battlefield Band when Davy Steele became ill, which was a great opportunity for her albeit in very sad circumstances. In reality, it probably quelled Malinky’s potential for a while, not least as North American agents were fairly clear to us that two bands with the same singer wasn’t going to fly in that market. But because we’d worked so closely with Davy, we felt we could do nothing but support the decision. In the end, Karine was only in the Batties for about 18 months and I suppose it probably also gave our profile a wee nudge – and certainly gave Karine some valuable experience touring with a high-profile group.”
“Around 2001 we changed fiddlers, bringing in Jon Bews whom I’d met around Edinburgh sessions and noted his flair for song accompaniment. Shortly thereafter we felt we wanted to expand the sound and Leo McCann joined on button box and whistles for what became the 3 Ravens line-up. In the meantime, I had graduated and taken on a part-time job as Traditional Arts Officer for Edinburgh Council, so the mixed availabilities of the various band members started to play a role in how much we could actively tour.”
“3 Ravens came out and made quite an impact and subsequently Karine’s song, Thaney, from that album was nominated for a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award, so we all got a night out in London! Karine’s solo album, Faultlines, came out in 2003 and by the end of 2004 it was clear that people were heading in different directions, with Karine’s solo work taking off and Leo and his wife Linda soon to become parents. So we knew a change was coming, and we decided to continue and seek a new lead singer and another musician. So, in came Fiona Hunter whom I’d first met at a Greig-Duncan Young Singers event in Aberdeen in 2000, and multi-instrumentalist Ewan MacPherson. By 2008 things changed again and Mike Vass and Dave Wood came in, and Mike has been with us ever since.”
Mark continues: “We all know each other both as people and as ‘artists’, so we know the types of songs that suit our personal styles and voices, as well as those which can be arranged for a four-piece band. There are plenty of good songs which don’t stand up well to arrangement in a band setting. Ultimately, we put the songs front and centre, rather than the band members. Sonically, the core band sound has always been about bouzouki, fiddle, whistles, with vocals and vocal harmonies. We each have a certain character as musicians and singers. My whistle playing is fairly distinctive, Mike’s fiddling is imaginative and technically really good. Fi has a distinctive, earthy voice, Steve’s an imposing, declamatory singer and an excellent singer of harmonies or joint lead vocals on the double handers/multiple vocals that we’ve always tried to include. Being very much the ‘third singer’ allows me the freedom to be able to choose my material and sing in a style that’s different to both Fi and Steve without sticking out like a sore thumb. We’ve been fortunate to have two very powerful, but very different, female singers as a hook to hang the instrumentation around to create the ‘Malinky’ sound.”
“Yep,” agrees Steve, “we’ve pushed and pulled a bit with the interplay of bouzoukis and guitars over the years according to personnel, but more recently Mike has stepped out as a wonderful tenor guitar player which gives us a good grounding for arrangements on this new album especially, and more possibilities than we might otherwise have had. I’ve found that helpful, as there were times when I felt perhaps a bit exposed as just a bouzouki leading a track, it’s not always the fullest sound depending on the keys we’re singing in. Also, the addition of the cello when Fiona joined meant that bowed strings have formed part of the palette over the last few albums, and Mike is quite skilled in arranging parts for fiddle and cello together. We’re also conscious when arranging to try to find space for everyone to contribute, and that can be tricky at times, as we’re also mindful of not overcrowding the songs.”
“Usually bands break up either because they run out of steam or fall out. We’re too long in the tooth to fall out at this stage – possibly ‘too late to stop now’ as the Dubliners said! We’ve all grown older and all of us have had changing life circumstances, priorities are different, we’re a better band unit as a result – it’s not always about the band. Personally, I hope I’ve matured and become better at accepting different perspectives and the people management that being a band organiser requires. It wasn’t always the case!”
With three strong singers, there’s an obvious focus on song in Malinky, and this makes them quite different from many other bands, especially these days, where often the focus shifts more. Being first-class instrumentalists, the band members are well able to play the big sets of tunes, but in general they don’t.
Mark explains why. “As individuals and as a band, our ethos is ‘the sang’s the thing’. That’s not just a glib soundbite. The song traditions that we work with reflect life in all its forms, whether they be joyful, celebratory, impassioned, despairing, or just plain wicked or unpleasant. Actually, bringing people into our traditions by making these songs accessible to them is, for us, broadening our culture and trying to enrich people’s lives and cultural outlook. The songs have meaning and context; they reflect places and lifestyles that may be long gone, or they may reflect basic human emotions that are as relevant now as they ever were. There’s a link between places and people and the oral tradition. By performing traditional songs we’re tying the past and the present together, and hopefully sowing the seeds for traditional singers of the future.”
Steve agrees: “Folk who know me will have heard my mantra of ‘Dig Where You Stand’ that has been a feature of my community workshops over the past few years. I’ve a strong belief that local song is a key gateway to folk getting to know their local traditions, the area, its history, the local language and dialect, and the end result is that folk - bairns especially - have more confidence in themselves. I believe it equips folk with the tools to realise that their own culture is varied and unique, and worth caring about, and to realise that everybody across the world has traditions that are individual and personal to them and the places they come from, and that can be several places at once, just like me, a Scots-Irish mongrel married to a German. I take the view that if folk are more confident in their own culture and way of speaking, expressing themselves, they are more receptive to cultures from elsewhere and commonalities that we all share. That comes from my ethnology background, as well as experiences travelling on the road, and I’m all for finding commonalities in this dreadful time of ‘othering’ groups of people and cultures in political and public life.”
“We stopped doing tune sets for several reasons,” Mark says. “One was that Mike’s repertoire and mine were largely separate, from different traditions. His style and mine don’t necessarily complement one another. Musically, having two lead melodies and two accompaniments isn’t necessarily well-balanced, and if Steve, Mike and I are playing tunes then the only accompaniment we have is cello. It’s true that certainly Mike and I play tunes and write tunes, but we’re at a stage where we don’t feel it necessary to do a tune set or two simply to take people’s minds off the songs. We don’t do wall-to-wall downbeat songs, for one thing, and it’s not enough to just play tunes sets because we can. If people want the jigs and reels, there are plenty of great bands they can go to see. Creatively, we focus our energies on the songs. Arranging songs for a four-piece band takes a certain approach and a certain way of thinking. Tune sets are, in a sense, easier to put together, but with the line-up we have and the instrumentation available to us, I suppose we think there are other folk out there who can do it far better.”
Steve continues: “That said, we do still occasionally make use of what I suppose was a trademark part of our sound in the early days, namely weaving tunes into the song arrangements now and again; we just don't do stand-alone tune sets any longer.”
A few years back, the band had something of an extended break. Steve tells us why. “We essentially went full time as a band for a while, Mark even took a career break from his Edinburgh Council job, and we toured quite extensively in North America and parts of Europe for around three years from 2008-2011. I remember counting at one stage that we had done something like 150 gigs in 18 months, which was the most intensive touring any of us had ever done. So by 2011, we had come to a kind of natural pause, both in terms of band energies and personalities, as well as a financial reality check. We’d also been trying to formulate new material on the road, and while we got a handful of new songs, it was so exhausting being on the road all the time in that period. There was no time to research and rehearse enough songs. So it meant we lost something to aim for, by not having a new album in the pipeline.”
“In 2010, Mark left the band to go back to work full-time and bring up his boys, and I suppose for me personally it became a bit tougher on the road without his presence. We had some band illness and injury in 2010-2011 as well, which meant recruiting a couple of stand-ins which was a lot of extra work, and that took its toll on morale. Then suddenly in February 2011, my dad passed away. We had a German tour the following month and we decided that would be it for the foreseeable. I think the break was absolutely necessary for the band, but most of all for me personally at that point.”
“Fiona and I started to get together again in 2012 and the beginnings of the Far Better Days album happened around then. Mike came in again in 2013 and we did a trio show at Celtic Connections, thanks to great support from Donald Shaw. By the summer, Mark was back and we were recording in Edinburgh. Unfortunately, Mike then became seriously ill with late stage Lyme Disease so it wasn’t until summer 2014 we got back in the studio and finished the album. So the break overall was longer than planned, but for unavoidable reasons. I’m delighted to say Mike is back in great shape and has been a leading light on this new album, musically and technically. So we’ve had more than our fair share of troubles but we’re very glad to be back in the saddle.”
All four members of Malinky have released solo albums, and are involved in various other projects. With day jobs as well, it all takes a bit of managing. Mark tells us more. “Three of us have jobs which are broadly 9-5 type work so we have to be very focused in terms of time for band admin, rehearsal, recording, touring - basically making Malinky work for us, picking and choosing a bit more, rather than depending on it for paying the bills. It requires an excellent administrative temperament to organise it, which we’re lucky to have. Putting everything else aside, the band wouldn’t have survived Karine and Leo’s departure without Steve’s organisational brain.”
Steve goes on… “It’s fair to say that I have – much to my wife’s despair – a bit of an inbuilt ‘what Malinky stuff needs done today?’ gene now after 20 years. I’m probably the default band manager, partly because of my arts admin experience but also my networking and ‘always on’ approach. There’s always something to be planning for, especially with lead times for albums and tours and publicity, you have to think ahead more than ever these days. In addition, and quite importantly in terms of friendships and personalities, we are all far better at understanding that folk have real lives, family, kids, jobs that have their flexibility limits, and that the band isn’t everything.”
Making a four-piece band work financially must be tough in this day and age. I wondered how Malinky manage it. “We haven’t!” laughs Mark! “He’s not joking!” Steve adds. “We did try to go full time in 2008-2011 but the financial reality was not a pretty one. I remember doing the sums for the Traditional Arts Working Group submission around 2009, and I think we were earning £12,000 per band member, that might even have been gross. There’s a reality ceiling for bands like Malinky that in terms of our sound, repertoire and profile, we simply aren’t going to be festival headliners rocking the place at the end of the night, and that’s reflected in the fees available, and possibly to an extent the airplay.”
“It’s also worth saying that in the 20 years we’ve been around, folk club fees have not changed and in some cases have numerically declined, so we’re definitely having to pick and choose where we can go as a four-piece, and still be sure people have a wage after they get their expenses back. In our younger days, we were less financially savvy but now we take a long look at whether a gig is going to work in terms of expenses, accommodation and other practicalities. So, we decided some years ago to stop relying on Malinky as a source of regular income which has been a bit of a release in some ways and has positively meant we can decide to invest band income into projects like the new album. But then it comes with the limitations of touring as people have to make their main income from other jobs and projects – but as I said earlier, we’re much better at working within the limitations of folks’ real lives, and I think that benefits the band.”
Comparisons have been made between Malinky and some of the iconic bands from Scotland over the years, in terms of musicianship, and in terms of keeping the tradition alive. I wondered how they saw their part in this and how they felt about the other bands coming up after them.
Mark begins: “My finger wouldn’t be on the pulse at all in terms of what’s up-and-coming. I think it’s quite likely that bands will continue along the old lines of ‘just jigs and reels’; ‘jigs and reels with the odd song because one of the band can sing a bit’; and ‘young singer who’s put together a trio or four-piece called the Named Singer Band’. It’s good to hear singers and musicians who know how to arrange songs properly, because it’s a skill and it’s abundantly clear when you hear it done badly! I think we’ve always had a certain level of critical approval without necessarily being headline performers or the big topic of conversation. Where we are now is that we’re long-established enough that the older generation is aware of our work and we have, albeit at a low-level in the grand scheme of things, a presence in the minds of festival bookers, etc, but I hope we’re not old enough to be remote from the younger generation.”
Steve continues: “I think Mark needs to get out more! [laughs] We’ve certainly bumped into a few younger musicians who have done versions of Malinky material – probably most commonly Billy Taylor from 3 Ravens. We’ve certainly seen reviews making comparisons with Planxty, Ossian and Silly Wizard, and we’d be delighted if folk thought of us in those terms, although we would have to be overwhelmingly Scottish and say, aye right! I hope that through our longevity we have made a mark on behalf of the songs and singers of the traditions that we all represent.”
Talking of being part of an ongoing tradition, Malinky’s new album, Handsel, being released on the Greentrax label in June, features six guest singers, some well established, and some up-and-coming.
Steve tells us more. “The idea came to me to do something a bit different and I got to thinking about albums that certain well-known folk acts have made in the past with guest singers whom they admire. I thought that a master / apprentice type approach could work well and would allow us to highlight traditional performers at different ends of the experience spectrum, and allow us to have some fun! So we have representations of the North-East bothy style, of the Ulster tradition and some classic Allan Ramsay and Robert Burns. The songs were all suggested by the guests, and we worked together with them to decide the keys and arrangements.”
“I think also there is a little bit of a tendency for established traditional singers, who’ve done the hard yards in terms not only of performance but of research and highlighting their own respective traditions, to not always get the recognition they deserve. It’s one of the reasons that Mark and I try to attend the Cullerlie Traditional Singing Festival in Aberdeenshire as often as we can. It’s not glamorous as an event or in terms of performance styles, but the people there are all so dedicated to the cause of traditional song, visiting there is like going back to the well for a long drink. So I hope that by showcasing the voices and songs of the likes of Len Graham, Hector Riddell and Barbara Dymock, younger performers hear the album and go away and check out the rest of their repertoire. They’ve all done so much in their own way for traditional song.”
“We also had an ear to the ground in terms of up and coming singers and Fiona knew Cameron Nixon through her work at RCS, I’d been aware of Ellie Beaton through her achievements at TMSA competitions, and Mark put the word out through Maurice Leyden in the north of Ireland and Dàibhidh Stiùbhard was a very obvious choice.”
The title, Handsel, relates to a good-luck gift, and was chosen because of the imagery of passing on the gift of ‘the tradition’ from generation to generation. Steve explains more. “I suppose it comes from reflecting on how far we’ve come over the past 20 years, the experiences we’ve had and the people that have inspired us along the road. We’ve always been a band that’s tried our best to acknowledge and celebrate our sources. So we thought what better way to do that than to work with several ‘master’ performers, and at the same time, see if we could mentor some younger performers who are starting to make their mark.”
“It’s not just the songs that get passed on,” Mark continues. “I would say it’s about a lot of things that we’ve learned from others and hope that we are in a position to have passed on at least in part: professionalism, diligence, stagecraft, performance, academic research, sourcing songs, authenticity, not singing in an Irish accent/style if you’re not Irish, importance of administration, keeping off the sauce (!), respect for what the tradition is and what it represents, importance of connecting your songs with your audience, being aware that the song is more important than the singer, knowing that every band needs to have a brain person who can plan and make things happen. It’s not just singing and tootling!”
Steve tells us more about the album. “It’s a different album in that we’ve engineered and produced it entirely ourselves, which has been quite an experience and a lot of work, primarily for Mike and myself, and we’ve learned a fair bit along the way. Also, it's a double CD; alongside the new recordings, there’s a bonus disc of archive recordings, live stuff and some previous album tracks, now that the first couple of albums are out of print. I was aware that I had masses of old recordings of the band that we've either made ourselves or been given over the years, and that we should finally do something with them. The bonus CD is possibly a bit of a curate's egg - the sound quality is far from ideal on several tracks - but I hope long term fans of the band find something interesting! It was good fun putting it together.”
Malinky’s first album on 2000, Last Leaves, had its title taken from something Gavin Greig said about the imminent demise of the Scottish folk song tradition. Several albums later, and with the band’s mind on passing on the tradition, I wondered how they felt about the future. “Last Leaves was certainly a riposte by us at the time,” says Steve, “but the idea that folk songs are dying out has long been used as a marketing tool by publishers of song collections. That said, I think generally Gavin Greig was right – there is an inevitable decline in folks’ awareness of traditional song at the community and family level, tastes and practices have changed. But clearly there is still a desire out there for high quality performances of great traditional songs.”
“The tradition is alive and doing nae bad. I have some reservations, as people who know me will be aware, as to the singing styles that are emerging, a bit more removed from traditional voices than perhaps I would prefer; in some cases, ‘stage’ voices, overly-ornamented, maybe a bit transatlantic – ironically, when Scottish indie bands’ schtick for several years now is singing in their own accents. And I can’t help but feel like an endangered species, as a male Scots singer. I would struggle to count on more than the fingers of one hand the male Scots singers who are younger than me (I’m ‘only’ 40). Not that that has especially changed much in 20 years either; when I was starting out there was probably myself, Kris Drever, Findlay Napier, Chris Wright, Scott Gardiner – I can’t think of many more. Then Jim Malcolm and John Morran in the generation above. Now I’m there where they were! Right, that’s me had my ‘when I were young’ grumble!”
We are all fond of a grumble now and again and perhaps in some places it is justified, but it is thanks to bands like Malinky that traditional Scots song is still being sung and passed on – their link in the chain is a particularly strong one.
by Fiona Heywood
Photo: Allan MacDonald
Published in Issue 129 of The Living Tradition - June 2019.
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