Jenna Reid - The sound of Shetland's bow belle
Jenna Reid has been shopping. But we’re not retail therapy or even a splurge on some new clothes to wear on stage, although the Shetland fiddler has definite views about the importance of musicians looking their best for an audience.
The latest object of her affection is a brand new fiddle, which she encountered on the first leg of the Three Countries of Folk tour that sees her representing Scotland, alongside London-based singer and fiddler Lisa Knapp and Welsh harper and singer Gwenan Gibard, across the UK.
As we speak, money hasn’t actually changed hands yet. There may be bank managers involved and financial projections to organise. But the instrument has clearly made a big impression.
"It’s the first time that something’s come close to giving me the same feeling I get from playing my old one," she says. "So, yeah, I’m doing my sums."
Given that her old fiddle was made in 1813 and has been in her possession since she was ten – she’s now twenty-five – this new arrival, which Reid tried out in its maker’s workshop in Lincoln, has quite a history to compete with.
Reid, who many commentators rate as the finest fiddler in Scotland of her generation, was given her first fiddle at the age of nine – the 1813 model was found in her granny’s attic and restored a year later. Willie Hunter, a Shetland fiddling legend, was coming to the primary school at Quarff to give lessons, and Reid needed little encouragement. There would be no playground teasing for anyone carrying a violin case in this village on the south of the Shetland mainland, because the non-fiddlers would have been in a tiny minority.
"Quarff only had about two or three hundred people living in it then – there are more people there now because, being rural but with beautiful beaches and only ten minutes drive from Lerwick, it’s become quite popular – and there were only twelve or fifteen pupils in my primary school class. And they all played. My mum played piano, so we’d all congregate in our house after school and play tunes. Then my sister, Bethany, started when she was five and my brother, Tom, took it up too and we formed the Quarff Fiddlers."
This small orchestra of primary school kids became a familiar sight and sound, playing local charity dos and Sunday teas. The serious gigging years were a little way off – but only a little way.
One of Reid’s most admired talents is her command of the slow air and the way she infuses these melodies with gracefulness, precision and a deep emotional connection. This she puts down to the influence of Willie Hunter, who although he died when she was just into secondary school, guided her through her formative years as a player.
"Some people have been kind enough to say that they can actually hear Willie’s style in my playing," she says. "I’d never claim that and I know I’ll never get even within touching distance of him as a musician. But I hope that whatever is there came from him because he was such an inspiration and an amazing character. Just to be around him and talk to him about music was special. Funnily enough, I don’t really remember him ever saying, You need to do this here or you should to do that there. The way of playing a tune just kind of seeped in by osmosis through years of listening to him.
"I’m so lucky to have had him as a teacher, not just because he could pull a slow air out of any old fiddle and make it sing, but because he made you look forward to lessons. I was getting private lessons from him as well as the lessons at school, so I’d see him twice a week and he was always so enthusiastic. You always knew that he’d have something great for you to learn, although lessons weren’t exactly organised. He’d play a few tunes and then open up a book of music and say, Play this one, and he’d sit and vamp along on the piano. I never had to be forced into practising because just being around him was all the motivation I needed."
When she was fourteen Reid won the Shetland Young Fiddler competition, an achievement she plays down, not least because sister Bethany later became, at twelve, the youngest ever winner. Besides, around the same time, a more universal marker of musical progress hoved into view: a CD with Filska, the band she’d formed with Bethany and their mum.
"The competition was more of a social thing, something to work towards without taking it too seriously, but when we got the chance to make an album, we couldn’t believe it. We’d been playing a lot. In fact, looking back, that’s all we ever seemed to be doing. So we were quite seasoned musicians even then, I suppose. But making an album; we were like, Wow."
Despite tours that took Filska away from Shetland and introduced them to the professional music world at large, Reid didn’t consider that playing the fiddle might be something she could do as a job. Her career ambitions lay in – she’ll probably thump me for sharing this – the police or in a helicopter crew, something full-on and adventurous.
"It was only when I discovered that you could study traditional music at the RSAMD in Glasgow that I thought, well, I could do this for a few years and see what happens," she says.
By the time she’d graduated from the RSAMD’s Scottish music course, she’d built up enough contacts through playing with bands, including Dochas, Deaf Shepherd and guitarist Kevin Mackenzie’s folk/jazz ensemble, Vital Signs, to turn professional. The folks back home worry about this precarious life, she says, but by supplementing playing work with a manageable number of private fiddle pupils, she’s even been able to buy a flat in Glasgow.
Here, when not on the road, she gets stuck into serious practising, although not, she concedes, as much as she should be doing.
"I play more fiddle than I’ve ever done before but there are other things like organising work that, if you’re not careful, can get in the way," she says. "When I can, I’ll play for hours and hours, just getting lost in old tunes and coming up with ideas for new ones. I think it’s important for a traditional musician to compose because as well as drawing on all the work that’s gone into that shared resource, you should leave behind something of your own."
While she and Kevin Mackenzie, who’s worked as her accompanist for some time now, travel the English motorways and visit Wales for the first time before bringing the Three Countries of Folk tour to Scotland, she’s trying out material for a new album to be recorded in September. She’s also picking up return bookings along the way from receptive promoters.
"The idea of the tour was to introduce each of the musicians to the other two’s home audiences and expand the market a bit," she says. "And it seems to be working. What I love about this tour and the work I’m doing generally is, every day’s different. You never know what’s going to happen or where something will lead. The other week, I was filming one of the Transatlantic Sessions for television and that came about just because I happened to get chatting to Aly Bain at a St Andrew’s Night concert in Edinburgh and he asked me if I fancied doing it. Although just playing this music is a thrill in itself, these sorts of things make it even more exciting."
From The Herald, May 8, 2008