Bath International Music Festival 2009
The Gaelic bards who wrote the songs that Julie Fowlis sings would be astonished to discover that their songs were being heard around the world. Never mind that the language these songs are written in is only now spoken by around 60,000 people, much of Julie’s repertoire was originally intended to reach an audience of hundreds.
Some songs – the work songs – were really meant to be sung rather than listened to. Although many of them convey stories that apply universally, they are local to North Uist, an island of some 117 square miles in the Outer Hebrides, and they come from a time when every area of the Scottish Highlands and Islands had its own songs for all occasions, and events were recorded and remembered and then sung about within a small community.
So for Julie to become the BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year 2008 through singing these songs is quite something. For this personable young woman to add this title to her BBC Radio 2 Horizon Award and her Gaelic Singer of the Year 2005 and Leaving Dingwall for Glasgow, Julie took the applied music course at Strathclyde University and it was here that her singing voice was coaxed out again, firstly by conquering her stage fright with her course leader’s encouragement and secondly by joining a group of fellow students calling themselves Brolum.
It was with Brolum that Julie began her award-winning habit, when the group won one of the valued Danny prizes for up and coming talent at the Celtic Connections festival in 1999. Meanwhile, Julie’s pipes and whistle were getting plenty of exercise on the Glasgow pub session scene and when another group of traditional music students, Dochas, invited her to replace their departing singer, Julie agreed.
Singing was still a secondary activity in Dochas but events were about to gather momentum when the Hebridean Celtic festival showcased Julie alongside well-established Scottish Gaelic singers Mary Smith and Alyth McCormack and Irish sisters Triona and Maighread Ni Dhomnhaill. Around this time she met Eamon Doorley of the Irish band Danu, who is now her husband, and with his support, the Julie Fowlis phenomenon moved into top gear.
Her first album, Mar A Tha Mo 2007 titles at the Scots Trad Music Awards (she’s the only singer to win this title twice at the time of writing), is an even more remarkable triumph, however, because in her teens Julie decided that she couldn’t sing and took up the oboe instead. North Uist was home to Julie until she turned thirteen and had to continue her education in Dingwall, on the Scottish mainland. Growing up with an English teacher father who liked the Eagles and a Gaelic speaking mother, she heard music of all kinds. The big event, though, was the local Mod – or song and poetry festival, with prizes for the best performers – and Julie took part enthusiastically, learning songs from her grandmother who, as a button accordion player, also passed on her instrumental talents.
Julie took up the pipes and whistle, both of which she still plays. She remembers particularly the year she began learning the pipes – 1987 – because it was the year that Calum and Rory MacDonald brought their band, the Gaelic rockers Runrig, home to North Uist and invited eight year old Julie and her primary school class to appear on their new video.
Twenty years on, Julie would sing backing vocals on Runrig’s Everything You See album, although the band are not taking credit for long range talent spotting. Chridhe, quickly established Julie as a singer who could make songs from North Uist, in radio presenter Mark Radcliffe’s words “as enchanting, beguiling and as fascinating as songs by Kate Bush and Björk” and similar praise has followed from KT Tunstall, Ricky Gervais, Radiohead drummer Phil Selway and Jools Holland, whose Later with … programme added to Julie’s celebrity appreciation society.
Appearances on the popular Transatlantic Sessions television series, a second, even more enthusiastically received album, Cuilidh and the more recent Dual album, a brilliant celebration of island music and song from Scotland and Ireland, featuring Julie, Eamon, guitarist Ross Martin and Danu’s fabulous singer, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, have swelled the world-wide army of fans who share Julie’s enthusiasm for what she regards as world music – it just happens to come from quite a small community on the furthest reaches of Scotland.