anti-pop Scottish girl power
An interview by Tom Knapp,
Dochas draws on all corners of Scotland for a traditional sound that is invigoratingly fresh -- without feeling a need to amp up the sound with excessive electronics, rock 'n' roll edginess or pop hijinks.
The young, energetic girl band is focused on "presenting traditional material for the stage," Julie Fowlis, who fronts the band on vocals, whistles, pipes and oboe, said during a break in the action at the Celtic Colours festival. "We're staying quite close to the roots of the music."
Their sound "happens naturally like that," she said. She and her bandmates -- Kathleen Boyle (accordion, piano, guitar), Carol-Anne Mackay (pipes, accordion, whistles), Eilidh MacLeod (clarsach, piano) and Jenna Reid (fiddle, piano), plus new addition, long-time guest Martin O'Neill, an honorary girl and grinning wizard on bodhran -- shun the current preoccupation of many young bands with injecting modern rock elements into their music. "That's never been what we're about. ... We do what we do because that's what's strong within us."
The band is known in part for its powerhouse sound, but the musicians don't build their sets just to make the audience happy. "We don't really think about it," Julie said. "We think about the music first."
The traditional tunes and songs in their playlist "speak for themselves" and don't need to be updated for a new generation, she insisted. "There's a different place for that kind of music. And there is a place for that music -- it's great -- but it's not what we're about."
Dochas is "purely traditional," said Jenna. "But everybody has a different interpretation of the music. ... And if different folks get together, you get a different sound."
Eilidh said traditional music is experiencing a resurgence in Scotland in part because of the proliferation of festivals and other performance opportunities. The custom of musical knowledge being passed down from parents to children is growing rarer, however, she said. "Young people mostly learn the music in schools, from teachers."
The band, five years old, has had its present lineup for the last three. The musicians met while attending various universities in Glasgow. Eilidh said they initially formed up to play at dances around Glasgow and earn a little extra spending cash for school. Now they're approaching the music with more serious intent, and the musicians credit their varied backgrounds with broadening the Dochas sound.
"We're all from different areas of Scotland," Jenna explained, and certainly a map of the band's hometowns covers a broad span of the country: Julie is from North Uist, Carol-Anne comes from coastal Strathy in Sutherland, Eilidh is a native of Skye and Jenna comes from Shetland. Kathleen, the only non-Scot, hails from across the water in Donegal, Ireland.
Despite the runaway train that associates Celtic music with Irish traditions, Julie said Scottish music has "never lost its identity, ever." She conceded that Scottish music could use a better marketing strategy, however.
"Everybody brings different things to the band," Julie added. "Even though there are different influences coming together, we have a huge repertoire of Scottish music."
They're not just an instrumental band, either. Julie can captivate an audience with her heartfelt Gaelic songs, singing with a richness and sweetness that defines the best qualities of Gaelic singing. But, while Julie said she grew up speaking the language with her family, it's not a bandwide ability; Jenna, for instance, said she doesn't speak Gaelic but is still "completely involved" in the songs.
"You can always feel a connection with the music," Julie insisted. While a non-Gaelic speaker might not understand the story behind one of her songs, she said, they can always understand the feeling behind the words.
The musicians of Dochas are great at making connections, linking their strong, traditional roots with a young, fresh appeal that should help broaden their appeal among old and young listeners alike. Their firm convictions about preserving the Scottish heritage of music while adding a new, youthful spin to the presentation stands them in good stead for years to come at the forefront of Celtic excitement.