Julie Fowlis:
staying true to her Hebridean roots

Julie Fowlis had an incredibly successful 2005. She released her first solo album, Mar a tha mo chridhe/As my heart is. This collection of songs from North Uist in the Outer Hebrides is exquisitely arranged, and has been critically acclaimed by the music press. Along with her band Dochas, she also released a fine album, An darna umhail/The second glance, which has been equally well received. She was the first Scottish Gaelic singer to perform a showcase set at Cambridge Folk Festival back in July, and she scooped the Gaelic Singer of the Year title at the Scots Trad Music Awards, held in Edinburgh last November. To cap it all, she recently learned that she's been nominated for the prestigious Horizon Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk & Acoustic Awards 2006, and heads off to Texas in February to perform at the Highlands & Islands Enterprise night before American and Canadian music industry representatives. She has a string of festival and gig performances to look forward to, both in the UK and overseas.

It was fitting, therefore, that she should see in the New Year 2006 in fine and celebratory style as one of the guest performers on BBC Scotland's rather chaotic-looking Hogmanay show -- along with the likes of KT Tunstall, Mike McGoldrick, Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain! Julie gave a fine live performance, despite confessing that sometimes, live TV appearances made her feel "a bit like a rabbit in a car's headlights!" I caught up with Julie a few days after her Hogmanay appearance, and was greeted by her delightfully soft Hebridean accent, which doesn't seem to have altered one iota now that Julie lives on the Scottish mainland.

It seems incredible to note that Julie has only been in the public eye for about 18 months. "That's right! I took a year out from my part time job with Highland music and culture organisation Feis Rois, my reasoning being, if I don't do it now, I never will! I took a huge risk, and didn't really have a game plan, but allowed myself one year to see how the music progressed. I'm the kind of person who likes to give 100 percent, so had to make a decision one way or the other." She's done it on her own terms, too, happily ignoring the advice of some record industry pundits to "throw in" a few English-language songs -- presumably "to be on the safe side." Julie is proud of her roots, and chose to sing only Gaelic-language songs on her solo album. Let's not forget either that Julie is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, equally adept at playing Scottish small pipes, whistles or even the oboe and cor anglais (she studied the latter two instruments at university in Scotland).

I asked her what impact the publicity and acclaim of 2005 had meant to her. "Obviously, it's made a real difference. It's really opened doors for me. The Cambridge Showcase in particular led to me being offered lots more solo work. There are only a limited number of showcase slots at Cambridge, so it was a huge honour to be the first Gaelic singer to be offered one!" And how did Julie feel about winning Best Gaelic Singer at the Scots Trad Music Awards? She laughed and replied with customary modesty: "I'm not the best singer, of course -- but I was delighted to receive this, because it's a public award."

Julie acknowledges that her achievements of the past year are responsible for bringing her to the attention of festival organisers in the UK, America and beyond. "I performed a 40-minute slot recently for the Association of Festival Organisers down in Shropshire, England, and that's had a kind of snowball effect. I'll be performing in Texas in February with fellow musicians such as Karine Polwart, Saltfishforty and Blazin' Fiddles at the Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE) night. I'm really looking forward to that, but we wouldn't be able to go if it weren't for the financial support of HIE."

Her nomination for the high profile Horizon Award at the BBC Folk & Acoustic Award ceremony came as an unexpected but pleasant surprise to Julie: "I was pretty shocked to be nominated, as I haven't done much singing in England to date. It's really great to be the first Gaelic artist to be nominated, and it goes to show the awards are covering a very representative spectrum now."

Her music clearly has wide appeal, so I asked Julie how she approached the presentation of her material: "My one wish is to present Gaelic songs in a way that will appeal to listeners, but that doesn't alter them in any way -- I learned these songs from people such as Mary Smith of Lewis, Isa MacIllop, Hugh Matheson and Catriona Garbutt -- many of them when I was still a child growing up on North Uist. I want to keep these songs as they are, to treat them with respect."

Winding down our chat, Julie told me that she was currently working on material for her next solo album, and that Dochas was due to perform a few gigs in the near future -- "two of the girls have day jobs as well as performing with the band, so we have to fit everything in around our respective commitments." She was also rehearsing and preparing for an impressive string of performances at Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow.

Looks like Julie Fowlis has already embraced the year 2006 with customary gusto!

by Debbie Koritsas
4 February 2006

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