Patricia Murray:
An Eye on PEI

An interview by Tom Knapp,
October 2003

Patricia Murray is at a fork in the road. One path leads to the future, the other to the past.

This lovely Prince Edward Island singer-songwriter is choosing both.

With several acclaimed albums (most recently Primrose) already under her belt, Murray has begun work on two new projects, both of which she hopes will see release in 2004. She also hopes both will help PEI find its own musical identity.

When Murray went to Scotland in 1997 to compete in the Royal National Gaelic Mod (in which she won the prestigious Silver Pendant Award), no one knew where her island home was. When she mentioned neighboring Nova Scotia, recognition was instant. "Nova Scotia is very much a part of the Scottish mindset," Murray says. "I think Prince Edward Island is struggling a little bit with its own identity ... although, in the past 10 years, we've really made a name for ourselves in Celtic music."

Recent advances include the creation of the College of Piping & Celtic Performing Arts of Canada in Summerside, as well as the recent 200th anniversary of the Polly, the ship that brought settlers to the island in 1803 from Scotland's Isle of Skye. A high school teacher in Charlottetown who recently started offering classes in Gaelic saw more than 40 students sign up for the course in its first year. "We're really starting to connect to Scotland," Murray says. At the same time, the island's musical tradition is flourishing; compared to 10 years ago, she said, "music is just everywhere. ... Maybe this is where we're starting to build a sound of our own."

More than two-thirds of PEI's population has a Celtic connection, either Scottish or Irish, she notes. Murray has already started building her reputation as a Gaelic singer, as well as a writer of more contemporary folk songs.

That's why her two recording projects are so diverse. One album in the works is a collection of traditional Gaelic songs. The other is all original material -- with an interesting twist rooted in the region's fiddle tradition.

PEI has a Gaelic tradition closely tied to the traditions in Scotland, as well as Nova Scotia's Gaelic-rich island, Cape Breton. But Murray says there are distinctions that have never been fully quantified. While listening to old reel-to-reel recordings of PEI's last native Gaelic singers, she noticed slight differences from recordings she's heard in Cape Breton. "You can obviously recognize them as the same songs," she says, "but there are variations."

The tradition needs further study. Otherwise, she said, those distinctions "are going to be lost."

"I'm not an academic researcher," Murray concedes. "That's not my profession. But I'm interested. I thought maybe if I started to record some of the songs, it will begin to raise awareness."

Murray readily admits that she is no expert when it comes to Gaelic, although she has been studying diligently to become fluent in the language. It's hard, however, "if you're not speaking it every day." Her own interest in the language was sparked, she explains, after listening to recordings of Gaelic singers in Scotland. "I looked at my own family and realized that I had family members, ancestors, who spoke Gaelic on Prince Edward Island. This is part of my heritage."

As a performer, she says, she is enraptured by the Gaelic tradition. "The melodies are just so rich, not only in the musical sense but also in the historic sense. The stories behind them -- there was a reason these songs were created."

Initially, Murray says, she started learning Gaelic songs phonetically. But as her fluency increases, so does her appreciation of the songs. "I was singing them, but I wasn't really getting the heart of them," she says. "What was lacking was the full understanding. The significance of the words is so important." For instance, she said, the meaning of words dictate the vocal stresses in a song.

Her Gaelic CD will focus on PEI songs and their connection to Scotland, Murray explains. Some of the songs came to the island with Scottish immigrants, others were written there, but all are steeped in local tradition.

Someday, Murray says, she might try her hand at writing her own original Gaelic songs. But that, she says, will require a stronger ability to think in that language.

But don't worry, Murray is still flexing her songwriting muscles -- in English.

"They're two totally different things, two different worlds," she says of the two recording projects. For the more contemporary album, Murray has written songs based on various fiddle tunes. The melodies of those tunes are incorporated into the songs, she says, and the stories behind the tunes' origins influence the lyrics of the songs. "So each song is based on a traditional tune, but it's developed into something else," she explains.

"You hear these tunes being played and have no idea where they come from," she says. "But it's amazing how it works. It's amazing how it comes together. It's beautiful."

Murray admits she's a little torn when it comes to her projects, both of which command her attention at different times. "Part of me really just wants to focus on Gaelic, to become really proficient with it," she says. "I want to become known as a Gaelic singer. But there's an interest, too, in songwriting. And I don't want to limit myself.

"I'll just follow the path that I need to follow."

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 25 October 2003

[ visit Patricia Murray's website ]