Last updated on April 3, 2021
Iona Fyfe is sitting in a cafe in Glasgow, desperately trying to get her Skype to behave. “I’m a terrible example of a Millennial,” she says, apologising unnecessarily for having only spent 20 years on this earth. “I think I’ve only used this once in the last year,” she continues, giggling. There’s no need for apologies, I tell her. Had she spent her time faffing around with technological tomfoolery, she’d not have had the time to devote to becoming one of the UK’s most acclaimed young torchbearers of traditional music.
And acclaimed she most certainly is. With only one album and an EP released (the album only hit the shops a month ago), Iona has already amassed a notable collection of awards and nominations (finalist in the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year; nominated as Scots Singer of the Year at the MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards), and she has recently embarked on a two-month touring schedule that would make most seasoned pros sit up and take notice. Meanwhile, back in the real world, she’s in her final year of a university course studying – what else? – traditional Scottish music.
Grabbing interview time with her – Skype willing – had, understandably, taken months to schedule. However, when we finally got around to it she proved a wonderfully open and engaging interviewee – her heart firmly on her sleeve as she discussed her sense of place in terms of geography, as well as getting her bearings as she moves into a professional career in Scots traditional music.
You’re about to take off on a particularly gruelling-looking tour, aren’t you? Do you have to organise all of that yourself?
Yeah, it’s all done by myself. A lot of the younger trad bands, especially here in Glasgow, just don’t have the agents or management. That’s hard to come by in Scotland. There are about four or five agents who seem to rule everything. So, no – I just do it myself.
That must take up a huge amount of time.
It literally does. A few weekends ago, I had about 150 emails backlogged from January. I had to sit for the whole weekend and sift through them. Meanwhile, I was trying to finish something for a uni deadline, as well as dealing with everything else. It takes a long time.
I also started working with the TMSA, which is like the Scottish version of the EFDSS, and I’ve worked as a director with them for about a year now. So, when I’m not dealing with my own stuff or my uni stuff, I’m dealing with the board. It’s pretty heavy going.
It’s amazing that you’re doing all of this and you’re still a student!
Yep. I’m in my third year of the folk course at Glasgow.
What do you study there?
It’s mostly performing, vocal anatomy, history and folklore…
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Martyn Bennett? He was this pioneering piper who did a thing called Grit. They’ve orchestrated it now, and there was a massive Celtic Connections performance of it. He died, but his mother is a folklorist. When it comes to folk song, she’s kind of like a national treasure. She was taught by Hamish Henderson, the folksong collector. She teaches us sourcing and indexing and all the kind of stuff you probably ought to know as a folk singer, but most don’t know.
But you’ve been singing traditional music since you were six. What can you really learn about traditional folk music on a university course that you can’t learn from getting directly involved with the tradition?
Well, I had a lot of issues with that when I started on this course. I was adverse to innovation and I was very stuck in my ways. I had done the ballad competitions since I was really young, and I thought that was the only way that these songs could be treated. So when I went there I had to adapt.
In the first two years I really struggled to summarise what it was that I’d learnt there that I didn’t know before. I struggled with being sat down to be taught a folk song, because that’s not normal. You don’t sit down to be taught it. You go to a singaround or a session, or you hear it by another artist, whether that be source or contemporary, and then you interpret it for yourself. So I struggled with being sat down and told what to do, or what to sing.
So I sucked for the first year, but now it’s kind of working out in my favour.
Talk me through your background, then. You go back to almost toddler years with folk music.
Yeah, I was really, really wee. My family are really musical.
Were they folkies?
Some were. Some were dance band people. My uncle had a Scottish dance band, so he was out playing in the North East and up Shetland way. But I think my involvement has something to do with the TMSA. They have these competitions – fiddle competitions, pipes, singing or Doric poetry – and they all happen on the same day, and there are several of these days throughout the year. Back in 1966 there were a couple of festivals, Blairgowrie Festival and Kinross Festival, that started having the source singers competing. The first to win one of these was Sheila Stewart at Kinross. These competitions have lasted for over 50 years and they still go on.
My family took me along to a few of these because my cousin was competing in the Doric, or my other cousins were playing the fiddle or the accordion, and I didn’t really have anything to do. They said, “Oh, just learn a wee Doric poem for this one and we’ll see how it goes.” So I did it. Now, when you hear someone singing in Scots, they’re often singing in a kind of Lowlands Scots dialect. Doric is one step beyond! I really struggle to speak it unless I’m at home. It’s incredibly difficult.
So, it’s a language in and of itself?
Well, that’s what people are arguing – that it should have language status rather than dialectical status. That certainly is a whole movement in itself. There’s a new thing called the Scots Language Advisory Board that has just been set up that I’ve been involved with. This is where the whole folkie thing, and that sense of identity, draws into politics.
Anyway, I did this Doric thing and I won it. I did a regional poem – short, funny; cute for a four or five-year-old. When you win one of these competitions, you go to a prizewinners’ concert at night. It’s kind of tradition that they have a ceilidh in the evening. There I met a lot of old Bothy Ballad singers, who were like, “If you’re gonna do the Doric poetry, you might as well sing the ballads .” Because it’s the same, you see. If you can understand it in verse or stanzas, then you can sing it.
The next year I came back with a song.
And that was the beginning of you becoming a folk singer?
Well, when I was in school I always thought of it as a task because nobody else did it. I felt as if I had to go and do it because my family were doing it. I don’t know what really clicked and made me think, “Oh, I love this! I’m away to the folk clubs!” It was a really natural progression: doing these competitions, then being asked to do singaround things, and then going along to lots of folk clubs and sessions, joining the North East Folk Collective. But I don’t know where it went from being a floorspot at the age of 14 to doing a full set in a folk club. I don’t know where that happened. It was all just a continuation.
So, when you were a kid, it wasn’t as if other children around you were interested in folk music? It was something that was quite unique to you?
Yeah, going to school the other kids would be like, “And what were you up to this weekend…?” [Laughs] Nobody else really got it, to be honest. I was definitely just That Weird Kid Who Likes Folk Music. I started up a wee trad band at school and tried to get people involved. Only the teachers came. It was awful!
When I got to uni I could see that not everyone had this great advantage of having grown up around all these singers and songs. And visiting singers, too. It wasn’t just North East singers I’d hear. I’d hear people like Johnny Handle from High Level Ranters coming up to Aberdeenshire. I’d had a really broad folk education by the time I was 16 because of these singarounds that I’d go to.
I’m too young to have met people like Jeannie Robertson or Stanley Robertson and those older traveller singers. But the people they’ve left behind… I’ve heard all of their anecdotes. I’m quite fond of Stanley Robertson’s son, Anthony. It’s quite interesting. You have people like Sam Lee who have actively sought out the guidance of these singers, whereas I was growing up seeing them and saying, “Oh, hi!” and not realising the importance of them. It was only when I didn’t have them around me, here in Glasgow, that I realised their formidability.
Is it possible to still hear what you might call ‘source singers’ in Scotland? Certainly, in England, it doesn’t feel like it is.
I think you just have to know where to look. People like Elizabeth Stewart, of the Stewarts of Fairangus… she’s still alive. She still lives in Aberdeenshire. Stanley Robertson’s son is still alive. I could list them on one hand, the ones that actually still pop up. But moving into the traveller community, I think there are certainly many more. People like Jess Smith. I think it’s possible to say that source singers are still alive.
Treating me as the newbie to Scottish folk song that I am, explain to me some of the key terms. I hear a lot about Bothy Ballads. What is a Bothy Ballad?
Well, there’s a huge misconception. A Bothy Ballad is a song that was either sung on a farm or by a farmworker at the time. There are some first generational Bothy Ballads which are the most authentic ones. They’re what people sing at the competitions nowadays because they’re 100% genuine. They’re good. Then there are second generational Bothy Ballads which were sung by people looking back at the times when they were farm workers. They’re kind of melancholic and nostalgic. They’re not as genuine, but there’s still a hint there. Then there are third generational Bothy Ballads which were written by people who weren’t there at the time and weren’t farmers.
This is what Scott Gardener, who is a Bothy Ballad singer and a farmer himself, told me. It’s his generational three-step.
A more loose definition includes songs that might just mention a farm once. It could be a love song that mentions a farm, so that would be counted.
So, does ‘Bothy’ mean ‘farm’?
It’s like a shed that the workers would sleep in. It’s an interesting subject, and Bothy Ballads aren’t too far removed from English folk songs at all. I’ve recently been studying the influence of Aberdeenshire songs on the English revivalist and contemporary singers, and I have a Spotify playlist of all of these songs that have been one by these singers. You could argue that it’s the Carthy Effect – that Martin Carthy has sung ‘Bogey’s Bonnie Bell’, and then lots of other English folk singers have heard it and gone, “Oh, I’m going to do that one” without even realising that it’s a Scots song.
So, it could be the influence of a revivalist singer, or it could be that the young singers are simply taking influence from Aberdeenshire. Just recently, Sam Kelly has recorded ‘The Bonnie Lass of Fyvie’. Now, that’s odd. It’s odd behaviour for someone from way down where he’s from to go, “Right, I’m going to do that song. It’s great!” There could be a few factors at play there: the rise again of folk clubs, touring Scots musicians, the James Madison Carpenter collection that’s just come out between Aberdeen University and the EFDSS… there are so many things that could’ve influenced him. What I’m trying to study is what makes it tick for these English musicians who are recording Scots stuff. He’s done an amazing job with that song, but where does he get it from?! And how does he pronounce the words so well?! Some Scots people can’t even do it!
Just recently there’s a trio in London called Said The Maiden. They’ve recorded a song called ‘The Bonnie Earl of Moray’ on their new album. I emailed them and I was like, “Hi, how’re you doing? Love the new album. WHERE DID YOU GET THAT SONG?!” They replied that they love all of the Old Blind Dogs stuff [a Scottish folk group]. And so that’s where they got it from. Realistically, I do think that the folk song world is merging together. People like Jim Moray take a lot of influence from Scots singers, whether they know it or not. His album really touches heavily on ballads that are shared between Aberdeenshire and England. I don’t know if these people are actively doing it, or if I’m just being a nationalist! [Laughs] The Unthanks have been at it for years!
But they’re from close to the border aren’t they. You can see how they might get influenced.
Totally, and the whole Border Ballad thing is super interesting. They’re from Northumberland but they’re doing songs like ‘Annachie Gordon’, which comes from near Inverness. It’s exceptional that they’re doing them so well. These aren’t people who are including a song just to tick a box. They’re doing these songs and making amazing jobs of them all. But it leaves me thinking, “Well, what am I supposed to do!?” [Laughs] It’s interesting. It shows the fluidity of Scots and English song, and I think that’s certainly an important thing moving forward because I notice that a lot of Scots musicians can work in England, but you don’t see so many English musicians coming up here. And that’s a shame. Something definitely needs to be done about it.
I wonder if they feel a tad intimidated. When you chat to people like Ross Couper, you hear about Scots musicians growing up playing from almost toddler age. You get the sense that Scots trad musicians are seriously good. I’m only speaking here from limited experience, of course. I’m sure many English musicians feel totally in control!
Hmmm. To be honest, I prefer singarounds down South. I prefer folk clubs down South now, too. Honestly, people just sing more. I don’t know if this is a tune/song thing, but I’ve done some gigs in Glasgow, Edinburgh and the central belt of Scotland, and people come and don’t appear to engage. I mean, they buy CDs and it appears to be a good gig, but they don’t sing, they don’t get involved and it just feels like a concert.
Maybe that’s just not what I’m about right now. I guess, in 20 years, if I’m doing arts centres and bigger halls that might be fine, but at my current age having that dialogue is so important. I actually feel that the only places I’ve gotten that dialogue is either right up in North Scotland or anywhere in England. People sing. They try their hardest, even if it’s a Scots song that they don’t know.
Now that you’ve said that, aren’t you expecting to get lynched?!
[Laughs] No. Whenever there’s debate going on around me on this subject, I always say, “Nah, I’d say the folk clubs down there are pretty good for people singing.” I don’t think they’ll lynch me for that.
Up here, there are a million Scots singers. You’re just another person that sings in Scots dialect. However, once you cross the border, it’s very niche for you to be from Aberdeenshire.
So what is it, do you think, that sets you apart from these millions of other Scots singers?
I don’t know, I think we’ve each got our own thing. I think it might be this sensing of place, but also this openness to try and innovate on what I’ve already been doing. But we are all really different. I don’t know. I keep coming back to this idea of a sense of place. Maybe that’s it.
So, Aberdeenshire for you?
Yeah. Saying that, though, it doesn’t mean that every song has to be really [strict to the tradition]. I think that on the new album I’ve tried to make things as accessible as possible. It was a conscious effort. The album starts and ends with a Bothy Ballad, both completely different but still in the dialect. They’re both quite funny – they’re humorous songs. In between, there are songs like ‘Take Me Out Drinking Tonight’, which is not Scots or traditional. It’s an Aidan Moffat song – an indie musician from the band Arab Strap. They’re pretty big. They’ll fill out the Glasgow Barrowlands. They’re from Falkirk. I put that song in there because it was a lullaby he wrote for his son. I looked passed the genre split, and I thought, actually, he might be labelled an indie musician but what he wrote here is just as much in line with tradition as a 600-year-old ballad.
So, yeah… it was a conscious effort to make it accessible. I soon realised, when I came to Glasgow, that you can’t just sing unaccompanied songs because audiences might not want two sets of 45 minutes of that. It depends where you are, of course. I’ve noticed that when I’ve gigged in Europe, people want this kind of “Belter Scots” kind of thing. If you can provide that, that’s good, but I think it keeps the whole scene very in line with that old traditional stuff. I think you need to make it accessible, otherwise it’ll fizzle out and it’s not going to work.
Do you find it restricting to have to stick to that stereotypical Scots thing?
I did before. And the big pressure of this album was, like, “Oh my god! What if these people think this is too contemporary and they don’t like it?” I had to sit back and ask myself, “Who are these people?!”
Haha! Like some kind of mindfulness technique.
Yeah! “Who are they? Do I even mind if they don’t listen to it? Should we listen to these purists, or should we just do what we want to do?” I decided to do what I wanted to do, and if it doesn’t go well, I can at least say I did this through my own reasoning. If I did something for the traditionalist and I haven’t created something that I think is in line with what I believe in… argh, all these questions! It took me months. It took me so long to do do an album, because I questioned myself every single day. “Oh my god… what are people going to think?!”
Of course, there will be purists that don’t like it; people that wonder about all this instrumentation. Someone commented on Facebook the other day that playing the piano and singing a ballad at the same time was a gimmick. I was like, “WHAT?!” People are so stuck in their ways, it makes me worried – it makes me stressed.
Have you got to the end of all that reasoning yet?
You know what? I just don’t care anymore. It was just a formidable thing that I had to get over, and it’s good now because I am over it. I can do what I want to do instead of being stuck inside a straight-jacket of tradition. But I’m always worried I’m going to offend someone…
Haha. It doesn’t totally go away, does it? That said, you include your own compositions on the album…
Uh-huh. Yeah. Totally. Which is… [appears to zip own mouth so as not to start audibly ruminating again].
Do you try to write in what might be called a traditional style, or are you completely open to what comes out?
[Long pause] You know… I’m not really much of a writer, to be honest. I really struggle with it. It’s hard. I don’t know if it’s an age thing. Until now, I thought that I didn’t really have enough experience to write my thruppence down – to make it count.
But, nah – I don’t really try to write in Scots dialect. The one song on the album that’s my own is in English. It has that typical folk song structure – a verse, and then a refrain that echoes the same words of the verse. I’ve taken inspiration from the structure that I know. That’s how people write tunes, whether they’re in England, Scotland or Wales. They take, for example, an old pipe march and they’ll expose this bit or that bit… there’s a structure, and that’s what I’ve done.
But, nah. I don’t write all that much, if at all.
Not yet. Maybe in the future…
Maybe, but I just feel as though there are so many songs that I could interpret. I struggle to find something new that hasn’t already been written about. Maybe that’s just my critical mindset.
OK. Onto a slightly different subject. If someone’s exploring Scots music for the first time, who would you say they need to listen to?
Well, I made an Aberdeenshire Spotify playlist for a friend, so you could go and listen to that!
I’m having it!
[Laughs] Well, for genuine source stuff, listen to Jeannie Robertson. 100%. That’ll be amazing. For revivalists, go and listen to The Gaugers. They were a big Aberdeen band. For contemporary interpretations, from a band that’s been going on for 25 years, I’d say Old Blind Dogs. They’ve recorded every song under the sun. They’d be my three, but that’s really focusing on North East stuff. Lots of pipes and fiddle. Also, if you want to track a movement between Scots source singers, revivalists and contemporary performers, those would be a good three to follow.
Sounds like I’ve got a lot to learn about Scots music, then.
[Laughs] No, honestly – I think there’s not that much difference between English and Scots stuff in the end. We all travel. People have barriers; they create barriers. We don’t need them. We can’t call it UK Folk Music [laughs], but we’ve got to stop putting ourselves into boxes. We have a few English musicians at the conservatoire, and they put themselves into boxes! I honestly think that [comically calm and slow] we should all… just… get… on… [laughs].
You know what? Look at Said The Maiden recording a really great song and taking inspiration from Old Blind Dog. Look at Sam Kelly and Cara Dillon. It works both ways, because I’ve been influenced by people like Pete Coe. The fluidity… there are a lot of people who have travelled and lived in England.
We have a wonderful old Scots singer who comes to every gig we put on at our local folk club down here in Hampshire. In fact, he ran the local folk club way back when it started 40-odd years ago. He always sings unaccompanied and he’s always my favourite part of the night. He sings some amazing songs, and I keep meaning to record him.
You should! But that’s a great example. Imagine one of your performers coming to the club and hearing one of his songs, and then taking it off and doing it elsewhere. That’s how these songs move about.
A lot of the singers that I interviewed for my university work said that they learnt a lot from old Topic Records or Voice of the People stuff, or they learnt stuff from singarounds at folk clubs. It’s that kind of influence.
Do you think the way people are learning old songs is changing, though? You’ve mentioned Spotify several times. How your generation engages with folk music really intrigues me. As someone who runs a folk club, I can attest to the sheer joy when someone under the age of 40 comes to a gig! We had three 16-year-olds at our last one. It was like having aliens in our midst. So, it can be done, but how do you think it can be done more often? Is there a way to get younger people more involved with folk music?
I think it’s really tricky to pinpoint. For the last 20 years in Scotland, there have been a few things that have encouraged people to play folk music from a young age. There’s the Fèisean nan Gàidheal, a Gaelic movement of folk education up North, and they influence a lot of highlander musicians from a community aspect. There are more and more young people interested these days because of educational movements like that.
You’ll also find that youth interest is concentrated in certain places. You’ll find that a folk club in Glasgow is run by somebody young. There’s one run by David Foley from Rura. He got funding from Hands Up For Trad to start a new folk club a few years ago at different venues in Glasgow which put on different types of music. That is attended mostly by young people. It’d be weird to find someone over the age of 45 there. That’s probably just because of the concentration of young folk music enthusiasts or students in the city.
I think it’s just a demographic thing. Back in Aberdeen, it’ll mainly be old people. There’ll be some young people there because of Scottish Culture and Traditions, which is another educational programme up there. So I think that the young people that are involved in folk music, that’s all to do with demographics and the chances of education. I’m not sure, but I’ve noticed that the places where there’s a university course – Sheffield, Newcastle, Glasgow or South Uist – there are so many young people going out to these clubs. I don’t know if that answers your question.
Well, I’m not expecting a definitive answer. I’m interested in what might attract younger people to folk music. You can make all kinds of guesses. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that it seems to appeal to people who are perhaps fed up with what you might call The Digital Life. They want something that’s a bit more organic. If you’ve grown up, like you have, always connected – always advertised at – then there must be something, ironically, fresh about traditional folk music.
That would perhaps be part of it, but I think there are also a lot of young musicians whose motivation stems from the want for success. The whole BBC Young Trad Musician thing is a big deal. Young people think, “Oh, I’d like to do that.” So off they go to learn the fiddle. But I don’t know. I think that maybe the fact that folk music can be a career as well as a hobby these days entices people. I don’t know.
It’s cool and acceptable again to like folk music, but when I went to school I got a ripping for listening to all this old archive material stuff. Even now, I still get a ripping! When I was in the studio I came across a word that I didn’t know how to sing, so I had to put on a record of an old man singing it. It went through into the studio over the headphones, and the other musicians were like, “Iona! Get that fuckin’ pish off!”
But I don’t know. It’s cool again, isn’t it? Hmm. Hmmmm!
Maybe it has to do with whether your parents were involved – whether they liked it back in the day, so you grew up with it. Most pipers I know come from a piping background – a hereditary thing on the West coast. Most singers I know, their mums and dads ran folk clubs or festivals. I don’t think we’ll ever know!
I also think Spotify is a great thing, and there’s this website called Mainly Norfolk. Do you know about that?
Do I ever! Everyone loves Mainly Norfolk!
[Laughs] It’s run by this German guy who is just all about it. He loves it! He will literally digitise everyone’s sleevenotes. If it’s got some kind of historical context to it that’s important and worth keeping, he will write them into his website.
Teachers at the conservatoire will use that to teach because it’s a great learning resource. But it’s difficult being taught a song when they open Mainly Norfolk and you are the citation!
It’s like, fergodssakes man!
Has that happened to you?
Well, a few of the kids told me that they were learning about ‘Bonny Udny’. It was interesting – Lizzie Higgins is the source, but I’m the first person to have recorded that in 60 years. I asked them, “Where did you get the lyrics from?” Mainly Norfolk! The guy had put the lyrics from my sleevenotes up!
But you know what? When your album appears on Mainly Norfolk, it’s a big moment. It’s like you’ve made it!
Iona Fyfe’s new album, Away From My Window, is out now from all good online shops. Support the artist more directly by buying from her Bandcamp page. Find out more about Iona Fyfe via her website: www.ionafyfe.com.