By Katie Macleod
The last rays of the day’s sun stream through the window, and notes of fiddle music float through the air from the adjoining room, where the sound check is taking place. Julie Fowlis, the award-winning Gaelic singer and musician from North Uist, looks refreshed and relaxed despite a four-hour drive to Pennsylvania for the fourth stop on a US tour.
Her presence on this side of the Atlantic is even more impressive given that she is terrified of flying. “So I sort of dread the tour every single time it comes along,” she admits with a laugh, “but as soon as I get my feet onto terra firma I’m so glad to be here.”
“I love the experience of touring in America, it’s very different to touring anywhere else. The audiences are different, even the practicalities are different, like the big highways and the enormous hotels, everything’s to the max, supersize... The whole experience is just the volume turned up, you know.”
Speaking before her October 2015 performance in Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania state capital, Julie and her band (her husband, Éamon Doorley, on Irish bouzouki, Duncan Chisholm on fiddle, and Tony Byrne on guitar) are just four days into a month-long tour which sees them cross ten states, culminating in California. “We started off in Vermont, it’s beautiful with the autumn colours. We’ve been before, and it’s always nice to go back to places that you’ve enjoyed visiting the first time round.
“I suppose the biggest thing [about touring in America] is being constantly surprised and reminded every year that we come back, how interested people are in Gaelic music, and the lengths they go to to find out about it, to learn the language, and to learn the songs, or their ancestry or whatever it is. The people who tend to come to the concerts, they’re so passionate about the music, and I always, always forget from one year to the next, just how enthusiastic they are about it.”
‘Enthusiastic’ is a good adjective for the audience that evening. Over 100 folk music fans crowd into the intimate Abbey Bar to hear Julie Fowlis and her band sing ‘songs from the Scottish isles.’ There’s clapping, footstomping, and cries of “Yeah!” during the ‘puirt a bheil’ sets, and more than a few misty eyes during what the band joke are stereotypically “depressing” Gaelic numbers. Most of the songs are from Julie’s latest album ‘Gach Sgeul – Every Story’, and she’s not just singing either: in the 90-minute performance Julie variously plays the bagpipes, the flute, and the Indian shruti box.
She is softly spoken as she chats to the audience before each set, explaining why she finds certain songs particularly moving, and outlining the cultural context behind the lyrics, whether that’s the proud proclamations of the Clan Macdonald, a musical interpretation of a Sorley Maclean poem, or the sounds of a Gaelic lullaby. She shares personal stories with the crowd too; the lullaby was once the soundtrack to her daughters’ bedtimes, both of whom are in the US with her on tour.
“I’m just continually inspired by other singers, and the old songs in particular, they’re so amazing,” Julie says before the show. “I mean they’ve lasted five and six and seven hundred years, you know it’s not for nothing that they’ve survived, they’re strong melodies, and they’re strong stories, and they obviously speak to people on some level.”
Julie has been performing professionally for 15 years but, she says, “To be honest I never wanted to be a performer, I was quite a reluctant performer, especially a solo performer. I was quite happy playing with other people, you know, low-key, in a session, as part of a big group, quite happy and loved it, but never really that comfortable with the spotlight.”
She started singing in primary school in North Uist – “the Gaelic music that everybody did” – and ended up playing the bagpipes too, which she continued once her family moved to Rossshire when she was a teenager. After graduating from university with a BA in Applied Music, she spent a year at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye to improve her Gaelic, before becoming the Education Development Officer at Fèis Ros in Dingwall.
It was when her mother took ill, and ended up in hospital for a year, that Julie made a decision that would change her life. “It’s hard to describe, it just changed my outlook on life quite dramatically,” she says of her mother’s illness. “Out of the blue, and I’ll never really know why, I decided I was going to quit my job and play music for a year. I thought well, you’re only here once, and hopefully when I’m older I’ll be able to say I was wild and reckless once, even if it was just for a year. I thought I’ll do it now, before there’s any ties.” She pauses, before laughing: “That was 15 years ago, and I’ve never really had a job since!”
In the intervening years, Julie’s career has reached dizzying heights, not that you would know it from speaking to her - the singer is down-to-earth and friendly, as laid back as if she was chatting over a cup of tea in Lochmaddy. She has performed at the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow XX Commonwealth Games in 2014; sang at the Ryder Cup on multiple occasions; and attended the Hollywood premiere of the Disney film Brave, to which she lent her vocals.
“The big gigs stand out because they’re big,” she says, “but sometimes some of the more memorable things are the little things, you know, places you visit and the connections you make with people and even some of the funny stories, the mishaps on tour.”
There are certainly no mishaps tonight. Julie and her band receive two standing ovations, and fans line up to speak to her and snap selfies at the side of the stage after the show. Thousands of miles away from its home, the music of the Hebrides is finding a new and captive audience, all thanks to the vocals and musical talents of the islands’ very own Julie Fowlis.
Since her US tour, Julie has performed at Celtic Connections in Glasgow and at the Temple Bar TradFest in Dublin. She presents the awardwinning TV programme ‘Port’, currently on BBC Alba, and co-presented the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in London in April. Upcoming 2016 tour dates include Germany, Oban, Orkney, and Stornoway. For the latest news, visit www.juliefowlis.com.