Scotland on the harp: Corrina Hewat
Hewat is from Scotland, and her chosen instrument for her own playing is the harp, both the small harp and the big pedal kind. On her solo album Harp I Do she offers tunes that are at once melodic and percussive, and, if you need categories, would fit into both jazz and folk. “You know, I think the jazz thing is really folk music too. I don’t see them as merging folk and jazz, I actually think it’s just one big music. I don’t distinguish between them,” she says.
Hewat grew up in the Scottish Highlands, in the Black Isle north of Inverness. Her family moved there from Edinburgh when Hewat was eight, “and it was a really good thing for me. There was a real community there, a sense of sharing our lives, and of sharing music, in the Highlands,” she recalled. She was led to the harp “because I saw this woman sitting and playing one. I said to her ‘I like that, can I have a go?’ and she let me try, and it was like I could do this. I was twelve, and knew some piano and some fiddle, but the harp immediately made total sense. it just made total sense to me.”
The harp player, Christine Martin, offered the young Corrina lessons, “and so once a week for a year, we did that. My mum would drive me over, and Christine lent me a harp, and later on her husband built me a harp -- which exploded six months later! But if it wasn’t for their kindness, I don’t think I’d be playing the harp, ‘cause it’s kind of an expensive instrument,” Hewat pointed out. To own her own harp, she recalled, “it took eight years -- my family and I, and my granny too, we all saved up for the harp.” She followed traditional music through Feis Rois weekend workshops and a time at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. Her love of jazz took her to the University of Leeds, where she received an honors degree in jazz and contemporary music on the harp and studied with respected Irish harp player Maire Ni Chathasaigh.
She and her husband David Milligan, who plays piano, formed a duo which became a quartet as a trumpet player and a drummer joined in. The group, called Bachue, was about to add another aspect to Hewat’s musicianship, as well.
”We were booked for a gig at the Celtic Connections festival, and we were playing all instrumental music, involved, complex stuff. The festival director suggested that we add some songs. People relate to songs, he said, they'll connect to you if you do some songs. So we did. I was the singer. That was that!” says Hewat of her early experience singing from the stage. “My mum and dad played a lot of music around the house, Neil Young, Bob Dylan -- that’s where I learnt my first harmony singing really, singing along and finding different harmony parts to those recordings,” Hewat said. It hadn't been something she’d done in public much until that gig at Celtic Connections, though. These days she’s known as much for her singing as for her playing, and is in demand as a teacher of lively and engaging harmony singing workshops. You can also catch her singing as part of the trio Grace, Hewat, and Polwart, in which she joins fellow Scots Annie Grace and Karine Polwart for evenings of music that are very musical and often also very funny.
Singing songs has another benefit for Hewat. “It’s one of the times when the music going on inside my head stops and I focus on that song,” she says. “It’s like I have this constant flow of music, like an orchestra going in inside my head all the time -- which is grand!” It’s also sometimes hard to keep up with the flow of ideas. “I use my mobile phone a lot, sing myself messages, and I have a little half size manuscript paper that I carry around to make notes, too. They might just be phrases or lines. Then, when I have a moment, I’ll start looking a t batches of them and seeing what works and what doesn’t, and six pieces might all go together to make one big grand piece of music -- or they might end up being six different things!” she says, laughing.
One place her musical ideas go is to the band she and Milligan started, The Unusual Suspects. It’s a folk orchestra of sorts. “There’re twenty two of us, each coming form different regional traditions.-- I love hearing how which one is from the Borders, who’s from Aberdeen, who’s from Inverness or Shetland, all comes out in their music,” she says.
A commission to compose and play at L 'Orient Celtique festival in France gave the group time to play and rehearse together, something they don’t often have, or have the budget for. “As a composer, and musical director, it’s hard. We don’t get to rehearse much, and then when we do something has to work right away or drop it because the time’s so short. But this is a passion David and I have, to work on this band,” Hewat says. With the quality of their music and performance, they are igniting that passion in others, too. Audiences and music writers alike call The Unusual Suspects one of the most exciting bands working today.
Hewat conitnues to perform with Grace, Hewat and Polwart, as well as teach workshops. The Unusual Suspects are just launching a new recording, and Hewat and Milligan are working on a new project called The Gordon Duncan Experience, a youth big band based in the Perth and Kinross area. Hewat will also conitnue composing, and listening to the music. “Just walking down the street, I can hear rhythm and music in the sounds around me, and it’s grand,” Corrina Hewat says.
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