Scotland's Music: Karen Matheson, Gaelic, and story
Home, and story: those are two things you will hear woven through the songs Karen Matheson offers on her recording Urram.. You will hear those things whether you understand the Gaelic in which Matheson sings them or not.
It’s not the album Matheson thought she’d be making. She is known for her work with the band Capercaille, who have been bringing the sounds of Scotland to audiences in their native country and abroad for more than twenty years now. Every so often she releases a solo project too. She was working on one which would include contemporary songs in both English and Gaelic when she found changes in her life calling her in another direction.
Her father passed away, and not long after his death her mother became ill and soon died as well. “The recent loss of my parents sent me on a journey of discovery, which has been both eye opening and healing,” she writes in the notes which accompany the recording.
Matheson grew up in Argyll in the southwest of Scotland. Her mother was from Barra, in the southern tip of the Western Isles. Gaelic was her mother’s first language, but when she moved to Argyll for work as young woman she found that she was not allowed to speak the language at all, that it was looked down upon. Calling to Gaelic was bred in Matheson’s bones it seems though, as she sought out teachers who would help her explore the language. Her mother, Matheson told Tim Cumming for Songlines “would never have dreamed that I would go on to make it my life and passion, but she had a great pride in what we did. She did see the tide turn before she died.”
Matheson traveled back to Barra, where she heard songs and family stories, ideas that had made their way across time and generation. She also started looking through family photographs. Connecting faces to names, landscape, and story inspired Matheson to create an album of Gaelic songs, songs which in varied ways speak to the story and landscape of Scotland, and of those family photographs.
It is not that Matheson is a stranger to Gaelic song. Singing in Gaelic has been part of her work with Capercaille. The band offers songs in English and Gaelic as well as tunes in their recordings and concerts, have won awards for their work, and are credited with bringing the language to wider audiences with their work across the years.
One of those earlier songs:
Still, looking through the photographs, Matheson felt a deeper connection. “The hardships their people endured, the tales of poverty. the losses of war and emigration -- all the more poignant when able to connect a face to a name,” she writes.
The tracks on Urram sound a bit like the sort of narrative you’d find were you to sit in on a session at the kitchen table with a singer of Matheson’s gifts. It is not a spare album, though: her voice weaves in and out of arrangements which include guitar, bouzouki, fiddle, string quartet, harmonica, various sorts of percussion, flute, and African kora and Indian sarod. Most arrangements were made by Matheson and husband and musical partner Donald Shaw. They clearly know what they are about, telling the story of a song as much through instrument as through voice.
Wondering about the kora and the sarod? Both are melodic instruments which add color and texture to the project while fitting right in with what is going on with guitar, fiddle, bouzouki, keyborads, and flute. These African and Indian instruments are in the hands of masters too, Seckou Keita and Soumik Datta respectively. Those on the traditional instruments are top class as well. Among them are Donald Shaw, Matheu Watson, Innes White, Michael McGoldrick, and Signy Jacobsdottir.
The thirteen tracks of the album include waulking songs -- songs with the rhytms of work which may tells tales fantastical, amusing, or thoughtful -- a cradle song sung to Bonne Prince Charlie, a song about a dog, a call and response song of argument between two bardesses, a lullabye, a prayer, a song in praise of a boat, one celebrating the Hebridean island of Lewis, and a powerful and reflective love song. They come sourced from Matheson’s own memories, her research in the archives of the School of Scottish studies, and in one case, her work with Capercaille.
The sea is very present in these songs, honoring the seabound nature of the Western Isles and all of Scotland. There is a certain cultural crossroad inherent in water’s edge, too, and that comes to play especially on a song from Matheson’s work with Capercaillie which has lyrics by poet Catriona Montgomery set to music by Donald Shaw. It is framed as a prayer for all those who have been affected by famine, especially those in Africa. It resonates with the famine times in the past of other lands, as well, and stand in good Gaelic company with the other songs Matheson has chosen.
Choice on how the songs on an album are sequenced are part of the story an artist wishes to tell with a project. That plays out in both word and melody with Urram. Whether you know Scottish Gaelic or not, you will be well repaid by listening to the tracks as they are set out. If you’ve time for only one or two to begin with, though, A Bhirlinn Bharrach, a song in praise of a boat from Barra, and ‘Eilean Fraoich, about the isle of Lewis, are good gateways.
Whether you listen to two songs or all thirteen, chances are you will be drawn back to listen again. Chances are you will also learn things about story, family, and home -- and Scotland. As Matheson writes in her notes “The title urram sums it up -- respect.”
Photographs from Karen Matheson’s concert at City Halls in Glasgow at Celtic Connections 2016, made with permission of the artist, the festival, and the venue. Thank you for respecting copyright.
Another earlier song...