Saturday, February 13, 2021

Scotland's Music: Karen Matheson: Still Time

What draws a musician to a song or tune, to wanting to learn it and sing it?

That varies with each artist, of course, and sometimes with each song. For Karen Matheson, it was the poetry and image in James Grant’s song Cassiopeia Coming Through that got her thinking how she’d like to present it. It’s a piece with an abundance of both, along with enough room musically for Matheson and producer and partner Donald Shaw to open things up with ideas that flow between jazz and folk. They chose the song to open Matheson’s album Still Time. “Cassiopeia is a beautifully crafted call for change, for hope, for moving forward,” Matheson says.

The way the album came about is in some ways a story of hope and moving forward. Matheson is lead singer and a founding member of the top folk band Capercaillie, with whom she sings in both Gaelic and English.. She also keeps note of songs she would like to record in other ways. This is her fifth solo album, one she had begun working on some time ago.

‘’Ten years ago I was working on a bunch of different tracks, unsure of what direction to go in when I found myself facing a number of personal challenges including the loss of both my parents,” Matheson says. “It felt right to concentrate on the Gaelic songs of my childhood, in tribute to what had given true shape to my life.” The result was the all Gaelic album called Urram, a word which means respect in Gaelic.

“We were then left with a body of work, waiting in the wings to be resurrected at a later date with my sore heart eased and my faith in humanity restored,” she continues. Then came the unexpected pause of lockdown.

“While the world paused, birdsong soared and banana bread baked, Still Time was reborn with the help of some familiar, brilliant musicians who could accommodate the home-recording situation we worked through lockdown,” she says. Those musicians include Shaw and Grant as well as frequent members of Matheson’s road band Hannah Fisher on backing vocals and fiddle, and Sorren MacLean on backing vocals and guitar, along with Alyn Cosker and James MacKintosh on percussion, John Doyle on guitar and bouzouki, Fraser Fifield on saxophone, Anna Massie on mandolin, Ewen Vernal on bass, and others.

The gathering of songs is at once focused and varied.

They are thoughtfully and beautifully sung and backed with taste and creativity. Each track will reveal more riches with repeated listening. Highlights include

A thoughtful tale of life in the Highlands coming to terms with the clearances Recovery is a story with both historic and current resonance. It was written by Callum and Rory MacDonald of Runrig. Matheson’s take imbues the story with powerful yet understated grace.

The Aragon Mill is a story of loss, change, uncertainty, and perhaps, just a thread of hope. American writer and activist Si Kahn wrote it, inspired by the lives of those affected by the closure of the cotton mill in Aragon, Georgia, in the US. It’s a song which has spoken to Matheson for some years; she’s often included it in live performance. “I’ve loved it from the very first time I heard it sung by the brilliant Andy Irvine with Planxty, on their album Words and Music in the early 80s,” she writes in the sleeve notes.

Matheson chose four songs by James Grant for this album; one, in fact, came about because of request she made to the musician. Of the song called Little Gun she writes “This little beauty penned by James was in response to my request for something reflecting the power of parenting, and the raw emotion it brings.” There is the memorable idea “it’s not the fact that I made you, it’s the fact that you made me,” as part of the lyrics, and there’s a chorus --I will let you seek that out -- which will linger in your mind, as well.

Then there’s the title track, Still Time. It was, Matheson says, written by her partner and the album’s producer Donald Shaw twenty years ago. Life’s changes and choices, and the lasting fleeting nature of both those things, come in for consideration in the song. “The words “Still Time” resonated with me while collating the tracks for this album in lockdown firstly on an obvious level of time standing still but also on another level in that there was still time to finish this project which had been lying unfinished for so long!” Matheson explains.

There are other gems: The Diamond Ring finds lively contributions from Dirk Powell on banjo and Hannah Fisher on fiddle and backing vocals, John Doyle and Sorren MacLean on guitar; Cassiopeia Coming Through, another piece written by James Grant, opens the album with a mystical, jazz tinged, image filled story; things are drawn to a close with the Robert Burns classic Ae Fond Kiss as sung at the close of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014.

Still Time is an album with songs of reflection, connection, courage, creativity, and grace. The songs are presented with those qualities as well.

Photograph of Karen Matheson in studio courtesy of Compass Records; photographs of Karen Matheson in performance at Celtic Connections in Glasgow by Kerry DExter, made with permission of festival, artist, and venues involved. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Karen Matheson's album Urram
Capercaillie’s album At the Heart of It All,
History into song: Capercaillie’s album Glenfinnan
Another artist to know: Cathie Ryan’s album Through Wind & Rain

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