Lauren MacColl - Young fiddler with an old soul
Lauren MacColl considers the implications of the Classic Album status that Celtic Connections 2008 has attached to her debut CD, When Leaves Fall, and decides that as a marketing tool, it’s okay. As a statement of fact? Well, that’s another matter.
"I don’t think it means classic album in the same way that the Paul Brady & Andy Irvine album, which is in the same concert series, is a classic that’s stood the test of time," says the young fiddler from the Black Isle. "I’ve read articles where Donald Shaw has been asked to justify the description and it’s more a case of Maeve [singer Maeve Mackinnon who shares a Celtic Connections double bill with MacColl] and me being chosen as a representation of what’s been happening in traditional music this past year."
Outstanding though When Leaves Fall is – if The Herald had a Folk Album of the Year and this writer was allowed to chose it, its blend of timeless tradition and effortless modernity would have won – MacColl won’t be letting the classic album tag go to her head. Having won the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award in 2005, she’s aware of the lift such titles can give to a career but level-headed enough not to place too much importance on them.
"It’s definitely easier to promote yourself when you have something like the Young Folk Award attached to your name and that acted as a real spur for me," she says. "It made me work really hard at expanding my repertoire because I couldn’t have listened to more than ten minutes of myself at the time. And because you get gigs as part of the prize, suddenly you can phone people up and ask them to work with you, instead of saying, D’you fancy getting together for a tune? But I was also very aware that, within a year, somebody else would have the title and be getting all the attention I’d been getting."
MacColl was also very resistant to the pressure to release an album to cash in on her Young Folk success. She didn’t feel ready at the time and she’s glad that she waited, allowing time for the musicians she recorded When Leaves Fall with to really gel and for her playing to mature further, particularly with regard to the slow airs which are her passion and were part of the fiddle’s initial attraction.
She began classical violin lessons at the age of ten but she’d been pestering her parents for a fiddle ever since her grandparents started taking her to see Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness every year from the age of six.
"I can remember going to these concerts and just loving it," she says. "At six, you might be expected to be restless but I would sit there mesmerised. I didn’t know the difference between classical violin and fiddle when I started but about a year after I began lessons, I went to Feis Ross and that really opened my eyes. I discovered that it was okay to learn tunes by ear and that put me on a different path."
She continued playing classical music with the schools orchestra and learning fiddle on trips to Skye and Stirling University, where Shetland fiddler Catriona Macdonald took a course. As she marked the calendar waiting for Feis Ross to come round again ("that’s how sad I was"), weekends were spent alternately searching for fiddle lessons and participating in highland dancing competitions. Something had to give. First it was the orchestra, who decided MacColl’s absences betrayed a lack of interest. Then it was a knee, which meant she had to retire from competitive dancing.
"At Feis Ross the tutors would be people like Iain MacFarlane and Allan Henderson, who were experienced players by then but still not all that far ahead of me in terms of age, and I found that inspiring," she says. "I suppose if I’d applied myself, I might have done Celtic Studies or something else academic but all I really wanted to do was play the fiddle."
The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow’s Scottish Music course beckoned and she cites her final year’s studies with the great Perthshire fiddler Pete Clark as invaluable experience. Clark, a real champion of slow airs, would work on MacColl’s phrasing with her in painstaking detail, spending a whole hour’s lesson on one bar of music.
"That’s what I needed to do," she says. "I really wanted to work on my tone and expression. Because although I love groups like Lau, who are really exciting, different every time and manage that feat of being both deep and playful, and I’m happy to dance myself silly to the Peatbog Faeries, that’s not necessarily what I feel at home with on the instrument. When I put a bow on a string I want to communicate rather than entertain."
Singers are a big influence, particularly Gaelic singers Kathleen MacInnes, Calum Alex MacMillan and James Graham, and she finds that she identifies more with their interpretation, ornamentation and the instrument-like tone of their voices than she does other fiddlers.
She’s also keen to delve deeper into the music of her native Ross-shire – an album drawn from The Highland Collection book of tunes with paintings and/or photographs of the places that the tunes inspired would, she says, be the ideal follow-up to When Leaves Fall.
"I think it’s important to feel a connection with where you come from through music," she says. "There were two fiddlers in my family before me, my great grandfather and my great uncle and there are tapes somewhere of my great uncle playing. So I’m always asking people to clear out their lofts."
Not so much Cash in the Attic as Cassettes in the Attic, perhaps, but a potential treasure hunt all the same.
From The Herald, January 7, 2008