Robyn Stapleton - Set on track by Jock's tale
As she watched the Scots Trad Music Awards on television last year, Robyn Stapleton wasn’t to know that she would be appearing live onstage when the awards came round again this time. Before tuning into the show, which came from Aberdeen Music Hall, the singer had been searching for an upbeat song to complete the set she was planning for the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year 2014 final at Celtic Connections.
“I’d listened to hundreds of songs but I couldn’t find the one that felt just right,” she says. “Then on came Tom Speirs and Arthur Watson, who come from Aberdeen, and they sang Jock Hawk’s Adventures in Glasgow. And suddenly it clicked. I thought, that’s exactly the song I need.”
Her choice was spot on because Stapleton’s confident and enthusiastic rendition of Jock Hawk must have gone some way towards persuading the ‘Young Trad’ judges that she was the winner. She would have appeared on the Trad Awards this year anyway, as part of her prize for winning the competition, but being shortlisted as Scots Singer of the Year has given Stapleton another reason for travelling to Inverness for Saturday’s big finale to the traditional music year.
This, as well as being asked to record and perform Here’s to All Our Commonwealth as part of the Commonwealth Games and singing with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on the Proms in the Park on Glasgow Green, “fantastic” experiences both, was all quite far from the dreams of the young Stapleton who would hide under the table when she was asked to sing at family gatherings.
“I used to sing in church and I’d take part in Burns competitions at home in Stranraer from around the age of six,” she says. “Then I went through a phase of being terribly self-conscious, as you do when you’re growing up, and I’d end up hiding or having my mum twist my arm to sing. But I got over that and now I really enjoy singing to people and doing music in the community projects, which I’m really passionate about because they help me to communicate and engage with the public.”
Singing lessons in her teens provided a solid grounding, although she might not have appreciated it at the time. She also sang with the National Youth Choir of Scotland and although she enjoyed singing Bernstein and Holst as well as lighter material, she missed the Burns and traditional songs that she’d sung when she was younger.
“I felt much more of a connection with these songs because I could sing them in my own accent and I became really interested in where these songs came from and the stories behind them,” she says. “It’s funny because there was no traditional music in my family – my dad has a good voice but you won’t catch him singing in public – it was just the purity and honesty of traditional songs that attracted me and made me love singing them.”
Spotting the then RSAMD’s course in Scottish music, Stapleton found her ideal way to follow her passion and with traditional singers Gordeanna McCulloch, Anne Neilson and Rod Paterson’s guidance, she was able to make up for not being brought up among folk clubs and festivals.
“I was spoilt really in having such great teachers,” she says. “They didn’t hold back. If I wasn’t doing things quite right, they’d soon tell me and I’m glad of that because they have so much knowledge and experience of the tradition. They also taught me different types of songs and introduced me to songs from the North East and Shetland and really expanded my repertoire.”
Songs from her native Dumfries and Galloway are at the heart of one the projects she’s looking forward to in 2015, an album and tour with fellow Young Scottish Traditional Musician of the Year winner, Emily Smith. She has also completed her own debut album, to be released in the Spring and titled Fickle Fortune, for which she has assembled her dream band including another Young Trad winner, Orcadian fiddler Kristan Harvey, and the Japanese guitarist Hajime Takahashi, whom she met while studying Irish music and song at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance in Limerick.
“This has been an eventful year,” says Stapleton who earlier this month was made an ambassador for the Scots language and named Dumfries & Galloway Life’s Person of the Year. “I thought that might be just as a result of winning the Young Trad but next year is going to be busy, too, and I’ve realised that it’s something that’s always going to be with me. The community work I do, with projects like the Glasgow Association of Mental Health song group, is still very important, though, and I want to keep involved in that and stay connected through music.”
From The Herald, December 10, 2014.