Mairi MacInnes - back in the family tradition
Màiri MacInnes is talking about turning a natural asset into a business when she stops herself. It feels very strange, says the singer from South Uist, suddenly to be thinking in terms of marketing and packaging something that’s always been there, almost literally on tap; her voice.
The world, though, has moved on in the fifteen years since MacInnes released her acclaimed Orosay album in 2001. Back then, she had a record label to look after the things that she now has to deal with as the artist and record company proprietor. There was no Facebook or Twitter presence, or any of the social media we now take for granted, to consider and things the younger generation of musicians now accept as an everyday part of their jobs have fallen on MacInnes’s metaphorical desk.
MacInnes, a native Gaelic speaker who, in 1982, became one of the youngest winners of the Gold Medal at the Royal National Mod, didn’t mean to be silent, as far as recordings are concerned, for so long. When she released her new album, Gràs, earlier this year it was the result of much putting off until the time felt right due to disruption in her personal life.
“I feel like I’ve come out of my shell again,” she says. “It’s been a long time since I’ve felt creative.”
A painful divorce has left MacInnes, a devout Catholic, mourning the loss of her marriage but feeling stronger for having gone through a devastating time. Now based in the Clyde Valley after living for many years on Arran, as an islander born and bred she feels landlocked but positive, she says, and the invitation to perform the songs from Gràs in two concerts at the imminent Blas 2015 festival in the Highlands as well as joining the cast of the festival’s Celtic Praise event has given her the impetus to get her business brain in gear.
Not that she’s neglected Gaelic song entirely during her absence from recording. One of the things that have given her the greatest pleasure in recent years has been teaching on the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Scottish music course.
“I’ve always loved sharing the songs I sing,” she says. “I love singing for an audience but for me it’s just as important to pass the tradition on and teaching one-to-one is really a two-way learning process. I learn from my students because I put myself in their shoes and remember what it was like for me when I was their age. It’s also important to get to know them as people so they feel they’re accomplishing something more than just learning a song. You can have a lovely voice and know all the information that lies behind a song but you need to put it across in a genuine way. It’s really down to humility and understanding that it’s the song that matters. Your voice is the instrument and as the singer you’re the medium that allows the song to connect with people.”
Music runs in MacInnes’ family and as if to illustrate this, her uncle, John Archie MacMillan, who played a large part in getting MacInnes back into the recording studio, played her recordings of his late father, Angus John MacMillan singing, one of which made its way onto the album.
“I only met Angus John a couple of times but he had an amazing story from World War l – his own mother didn’t recognise him when he returned home - and hearing him singing Mi’n Seo Nam Onar (I am Alone)had a real impact on me,” she says. “I thought it would be really special if I could sing with him. The recording engineer was able to arrange it so that we were in the same room, as it were, and hearing the emotion in his voice on that recording, singing as if he was there with us, had us all in tears.”
The experience of recording Gràs and of finding the musicians who worked with her on the album and are now her regular band has helped MacInnes to regain the confidence she lost during her personal turmoil.
“There were times when I just couldn’t get into singing,” she says. “The songs I grew up with were a source of comfort but while being able to get in touch with all the raw emotion in some of these Gaelic songs is a great asset when you’re singing them to an audience, sometimes you don’t want to go there. My faith, and I don’t mean religion but the faith to lift yourself up, carried me through and my family, especially John Archie, were so supportive. I feel positive again and it’s good to be able to look to the future even if it means having to get used to being my own record label.”
Màiri MacInnes appears at Roybridge Memorial Hall on Friday, September 4; Plockton High School on Saturday, September 5; and on St Andrew’s Cathedral, Inverness, Sunday, September 6. Blas 2015 takes place across the Highlands and Argyll between September 4 and 12 – for further details log onto www.blas-festival.com