Julie Fowlis - on Brave, Gaelic, flowers and couture

As Julie Fowlis looked out at the sea of saltires and composed herself before leading the Tartan Army in singing Flower of Scotland before Scotland’s World Cup qualifying match with Serbia at Hampden Park in Glasgow back in September, she was fifteen years older but light years away from the expectations she had when she arrived in Glasgow to study on Strathclyde University’s Applied Music Course.

Fowlis has become used to life moving at an unearthly pace and having experiences that she never dreamed of befall her. Back in June, the singer who has taken the Gaelic songs of her native North Uist to audiences around the world found herself walking into the Hollywood premiere of Disney Pixar’s massively successful animated movie Brave, for which she recorded two songs, and enjoying the buzz of a major film industry event.

It was a degree or two upscale perhaps but also another step in a series of red carpet occasions that have also seen the Inverness-based mother of two pick up a cabinetful of awards including Folk Singer of the Year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, Traditional Singer of the Year at the Pan Celtic Nations Festival in Ireland, and the Gaelic Singer of the Year and Album of the Year (twice) titles at the Scots Trad Music Awards. She was named as the Scottish Parliament’s Gaelic Ambassador in 2008 and also had a brand new flower named after her, Lilium Julie Fowlis, which was launched at the Chelsea Flower Show in May 2011.

“When I arrived at Strathclyde I was just hoping that I’d remember my etiquette and cues for the university orchestra as an oboe player,” she says. “That feels like another life time but technically I’m still an oboe player. I’ve left it lying in its box too much, I know, and I miss it. But getting it out and playing it’s definitely on my to-do list.”

Signs of Fowlis’ award-winning tendencies were first flagged up when the band she’d formed just six months previously with fellow Glasgow-based students, Brolum, won a ‘Danny’, one of the prizes given to emerging young talent in memory of the late Danny Kyle, a great champion of promising singers and musicians, at the annual Celtic Connections musical bonanza in Glasgow in 2000. A few months later they picked up a similar award at the Festival Interceltique in Lorient, Brittany. They released their first album, 7:11, in January 2001.

At this point Fowlis was billed as playing whistles and singing. However, the songs she’d grown up hearing at family get-togethers on North Uist were soon to bring her centre-stage with another group, Dòchas, which released two albums, Dòchas and An Dàrna Umhail, for the Skye-based Gaelic music specialist label Macmeanmna and won the Best Up and Coming Artist title at the Scots Trad Music Awards in 2004. Fowlis’s singing with Dòchas gained her increasing recognition and she launched her solo career with the album Mar a Tha Mo Chridhe (As My Heart Is) in 2005.

It was her second album, Cuilidh, that really started the international buzz about Fowlis, though. BBC Radio 2 presenter Mark Radcliffe described her voice and songs as “enchanting, beguiling and as fascinating as songs by Kate Bush and Björk” and these songs, in a language that only 60,000 of Fowlis’ fellow Scots understand, went on to earn Fowlis crossover status, winning fans across the UK, Europe and the United States. On the release of her third album, Uam (From Me), rock magazine Mojo praised a “seductively inviting selection, exuding romance, beauty and sorrow” that was “elegant, evocative, unerringly classy.” Mojo also commissioned Fowlis to record a Gaelic version of the Beatles’ Blackbird for its fortieth anniversary celebration of the Fab Four’s White album.

While she was happy to oblige and the Beatles connection did her profile no harm at all, it’s the Gaelic tradition and especially the songs of North Uist that Fowlis remains passionate about. She’s called on old neighbours, collecting local songs in the manner of Scottish folklorist Hamish Henderson and the American archivist Alan Lomax in the 1950s, bringing their words, music and reminiscences to major festival stages and much larger audiences than could previously have been imagined. A period spent working as artist in residence with Tobar an Dualchais, a project set up to preserve and make available online thousands of hours of Gaelic and Scots recordings, many of them captured in the singers’ own homes, brought home to her just how rich the tradition is and has made her all the more determined to bring these songs to a wider audience.

“There’s a huge wealth of Gaelic songs out there but what interests me particularly is the local aspect of the North Uist songs,” says Fowlis who, following her graduation from Strathclyde, spent a year studying at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on Skye, to fine tune her command of the language after years of living on the mainland.

“These songs tell us not just who we are but who we came from and what’s been passed on to us. If you go to the islands, you’ll often find that every inlet, every beach, every rock has a name and a story behind it that’s been preserved in a song. There’ll have been a shipwreck or a drowning – there are happier stories too – and while the song may be specific to that area, it’ll deal with emotions that are universal. Now, I could sit and listen to these field recordings of solo singers forever but that’s not to everyone’s taste. So my challenge is to bring these songs to an audience in such a way that we’re making them accessible while being true to the tradition. That’s really what drives me.”

As her profile has grown through her singing, Fowlis has also found herself in demand as a broadcaster. Her warm, friendly onstage manner has made her a natural for radio and television and she has become a familiar face on BBC Alba in Scotland and TG4 in Ireland. She has also presented her own programme, Fowlis and Folk, for BBC Radio Scotland, co-presented the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards with Mike Harding, presented Bob’s Ballad Bases, a programme on the influence of British folk ballads on the work of Bob Dylan that was nominated as Best Documentary in the Celtic Media Awards 2012, and this summer she joined the Sky Arts TV team as a presenter, alongside Zoe Ball and Mark Radcliffe, during the station’s coverage of Cambridge Folk Festival 2012.

Towards the end of last year came an offer out of the blue that trumped all of these engagements as regards excitement and publicity. Tom Macdougall, the vice-president of music at Disney’s studios in California, got in touch to say that his company were working on an animated film, Brave, with a heroine who unleashes chaos and fury in medieval Scotland. Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Kelly MacDonald, Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson and Kevin McKidd had been hired to give voices to the various characters and Disney Pixar wanted Fowlis to sing two songs, Touch the Sky and Into the Open Air, for the soundtrack.

Fowlis, who at the time was expecting her second daughter, had to tell the Hollywood executive that she was due to give birth around the time of the scheduled recording but so keen was Macdougall to have her involved that he brought the recording forward.

"I was thrilled to be asked because they had the choice of any number of singers and it turned out that they’d listened to a lot of albums while doing their research and mine kept coming back to the top of the pile,” she says

Fowlis and her musician husband, Éamon Doorley from County Dublin, who has been by her side all through her solo career while continuing to play with leading Irish folk group Danú, worked with Disney Pixar’s US production team and musicians on both sides of the Atlantic, including Scottish producer Jim Sutherland, on the songs that were designed to reflect the film’s feisty main character, Princess Merida.

“It was a strange way to create music for us,” says Fowlis. “Normally, on my own albums or on the Dual project that we’ve been working on with Éamon, myself, guitarist Ross Martin and singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh from Danú, we’ll all get together, develop a camaraderie and work from there. But here we were emailing files back and forth across the Atlantic and having conference calls via Skype about how one note should sound. It was intense but although I thought Pixar would be very controlling – the songs were written by one of their team, after all - they let us have a lot of input because they were keen for the film to have an authentic Scottish flavour.”

Rolling up for the Hollywood premiere was an experience not to be forgotten, she says, and possibly the chance of a lifetime.

“Hearing your music as part of a major movie soundtrack is very odd, to be honest, but it was great to meet everyone in the team. We’d been working on the music for about six months, which we thought was quite a long time, but the Pixar people over there had put in six years of research, writing, animating and so on, so they were buzzing having completed such a long project. It was great to be part of that and a terrific experience all in all.”

The one downside is that she never got to meet Billy Connolly, a big hero, who was filming The Hobit in New Zealand at the time of both the Hollywood premiere and the Scottish launch in Edinburgh. And although she sang the songs for the film in English, an unusual occurrence, Fowlis was delighted that the trailer for Brave featured her singing a Gaelic song, Tha Mo Ghaol Air Aird A' Chuain (My Love is on The High Seas), bringing the language to a worldwide audience of some 40 million.  

Coincidentally, although the two projects are very different in scale, just before Brave came up Fowlis had been working on Heisgeir, a project commissioned by the Blas festival of Highland and Islands culture that used both newly composed and traditional music with film footage to examine the changing nature and role of traditional culture.

“Both projects were a challenge in their own way but they’ve given me a taste for fitting music to film and this is something I hope to do more of, although I’m not necessarily expecting Hollywood to be involved,” she says.

In the meantime, over the winter she and Doorley will be working on the next Julie Fowlis album while Julie somehow finds time to keep up her TV and radio commitments and a raft of other projects including collaborating on dress-designing with Sandra Murray (see box) as well as being mum to two lively and sociable little girls.

“We’re lucky in that, apart from when Éamon goes off with Danú for a couple of months every year, we work so much together and we’re able to spend so much time with the girls because they go everywhere with us – even to Hollywood,” she says. “We’ve always said that if the girls start to seem unhappy being dragged around with touring musicians, we’ll find something else to do and we’ll be watching that closely. For the moment, though, they seem quite content to be part of the team.”


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