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Album Landskein links Highland musician Lauren MacColl to the land

By Margaret Chrystall

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ON a muggy August day, it’s hard to trace back the thread of north musician Lauren MacColl’s new album to picture recording it on a crisp November morning near Inverness.

“I’d booked a baby grand piano for the recording at the Abriachan Hall, quite an undertaking to get it into that tiny hall for just one day.

“And then I woke up that morning to find snow on the ground, and I remember thinking ‘Aaggh! This has to work!’ with everything feeling a bit against us,” Lauren laughed, as you visualise the long steep hill that leads up to Abriachan outside Inverness.

“But the amazing guy who hires out the piano brought it up in a horse box and the piano came in on its side, he put the legs on, the lights went up and we were ready to go!”

Abriachan Hall, where Lauren recorded Landskein, just with James Ross's piano accompaniment. She would love to be able to perform the album tunes there.
Abriachan Hall, where Lauren recorded Landskein, just with James Ross's piano accompaniment. She would love to be able to perform the album tunes there.

It’s just one of the stories that links the music of Lauren’s new album with the places of the Highlands and the landscape which she loves.

In 2017, when Lauren came across the word ‘landskein’ – which is the title of her new album – she tucked it away safely into a little folder on her phone.

It was a word of the day tweet shared by writer Robert MacFarlane, and it means a thread that traces the lifelines of a landscape, tying stories, memories and experience to the land.

In contrast to her self-composed last album, The Seer, with its big musical line-up, Lauren’s latest is focused on the rich sound of the solo fiddle, just accompanied bythe piano of James Ross.

“After The Seer I was keen to do something that took me back to the roots of what inspired me musically in the first place, which was the really old melodies.

“Although I always return to them, it had been a little while since I’d made a really concentrated recording of traditional stuff.”

The first ideas for the album already included the plan to record it up at the Abriachan Hall last November. That plan was fired up when, as a 15-year-old, Lauren saw the great Irish fiddler Liz Doherty play there solo and unaccompanied.

“I just remember thinking it worked in that space, the fiddle on its own and the acoustic was so beautiful,” said Lauren, also a member of line-ups RANT and Salt House.

“Something a few years back sparked that memory andI thought, ‘That is probably a good place to take these old melodies I’ve been carrying around for quite some time now’. I wanted to make more of a sparse recording there, just letting the tunes speak for themselves.”

Lauren MacColl's return to the North reunites her with the landscape. Picture: Somhairle MacDonald
Lauren MacColl's return to the North reunites her with the landscape. Picture: Somhairle MacDonald

For Lauren, her own ’landskein’ involves her journey back to the Highlands “in various stages” from Glasgow where she studied and the chance to reconnect and get out in the landscape – Lauren was brought up in the Black Isle.

Many of the old tunes the fiddle player loves she feels are deeply connected to the land.

Two of those on the album refer to places not far from her home just south of Inverness and appear in the famous Captain Simon Fraser of Knockie tune collection.

“That’s about 10 minutes’ drive from my house and when you look through the tune titles, it’s like having an interactive map referencing all these places in the landscape.

“The music gives me knowledge of my surroundings and vice versa!

“I spend my time when I’m not working – I’m not a mountaineer by any shakes, but I love being outin nature – on the hill.

“I studied in Glasgow and as a lot of folk do, you stay for a while where your work builds up. But I was never a city person. We would always probably have returned and we have circled back.

“I’ve gravitated back towards the land and I feel such a strong connection to the music from the place I grew up in and all these beautiful tunes I grew up hearing as a youngster.

“I was lucky that when I was growing up, there was such an interest in traditional music.

“The people who were on the stage at that time were passionate about music, the likes of Blazin’ Fiddles, who formed when I was a teenager and there were all these amazing old tunes they were playing and that was definitely inspiring to me. To know that you could have a career in music exploring this beautiful old music.”

For Landskein, Lauren has assembled a collection of tunes she has discovered in old collections over the years and has put together to record as this album.

“It’s a bit of a hobby for me, I just love delving into the old collections and, as much as I love learning music from others, I know that when I get a tune from a book and learn it, it’s my take on it and I’m not influenced by hearing it from another person and I’m more likely to put my stamp on it.”

Lauren added: “I was thinking on it earlier, that it’s in my upbringing.

“My parents are antique dealers and their whole life involves restoring things and bringing them back to life.

“It feels like it’s a very similar thing – finding an old tune and giving it a voice again.

“And that’s not to say that there isn’t a place for new music. The two can coexist and they make me feel as if I’ve got a lovely balance in my life musically.”

On the brink of lockdown, Lauren had just headed off on tour to launch the new Salt House album in London, but they had to turn back.

So with Landskein already in the bag, did Lauren find it a creative time?

“It was a little bit mixed. I mean, our day-to-day home life was exactly the same and we were lucky with where we live. We could just step outside in the height of lockdown and walk anywhere.

“But creatively I didn’t do a lot personally, though I did things on other people’s projects.

“Rachel Newton recorded a whole new solo album which I think comes out in November and I wrote and recorded the string parts for that.

“I felt very lucky to just have the support of the music community and my peers and in general with music fans as well being amazingly supportive at this time, buying merchandise and supporting artists.

“It’s the bigger picture and next year that is more worrying.”

The album artwork for Landskein has been created by Ullapool artist and musician Mairearad Green.
The album artwork for Landskein has been created by Ullapool artist and musician Mairearad Green.

There is a quiet, reflective almost meditative feel to the music of Landskein and its leisurely pace that sits well with lockdown times– though it was recorded well before it began.

“A lot of people who have heard the album so far have said that they feel like it really sits with the mood that they’re in and perhaps that’s because it’s the way all our brains are working at the moment. I mean, I’m not inclined to listen to really fast, high energy music just now.”

Originally planned to be launched in Cromarty at Lauren’s own fiddle festival in July, Landskein is something Lauren would love to play at Abriachan Hall.

“I think it would be great to bring that music there and into some other lovely acoustic spaces.”

Though Landskein is a solo project, there has been the chance to work with her friend, fellow Highland musician and artist Mairearad Green from Ullapool on the album artwork.

“I sent her the album when it was mixed and Mairearad sent back 10 pen drawings and said ‘You choose!’ and we had a print made of the one which is the cover. Mairearad is selling the other originals.

“It feels, even as a solo project, as if it is a collaboration!”

Landskein is out now from Lauren’s website: www.laurenmaccoll.co.uk

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