Mairearad Green's latest project Hearth walks in the footsteps of Coigach women
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On January 3 in her shorefront Ullapool home, Mairearad Green closed the curtains, put on the fire and with producer Mike Vass began to record Hearth, combining music and art, Margaret Chrystall discovers
ULLAPOOL musician and artist Mairearad Green describes how the challenges of creating a painting outdoors in February included finishing one landscape that was quickly erased forever by the rain.
In a way, it’s the exact opposite of what Mairearad is doing with her latest project Hearth.
Combining her music and her art, she researched the generations of women before her from her original home on the Coigach peninsula in Wester Ross, bringing them and their world back to colourful life in a series of five 12-inch singles with landscape paintings of the area as the covers you can frame.
But with experimental percussion sounds using her accordion and an electronic backdrop to traditional pipes, accordion and her voice, Mairearad’s own contemporary place down the line from her family’s strong women is part of the picture too.
The scene-setting opening track Carry Me There creates the sound of a journey – across oceans? across time? – let your imagination decide.
But for Mairearad: “Carry Me There is a conversation between the generations of women.”
The project title Hearth came surprisingly late.
“That was the place I finished with this project! I knew my theme from the beginning, though it ended up being more about the women from my family.
“So the title didn’t really come until later on, when I just really thought that it embodied what the project was about, that real sense of home and a sense of warmth and that strong feminine presence that stands at the centre of a home.”
It was a subject Mairearad always wanted to explore through both her music and her art. As well as the cover art, the original paintings are on sale. And with a new presence on website Patreon, Mairearad is making more of the bespoke potential of her work for fans who want to know more about the work and her life in Ullapool.
“I’ve got patrons in America I’ve never met before. It seems to be growing all the time.
“I’m just trying different approach with Hearth. Most of my other music is available to stream quite freely. But people seem to be loving the concept of this project. Selling music on streaming platforms can sometimes make it seem quite disposable. I think the direction I am going in is making a more bespoke product.”
Even creating the sound for the album has a bespoke element to it.
“I was fortunate to work with the amazing producer Mike Vass and the whole sound has been designed for these 12-inch vinyl singles. You get that real extra warmth when you play it on a vinyl. I’m almost loath to send it to people digitally because it is not the same at all!”
Now, Mairearad is starting to think how she would perform the album, when the chance to perform live music returns.
“I’m trying to think of alternative ways to do it, maybe using outdoor spaces. This has been a very personal project and Coigach where I’m from has been a constant source of inspiration and has inspired my art and my music. In terms of the subject matter of Hearth, I think maybe this is just scratching the surface.
“Right at the beginning of the project I decided to try and get funding from Creative Scotland as that really allows you the scope to spend more time.
“My album Summer Isles touched on the visual aspect, I did a bit of a series of paintings alongside that album.
“But I really wanted this to be much more about combining the two and to have the music and art on an equal level. So that influenced my decision to go for the 12-inch single format – just to have that bigger cover space for each painting. I very much think of the two going hand in hand.”
The five paintings Mairearad completed for the single covers were done in February working at each location. So why brave February?
“I know, it was ridiculous,” Mairearad laughed. “But it was largely to do with deadlines – I was going off on tour with King Creosote at the beginning of March. And I’d worked towards it – I had done lots of preliminary sketches and a lot of the research.
“I don’t know if you remember, this particular February was incredibly cold and wintry! But actually I found – I got these heated in-soles and I have full waterproofs – I loved the drama of the landscape then. I hope that ends up on the page. I tended to do shorter bursts as I find the painting experience is full-on and that seems to work better for me to get an intuitive response. And I just find the weather fascinating – I quite like working in the rain! I think if you’ve got the right gear, it’s OK. The only thing is if it’s really wet...
“I had an instance where I just lost a painting completely, the rain just washed it away!”
But with having to work fast, Mairearad felt the colours were more vibrant from painting outside and that there is more freedom in these paintings than in previous work.
What started out as a wider look at the lives of women in Wester Ross in the past with Mairearad researching it, including interviewing archaeologist and Scoraig crofter Cathy Dagg about how women processed kelp, the focus of track The Kelp Makers, everything narrowed in on her own family. Her mum dug out family pictures new to Mairearad who learned more about the previous generations, such as her own mother’s grannies – the Jessie and Alice of one track title.
Jessie came from the Black Isle to live in Achnahaird with her husband, but found that locals disapproved of her skirts being slightly too short at ankle-length! She also didn’t speak Gaelic, but returned to the Black Isle and after a year came back fluent, a feat that Mairearad still hasn’t got to the bottom of yet.
“I just love those stories – I love looking back into history. Little personal anecdotes are something to hook onto – my granny in her slightly too high skirt is a lovely visual image that’s quite inspiring.
“My mum’s generation were the first to go to university from our family. Then, the opportunities I’ve had since, having a career as a musician and a landscape painter, would have been unheard of.”
Mairearad respects her predecessors, their hard work and all they did, at first seeming to downplay her own achievements in carving a career as a musician and artist.
“Hopefully I’ve taken a leaf from their book and have gone ahead and done it! It’s sort of all relative, I guess.”
The song It Takes Me expresses her own part in the chain of generations as a songwriter and musician – the lyrics saying “The journey lasts forever/ The song will last forever”. Jan Kilpatrick from Elphin’s lyrics capture Mairearad’s own contrasts – “From shore to city centre” and ”From single track to centre stage”.
In Pegging Out, there is an earwormy chorus of hypnotic mouth music – inspired by waulking songs – celebrating the task of pegging out washing.
“That song is based on a poem written by Jan and she spent a lot of time on Tanera – there’s a specific washing line there she is thinking about – I’ve got a photo of that on the front of the record as well. But almost instantly the poem became quite intuitively a song.
“A lot of my research was on ‘What sort of jobs were the women doing?’ at that time and a lot of it would be tending to the croft, the washing – not to be stereotypical about it, just they were running the households and if the men were at war or at sea – away a lot – it was the women doing all those chores.”
Mairearad wants to express her thanks to those earlier generations of women who paved the way for her, and pays tribute to their ‘hardiness’ and the work they did, running crofts, processing kelp, walking the cattle, as her own mother did as a young teen in bare feet, and the other domestic tasks they took in their stride.
Mairearad is surely as worthy of a description of ‘hardiness’ as any of her ancestors, constantly touring away, creatively pushing on with her music and art into new projects, painting outside on harsh Highland February days – and getting back to the land herself.
“It’s been interesting with the whole recent enforced time at home. I’m used to being self-motivated, but I’m now doing different things. I’ve grown a vegetable patch this year that has been a real success, though I’ve had lots of help, so I’ve been eating a lot from the land and that’s always been a dream of mine.
“I think I just enjoy working outside and using my hands, I’m starting to realise. Not only have I grown up being surrounded by the landscape, but I think you have to get in and about the land and I get a different energy from it.”
It also connects Mairearad with the women at the heart of Hearth.
“It’s the idea of tramping in places and on the paths these different women might have taken, to think ‘They’ve been on this soil!’.”
The limited edition 12-inch singles Hearth, is out now here: www.mairearadgreen.co.uk
A taster of the track Carry Me There and below that, Mairearad talks about her work:
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