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Fowlis’ songs in ‘Brave’ win fans for Gaelic music

Thursday, April 11, 2013
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Julie Fowlis usually sings in Gaelic, but her two songs used for the Pixar movie “Brave” were sung in English. She will perform at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on Saturday. (photo: Michelle Fowlis)
Julie Fowlis usually sings in Gaelic, but her two songs used for the Pixar movie “Brave” were sung in English. She will perform at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on Saturday. (photo: Michelle Fowlis)

Scottish Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis is no stranger to U.S. audiences, nor indeed to audiences around the world.

Since her solo debut with 2005’s “Mar a tha mo chridhe,” which translates to “As My Heart Is,” Fowlis has spent most of her time on the road, gaining such high-profile fans as Radiohead drummer Phil Selway, comedian Ricky Gervais and Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk.

Her worldwide success has made her one of the most popular traditional Scottish Gaelic musicians in recent years. Until last year, she sang exclusively in Gaelic.

That exception was her two songs in the Disney/PIXAR animated film “Brave,” which were both sung in English. Fowlis is on her first major U.S. tour since the film’s release, and will be at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on Saturday night.

Major impact

Already it seems that the film has had an impact on her audience — a number of shows on the three-week tour, which will wind through the Northeast, sold out long before she and her band reached the U.S. last week, she said.

Julie Fowlis

Where: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 30 Second St., Troy

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

How Much: $25

More Info: 273-0038, www.troymusichall.org

New fans only familiar with her work from “Brave” may be surprised by the much more traditional approach she takes for the rest of her music. But Fowlis isn’t too concerned about audiences not being able to keep up.

“In many ways, some people might think it’s a little bit of a bridge, that you eventually have to meet to connect the two different things,” she said while traveling in Virginia, a day before the first show of the tour.

“At the end of the day it’s still one performer, and just slightly different material. We like to bring people into our traditional culture, and we like to share kind of that culture we have with the audience. . . . So even though there’s the difference in language, we connect with the audience through the music. Music speaks volumes, I always think it’s the basic language that transcends all barriers.”

Fowlis’ connection to Gaelic culture and language runs deep. She was born and raised in North Uist, an island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland where Gaelic is the dominant language. A multi-instrumentalist, she was introduced to the traditional Gaelic music early on through her parents and other community members.

“I come from a community where Gaelic is still the main language of communication — there’s no English,” she said. “It was a great start for me. It’s one of the last places where you can still hear Gaelic. It’s very much embedded in the culture, and the songs are still part of the tradition and passed on from singer to singer. So I’m lucky, I get to learn songs like that most of the time.”

Call from pixar

Her authentic music, which often sets a cappella Gaelic songs to subtle folk arrangements created by Fowlis and her husband, Éamon Doorley, is what initially led Pixar’s vice president of music Tom Macdougall to call her about contributing to the soundtrack for “Brave.”

“He just phoned, said he had been listening to music for several months, researching and exploring different singers and voices and things,” Fowlis said. “At the end of all that process, he wanted to invite me to do these songs for ‘Brave,’ and it was, as you can imagine, a great honor. It was a fantastic experience working with such a positive, dedicated team. And the animation in the film is stunning — visually it really, really captures Scotland beautifully in the animation.”

The two songs Fowlis performed in “Brave” as the singing voice of main character, Princess Merida — “Into the Open Air” and “Touch the Sky” — are the first new material she has recorded since her third album in 2009, “Uam” (“From Me”). In 2011, she released a live album, “Live at Perthshire Amber,” featuring songs from her previous albums including her rendition of The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” sung in Gaelic as “Lon-Dubh.”

Fowlis has plans to record a new album this summer, for a possible early-2014 release. The current U.S. tour will give her a chance to road test some of the new songs she and Doorley have been working on together.

“It’s really exciting for me to be working on a new album and be creative again,” she said. “I was creative with the ‘Brave’ thing as well, but it feels like a while since I’ve been creative in my own band.”

Working on archive

Fowlis has been able to draw upon a new resource to research her songs for the album — she’s been working with Tobar an Dulchais/Kist o Riches (well of heritage) in Scotland, helping to archive recordings of Gaelic songs and stories online, as well as being the project’s artist-in-residence. So far the project has put more than 30,000 recordings online, some going back as far as 70 years.

This easy accessibility to the source material is much different from the long, protracted process she used to have to go through to access archives of old songs.

“When I did my first album back in 2004 and was doing the research for it, at that time going through the archives meant an appointment two weeks in advance and then traveling to Edinburgh [Scotland’s capital],” she said.

“[It involved] going into the archives in Edinburgh, identifying the tracks, going through the paper system and identifying the songs, and then requesting that the tapes be taken out of the vault, which is chilled. And then someone had to go and physically get the tapes and . . . heat them up for an hour so you could use them on the reel-to-reels. It was always terrifying to handle them. Since then, now we have everything available at the click of a button on a mouse.”

Fowlis hopes that the online archive will help to preserve the Gaelic language and traditions. She called this a “worrying time for the language,” although she also praised the effort to save it that has grown over the past 30 years. And through her own music, fans around the world can now learn about the language as well.

“The music certainly helps, also — I think Gaelic song and music is quite appealing to young folk,” she said. “A lot of young people wanting to be part of the folk scene or the traditional music scene are led to the language through music and song, and it makes it more appealing to learn the language — it gives them a way in.”

 
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