I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that musicOMH has never reviewed an artist from the Hebridean island of North Uist before, nor one who sings entirely in Gaelic. Julie Fowlis‘ welcome appearance on the UK folk scene is a fascinating and very beautiful addition to the rebirth of traditional music that seems to be gathering more momentum by the week.
Her star has risen in the past year, ever since she won the best newcomer award at the 2006 BBC Folk Awards. Her second album is full of myth, folklore and ancient tales of, apparently, rivalry between North and South Uist. While listening, it’s difficult to assess the lyrical themes – it is, after all, an album the language of which is completely alien.
But what can be said with certainty, is that Fowlis has a voice sweet and true, and that the cadence and natural rhythm of the Gaelic tongue provides Cuilidh (pronounced ‘kuli’, and it means ‘hidden sanctuary’) with softness and conviction at the same time, and that is entirely down to the talents of a woman who is innately musical. Besides, the sleeve notes contain translations of all the songs.
Most moving is the final track, Aoidh, Na Dèan Cadal Idir (Aoidh, Don’t Sleep At All), which evokes storms and seas, and the stunning remoteness of her native land. The only reference point I can think of is the wonderful Anne Briggs, who in the ’60s brought her similarly powerful/fragile interpretations of traditional song to English folk clubs. Entirely acappella, Aoidh is a force of nature that must be an overwhelming experience in a live setting.
While Cuilidh is drenched in Fowlis’ character and background, it is a collaborative effort. And no collaborator is going to outdo Chris Thile. Formerly mandolin player in Nickel Creek, he has a strong claim to be the finest folk instrumentalist in the western world. Happily, he puts the noodling to one side on Mo Gruagrach Donn (My Brown Haired Lass) to play with gentility and subtlety. A magnificent song, too – as with many here, it is traditional but arranged by Fowlis, long time fold Eamonn Doorley and guitarist John Doyle.
While folk is the new black, there is nothing quite like this doing the rounds. The only contemporary act on a similar wavelength are Northumbria’s Rachel Unthank And The Winterset, who lovers of this record, and there will be many, will also appreciate.
Fowlis has been urged several times to render a few songs in English, so as to be more commercially viable. She has refused. The fact this album has been reviewed in The Observer, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, to name but a few, proves that her unwavering commitment to her own sensibilities can reap success for the bottom line. But it doesn’t matter if 100 or 10,000 people hear this tremulous music; its very existence is a triumph.