Iona Fyfe interview part one: new EP Dark Turn of Mind, the Doric dialect and the universalism of ballads

Iona Fyfe is a busy woman. When the singer, originally from Aberdeenshire, is not touring (which she does, a lot, more of which later) or recording, she’s racking up awards, engaging with big topics like identity and sexism on social media, or writing music reviews of her own. Oh, and she’s studying for a degree, too.

Just under a year ago, Fyfe released Away From My Window, an energetic and accomplished debut she describes as “a concept album, inspired by the source and revivalist singers of Aberdeenshire”. It blends traditional ballads and more modern fare in the form of songs both self-penned and by the likes of Michael Marra and Aidan Moffat. The idea was “to showcase the universalism of folksong in an inter-genre manner”, which it did through the use of the Doric dialect of northeast Scotland.

It’s an idea Fyfe developed with the release, in January of this year, of Dark Turn of Mind, a six-track EP this time sung in English, with a strong American influence. Its title track is of course written by Gillian Welch, while If I Go I’m Goin is the work of Gregory Alan Isakov – Fyfe discovered it through David Duchovny comedy Californication.

Elsewhere, there are traditional pieces collected from the Appalachian songbook – including a sprightly unaccompanied version of Little Musgrave – and the Max Hunter Folk Song Collection in Missouri, from which Fyfe assembled the glorious, heartbreaking Let Him Sink, before adding her own tune.

The EP is diligently and studiously assembled, as Fyfe explains below (its sleeve notes offer a fascinating insight into her process, too), but it’s also a joy to listen to – packed with shifts in mood and style, crisp full band arrangements and a capella singing. Fyfe’s delivery is particularly beautiful on the title track; The Golden Vanity is brisk and bold; while Swing and Turn absolutely does – as you’d hope – both swing and turn.

Fyfe had lots to say (despite recovering from a tonsillectomy at the time of our interview!), so we’ve split the piece in two. The second part will be with you soon!

Folk Witness: You’ve been hard at work touring all around the world – nine countries in 2018!

Iona Fyfe: This last while has been a bit of a whirlwind – but a good one. I’m honoured to have recently been put on the front cover of The Living Tradition, I was lucky enough to be voted Scots Singer of the Year at the MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards [see pic, above], I was asked to perform in the world premiere of Disney Pixar’s Brave in Concert with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra at Celtic Connections and I’m in my final year of study at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, preparing to graduate with a degree in traditional music. I’ve just returned from Germany after a 19-day tour performing as part of the Young Scots Trad Awards Winners.

How do audiences unfamiliar with the Doric dialect respond to Doric songs? Have you noticed a difference in, say, Germany, with how ‘English’ and ‘Scottish’ songs go down? For that matter, how about in England and Scotland?

Whether it be Canada, France, Italy or Poland, I find that folk music transcends background, language and age. Although I’ve started to sing in English more and more, the bulk of my repertoire is in either Scots or the Doric vernacular – a dialect from the northeast of Scotland. Some of the bothy ballads (traditional agricultural work songs) are in heavy Doric dialect and are perhaps are not necessarily accessible to an audience that are unfamiliar with the dialect – but through interpretation, arrangement and dynamics, audiences can appreciate the narrative and flow of the ballad and therefore connect musically to the repertoire.

I have a strong love for communal singing, or sing-a-rounds, and strongly feel that my favourite performances are ones where the audience will sing along. More and more, we find shows at art centres or theatres really negatively impact on my enjoyment of the performances, because the audience just don’t sing along – perhaps of fear that their neighbours will shoot disapproving glances. The idea that a folk performance is treated as a ‘concert’ creates a total fourth wall between the performer and the ‘audience’ – whereas I much prefer a folk club, where we are ALL one big room of singers and the audience will contribute almost just as much as the guest! For me, having the audience sing along is fundamental in me enjoying the performance. Over the past few years, I’ve performed more and more in England and have always left the club with a warm heart – knowing that despite the dialectal differences, the audience mostly will join in and sing along with me – which reassures me that they don’t only approve of me as a singer, but they can connect with the distinct NE song tradition which I so eagerly wish to represent.

Dark Turn of Mind is a new direction for you – following on from a very Scottish-focused album, this EP has a lot of songs connected with America. What inspired the change in outlook?

Dark Turn of Mind features ballads found in both Aberdeenshire and Appalachia – from the singing of tradition bearers such as Jean Ritchie and Jeannie Robertson, and songs from songwriters such as Gillian Welch and Gregory Alan Isakov. My first album, Away From My Window, certainly featured repertoire from the northeast of Scotland; sampling tradition bearers such as Stanley Robertson and Lizzie Higgins, and featuring ballads which were oikotypically Scottish. It’s not necessarily a change in outlook; rather a broadening of interpretative styles. The EP is there to showcase the universalism of ballads, when applied to the Appalachian song tradition – but ballads such as The Golden Vanity and Little Musgrave have Doric variants found in Aberdeenshire too – I just actively chose to work from American sources such as the Max Hunter Folk Song Collection.

How did it feel to move away from Doric singing?

It’s very daunting releasing something entirely in English, with no Doric. Since I was five years old, I’ve sung songs of Aberdeenshire in the Doric vernacular and I’ve found that people tend to put you in a ‘genre box’ – and I certainly put myself in the box too! Dark Turn of Mind moves away from the style and repertoire of Away From My Window, which focuses on the ballad and bothy ballad tradition of the northeast of Scotland and moves toward something more accessible to non-Doric or Scots speakers. But that doesn’t mean to say that I’ve lost integrity or appreciation for the tradition that I grew up around. Dark Turn of Mind still draws on the repertoire of tradition bearers and songwriters, but this time, showcases the universalism of ballads when applied to the American and Appalachian song traditions. For me, it’s just something different and fresh.

When you are so used to representing a distinct tradition and dialect, it becomes your USP – a shield, perhaps? When I was recording the EP, there was always a little voice at the back of my mind saying “Iona, if you take away the Doric and the repertoire you’re used to, are you really good enough or important enough without it?”. As unhealthy as this voice was, it made me very weary and very focused on what I wanted to achieve with Dark Turn of Mind – which almost was a ‘test the water’ endeavour. Despite my fears of people not approving or enjoying me singing in English, the EP has received a heart-warming overwhelmingly positive response.

Dark Turn of Mind is available now, via Bandcamp. Click here for Iona’s tour dates.

Click here for part two of the interview. Stay in touch with Folk Witness via Facebook and Twitter and we’ll keep you updated!

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