You’ve probably seen Rachel Newton play. The Scots harpist, viola player, pianist and singer is regularly to be spotted on tour with The Shee and Emily Portman, while more recently she’s joined up with The Furrow Collective and the Elizabethan Session song project, giving that album’s opener its killer harp introduction.
So it’s a wonder she manages to find the time for solo work. And while Changeling, her second album, is relatively short at 35 minutes long, it packs in an impressive range of ideas and styles. The subject matter (which Newton explains in our interview, below) is explored diligently: the tragedies, mysteries and eccentricities of changeling stories made both absorbing and approachable. Simply put, it’s one of those albums that, once it has ended, compels you to press play again.
On the instrumental side, The Changeling Reel is frantic and joyful, led by Newton’s bright, clear harp and given a pulse by Mattie Foulds’ inventive percussion, while the beautiful Three Days is a soulful string piece conjured from a simple image – of three women gathered around a bed. The upbeat Up The Lum (inspired by rather a funny method of detecting changelings) and a more contemplative closing air further confirm Newton’s ear for a satisfying melody.
That’s not to mention The Fairy Man, a creepy tale of an unwanted intruder, sung captivatingly by the caramel-voiced Adam Holmes, and given dramatic, ghostly backing vocals from Newton and spooky musical saw from Su-a Lee. There’s the relatively simple, bluesy When I’m Gone, and Mo Chubhracan, a melancholy lullaby that Newton sings with heartbreaking sensitivity. You’re never quite sure what’s coming next…
Rachel took the time to speak to us about the album, her love of collaborating and – this is a Folk Witness interview, after all – her favourite sandwich.
FW: Hi Rachel! Could you tell us what a changeling is, and what made you decide to put together an album inspired by them?
Rachel Newton: A changeling is a creature believed to be left in the place of a human baby by the fairies. Having always been intrigued by these beliefs in the supernatural and the stories, songs and music that surrounds them in the folk tradition, I wanted to focus in on a particular aspect and the changelings stood out for me. The word itself was appealing as an album title and the more I read, the more complex and interesting the subject became.
A lot of the subject matter is quite dark – there are themes of abduction, loss and deception – is it hard to compose and arrange music for such troubling topics?
As a singer whose main interest is in traditional folk songs, I definitely wouldn’t be one to shy away from the darker, more troubling topics! I’m of the belief that music is and always has been a way of reflecting on the darker aspects of life and death by conveying emotions that might not be easily put into words or dealt with outside the metaphor of song.
Are a lot of changeling stories Scottish or did you seek out Scots songs and tunes in particular? And how does singing in Gaelic feel different – or make the music feel different – to singing in English?
When I first started out on my research for the album, I had planned to use stories and songs from all over the world. There was so much material from Scotland alone, however, so I decided to focus in on that. There are many similar stories to be found across the globe. Perhaps that could be the next project! Singing in Gaelic was what I started out doing as a child, and so it was singing in English that took a while to get used to. It took some time for me to realise the obvious truth that no matter what song I’m singing in whatever language, as long as I feel I’m singing in my own voice and understand my own feeling towards the subject, I’ll be at home.
You’re a busy collaborator. How does working with so many groups affect your solo output? It must be refreshing that you get to call all the shots on this one!
I love to collaborate! I love learning from others and being forced out of my comfort zone to try something new. It’s a bit of an internal struggle in a way, as I am really enjoying being in full control of my solo material and feeling like I’m finding my own musical voice, but I get so much out of all the collaborations and have realised I couldn’t just do my own material all the time. Every musician I have played with has informed my playing and singing and approach to music in some way or another. It just means I have a bit of a hectic schedule!
Tell us about Adam Holmes – where did you find him and why did you choose to have him sing the lead on The Fairy Man?
I’ve known Adam for years. He is from Edinburgh like me, and I asked him to be involved in the New Voices piece at Celtic Connections that the album is based on. I’d always liked the idea of having another contrasting voice on the record and I felt that the poem I set to music was perfect for his beautiful, melancholic voice.
What’s it like being a harpist on the folk scene? You don’t see harps very often, but on Changeling you demonstrate the instrument’s versatility. Is that important to you?
On the album I play both the acoustic and electric harps. I love to use the electric harp to provide a driving bass line to the acoustic harp’s melodies. I started using the electric in this way playing in The Shee, as we don’t have guitars or drums and had to find a new angle. I think people often see the harp as being a nice soothing sound and I hope to help show that there’s more to it than that!
Changeling seems to cover a lot of ground and pack in a lot of instruments and influences. What inspired the decision to use horns and musical saw, for example?
I have been a fan of the saw ever since hearing my long-time collaborator and pal Lucy Farrell play it when we were at university. The cellist on Changeling, Su-a, is also brilliant at the saw and I felt it would be perfect for The Fairy Man as I wanted to really go for it in terms of creepiness on that one. I also wanted to work with an instrument I’d never used before and the horn is such a beautiful sound that I imagined it would blend really well with the other instruments I had in mind. Alec Frank-Gemmill is a stunning player and I’m so glad I made that decision.
And finally… what’s your favourite sandwich?
I think about this a lot. In an ideal sandwich scenario for me, there would be goat’s cheese, chorizo, rocket, sun-dried tomatoes and basil. Failing that, I’ll happily go for peanut butter.
Changeling is out on Shadowside Records on September 1 – to see when Rachel’s on tour, check out her gig page