We recently spoke to Scottish singer Iona Fyfe about her new EP, but as she had lots of interesting things to say, we decided to run the interview in two parts. Click here to read the first, in which she discussed the universalism of ballads, how audiences respond to the Doric dialect, and working with American sources. Part two – in which she offers a great insight into her research process, considers the fluidity of the term ‘folksong’ and reveals an absolute shocker on the sandwich front – is below.
Folk Witness: Golden Vanity, Let Him Sink and Little Musgrave see you amalgamating different versions of trad songs. It seems like a very research-heavy process! How do you go about deciding what will be in the version you sing?
Iona Fyfe: When I start to interpret a ballad, the main thing I’m thinking about is ‘how can I make this unique?’. I’m often amalgamating lyrics from several different sources, so I have a lyric set which is unlike any other. When I go to learn a new ballad, I’ll listen to several versions and variants of the ballad, consult different sources such as Tobar an Dualchais, Library of Congress, the Vaughan Williams Folk Song Collection, or the Child Ballad collection, and create a unique set of lyrics by taking floating verses from different sources, of course crediting the ‘variants’.
For example, I recently sung a version of Mill o’ Tifty’s Annie using lyrics taken from both Tam Spiers and Gordeanna McCulloch’s versions. I’m glad that I’ve developed relatively good research and sourcing skills – it allows me to make valid judgement on the variant or strain of the ballad that I want to work from – which allows me to find the most economical version of the ballad. When arranging ballads for competition, I usually go all-out and find the longest then narrow it down, but for recording I have to take into account the fact that most radio stations aren’t after a ballad that lasts seven minutes, so there is a lot of textual editing that goes on. But as long as you know exactly what you’re doing and are aware of the changes you are making to the narrative of the ballad, then I think this is a valid way of making your own interpretation. Usually I’ll be drawn to a distinct melody first (or in Let Him Sink’s case, write my own).
I’m also interested in the narrative and story. These ballads are so fluid that the very same ballad can have a happy ending or a sad ending. For example, I decided that the cabin boy WOULD die in Golden Vanity, because I love gruesomeness! It’s important to understand what YOU want out of the ballad, and then worry about authenticity and integrity.
How did you manage to narrow down the choice of songs for the EP?
I knew I wanted the EP to be six tracks, and when I narrowed down the song choices, I included the songs which were the most accessible and which complemented each other. I wanted the ballads in the EP to be told economically, which meant taking out quite a lot of verses from Little Musgrave! (It could have been way WAY longer!).
What the EP does have in common with Away From My Window is the blend of traditional songs and the work of contemporary songwriters.
A lot of traditionalists see folksong as black and white, and as a young competitive ballad singer, I too saw it this way. But growing up and performing for a broader audience, in terms of age, nationality and background, I’ve came to acknowledge just HOW diverse folksong can be – from the classical ballads of the Scottish travellers, the protest songs of the workers party, the anti-war poetry-turned-song, poem-songs, bothy ballads, love songs, fishing songs, sea shanties, I’ve came to understand that the term ‘folksong’ is an extremely fluid one.
In Away From My Window, I featured songs from contemporary Scottish songwriters such as Aidan Moffat and Michael Marra. The song And So Must We Rest was written by Aidan Moffat as a lullaby to his son – what makes this any different to an ancient Gaelic lullaby? It’s ALL part of the tradition and the carrying stream. Away From My Window was definitely a concept album which hinted at the idea of a broadening style. In the title track, I use an excerpt of Stanley Robertson speaking, which I sourced from the archive of the Elphinstone Institute at the University of Aberdeen. In the clip, Stanley (talking in broad Doric), is describing what Jeannie Robertson’s ideals of balladry were – you didn’t have to be a pretty singer, you just had to be a storyteller.
“When you sing a ballad, tak it oot bonny. So when ye tak a ballad and yer gan tae sing a ballad, breath it intae ye, let it fill every part of yer body. And when ye become all these characters then once it’s inside ye, then ye tak it oot as best as ye can. She never said ye hid tae be a great singer – she jist wants ye tae feel the spirit and then tak it oot bonny.”
I think this is pretty darn sage advice that I myself thought long and hard about whilst recording my album – I probably overthought it and became so wound up in making sure I was holding up authenticity and integrity, that I probably dampened my own creative process. But this never happened with Dark Turn of Mind – it was a far more relaxed approach, with less anxiety about what ‘the traditionalists’ would think or expect – I feel like I did it for me, and my intentions and choices were truer to myself, despite the repertoire and style being different.
You were recently crowned Scots Singer of the Year at the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards. Congrats! How did it feel to win – and what practical impact does something like this have on your career?
Winning Scots Singer of the Year really gave me a confidence boost – I know it’s bad that an award has the ability to do this, but it did! To be recognised for all the hard, and at times, exhausting work, was really lovely! Hopefully it opens the door to more gigs and opportunities! Next project – tricky album number two…
We’re looking forward to it. Before we finish, what’s your favourite sandwich?
Not a big fan of sandwiches, not going to lie!