Michael Lohr interviews  Scottish fiddler Lauren MacColl and reviews her new CD too.

Lauren MacColl

Strewn With Ribbons

Make Believe Records


With Strewn With Ribbons what you have is some of the best Feisean style fiddle playing you will ever hear. That’s a simplistic, but true statement about Lauren MacColl’s second album. As good as her debut, When Leaves Fall was her sophomore effort exceeds all expectations.

From lissome reels and blistering strathspeys to soul-stirring Gaelic aires, Strewn With Ribbons is teeming with quality. A mixture of originals and traditional tunes, eleven tracks in all, the album opens with “Oigfhear A Chuil Duinn,” a melancholy song about forsaken love, which begins pensively but explodes into a full-on, pounding Poolachire.

Songs such as “Lament For Mr. Thomas Grant, Of Glen Elgin,” “Highland Wedding” and “Muirtown House” span the range of human emotion, while the haunting closer, “Hugh Allan” will linger on your soul, long after the music’s over.

Strewn With Ribbons is an excellent collection of songs that I highly recommend.

 Scottish fiddler Lauren MacColl is a dynamic artist. She exudes all things Celtic, yet also has musical sensibilities that transcends those boundaries. Born and raised in Fortrose, on the Black Isle and now based in Glasgow, Lauren won the prestigious BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award in 2005. She has also won the Donald Dewar Award for Arts Excellence, quickly establishing her as one of the top fiddlers in the world.

Having graduated from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, she’s toured the four corners of the earth, from Montana to Italy to Bulgaria and Norway, and all points in between. She toured Ireland with the band Dochas, appeared on Radio Scotland’s Travelling Folk show, Radio nan Gaidheal, and held her own at the legendary Scandinavian fiddle festival, Nordsjofestivalen.

With two critically acclaimed solo albums to her credit, “Strewn With Ribbons” and “When Leaves Fall,” as well as a recently released duet album with flutist Calum Stewart entitled, “Wooden Flute & Fiddle,” she’s one the fastest rising stars in all of World music today.

ML: Tell me about your most recent solo album, Strewn With Ribbons?

LM:  The album was a natural progression from the first album, ‘When Leaves Fall’. That record was like a cleansing process for me, recording many tunes I had been playing for years. The new album was more of a themed project. While in my final year at college I had discovered a book of tunes called ‘The Highland Collections’ comprising 6 18th and 19th century collections of fiddle music from the Eastern Highlands. The repertoire, and the unusual tunes in the book fascinated me and I was keen to get these into not only my repertoire but for them to be heard by a wider audience. While I could have easily made an album exclusively of these melodies, It was important for me to make an album representative of who I am as a musician, and alongside delving into the old stuff, I really enjoy the tune-writing process, so we wove some of my own compositions into the set with these old melodies. After receiving some funding from Scottish Arts Council, Highland Music Trust and Friends of Highland Music, we were able to take our music up to Glenfinnan, and the gorgeous surroundings of Old Laundry Studios. The album was recorded over five days there in October 2008, with Chris Stout producing, and guests Su-a Lee and Donald Shaw joining us on cello and accordion/harmonium. We hired a house for the week and had a hugely inspirational time there making music.

ML: What does the term ‘Celtic’ mean to you from a musical/artistic standpoint? How do you classify or in your opinion, what makes quality Celtic music?

LM: For me, the term doesn’t mean an awful lot musically any more because of its wide global use in so many different contexts, like the word ‘Folk’ for example. However, I suppose good Celtic music for me has to be something that comes from the heart, that is true to the tradition it comes from on a certain level. The music itself can be experimental, left-of-centre, or whatever, but the most powerful music to me is something that does that while still retaining a depth of tradition

ML: Several members of the Celtic and World music press declared your debut album, When Leaves Fall, an instant classic. Did this cause any undo pressure when it was time to write and record again?

LM: I think the ‘second album syndrome’ is always going to be in the back of people’s minds when recording for the second time. A first album’s sound is fresh, and a new voice on the scene, and while some people like to you stick to the same type of sound, other’s want something completely different to the first. However, you just can’t please everybody so it is crucial for me in the recording process to remember that I have to be making music that I like, that makes me tick, and is an expression of my emotions etc. Hopefully that honesty will come through in the music and connect with the listener.

ML: You’re a graduate of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. What influences moved you to first pick up a fiddle and bow, and did your time at the Academy further spark your muse?

LM: I wanted to play the fiddle since I was about 5 years old, as we would watch Aly Bain on the TV at New Year and be amazed by his playing. You couldn’t start violin lessons at school until you were 9 so I had to sit tight. I was very into Highland Dancing from a young age so I knew the rhythms of the tunes but didn’t play traditional style until I attended a Feis (Gaelic arts festival summer school) when I was 10. I was hooked on the traditional music ever since and went to as many workshops and listened to as much traditional music as possible. Going to the academy was a great experience, and led me to Glasgow where I was to settle and meet many musicians and friends. Tutors at the academy introduced me to all kinds of music and broadened my musical outlook and my playing.

ML: Were you surprised to win the prestigious BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award?

LM: Hugely. I entered the award to meet people my age from the wider British folk scene, and by the final, I had done just that, and was just happy to play in such a beautiful venue as the union Chapel in London. The sound of the solo fiddle in those acoustics will stay with me forever. The award was a huge platform and gave me the confidence to start asking folk to play with me and get some projects off the ground.

ML: You have a very talented back-up band, the MacCollective. How did you bring all that capability together? Was it a matter of happen-chance run-ins or where you all friends of like-minded vision?

LM: I have known Barry Reid for years as he was a Feis participant also. His old band ‘Croft No. 5’ were pioneers on the Highland scene, and I had long respected his sensitive guitar playing. Mhairi Hall I met in Glasgow, where the three of us now live, and after a few discussions about music over a dram or two (!) I realized we were kindred spirits in terms of music. She joined us early in 2008 and we’ve been called ‘The MacCollective’ for a while now. I find it hard to call them my back-up-band though, as they are so talented and are responsible for some much of what goes on in the music. We’re a real team.

ML: You’ve played in Norway a number of occasions. Ever play a hardanger fiddle?

LM: Believe it or not I’ve never actually tried one. I love hardanger music though, and have a lot of respect for that tradition. The playing is very expressive which appeals to me.

ML: While performing onstage, what has been your oddest “Spinal Tap” moment?

(I ask this question of everyone I interview ~ some of the answers are truly amazing. Once while playing a rather raucous bluegrass festival, I was hit in the face with a tomato while doing a mandolin solo, so I picked it up and threw it back. I inadvertently started a food fight with 5,000 people. One time while interviewing the drummer and guitar player from a Swedish heavy metal band they told me about their first trip to Japan. Someone set fire to a soda vending machine in the hotel lobby. They said they didn’t do it but was blamed for it – they said that the sight of 40 Japanese people running around screaming as the vending machine flamed on was an absolute hoot ~ no one could find a fire extinguisher.)

LM: That’s a hard one… I must live too normal a life! However the strangest thing that’s happened to me so far with the music is that during my last album launch we played one of my tunes ‘God is an accordion’ (which is a very sarcastic and meant to be, comedy title, which refers to the old saying that the Fiddle is the Devil’s instrument) and I introduced it in a light hearted way which most folk find amusing. (I even remember introducing it to 1200 people at a Church concert in Ontario and it going down well) However, a week later I received a small, anonymously sent package of a bible… Someone hadn’t seen the funny side I thought I needed to learn a lesson or two! Rock and Roll!

ML: Your critics say that your best musical qualities shine through on the slow, mournful airs. Is there something about that style of songs that are a special muse for you?

LM: I think I am probably a frustrated singer at heart, I love the expression and emotion that can me put into the slow tunes, and the connection you can have with a listener. Fast music can make people happy and they can tap their foot along and feel secure in the rhythm. In a slow air, the free rhythm and sense of fragility allows you to reach somebody on a slightly deeper level, if they allow themselves.

ML: What distinguishes the Feisean style from other styles of fiddle play?

LM: I wouldn’t say there is a Feisean ‘Style’ as such, as there are over 30 Feisean over the country each having different tutors etc, but certainly the ethos behind the Feis is that of passing on Gaelic culture, music and language, so if anything, the repertoire taught would be largely Gaelic, and perhaps leaning more towards the Highland style of fiddle playing, influenced by Gaelic song and pipe music.

ML: Is there a rivalry of sorts between Celtic fiddlers from Canada and their counterparts from Scotland?

LM: If there is I certainly know nothing about it! Rivalry within music shouldn’t exist. There is room for us all, every style, every voice, warts and all!!

ML: What additional projects and/or tour dates are you planning in the future?

LM: I have recently formed a trio with Gaelic singer Maeve Mackinnon and multi-instrumentalist Ewan MacPherson. We toured Austria for three weeks earlier this year, and hope to do more shows on the mainland in the near future. Also, I’d like to expand the MacCollective with some more melody players. I am also rehearsing with a new band with two great friends Deirdre Graham and Megan Henderson, called the Orchids


To learn more about Lauren, her music and fiddle playing go to her official website: www.laurenmaccoll.co.uk or her Myspace page www.myspace.com/laurenmaccoll. You can follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Laurenmaccoll1. Or head on over to CD Baby and pick up her wonderful albums http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/laurenmaccoll.