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f38 Uneasy Listening

Julie Fowlis doesn’t want to make things easy for her audiences. Tim Chipping talks to she who takes risks.


evin Rowland of the band Dexys Midnight Runners once sang that compromise is the devil talking. In a 2013 inter- view with The Scotsman, Julie Fowlis – now the most famous Gaelic singer in the world – announced: “I don’t want to make things easier for audi- ences.” Both are statements for artists to live by. But for Julie, releasing her fourth solo studio album Gach Sgeul, these aren’t words you’d want on a sticker for the front of the CD.

“It’s not your best selling point, is it?” Julie admits. “It’s not the thing to make hundreds of people come to your gig. I just think that music doesn’t need to be dumbed down. I don’t think you have to simplify things for an audience because I think they’re cleverer than some people give them credit for. And I’d say that goes for some promoters, some festival organisers, some radio presen- ters… People are scared to take a risk and I think they should.”

I was once told by someone who should know better that Gaelic music will never sell out a venue in London. Is it real- ly such a taxing notion to listen to songs in an endangered language from the beauti- ful crinkly bits at the top of the country?

“What we do, I know it’s not for the mainstream, but when people are exposed to it they tend to be surprised. And it’s usually a good surprise.”

Since Julie Fowlis appeared on the front of this magazine she’s been named Gaelic Ambassador of the Year by the Scot- tish government, released a collaborative record as Dual, a live collection and two studio albums, translated Blackbird by the Beatles into Gaelic, toured the US several times, completed a MA in Material Culture And The Environment, given birth to two children, had a lily named after her at the Chelsea Flower Show, presented numerous TV and radio shows, won several awards, was named one of Scotland’s Top 50 Influ- ential Women and was longlisted for an Oscar for her contribution to the Disney Pixar film Brave. A typical lazy musician.

At my only half-joking suggestion that Julie is now a ‘star’, she makes a face and shakes the notion away.

“I’ve done three Transatlantic Sessions

TV series now, and this is my second tour with them. After all of that this is the first time I felt semi-comfortable on stage. The first time I felt it’s OK to be here. But it’s taken that long – seven or eight years. We did The Blackest Crow at Celtic Connec- tions, and Bruce Molsky sang that, and I still get such a buzz sitting beside him. And when I think about that track, when we recorded it I just felt like such a tiny lassie. I was terrified and had never sung a song like that in my life before. I look back now and it’s not a perfect performance but it’s not that bad. I can say that now but at the time I was cringeing.”

There’s still some way to go though, confidence-wise…

“When I came off stage at Celtic Con- nections I said to Heidi Talbot, ‘Tell me I wasn’t the worst. Tell me I wasn’t the weakest link.’”

“I’m OK about admitting I’m a singer and performer now. Always I had this thing where if I was playing with other instrumentalists I’d say, ‘Oh I’m a singer really.’ And if I was with singers I’d say, ‘Oh I’m a piper really.’ Always ducking out.”

So how did someone only partially at ease with their job description reach the ears of the meticulous mavericks behind Toy Story and Monsters Inc, to be cast as the singing voice in their emancipated princess adventure film Brave? How does that hap- pen to a ‘tiny lassie’ from the Hebrides?

“I was in Dublin, at [husband] Éamon’s parents’ house. I was pregnant with my second child. And I got an email through my website that was just two lines from Tom MacDougall – the vice president for music at Pixar & Walt Disney Animation – saying, ‘We’re working on a new film and we’d really like you to sing on it. Would it be OK if I phoned you?’”

“Looking back, I probably didn’t get the gravity of the whole thing at the time. But in between the email and the phone call I started googling. And this film Brave came up. And there had been a few early promos and trailers so we were looking at them going, ‘Well it can’t be this!’”

“I met the director and the producer,

and Tom. It was all just a little bit nervy. And at the end they said, ‘Have you got any questions?’ And I said, ‘Are you audi- tioning me? Are you asking other people? I don’t really understand…’”

“And the producer Katherine Sarafian

said to me, ‘We’re asking you. If we don’t like it, we’re gonna get somebody else. That’s how it works.’ And thankfully they didn’t ask anybody else.”

North Uist’s gain was Miley Cyrus’ loss.

“Afterwards I remember Katherine saying to me that they’d been really ner- vous that I’d say no and wouldn’t be inter- ested in doing a Disney film. But everyone I met was so into what they were doing, totally creative, borderline genius. That whole Pixar attention to detail… it was genuinely a privilege to work with them.”

Pixar’s attention to detail was such that the team went on field trips to the High- lands just to bring back clumps of grass. Brave went on to win a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and an Oscar for best animated film.

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