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25 f Harp Travelling

Rachel Newton, self-confessed ‘big riff person’ of the Shee and the Emily Portman Trio, is ever so slowly coming out as a solo artist. Tim Chipping charts her progress. Photos: Judith Burrows.


ome people are at their most comfortable centre-stage. Whether it’s because they didn’t receive enough attention from their parents, or possibly too

much, that imbalance creates showmen and women. They are the loudest voice in the room and the first and last you’ll hear. Others are happier off to one side; less confident in themselves perhaps, but more secure of their role. We don’t always notice they’re there but we’d miss them if they were gone.

For many years harpist and Gaelic singer Rachel Newton has been to one side providing the driving bass notes of The Shee and sprinkling dark faerie dust over the songs of Emily Portman. And even though she’s an equally contributing member of The Furrow Collective, Rachel still manages to be the quiet one on The Shadow Side – to appropriate the title of her 2012 solo debut.

Lately though, she’s started to shift into the spotlight. And people have begun to notice. “I absolutely love being on stage performing and I really miss it when I’m not doing it,” Rachel tells me in a north London coffee shop besieged by rain. “But there’s a difference between being on stage and per- forming as part of a band and being the person who’s the focal point of everything. But when I’ve done it I’ve kind of loved it. I think I surprised myself a bit in how much I’ve enjoyed just being on stage on my own. And just being able to do what I want, play it by ear, change things around. But there’s maybe something in me that’s not a natural front person even though I’m loving it.”

Before any Scottish harp players mail

off their CVs, Rachel is still resolutely a band member first and a solo artist second. Or is she?

“I feel like I’m still figuring that out. This album that I’m gonna do will be my third solo album, so… But the first one was just wanting to put out something that was completely my own ideas. I wasn’t quite ready to be like, ‘This is me I’m a solo musi- cian.’ It wasn’t really in my mind. The second one [2014’s Changeling], because it was more of a concept piece – it was written for a Celtic Connections New Voices commission – it was different in that way. But that’s where the trio came from of having Lauren MacColl and Mattie Foulds performing with me. But I think it needed to be a natural thing of thinking it could work live as I

hadn’t really felt like that before then. So it’s been a slow process. We’ve done a few more gigs, we’ve just been to the Celtic Colours Festival and that was a really big confidence boost.”

It was Changeling, Rachel’s ambitious and accomplished exploration of the use of faerie tales to explain “what was beyond understanding” that shone a light onto the talent that had been in our midst all along. The Herald went so far as to call it “the sound of modern Scotland”.

Since we have the luxury of multiple

pages, let’s go back to the beginning. At what point did Rachel Newton and tradi- tional music meet?

“I went to a Gaelic-teaching school in Edinburgh, where I was born. My mum is from Achiltibuie, Wester Ross. Her parents were native Gaelic speakers but they didn’t speak Gaelic to their kids, which was com- mon at the time. So my parents decided to send me to a school in Edinburgh that had a Gaelic speaking unit. At the time it was a really small unit of mostly people from the Highlands and Islands sending their kids to this school; it was a lovely little community. I suppose in my mum’s mind there’d been a break in this language and she wanted me to learn it because it was important cultur- ally to keep the language alive, which I agree with. I think for my dad it was proba- bly for the merits of being bilingual. And it turned out that it was a brilliant experi- ence, really multicultural. We sang Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell songs in assembly. I didn’t realise until I went to university and spoke to other people about their schools how lucky I was.” (The rest of us still shud- der when we hear the opening chord to Lord Of The Dance.)

The other benefit of going to school in Edinburgh was that every school had instru- ments and free music lessons. And while I’d always assumed that the instrument chooses the musician, a bit like the wands in Harry Potter, it’s apparently just down to whatever is in the school music cupboard at the time.

“Because it was a Gaelic unit we had

the clàrsach – the harp. So I got free lessons at school from the age of eight and I also went to violin lessons outside of school. The harp was just the instrument being taught at the school, there was no romantic ‘This is my calling!’. It was just ‘We’ve got four harps in the school, you can take them home at the weekend.’”

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