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f64 A Yarrowing Tale


Lori Watson has applied her voice and fiddle playing to an exquisite album of music inspired by the Scottish borders. Jude Rogers digs deeper.


F


olk music at its most moving is all about borders. It’s about the curious border between the past and present, and how ancient stories keep existing,


and breathing, in our contemporary lives. It’s also about the delicate border between preservation and innovation, about the battle to keep old stories meaningful and relevant without compro- mising their messages, without losing their souls.


Folk music often thrives on geographi- cal borders too, where musical identities rub against different traditions, and try to carve out their own spaces. Yarrow is one of these border places, a village sitting in a river valley on the south-east edges of Scotland. It is also the name of a river, that softly flows down from St Mary’s Loch, the largest natural lake in the country. “It is one of those places that draws you in,” explains the Yarrow-bred fiddler, singer and composer Lori Watson, on a sunny Monday afternoon. “And it has been doing that to folk for centuries.”


She’s right: Robbie Burns celebrated


Yarrow in poems like Blythe Was She and Lovely Young Jessie. Sir Walter Scott col- lected songs from the area like The Dowie Dens Of Yarrow, Lord Randal and Twa Cor- bies for his 1807 book, The Minstrelsy Of The Scottish Borders. But she began mak- ing her own collection of online releases about Yarrow in 2017 as “an exploration of human connections to nature and one another, through time”, but with a twist: striving to carry “these themes beyond conventional folk sounds”. Combining tra- ditional songs, poems and field recordings alongside Watson’s stunning voice (she won Scots Singer of the Year in 2016, and deservedly so), these Yarrow Sessions tracks started gaining a following, and a full album was released in February this year. Every track aims for a vivid sense of place, and achieves it with startling power.


Today, Watson is not in Yarrow, how-


ever, but in Glasgow, where she was born and where she works now in the Scottish Conservatoire. As she looks out over the Dennistoun rooftops from her tenement flat, her desk overflows with the materials with which she makes music, and the art-


work she does herself that accompanies it: a fiddle, other instruments, some rosin, books, papers and cameras. She talks about the seagulls she can hear through the win- dow, which she recorded for her album from flat’s small studio space. “And I can hear our house rabbits scuffling about next door,” she says, always paying attention to detail and sound. This sensitivity befits her whole approach to music-making, and fits the magic in the music she makes.


Born in 1981 into a family of Irish immi- grants and Scots, Lori Hope Watson’s family always adored traditional music, holding nights together with cousins to share and sing songs. Her guitar-playing dad and singing mum also encouraged her to play music; her father even signed her up for violin lessons at school, although forgot to tell her. “Suddenly I was pulled out of a class into a cupboard with an old man ask- ing me questions about scales,” she says, laughing. But Watson fell in love with the fiddle quickly, and found out that her great-grandfather used to make the instru- ments himself. Inheriting his 19th-century tune books and also one of his fiddles, her love for traditional music skyrocketed.


A


t nine, her family moved from Glasgow to Yarrow. “Partly it was getting out of the city, I suppose, and knowing this part of the countryside was a nice place to be,” she reflects. “But being a teenager there…” She pauses to think. “I was lonely and isolated at times. But then I spent a lot of time outdoors, camping, walking, knowing all the rivers. It does something to your brain. It changes you, really.”


Watson enjoyed playing traditional sessions as a teenager, especially at the Fisherman’s Arms in the border village of Birgham, which would bring players to the area from far and wide. Her love of collab- oration began here too, and her CV ever since has boasted a raft of intriguing part- nerships. These include being in the Scot- tish/Norwegian band Boreas, with Hardan- ger fiddle player Britt Pernille Frøholm (as well as The Furrow Collective’s Rachel New- ton and accordeonist Irene Tulling); the twenty-four-piece traditional/improvisa- tion fiddle collective, The Strathspey & Sur-


real Society, as well as more traditional out- fits like Rule Of Three, with whom Watson performed from 2006 to 2012. Her entry on this particular band on her website says a lot about her approach to folk now, and the borders she’s breaking through: “Hav- ing taken an experimental detour, the new line-up is in the woodshed until they figure out what their new sound might be.”


Watson started to branch out from her roots when she studied for a Scottish Music B.A. at the Scottish Conservatoire. Back then, she was in a small degree cohort, she explains; she was only in its fourth intake. “We were the odd ones! But we were sur- rounded by so many musicians, involved in so many different kinds of creating, and I was so interested in them. The improvisers I saw around me, the tiny sonic arts depart- ment, which did fantastic things.” Watson saw further possibilities here for her work here – but she’s always been a curious soul. “I’ve always been interested in what else you can have a go on!”


Watson went on to do a PhD at St Andrews, beginning with a more conven- tional project, before she discovered the Distil programme run by Hands Up For Trad (the organisation that promotes Scot- tish folk culture in progressive ways to broader audiences). It offered a twice- yearly opportunity for folk and traditional musicians to work with jazz, orchestral and contemporary players; Watson signed up for a course, and her world turned around. “Mainly I realised that the tradi- tional work I enjoyed most was more emo- tional and abstract, about evoking the mood and atmosphere of a song or a place, and using different methods to tell older stories.”


She started using graphic scores to encourage individual experimentation, making her first borders composition in that way in 2010: a setting of Borders writ- er James Hogg’s poem As Water Wears The Rock, for seven instruments alongside “an atmosphere recording”. She went on to identify a new ‘school’ of composing tradi- tional musicians in Scotland for her doctor- al degree, gaining her gown in 2014. But at the same time, she was still exploring the storytelling of the borderlands, work- ing alongside Scottish storyteller Margaret


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