Nothing screams ‘Scottish folk singer’ more than appearing on your album cover wearing a dead pheasant on your head. It is a striking image, classic portrait in style, looking like it would be at home on the walls of any Scottish castle. Julie Fowlis, internationally known for singing the theme song from Pixar’s Brave, is the most famous Gaelic singer to emerge from Scotland in the last few years. This album may be called Alterum, suggesting change, but make no mistake this is still a collection of deeply traditional music. There are songs sung in English and two feature American star Mary Chapin Carpenter, but the album does not take her too far away from her roots. The combination of Gaelic songs, folk music and even spoken word makes this an engaging and enjoyable listen.
The opening song A Phiuthrag S A Phiuthar is a lovely lilting number, which feels like the soundtrack to a boat ride to the islands (maybe North Uist where Julie is from). As you listen you let your troubles go, like you’re running your hands through the sea. This song features Chapin Carpenter singing in the Gaelic too. The Transatlantic Sessions have united these artists but the threads between Scottish and American music have been entwined for centuries. Let’s be clear I have no idea what’s she’s singing on any of the Gaelic songs. I know I could go and find out but I don’t want to know. There’s something freeing about listening to an album without the distraction of the words.
Camarinas is a quiet ballad, plucked on acoustic guitar and featuring the poet and singer Gilliebride MacMillian, who now also appears on Scottish TV show Outlander. This album also contains some great examples of Puirt à beul, which when translated means “tunes from the mouth”. It’s an unusual Gaelic singing tradition, almost like tongue twisters, sung at increasing speed and requiring much skill from the performer (Rhiannon Giddens also sings them despite not being a native speaker). On this album Julie’s performances of these types of song are subtle and understated in their complexity. My favourite is Thèid Mi Do Loch Àlainn, which makes even me want to dance. Folk music like this just feels inexplicably familiar, a connection to your own country and history that can’t really be explained.
Go Your Way is the first song sung in English on the album and is a cover of a song sung by Anne Briggs, that lost star of the sixties folk scene. The sound echoes the Gaelic music, but this choice tells us that Fowlis is also a student of more recent British folk music. Windward Away is another collaboration with Chapin Carpenter and the music sounds stunning. The subject here is water, the past and the place of women, all of which seem to be central to her work.
Òran An Ròin is a slow lament, with the vocals drowning the music to a faint whisper. She sounds like she’s standing at the edge of a cliff thinking of what’s gone, but looking outwards to her future. There is optimism in all of these songs, such is the richness and warmth of Fowlis’ singing. The final song Cearcall Mun Ghealaich, a piano ballad, appears to tell the story of a family in the aftermath of a storm. The juxtaposition of the English spoken word poetry at the start of the song with the Gaelic singing is a spine tingling way to finish this album.
Honestly, I usually prefer something more raw and edgier than this kind of music. When I was growing up all thing traditionally Scottish seemed hideously uncool – maybe as a result of my childhood Highland dancing classes and one too many birls round the floor at a ceilidh. Now years later I hear music like this and I just choke up with how beautiful it sounds. I feel like I want to go outside into the Scottish winds and gulp every song into my lungs.
Alterum is the sound of a roaring fire in a remote Scottish cottage (or even castle if you prefer), a warm and welcoming haven from the storms of life.