Iona Fyfe is from Huntly in the North East of Scotland and has been performing folk music since she was a young child. Her debut album Away From My Window is a mix of traditional folk songs, interpretations of modern Scottish songwriters, as well as self-penned work and showcases her stunning vocal talent throughout. Still only twenty years old, Iona has been balancing full time study with her music commitments and was recently awarded the Alasdair Gray Bursary which helped to fund this project.
The album begins with Guise of Tough – an upbeat bothy ballad. These 19th century folksongs were written by travelling farm workers, who were some of the poorest people in society at the time. Singing songs in the evenings kept them warm and entertained in the outhouses or ‘bothies’ where they slept. In recording ballads like this one Iona is honouring the authentic folksong tradition of the local area where she grew up. These songs were originally sung by men too so it is refreshing to hear a woman sing them with such confidence and style.
Glenlogie is one of the most popular North East ballads and tells the story of a lassie named Jean who is devastated to discover the man she loves is promised to another. Unusually for a ballad there is a happy ending – Jean eventually gets her man. Iona’s voice has such a sublime beauty to it, she conveys the longing of the character with restraint and subtle power. Banks of Inverurie has a similarly melancholic tone and is kind of a reversal of the previous story – here the woman refuses marriage, preferring to ‘walk alone’. Both of these songs sound surprisingly fresh and modern, which is testament to the musical arrangements and talent of the singer.
Away From My Window starts with archive recording of Aberdonian singer and storyteller Stanley Robertson discussing the importance of the oral tradition. His aunt Jeannie Robertson believed that to be a good singer you had to let the song fill every part of your body – then you could become the characters and feel the spirit of your ancestors who sang the songs before you. It’s advice that Iona has heeded well. The title track is a song about a girl who has sinned, and is trying to resist the temptation at her window. There’s a haunting quality to this song, suggesting the ghosts of the past are still present in this young vocalist.
Take Me Out Drinking Tonight was written by Dundee legend Michael Marra (James Robertson has recently published a book on this fascinating man) and it’s hard not to fall in love with Iona’s version. Having a woman sing this song actually takes it to another level, becoming an ode to freedom and rebellion. The other modern song on here is the lovely lullaby And So We Must Rest, written by Aidan Moffat of Arab Strap. Modern Scotland is as rich in song as it has ever been, so it is nice to hear her honour the present as well as the past.
A performance of the song Bonny Udny once gained Iona an unprecedented 100/100 at the Buchan Heritage Society and that score really is no exaggeration. Her talent is exceptional and this song, which begins with a clip of another veteran female folk singer, shows her skills of interpretation. These songs sound like they belong to her now.
Banks of the Tigris is the only self-penned song and fits well musically – even if lyrically she has gone out of her own sphere of experience to explore the problems in the Middle East. Odd perhaps that she chooses not to use traditional song to tell her own story and yet this song shows an admirable empathy for the universality of human suffering. Hopefully Iona can continue to develop her own songwriting and add to the line of folk songs she honours so well on this album.
Recently Iona has talked about the gender bias in traditional folk music – where the women are expected to behave like angels and sing quiet ballads, while the men get to misbehave and reflect their rebellion in the music. Of course she acknowledges the fact that she sings ballads herself, but she doesn’t want to be boxed in by that good girl folk music stereotype. Thankfully Iona has enough time and talent to push the boundaries of expectation and take her musical career in any direction she wishes.