📷 Photo by Elly Lucas
Meaning ‘life’ in Irish/Scottish Gaelic
I’m Tina – musician, composer, piano teacher, and Membership & Development Officer for the Traditional Music Forum. Each month I ask musicians and those involved in the Scottish traditional music scene to write blogs to feature on the TMF website, in the newsletter and on social media. I love reading what musicians are up to in a personal blog, and I’m always in awe of the interesting, eloquent, heart-warming and entertaining writing they produce. This month I’m trying my hand at writing a blog and so far I feel like I’m back in school, struggling to start writing an essay, not knowing where to begin, staring at the screen. Time for a break.
I’m back – with a cup of tea. That’s better.
Music. It’s been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember. My dad started teaching me the piano whilst I was still too young to go to the piano teacher for lessons. My sister and I both did Irish dancing from a young age and through this our dad became interested in Irish music. We got some tin whistles and I attended the local Comhaltas group in Accrington, Lancashire where I started to learn Irish tunes. I did music at GCSE and A Level, and worked really hard to pass my Grade 8 classical piano exam at age 17. I then made the big decision to move to Ireland to study on the BA in Irish Music and Dance at the University of Limerick and this was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
I’d been learning, what I thought, was quite a few tunes but once I arrived in Limerick, I found that I in fact knew peanuts. What a humbling experience. I met so many musicians from different places, playing many different instruments, and I hardly recognised one tune. I got myself a little hand-held mp3 recorder (no sound file recordings on phones in these days – only Snake on my good old Nokia) and set about recording and learning as many tunes as possible. I went to as many gigs and sessions as possible and completely threw myself into enjoying the enormous pool of fantastic traditional music around me. On my first day in lessons at UL we were told about a gig in Dolan’s Music Bar in town that night – Kevin Burke & Ged Foley were playing. What a treat! I asked a new classmate if they fancied going along together and that night I quickly fell in love with Dolan’s and Limerick.
In my third year on the course we were given the opportunity to go on Erasmus and study a traditional music at a different university in another country. I chose Scottish Music at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and in January 2009 I moved over to Glasgow with my fellow classmate and bestie, Teresa Horgan (amazing singer and flute player with The Outside Track). This is another of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
For a number of reasons I ended up transferring and finishing my degree in Scottish Music in Glasgow. In my last year at uni I reached the final of the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year competition. Once I had graduated, the finalists made an album together and went on tour gigging in a number of different places across Scotland. I think it was this that made me want to do music full time, so I quit my bar job and started trying to earn a living through music.
I had dabbled a bit in composing tunes in Limerick and got into it a little more whilst at the RSAMD, but it wasn’t until I started to create music for Irish dancing that I really began to find my flair for writing tunes. I have enjoyed playing the music at Irish dancing competitions across the world, taking me as far as Australia. I have recorded four Irish dance music albums and I enjoy composing many of my own tunes for them. I love writing quirky tunes that are fun, uplifting and make you want to dance.
Throughout my 20s I enjoyed recording and performing music as part of a number of different ensembles. Fast forward to age 30 and I was hit with the news nobody ever expects to hear – a cancer diagnosis. Bowel cancer. At 30. What? To cut a long story short, it was caught early, I had an operation and it was cured. Here, I’ll put my awareness hat on for a moment. Don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re too young or don’t fit into a box – you know your body and if there’s something not right you must press for answers. Hat off again.
After a period of recovery I was able to enjoy playing my instruments again and one of the first things I did was record Féistastic 4 – my fourth Irish dance music album. It was great to get the creative juices flowing again and write a number of tunes for this. After this, I decided it was time for me to create a flute and whistle album of all my own compositions – something I’d always had in my mind that I’d like to do. Then the pandemic hit.
Fast forward again and with things a little more back to normal, in September 2021 I put in a funding application to Creative Scotland and started writing and collating some previous written material for the album. I was delighted and grateful to receive the funding I had asked for from Creative Scotland, so I began by asking some wonderful musicians if they would join me on the album. I had a traditional sort of line up of instruments in my mind to contrast with the album being all contemporary tunes. I asked Seán Gray on guitar, Lea Larsen on bodhrán and James Lindsay on double bass, and I’m very happy that they all said yes!
I had put ten sets of tunes together on flute and whistles, and come up with chord charts, backing ideas and arrangements on the piano. I then started to meet Seán for some rehearsals to transfer what I had in mind onto the guitar. For a few of the tracks I actually ended up keeping in my piano parts, which wasn’t the plan from the beginning, as I ended up really liking what I had come up with. After some rehearsals with Seán, Lea joined us and it was brilliant to hear some bodhrán beats along to everything.
In February 2022 we headed into GloWorm Studios in Glasgow City Centre and began to record the album with engineer, Euan Burton. After such a long break not being able to play music with anyone because of everything, this was such a treat being in the studio creating music with other musicians again. After a week of putting down guitar, bodhrán, and flute and whistle parts, James Lindsay added his bass parts and this really brought the whole album together. One of my favourite moments on the album is in track 9 during ‘Ugly Sea’, where James uses the bow on the bass and creates an epic sound.
It was also great fun to work with Elly Lucas on the album design and photography. In the past I’ve had many photo shoots done outside in the cold with the wind blowing my hair everywhere, and this time I decided I’d be nice and warm and not wind-blown in a photography studio. I had an idea for a yellow background in my head and Elly found a lovely little studio called Simple Arts in Glasgow which had just this. For the album design, I gave Elly a colour scheme of yellow, orange and teal, and said that I would like some sort of sunset in the middle pages (one of the tunes on the album is called Sunset Skies). For the front cover I said I’d like a yellow background, and the title Beatha written in large letters with the sunset from the middle of the album coming through the words. Elly did something way better than this and took one of the photos of me, and had the artwork from the middle of the album coming through the shape of me playing the flute. It’s fantastic! I couldn’t be happier with all the design and photos. For the album, I wanted to create music that is fun and uplifting, and I feel that the album design complements this by being warm and welcoming.
Somewhere during the creation of the album I thought it would be a good idea to put together a tune book of my compositions. What better time to release a tune book than when I’m releasing an album of all my own tunes? To add to the already hefty workload of the album, I began working on getting all my tunes written out on Sibelius. Note to self – for any future compositions, write them out once you’ve composed them! I worked with David Hunter on design and layout for the book and matched it with the look of the album. The tune book features 76 of my compositions and includes all the tunes that are on the album. Although it was a lot of work – I was still juggling my piano teaching and my TMF work as well as the album – I’m really glad I decided to do the tune book. I’m really proud of it and it sits nicely along with the album.
The whole process of making this album has been hard work by myself, but also a complete pleasure and joy. Music brings me so much happiness and makes me feel alive. I have enjoyed pouring my heart and soul into this album and it has been amazing to play my music with such wonderful musicians.
This brings me to the title of the album. I’m originally from Lancashire, my background is in Irish music and I now live in Scotland. I’ve often felt like I don’t fit into a box music-wise. I didn’t grow up going to the Irish Fleadhs or through the Scottish Fèis scene. I’ve accepted that this is ok though! I am me and my music is a culmination of my life experiences, and so I decided to name the album Beatha as a little nod to this journey we are all on. As Beatha means life in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic, I feel it reflects my time spent in Ireland and Scotland, and brings the album together.
Life is a funny old thing – take the chances, go after your dreams, enjoy yourself, make music.
Beatha was released on 24th June 2022 and is available to buy / download / stream here: https://listen.scot/beatha
Tina’s Tune Book is available here: https://tinajordanrees.bandcamp.com/merch/tune-book