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CAOIR: Making an Album in Covid Times – by Joy Dunlop

📷 by Euan Robertson

My name is Joy Dunlop and I’m a Scottish Gaelic singer and broadcaster. I grew up in the small village of Connel, outside Oban. I was brought up immersed in the traditional music scene of Argyll but also, listening to pop music on Radio 1 and Atlantic 252! I think that it’s because of this mix that I grew up loving artists that combined the traditional with the new; think Capercaillie, Croft No. 5, Peatbog Fairies, Shine, Treacherous Orchestra, whilst being obsessed too with the more traditional side of Gaelic song. I’m still listening to all of the above, whilst also enjoying newer acts like Niteworks, Project SMOK and Elephant Sessions – all combined with a healthy side of cheesy pop and songs from the shows!

How did Caoir come to be? Honestly, a new solo album was long overdue – my last one was released in 2013 and although I’ve collaborated with others on many different projects since then, it had been looming greater and greater in my mind! I had been thinking for a time that I wanted to try something different with my music and was quietly exploring how to achieve a bigger and bolder sound that could fill festival stages or large venues. I’ve always loved music that pushed the boundaries of what was considered ‘trad’, without losing the soul of the songs and as a Gaelic singer, I’m always trying to make my music accessible to even those who don’t speak the language. I was also aware when showcasing that many festivals / larger venues were looking for a bigger band, one that would fill their stages and this fitted in well with my idea of expanding my current 3 piece line-up. I had also noticed that it was often male lead acts who played these types of gigs, and that the gender balance at festivals was often skewed as a result. Whilst this wasn’t a driving factor, it did give me a push to try to do something to correct that. If you’re not part of the solution…

I decided to bring together a group of amazing musicians whose playing I loved; Ron Jappy on guitar, Mhairi Marwick on fiddle, Gus Stirrat on bass, Euan Malloch on electric guitar and Ifedade Thomas on drums. What started as a jam session, soon grew into something more: a selection of music that we all loved and a real friendship and bond between us all. That mix of trust, creativity and drive for exploration eventually immerged as Caoir – an album that will hopefully resonate with both trad fans and those who just love music. The word caoir (pronounced koor) can mean many things, including firebrand / a blaze of fire, fiercely burning, accompanied by noise / rapid torrent / gleams, flames, flashes. I hope that listeners will also be able to hear this in the music. It’s predominantly traditional Gaelic songs that I’ve recorded, although 2 newer songs also make an appearance. One is a slightly older song, Cadal Cuain, composed by Ceitidh Morrison and Kenna Campbell and the other is a newer one by Alasdair Mac’IlleBhàin, called Bàs na Cailliche Bèire. He created this from a recording that he found on Tobar an Dualchais containing a snippet of a traditional song that had been lost. I love mixing the old and new, traditional and contemporary, so this felt like the perfect fit.

Caoir was recorded in late summer / autumn 2022 but in all honesty, it’s been a Covid labour of love! We originally started working on material back in late 2019 early / 2020 but when the pandemic hit, the project was stopped in its tracks as we couldn’t meet up; let alone make music together. Once it was safe to reform, we reunited once more and juggled schedules to free up time to work on new material and create the album. Then late summer / autumn last year, we finally recorded the album. It’s been tricky logistically but so worth it! Due to everyone’s schedules filling up with rescheduled commitments and new projects, it was tough to find blocks of time that everyone could make. We instead worked over a couple of months, finding / creating time together and doing whatever we could, when we could, to make it happen. This was definitely an unexpected challenge but one to which we all committed and gave our all and I’m so gratefully to the other musicians for making it happen.

We recorded the album in Solas Sound, Glasgow with Gus Stirrat, who also plays in the band. It was really lovely to be able to record and mix in Gus’ studio, as it gave us the flexibility to try out ideas and record together as live, or break into smaller groups when needed. This low-pressure approach to recording feels much more natural to me and I loved being able to feed off the other musicians and to be able to naturally react to each other. Gus is also a musical genius and very generous with his expertise, which I think brought out the best in everyone. Despite the addition of bass and drums, the words are always front and centre and my goal is always that the sentiment of the songs come through, even if you don’t understand exactly what’s being sung. It’s a very different sound for me and one that I hope will pleasantly surprise people. I finally sent the album to Peter Beckmann at Technology Works for mastering, to add the final finishing touches and extra sparkle!

All musicians know that creating an album isn’t just about the music – there’s a huge amount of admin to make it happen, some of which is more exciting than others! I always love creating a visual concept for an album and this time, I worked with photographer Euan Robertson in the images for the album, who I can’t praise enough. He perfectly captured my essence of Caoir and I love how the photos relate to the theme. He also provided the perfect disco soundtrack for the photo shoot, which helped me twirl and prance round his studio much less self consciously! The look of the CD itself is also very important to me and I worked with Lewis based designers LOOM on the CD design. I wanted to include lyrics, translations and background information for all songs and they managed to produce a 24 page booklet that was also easy to read – not a simple task. I’m really happy with how this side of the project turned out, even if the bilingual proofreading nearly killed me!

The album was released on my own record label, Sradag Music and recently launched in Cottiers, Glasgow; where we performed it in its entirety from start to finish with the full band. This was an absolute joy and reminded us all why we do it: there’s really nothing like launching your new music to a packed audience of family and friends, old and new.

So, what’s next? I’m looking forward to seeing what future projects arise for Caoir; we have a few exciting performances planned for the end of the year and a tour of China in August/Sepetmber time. I also hope that we’re able to bring Caoir to new audiences – particularly festivals and largerer venues across Scotland and further afield. I often here the words “we don’t do Gaelic” or “our audiences don’t have Gaelic, so won’t enjoy your music” but I really don’t think this is true. Music is universal and whether or not you understand the words or not doesn’t matter. I look forward to combining performing and media as much as possible and seeing what exciting new opportunities are out there.

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