MAKING ‘VENT’ – by Laura Jane Wilkie

📷 by Ray Kelly Photography

I love living and working in Glasgow as a fiddle player. The sessions are some of the best in the world and I’ve always loved, and still love playing music in pubs with others whenever I can.
There was though, a moment around 2019 that I started to feel like there was a bit of a ‘glut’ of a certain sound or style of traditional music in the city and at music festivals I’d been to or played at.
The music was all brilliant, full of virtuosity and high energy.
I began to feel a bit disconnected emotionally from playing and hearing that so often.

I sought new sounds and material (accidentally) by going along to a gorgeous song session run by the wonderful and wonderfully versatile musician and singer Josie Duncan.

I brought my fiddle along and really enjoyed the way everyone was listening to one another. It was a very ‘responsive’ session and was loads of fun. From Bob Dylan, to the Beatles, to Dick Gaughan and then a good half hour of Gaelic songs and puirt a beul songs.
I had found connection to music and trad tunes in the city again!

Now, though my grandmother and her cousins had Gaelic, they were discouraged from speaking it or teaching it to the younger generation. Alas it never made its way to me.

Why did I feel such a strong connections to these songs when I a) didn’t have the language b) wasn’t a ‘singer’?

I began a search for more songs on the archive website ‘Tobar an Dualchais’ where I was really drawn to the contributions of Kate MacDonald of South Uist. Lots of her contributions were waulking songs. Such strong melodies and good stories when I read into them.

My friend and Gaelic singer Eilidh Cormack advised that though this contributor had passed away, her daughter lived in Inverness and was none other than the one-woman ceilidh, tradition bearer, piper, singer Rona Lightfoot.

After about a year of studying the tunes and having various conversations with my Gaelic speaking friends and musicians about whether I should pursue the idea:
To adapt these melodies as instrumentals in a bid to create something that felt new to me and would hopefully encourage other instrumentalists to engage with the wonderful music too!

With the help of Fiona Dalgetty (CEO of Feis Rois) I was put in touch with Rona and began studying the songs with her – trying my best to play things as closely to the way she or her mother had sung them.

Visiting Rona at her home in Inverness was my favourite part of the process. I was very nervous to get in touch. I thought she might wonder what on earth I was doing or think it was a daft idea.
However, she was extremely generous and over time I think she understood what I was trying to achieve and helped me hugely.
Her knowledge and passion (and humour) is amazing. She was 84 when we started hanging out. I feel so lucky to have spent time with her on these tunes and am proud to call her a friend. I visit whenever I’m in the area – sometimes I play the fiddle and she sings or we just sit and have a Gow’s roll (IYKYK) and a cup of tea.

With Rona’s approval I took the tunes to begin arranging – the tunes themselves were irregular in phrasing compared to the 16 bar forms I’d been playing for years.

Some of the songs are hundreds of years old. They were sung by women at work round a table ‘waulking’ tweed to render it useful for tailoring.

Waulking was a long arduous process – the workers sang and would change the words and make up new verses to allow them to tell the stories or gossip of the moment. Sometimes they would sing of grievances in their lives or aspirations. In this process none of their landlords/husbands/fathers or abusers were there to hear. It was a safe space to vent / process what was on their minds and feel support, release and often share humour with their peers.

I feel this really comes across in the melodies- even when you don’t speak the language. They’re looking for connection and are made to be shared.

I brought the arrangements to some of my most favourite musicians. Open minded, creative and brilliant at their instruments.

Each brought so much to the tracks – particularly Ian Carr. There is no guitarist like him on this earth and he is a wonderfully imaginative and skilled musician. I felt he and the others would approach the tunes in a way that would allow them to become pieces that would convey the emotions and the need for connection and community in a unique way.

The recording process was not without its difficulties! Travel and illness were both issues that got in the way a bit. But we got there.

As my first ‘solo’ record I found the process very challenging but gradually more and more rewarding.

I found myself able to let go of many insecurities and get on with the job a lot better than I ever had in my time as a musician. I wasn’t able to over think too much.
Really, what I wanted was the music to FEEL good and I knew that it would only feel good if everyone else involved was happy and comfortable.
The funding I got from Creative Scotland really helped me make that possible and cater to everyone’s needs as much as I could.

I had to change producer during the process and having Jane Ann Purdey helping me with the project was amazing. (I’d recommend anyone applying to make an album budget for a project manager to help oversee and problem solve! It’s invaluable!)

In the end, I co-produced the album with Sarah Hayes (Birdvox/Admiral Fallow/Wildings/Roaming Roots Review) it was a really fun part of the process and we had excellent mixing skills and experience of Andy Bell at Hudson Records helping us achieve the sounds we wanted.

Overall I learned a lot about: the music of the women in this country, the history of the women in the generations of Gaels, that in some ways not so much has changed(!)

I loved making friends with people embroiled in these traditions and listening hard to the music and information they shared.

I learned more about how individual all musicians are. Even the ones I’d worked with before. There is not one correct way to communicate musical ideas! It’s a bit of a journey, you need to trust each other and as a band ‘leader’ I really had to step up and adapt in order to get the most out of playing/recording/mixing and releasing this work.

I really hope that people who listen to it feel some sense of feeling, community and some humour too. Even more, I hope it might encourage other players to look into the archive themselves and interpret the material in their own unique ways!

Vent – by Laura Jane Wilkie
Released 5 July 2024
Available here

Artwork by Louise Bichan