(Above: album artwork for West by Somhairle MacDonald)
I am just about to head out for the second half of my album launch tour for West, a solo album I released in September last year. I thought I’d write a bit about the thinking behind the album and how I approach my projects.
I have tried to achieve something different with each solo album I’ve made. My first was really a mixture of all the ideas I had in my head that I hadn’t been able to fit into the various bands I was in. I’d demoed the arrangements beforehand and had a pretty good idea of what I was going to record. the second was based on a Celtic Connections New Voices commission so was a bit more scored out and performed live in advance. The third I had no plan for whatsoever until I went in to the studio and threw in ideas with co-producer Mattie Foulds and it was massively enhanced by my guest musicians Lauren and Mikey responding to my ideas there and then.
With my fourth album West, I wanted to build on the experience of making something largely improvised or created in the space, but with the challenge of it being a completely solo album featuring just myself and the harps. To make this something special for me if nothing else, I decided to record the album in my grandparents’ croft house in Achnahaird, Wester Ross where I’d spent all my school holidays growing up. Making up the arrangements for the songs in such beautiful and personal surroundings definitely informed the music on the album. I worked with Mattie again on this project and he brought up his recording equipment and set about the unenviable task of building a studio in the house.
I’ve always really enjoyed sitting at the harp and just playing with no real plan or direction – it’s kind of my version of meditating. On the album, I’ve taken that approach to record a few short tracks where I set the harp levers in the key of the previous track and just recorded what came out. I named those tracks after some of the mountains that can be seen from Achnahaird as that was my view at the time. It felt like quite a personal thing for me to share these recordings, but it made sense to do this on West because that was the nature of the project.
Making music that is very niche as many of us do, it feels important to have other motivations other than selling tens of thousands of albums and appealing to a mass audience. For me, that is to learn from each project and push myself in different ways. I try for this in the bands I’m in too, playing in bands like The Shee where our arrangements can be fairly complex and technically challenging to playing with The Furrow Collective which focuses on the song and the value in our years of singing harmonies together producing a more intuitive approach.
After my solo tour, I’m looking forward to starting work on my next solo project, which will be something completely different again and is slowly starting to take shape in my head. It’s hard to find the time to work on solo projects when you’re a self-employed musician travelling out on tour a lot, but I find the experiences I have playing and travelling with other projects and bands informs my work and hopefully if I let an idea work away in the background, it’ll come out in the end in some shape or form. For me it’s about keeping it varied and challenging in whatever small way possible and making some kind of meaning for yourself in the music you make, which will hopefully come across and speak to others in turn.
Below: A Token from Rachel’s 4th solo album – West