Six questions with… Amanda MacLean

Both a singer and a writer, Amanda MacLean combines two passions in The Flax Flower, a novel based on one of Scotland’s greatest ballads. Find out more about the book and Amanda’s musical influences before she presents the book in a unique performance blending music, readings and conversation on Friday 29 April.

Tell us about your show.

It’s a mix of traditional songs, and readings from my novel The Flax Flower. Over the last decade or so I’ve fallen in love with the big ballads – they pack a huge emotional punch, and sometimes hearing one can send shivers up and down my spine. The Flax Flower is based on one of Scotland’s best-loved ballads, Mill o’ Tifty’s Annie. Listening to the song over and over, it somehow got stuck in my heart and I head to write it down as a story, so that will of course be one of the ballads I’ll be singing. Towards the end of the show I’ll have a bit of Q&A with the audience – people always have a thousand questions to ask about the book!

Which other musicians have been your main influences?

So many singers in folk clubs over the years, who have led me into an appreciation of the traditional way of singing and getting a song over to an audience. And the great traditional singers of Scotland like Sheila Stewart and Jeannie Robertson. Lots of other names came to mind from other traditions, too – I greatly admire Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Norma Waterson, Camille O’Sullivan and the flamenco singer Rocio Marquez for a quality they all share – total and utter commitment to the song. When they’re singing, you can see that the song is the only thing that exists for them at the time.

What inspires you when writing or singing?

When singing, it’s the songs themselves – the desire to let them live and breathe. The poet Brendan Kennelly puts it this way: ‘All the songs are living ghosts, and they long for a living voice’. I think that pretty much sums it up. I think that was how it was with writing The Flax Flower too – the desire or need to give the story life and let it speak for itself.

Which bands or artists from the contemporary Trad music scene, in Scotland or elsewhere, do you rate most?

I’m keen on female singers who allow some power into their voices: Siobhan Miller and Lucy Ward are definitely in that category. I’m also a big fan of Sylvia Barnes and Eliza Carthy.

Have you played TradFest before? Are there any other acts on the programme you’d recommend seeing?

I haven’t been to Tradfest before, either as a performer or a punter, so I’m really excited!

If you haven’t seen Ewan McLennan, you need to! And I’d recommend Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre too – they’ve a wealth of knowledge and experience of trad music and song, and are great traditional singers.

What does Tradition mean to you?

It’s the way of doing things that comes naturally. Some years ago, I’d spent a lot of time in choirs but wanted to branch out as a solo singer, and I asked myself what music I wanted to sing. The music that felt most comfortable – like it was really me, rather than pretending to be something – was the traditional songs of Scotland. That was because I’d been around the music and spent time with people who made it. I’d say that tradition is something you feel you belong to, and that belongs to you too.

Amanda presents The Flax Flower at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Friday 29 April. Book tickets.