“The force of intuition and playing just one note forever”: my interview with Adam Sutherland

Last autumn, when I was only planning this web site, I found myself playing fiddler/composer/teacher Adam Sutherland’s solo albums over and over and enthusing about them even to my prog rock loving son (who nodded approvingly). The personality that came through the music was so positive I picked up my courage and sent Adam a message, asking him, cap in hand, if he’d give me a brief interview for this non-existent web site when I was at Celtic Connections.

His answer was quick, warm and graceful and in late January, we met in Glasgow, at the CCA, and spent probably closer to two hours in the upstairs bar, with Adam answering my questions with such openness, eloquence and insight, I was just stunned and overjoyed!

So here, without any further introductions: here’s Mr. Adam Sutherland, with so many brilliant stories, recollections and points on music, life and the power of intuition…


So how did you get started with music and the fiddle? Did music run in your family?

No, it didn’t. When I was a child, my father ran marathons but developed sore knees. So, he went to see a doctor by the shores of Loch Ness where we lived, and the doctor told him ‘you have to stop running quite so much’. He sensed my dad’s disappointment, went to his back room where he kept his pills and potions, and came back with a fiddle case and the phone number of a fiddle teacher on the other side of Loch Ness and said, ‘Here, try this’. So, he prescribed my father the fiddle as medicine as he recognized my dad now needed to do something else.

So, my dad started going to fiddle lessons in his mid-life, to the famous fiddle teacher, Donald Riddell, who has taught many famous fiddlers and was already an old man at the time. He took me with him and we drove there every Saturday, to Donald Riddell’s croft house where he had all kinds of old things laying about and decaying, but there were also all the fiddles he was making even then, hanging here and there, with the smell of resin and varnish intense in the air.

When you picked up the fiddle for the first time as a little kid, did you already then feel that this is for you, this is what you want to do?

No, not at all; I thought “oh my God, this is very difficult! It’s heavy and my arm hurts!” As a teenager I finally realized I’m not a naturally gifted player and I have to really rehearse and play a lot. And I think talent is overrated; hard work and clever practice will always win, and that’s what I did.

What was your formative fiddle education like?

I took fiddle lessons from him for three years, from when I was seven to when I was ten, he then passed away. After that I started to go to fiddle lessons in Alasdair Fraser’s summer school on Skye. He wasn’t famous yet at that point, had about 15 students in his courses – and he was massively inspiring! He did what every teacher should do: he made us, and made me, want to learn for ourselves. And I caught the bug.

Alasdair Fraser instilled in us a great respect for old Highland tunes, and he also educated us on Highlands history, told us about events after Culloden, how not only bagpipes and tartan were banned but fiddles were burned and speaking Gaelic was forbidden. That was something they didn’t teach us at school.

But Alasdair was also very interested in seeing where we could take this music now; he had equal respect for the past and what could happen in the future. So, one day after class, he asked me to stay and play him this tune we’d been practicing. I don’t know what came into me but as I was playing, I changed it a bit, not trying to be clever, just playing how I felt. And he was so interested in that, and so supportive: ‘that was just great!’ and I never got the inhibitions the adults have. In music, I’ll always have my freedom and my playful side and Alasdair had a huge part in that.

He also urged us to ask questions and many years later said about those summer courses ‘I never came to Skye to tell people how to play the fiddle; I came to ask questions’ and a huge smile came across my face. I was very lucky to have him as a teacher, and now I’m doing my best, in my teaching, to push on the good waves.

I was maybe 14 or 15 and so excited about the fiddle but as the summer course ended, I realized I would not have a teacher for another year! So I had this conversation with myself – I do that sometimes to really think things through – and the questioning part of me convinced me that there are other ways of learning besides watching and listening to other people’s playing.

Because Alasdair’s fiddle sound was so special, I decided to learn it, by myself, and after some time of playing along to his music a tape recorder and trying to catch his sound, I realized I wasn’t sounding like him – but I was better as Adam Sutherland than I’d been before. And I realized I could improve myself and got this rush of excitement and I went on to recap what I’d just done.

I had moved from believing you can’t learn by yourself or teach yourself anything to realizing you should at least try it and you actually can grow and develop on your own. I was now in the driving seat and I started teaching myself. I started to play this one note – just one! – for ages, like a drone. Mom wandered into the kitchen with a cup of tea, gave me a strange look and asked me ‘why are you playing just one note for ages?’ It was a pretty hypnotic place, kind of a Zen state, really.

With time I got bored with that one note but kept playing it, resisting other notes until everything just broke loose with a flurry of notes that came out of sheer frustration. So I started writing music pretty much by accident when I was about 16.

Even today, when I teach, I tell people to play just one note for as long as they can and change it only when they really, really have to. And you wander from note to note and speed up and start to find a pleasing set of notes and that can often become the opening phrase of a tune.

I also sang in a choir when I was young, from 11 to 16 years of age, doing four-part harmonies and all that, and that has definitely been a benefit. Likewise a junior string orchestra.

As you got a bit older, did you then go into higher or more formal music education?

I did get into the school that is now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in the Scottish music department there, in 1997. I did 2 years of that; it was not just a music course but a Bachelor of Arts and it had Gaelic and Scots classes too. I had no interest in Gaelic at first but I fell in love with it.

I never finished the course, though, because it had some things I wasn’t interested in and I found it hard to study things that just didn’t interest me. Only last year did I learn I have an attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, although it’s not really hyperactivity with me, I have the inattentive version of the disorder. I did not know this back then and because the taking the B.A. degree would have required studies that had nothing to do with music when all I wanted to do was play the fiddle, I decided, with some young male arrogance, ‘I’m not doing this. Fuck off.’ So when I was about 20, I had no degree, could not look after myself very well and didn’t know how to make a cup of tea. I could play the fiddle really well and compose music that went gracefully from one key to another but I had no degree and could not make a cup of tea. And that was the end of my formal education.

So how did you go on from that?

Well, I have learned to listen to my inner self very carefully and pay attention to intuition that has at times knocked on my door, as I believe it knocks on everybody’s door.

When I got told to leave the University for a year – and I never went back – I was quite upset, “oh my goodness, I don’t have any money coming in, no student loan, no grant check, the big bad world has arrived”.

The very next day, the phone rang. It was Aidan O’Rourke who was about 25 at the time, asking me if I could teach a fiddle class in Falkirk for three Tuesdays in a row, and I said “absolutely!” But as I was saying it, some part of me was turning it down, telling me not to, even if the offer was a no-brainer in that situation. It was annoying because the gut feeling was persistent and illogical, so I decided just to override it, “Brain HQ overriding Gut HQ”. And that was that, I took the gig and tried to shake the feeling off.

But some time later, there was another call. My friend asked me if I knew anyone who could take a teaching post in South Lanarkshire. She was asking this because a fiddle teacher had been sacked and they needed to find a new one quickly; she didn’t know I was out of the University and going “too bad you’re not available” and I’m going “well, actually I am and I’m desperate for work”. It was a year’s worth of work once a week and she says “great, it starts next Tuesday”. I accepted

So that led me to a situation because I found no one who would take the Falkirk job. I was stressed and felt about it but eventually I just had to let the Falkirk folks down because I really needed the year’s work. And then I remembered my intuition about not accepting that job.

Now, many years later, you’re a widely recognized fiddler and teacher. I hear in your own music many influences outside of trad. Jazz, in particular European jazz…

I do listen to various kinds of music and sometimes, even if it’s a band I deeply dislike, I may pick up an interesting little thing in a song and store it in my memory for later. Even as a kid I had this sponge-like thing, I notice and pick up things and influences really easy.

I have a love of choral music, from my own choir days; I’ve loved listening to a lot of funky stuff when I was playing with Croft No. 5, they listened to a lot of Herbie Hancock and Headhunters and Parliament and such. And I got into Rage Against The Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers, and I love good sax playing. Ultimately, music is about what’s satisfying to you.

As for jazz, I have listened to someone like Stephane Grappelli and I know I’ll never play like him but that’s okay; there may be a bit of that French flavor sometimes in my playing.

In my music, I have picked up things I find satisfying and see no reason for a blinkered approach – the longer I stay alive, the more things I stick in. It’s a distillation process; when I was 20, I had certain influences and bow that I’m almost 40, there are many more things I’ve picked up and can include in my music, including classical. I want to go where the tune wants to go; I’m beneath the tune, so to say, so if the tune wants to go jazzy then that’s where I will go.

So I don’t mind having many influences but the one thing I want to have constant is a good, strong melody; a good tune that sticks in your head.

You have played in a few A-level, top-notch Scottish folk bands. Is there a kind of a chain reaction – when you’ve proven yourself in one you’re asked to play in another and so on?

When I started out at 18 years old, I got gigs with the Scottish Dance Company and toured with their dance show in 1998-2000, then moved to Glasgow and joined Croft No. 5 and things developed from there. Mind you, it was an interconnected world even before the internet.

What I think is really important, beside your musical abilities, is you have to be easy to get along with and to work with. You have to have emotional intelligence or whatever they now call it.

I love the tight and natural band playing on both your albums. Is it the same band on both?

Yeah, Marc Clement on guitar, John Paul Speirs on bass, Iain Copeland on drums and Steve Forman on percussion. For the second album, I added Hamish Napier on keys and John Somerville on accordion.

It always sounds like a “real band”, not like This Artist and his backing group.

Well I certainly hope so! Marc’s real jazzy, he brings out that jazziness in me and I tend to respond immediately to people I’m playing with, so I play differently with different people and I like that. Almost like an actor who changes character; a good actor can be unrecognizable from film to film. It also provides mental stimulation and a chance to grow in different directions, as a musician and as a person.

Celtic folk – Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton, Brittany… – seems to have a fairly steady following and fan base in Europe and North America. How do you see the status and the future of this music in the big picture?

Looking into the future is very hard and nearly impossible, apart from the climate scientists, who unfortunately seem to be pretty on it. It’s hard to say where this music’s going but I’m a bit surprised at where it is now, compared to where it’s been.

In the 1990’s you had Martyn Bennett, Shooglenifty, Wolfstone… These genre-defying, really forward-thinking bands, over 20 years ago. Where we are now seems a lot less like that, everything is under genres now and many current bands are lot less adventurous and not so punk in terms of “who cares?”

I’m not saying they’re less good; many bands are excellent musically and they have a very high standard of playing, they’re just coming back to a more traditional style. There’s also a lot of people doing it now, a huge number of artists.

How much of what you’re currently doing musically is a result of conscious choices: band vs solo, artistic ambition vs records sales and so on?

I have always been excited by music, so it’s a kind of conscious decision to hold on to that excitement of writing music and playing it to and with people. What stimulates my brain is beautiful music, so I just go where that is. That’s my compass.

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