On electronics in folk, adding drums as an afterthought and the art of arrangements: My interview with Tannara’s Becca and Owen

Tannara’s Strands stands out as one of the brightest and most ambitious albums in the current Celtic folk scene. After listening to it repeatedly, a few things about it intrigued me so much I gathered up my courage and asked for an interview. I was delighted when Becca Skeoch and Owen Sinclair graciously took the time to talk to me on Skype. We had a lovely chat – whose recording I managed to accidentally destroy the instant after we said our byes, but luckily my hand written notes and still-functioning short term memory saved me 🙂 So here, kindly approved by Becca and Owen, is our conversation.

So how did you guys get together as a band?

Becca: Me and Owen had known and played together before in the Fèisean movement (https://www.feisean.org/) and when we studied at the University of the Highlands and the Islands, we met Joseph and Robbie. We were actually roommates with Joseph for a time. We then started just playing together and at some point in 2014 became a band.

The music on the Tannara albums is very nuanced and intricate, very finely arranged.What’s your method?

Becca: I’m the kind of person who loves to arrange music, to really work with it…

Owen: Our music still stems from spontaneity; we love to play traditional music, spur of the moment stuff, and when we play together as band, it can have that session feel to it…

Becca: …and when you play together, things come up, and you hear the good bits and take a hold of them and develop them further, sharing ideas in the group.

So the arrangements are pretty much a collective thing?

Becca: Yes, we all have a hand in them and share the collective credit.

I noticed that Tannara’s music is tagged “Traditional Folk” in Apple Music, but the music is all original, created and arranged by the band. How does that fit any “Trad” or “Folk” label?Do those labels and tags mean anything to you?

Owen: They don’t really matter, no. I guess “Contemporary instrumental music with roots in the Scottish tradition” would be a somewhat correct label. Because even if our music is original compositions, it’s grounded in Scotland and Scottish music, you can hear it.

Becca: I’ve had this idea that the music of today will be the trad music of tomorrow anyway.

The first time I heard Trig I thought it was brilliant, one of those “this is their debut?”albums. Was it a musical snapshot of the band as it was at the time?

Becca: I think so, pretty much. We had lots of fun making it, putting tunes together and playing away. And we were also happy with the result. But I think pretty soon after that we already started to feel we have matured musically and need to move on.

Owen: Trig didn’t take that long to make but Strands was another thing altogether…

Your Bandcamp page mentions it was a two-year project.

Owen: Yeah, that’s what it probably comes to. The songs were written mostly in the summer of 2017 but the album was recorded only in October 2018 and released in early 2019

With Strands, there’s suddenly electronics, audio clips, drums… How did all that come about?

Becca: Martin Green, of Lau, was there part of the time to help and consult us – our budget wouldn’t have him work with us through the entire process – and he suggested we might try to add some electronics into the fabric and we picked up on that. Joseph and Owen are into that stuff anyway so they were willing to go in that direction.

Owen: There was a lot of trial and error, we really didn’t nail it all immediately. Some tracks, though, came together very effortlessly; Jutland, the final song on the album, was like that. We used only one synth on the album – various sounds, of course, but just that one instrument, to keep things cohesive.

When we were mixing Strands, Martin at one point muted all the acoustic instrument tracks on a song and then did the reverse, muting the electronics. And the music continued to make sense in both cases; he said “you guys could now release two different albums of the same songs at the same time”.

I just love Mattie Foulds’ drumming on Strands; as a drummer myself, I find it so musical and exquisite, really…

Becca: Strands was not even meant to have any drums! The album was practically finished and ready, tracked and everything, before Mattie, who engineered it, came to play on it.

Owen: That’s right, the album was supposed to be in the can but me and Joseph were starting to feel uncomfortable with certain things about it, things not connecting right, missing something… We first thought of having drum programming but ended up asking Mattie instead.

Becca: He’s a great and vastly experienced drummer and as he engineered our album, he kept saying “I would love to play such and such thing on this and that part”, he was really into this music. And so he played all the drums parts last, after on top of everything else, and did such a great job.

So the drums were more or less an afterthought? That’s amazing because it’s all so organic and together. How about doing it live, though? Are you taking loads of digital stuff on stage for the Strands concerts?

Becca: No, on stage it’s just the actual band, the four of us. No drummer. and just very little electronics. It’s a lot of folkier than on the album; you only have so many hands.

Owen: We did try out some things – pedal triggers for sequencers, click tracks… But we found out they can be so distractive.

Becca: They may help you to a certain extent but they interfere with your communication with your bandmates – and with the people who have come to see you play.

Celtic music has a following practically everywhere. How do things look from Tannara’s perspective?

Becca: Scottish and Irish music does have an audience in Europe, and in North America and Australia as well, obviously regions with history of the Scottish and Irish diaspora. We haven’t really been playing abroad that much yet: Belgium, Holland…

Owen: …and once France, the Lorient Music Festival.

Becca: There are lots of Celtic music festivals these days, in many countries, even Australia has two big ones. And in October we’ll be touring Austria. Myself, Owen and Joe have also played and connected with Norwegian folk musicians.

Scandinavia does have historical ties to Scotland – the Norsemen…

Owen: Definitely, especially Orkney and Shetland, very strongly present there.

What about the future? You had a great a debut album, a brilliant and very different second album, loads of gigs… What’s next?

Becca: I think we will do something different, again. We’re thinking collaborations, both with friends we’ve played with before and with people new to us. You can’t just stay put where you are, you have to keep progressing.

Frank Zappa had this poem-like litany that ended “wisdom is not truth / truth is not beauty / beauty is not love / love is not music / music is the best”. Why is music the best for you?

Becca: The community, the creativity, the sense of family…

Owen: We had music in our home when I was a kid, my dad played the guitar and listened to Americana: blues, country, bluegrass. So it was all around and my parents had me take guitar and piano lessons which I did not like all that much but put up with. Later I got into punk and rock with my friends and soon we wanted and started to play. And playing is the thing.

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