Q & A with Brian Ó hEadhra and Fiona Mackenzie

I have been most impressed by the stunningly innovative albums Tìr and Tuath by the duo of Brian Ó hEadhra and Fiona Mackenzie. As I listened to Tuath on powerplay over a few days, several questions began to arise: it’s an intriguing and challenging album in many ways and I decided to ask Brian and Fiona if they’d like to answer a few questions. I am overjoyed to report they were super kind to my request and we did the following “interview” over email. If you have listened to and enjoyed their unique music, here’s the story behind it…
Ceud mile taing, Brian agus Fiona!

How did the idea of a revamped and re-visioned Gaelic folk initially come about?

A few years ago we decided we wanted to release an album with just the two of us. Up until that point we had generally been performing with various groups or in specific projects which always means that there is a certain amount of compromise involved.  With our albums “TÌR – Highland Life and Lore” and “TUATH – Songs of the Northlands” we allowed ourselves free rein with nothing off-limits.  We are a bilingual household (Scottish Gaelic & English) and we listen to a wide spectrum of musical genres.  We came up with new and old material that we are interested in rather than trying to please a specific audience, be that traditional Gaelic or contemporary pop.  We’re please how it has turned out.  

Did you have specific inspirations and benchmarks that triggered the revisioning process?

We actually made playlists of artists and songs for both albums to help us, the session musicians and the engineers during the recording process.   Included on the playlists were artists such as Hans Zimmer, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Sigur Ros, Niki and the Dove, Kathleen McInnes, Sudan Dudan and Portishead.

The amazing online folk archive of Tobar an Dualchais and the collection of Gaelic prayers & incantations – Carmina Gadelica continue to be a big inspiration for us.  

We write about both historical/folkloric and contemporary issues.  Anything goes.  It’s so rewarding to have this freedom and not be too burdened down with what we think people or communities want to hear.  

Who are/were your main collaborators and supporters in realizing this vision, not just in the studio but in general?

For our live work, we just rely on ourselves to perform the work.  Our teenage kids Órla and Róise often join us on stage add extra vocal harmonies and dynamics; something which we love.  

The highly talented musician/composer Mike Vass was our main collaborator for both albums.  His work on sound design and arrangements is stunning and really helped us find our sound.  We recorded the first album partly in The Wee Studio in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, with Keith Morrison who helped us find our initial sound.  Our nephew Innes White has played guitar and mandolin on both albums and aways does such an amazing job.  

We always like working with artists and we were fortunate to have worked with Rachel Cush of Crafty Marten Art to make our front cover and artwork for TÌR.  We collaborated with printmaker/artist Freya Cumming for TUATH, resulting in both albums having affecting art to represent each track.

We are very grateful to Creative Scotland (Scotland’s arts & screen council) who gave us grant support and also to Naxos World Music who have released both albums.  

You seem to have ploughed through various deep sources for material. How were the songs chosen for these projects? 

We always want to have a mix of traditional and contemporary material.  Quite a few of the songs are totally new and written for each album.  They can be based on any subject matter or character from our rich history/folklore.  We like to have a mix of upbeat songs and some slower ones as we have to sing most of them for live concerts too.  Most of the traditional songs we have sung are ones we have picked up over the years from family or friends singing them.  Sometimes we have strong reasons to sing songs which mean a lot to us and other times we just sing something which we find appealing.  It’s quite random but it works for us.  

The digital arrangements are particularly vibrant and “alive”. What’s the story behind their creation, both musical and tech (programming etc)? 

This all comes down to the musical maestro Mike Vass.  It is all his work.  He uses real sounds and instruments and manipulates them into sequences, rhythms and arrangements to fit with the songs we provided.  In TUATH he had full reign in the arrangements.  We trust him and he has come up with an astounding sound.  

Our mixing engineer, Iain Hutchison is also extremely talented and made the music sparkle with his mixes.  

Tuath’s soundscape is quite a bit more tech-dominated than Tìr was. Was this a deliberate strategy?  

Yes, we said to Mike “just go for it”.  We are kids of the ’80s and said that big synth sounds are totally fine; whatever.  

The Scandinavian songs on Tuath are very convincingly sung. Does Brian actually speak Scandinavian languages?

(Brian) I am slowly learning Norwegian but we both love Scandinavian dramas and therefore hear the various languages regularly enough.  I have yet to tackle Finnish but who knows what the future might bring!  

The decision to include a Galician song in an album of northlands songs was a bit surprising, even when Galicia has its own vibrant tradition of Celtic music. Did you have discussions with Galician musicians when choosing Rosa das Rosas for Tuath or was it your own discovery?

(Fiona) I learned this song to sing live on the Netfilx film Outlaw King a few years back.  They wanted some music from that era and I suppose that it is possible that a song like that may have been sung in a Scottish court in the late 1200s.  We didn’t speak with Galician musicians about singing it but did do some research online.  Brian did the translation.  We figured that it was fine to have a Galician song as they have always been trading and connected to the Celtic peoples to the north.  

What have been the challenges of bringing the Tìr and Tuath songs to the stage? Do you have all the electronics with you or are the songs more acoustic in the live setting?

We sing most of the songs with basic acoustic instruments and a few effects.  We haven’t managed to incorporate the electronic elements into our set to date for a number of logistical reasons but it may happen in the future.  We’re happy either way, although the prospect of one day performing our music with the full ‘sound design’ element definitely interests us.  

And, finally, what wisdom would you like to share with those younger Celtic and European folk musicians who might one day wish to bring in their own innovations?

Just go for it!  It’s art and it’s yours so don’t let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do.  Do your research and work with people you enjoy being around.  Trust your heart and reach out for advice when required.  Be brave. 

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