FIONA Hunter’s first album under her own name is true to herself and the ballads she sings
The ballads – those “muckle sangs” – resound down the centuries as enduringly powerful narratives of homicide, fratricide, infanticide, suicide... you name it. Amid the current folk revival, they’re being sung as never before, but everyone, of course, has their own ideas of how these elemental tales of dire deeds and grim comeuppances should be sung.
Even Walter Scott, who introduced a great many of them to a new and literate audience with his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border in 1802, was famously told off by Margaret Laidlaw, mother of James Hogg, for publishing songs he’d collected from her. “There was never ane o’ my songs prentit till ye prentit them yoursel,” she railed, “an’ ye hae spoilt them a’thegither.”
Glasgow-based traditional singer and cellist Fiona Hunter has just released her first album under her own name after a decade as lead vocalist with the award-winning folk band Malinky. The eponymously titled “solo” record is a choice selection of songs, including a couple of hefty ballads, and she and fiddler-producer Mike Vass, a fellow member of Malinky, have clearly thought hard about their settings. A highlight is the well-known ballad The Cruel Mother, delivered with the poise and articulation we’ve come to expect from Hunter, its grim narrative given a stark, near-chamber string setting, Hunter’s cello joined by Vass’s multitracked fiddles and Euan Burton’s double bass.
“When you take on a big song like that, you really have to think carefully about what you’re going to do with it,” she agrees. “However you arrange it, it’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s got to be true to yourself. The song’s the thing, and you have to make sure that the arrangement doesn’t get in its way. But you also have to keep people interested.” It’s something she discusses with students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where she now teaches, having graduated from the Scottish music course there.
As a collection of assuredly sung and thoughtfully arranged Scots songs, the album, which also features Matheu Watson on guitar and Gillian Frame on additional vocals, is notable enough, but what brings additional substance is the care she takes to credit these songs to figures who have taught and inspired her along the way. The Cruel Mother is one of several taught to her by the respected revival singer Alison McMorland, one of her tutors at the conservatoire.
Another of her teachers was Dr Andrew Hunter (no relation), an influential singer and songwriter during the earlier years of the Scottish folk revival. He doesn’t always get the credit he’s due, so it’s heartening to hear Fiona giving a stirring delivery to his “war memorial in song”, Ye Heilan Chiels, a wry coronach of remembrance which quickens in tempo as it ranges from Flodden to the gas clouds of the First World War.
From Hunter she learned another ballad, The Laird o Drum, while a warm-hearted rendition of The Bleacher Lass came from McMorland, who also introduced her to that dynasty of tradition-bearers, the Stewarts of Fetterangus. All were strong musical mentors: “It was a huge thing for me to be introduced to people like Andy and Alison, who have carried the tradition from the likes of Jeannie Robertson, Willie Scott and the Stewarts. What better way to learn, rather than just picking a song off a CD?”
Which brings us on to someone else who has explored the Border ballads in a rather different way. Next month Hunter will perform in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall with poet and author Andrew Greig, in a show based around his most recent novel Fair Helen, set in the bad old days of the Border reivers and based around the ballad Fair Helen of Kirkconnel.
Greig, who is also a musician and songwriter, has previously appeared with Mike Heron and most recently harpist Rachel Newton. The forthcoming show naturally prompted Hunter to investigate the title song. “Fair Helen was a ballad I knew of but wasn’t in my repertoire, so this made me go and learn it and find out all about it.”
In the meantime, Malinky may be on the back-burner but it is by no means defunct. “We’re quietly working away and hoping to do a new Malinky album. We’re all doing different things at the moment, but the band has by no means disappeared.”
• Fiona Hunter is released on Rusty Squash Horn Records on 3 March. She and Andrew Greig are at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on 28 March