“A GOOD song is a good song,” says Siobhan Miller. “I’ve never really felt the need to be boxed, and I’m as happy singing a traditional song as a contemporary one. They all have their place.”
A truism, perhaps, but a relevant one, given that the 27-year-old, widely regarded one of the strongest young voices in Scottish traditional music scene, has settled on purely contemporary material – not to mention the odd string arrangement – for her first “solo” album, Flight of Time, which she’ll launch during Celtic Connections later this month.
Long known in traditional music circles for her pure and poised singing, recent years have seen Miller gain first class honours in the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Scottish music degree course, as well as twice becoming Scots Singer of the Year in the Scots Trad Music Awards and winning a BBC Young folk Award for her duo with Orcadian fiddler Jeana Leslie. Most recently she sang contemporary and traditional material with prog-folk quartet Salt House.
This first album under her own name, however, may now bring not just her voice but her own songwriting talents to a wider audience. Produced and part-written by Love and Money front man James Grant, Flight of Time sees her supported instrumentally by Grant and such established session names as drummer James Mackintosh, bassist Ewen Vernal and Donald Shaw on keyboards, as well as Salt House colleagues Lauren MacColl and Euan Burton. Three of the tracks are further bolstered by the strings of the Prague Philharmonic.
The association with Grant started when she attended songwriting classes with him while at the then RSAMD. Later she embarked on “a conversation with him about him producing an album for me and us co-writing together”.
She launches the album with the band – although not, on this occasion, strings – at Celtic Connections, when they support the powerful American nugrass outfit the Punch Brothers. The year is clearly an important one for Miller, and as well as touring with Salt House, she hopes to take the Flight of Time band to festivals, ideally with a string section.
Miller first gave an indication of things to come when she won both the children’s and women’s singing competitions at Auchtermuchty Traditional Music Festival when she was just 13. Growing up in Penicuik, Midlothian, she was soon recognised as a convincing articulator of the kind of traditional song for which her father, singer and guitarist Brian Miller, was well-known.
For the benefit of any concerned folkies, Miller says she is not turning her back on the tradition. “This is a very personal album and something I’ve been working on for a long time
“Traditional music is part of who I am and at the core of what I’ve been doing since I was very young.
“The most important process when I’m singing is the storytelling element. I was brought up with that, hearing singers like Sheila Stewart and Gordeanna McCulloch.”
If she gets her broad tastes in music and urge to sing from her father, she reckons the visual sense that informs her songs comes from her mother, Jan Miller, an artist who created striking papier mâché figures of such folk scene notables as Hamish Henderson and Willie Scott. “I don’t sing unless I can see a full story going on.”
She also credits her love of poetry. Three of the album’s songs connect to poetry, directly or otherwise. Scotland’s Winter is Salt House colleague Ewan MacPherson’s setting of an Edwin Muir poem (which gets the full “cinematic” works, strings and all), while her own No Butterflies is inspired by the poignant poems and drawing left by child inmates of Terezin concentration camp near Prague.
Thirdly, she points to a true modern classic in the traditional idiom, Dave Goulder’s eloquent chronicle of a year’s turning, The January Man, with which she closes the album. “A song like January Man, you can read as a poem; it almost doesn’t need a melody,” she says. “There’s not a wasted word in it.”
And like Goulder’s January Man, “in woollen coat and boots of leather”, Miller is about to take the road of yet another year, but one which could be a milestone for her.
Siobhan Miller and band launch Flight of Time as support to the Punch Brothers at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 23 January, as part of Celtic Connections, www.siobhanmiller.com, www.celticconnections.com