Julie Fowlis on Gaelic, music, and Pixar’s Brave

Julie Fowlis loved singing for Disney’s Brave, but she will never compromise her Gaelic muse

Folk singer Julie Fowlis near her Inverness home. Picture: Robert Perry
Folk singer Julie Fowlis near her Inverness home. Picture: Robert Perry
Folk singer Julie Fowlis near her Inverness home. Picture: Robert Perry

WHEN the high heid yins at Disney Pixar called up Julie Fowlis in Inverness to ask her to perform in their new animated film about a headstrong Highland princess, they probably got the same answering machine message I do. Which is a magical, lyrical but utterly incomprehensible (unless you happen to be fluent in Gaelic) verse of poetry.

Fortunately (or, perhaps, unfortun­ately?) she then translates – “sorry, we’re not in right now, please leave a message” – and the spell is instantly broken.

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When we do talk, however, the English speaking voice turns out to be just as hypnotic as the Gaelic singing one, that lilting Highland accent that seems to conjure up images of deserted beaches fringed by machair, the Northern Lights, heather-clad hills… no wonder Hollywood bosses wanted her to voice the thoughts of Princess Merida in their Oscar-winning Brave. “I got a phone call out of the blue from the vice-president at Disney Pixar,” she says, “which is obviously not the kind of phone call we get every day.”

She and her husband, the musician Eamon Doorley, were asked to provide two of the three songs in the film, performing and co-producing them with the team at Disney. “It was a very interesting, intense thing to work on,” she says, “not least because I was eight months pregnant when I managed to get the final vocal done. We would do different versions of the songs and try different things, then have these conference calls with the team in the States, have these debates over tiny points of the song and phrasing. They would say things like, ‘Is this Merida?’ or, ‘Is this not Merida?’

“Thankfully we got it done with a few weeks to spare. And I was just lucky that, whatever position my second daughter was in, it allowed me to sing fully, which I wasn’t able to do with my first.”

For all the deliberating, however, she is still surprised at how much input she and Doorley were allowed to have, even if the process was a strangely disjointed one. “It was a real collaborative project between the writer, the composer of the song, the producer – we all contributed.

“Music is all about sitting down in a room and playing and talking, so it wasn’t perhaps the easiest way to work, but they had such energy and commitment to the process and they wanted to get it absolutely right.”

The success of the film may have brought Fowlis fame on a mainstream level and exposed her work to a new audience, but it could hardly be considered overnight success. She has been involved in traditional music since she was a child, growing up in the Outer Hebrides, and, as part of the sextet Dochas, she was voted Best Newcomer at the Scots Trad Music Awards in 2004. The same year she won Best Gaelic Singer and, in 2005, her debut album Mar A Tha Mo Chridhe (As My Heart Is) brought her worldwide acclaim.

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Further awards and albums have followed, along with an appearance on Later… With Jools Holland, gaining her famous fans such as Bjork, Ricky Gervais and Radiohead drummer Phil Selway. But when I ask if traditional music might be enjoying a revival, she’s not so sure. “It’s always been there,” she says. “There are times it has peaked and, in the last 30 years, there have been a significant number of youngsters coming through as a direct result of the feis movement, of different summer schools and music festivals that have supported and nurtured the younger players. But it’s always been there.”

Nor will you catch her doing a Vanessa Mae and attempting to glamorise traditional music the way the British violinist did for the classical genre. “There is this thing about trying to sex it up, make it a bit easier, but I don’t want that,” she says. “I don’t want to make things easier for audiences. These are songs that are really stunning and they don’t need changed, they don’t need jazzed up. They can speak for themselves.

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“I always try to be as true to the tradition as I can, but I know that, even by putting some traditional instruments to it, you’re already changing the tradition. Most of these songs were sung unaccompanied, so even by doing what we’re doing, we’re not complete purists. It’s something I’m very aware of, and I always try to stay true to the song while presenting it with some sort of sympathetic and, hopefully, appropriate music.”

Now aged 35, her love of the Gaelic language and of the music so intertwined with it began in childhood, with a Gaelic-speaking mother – an islander herself, from a family of fishermen and crofters – and a hotelier father.

“Music was everywhere in the North Uist community,” she says. “It was completely normalised. Therefore it was quite usual from a very young age to pick up Gaelic singing or piping or things like that which, I suppose now, with everything that’s going on with tuition in schools, seems unusual. We were so fortunate to have that. There was a formal education of Gaelic music and song in schools but also there was a great passing on of songs and tunes and music very informally. The music was shared in a very organic way.”

The family left for the mainland when Fowlis was in her early teens as her father took a new job in Ross-shire and, while it was a wrench initially, she settled in quickly. “I didn’t want to leave, but when we got here I made friends quickly. It was a different lifestyle but not that far removed – it was still the Highlands – a slightly bigger community, bigger schools, and that presented both challenges and opportunities. I was very happy.”

But she had to work hard to continue speaking Gaelic. “I wasn’t hearing it all the time as I had been so, although I heard it every day, I wasn’t surrounded by it. So when I left to go to university, it reawakened my interest in the Gaelic language.”

She studied oboe and English horn at Strathclyde, then enrolled in the Gaelic-language college on the Isle of Skye, with the specific intention of improving her fluency in the language, as well as to study traditional Scottish music. Now with two young daughters, Eabha, three, and Niamh, one, she considers Gaelic the family’s first language and balks a little when I suggest it might be considered a minority tongue.

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“In our family and in our circle of friends it’s what we speak most. It’s by no means a minority language in our lives; it’s very much part of who we are, especially for my children. I want them to be able to engage with my side of the family in the Western Isles. And in order for them to be able to do that properly, in order to understand nuances of humour, to explain family lineages, to understand every place and part of the sea and island and place of work that people are talking about, to understand all of those things that define who we are and define who we come from, you need the Gaelic language to appreciate that fully.

“To be honest,” she adds, “it was something we had that we could give to them. It’s free, it doesn’t cost anything, only a little bit of hard work and interest. And it opens up their minds to other languages – it’s not just a closed book about Gaelic, it’s about much, much more than that. It’s a deep-rooted connection to your own country, to your own people, to a language that has existed for thousands of years. When you understand how deeply it’s ingrained in us, in the stories and the history, it really shapes your thinking and your outlook.”

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The same is true of the music. “To me, the language and the music, the song and the poetry, they are all completely linked, you can’t really separate one from the other. You can’t separate pipe tunes from the Gaelic language because one influenced the other; the rhythm of the pipes comes from the words and the words come from the melody of the pipes.”

Although there is talk of a Brave sequel, she says she has heard nothing about it. And, anyway, she is busy writing a new album and preparing for a performance at the tenth anniversary of Piping Live in Glasgow later this month. She recently completed a masters, and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Robert Gordon University, and feels further study is on the horizon. “I feel I should actually go and earn that honorary degree,” she says.

So if her brush with Hollywood has boosted her profile in any way, she remains largely oblivious. “To be honest, I don’t really think about it or try to measure it. Things come your way but we’re still sticking to what we do usually, which is researching and learning and celebrating this great tradition we have.

“Even while I was doing Brave I was working as artist in residence for an online archival project, putting online and making available for free almost 40,000 items of folklore from all over Scotland, from the Gaelic tradition and the Scots tradition. These are songs, stories, tales, local historic information about place names and all sorts – it’s an absolutely amazing resource.

“So I loved the chance to be able to work on Brave – it was loads of fun musically, artistically – but all along we continue doing what we love the best. And that always comes back to Gaelic song.”

In the meantime, she has two young children to raise, both of whom already love music. “It’s not something we force on them in any way, and they’re still very small – but they’re both very musical.”

Might a Fowlis family band be on the horizon?

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“No, I don’t think so,” she laughs. “The Von Trapp family we won’t be.”

• Piping Live, 11-18 August (www.pipinglive.co.uk)

Twitter: @Ruth_Lesley