Singer and violinist Mairi Campbell has hit a rich creative seam in the grey area where music and theatre overlap
Life journeys, self-realisation and disquietingly deserted railway platforms are all grist to the mill for singer-violinist Mairi Campbell at the moment. Having ended 2016 being named Instrumentalist of the Year at the Scots Trad Awards, she launched her one-woman show Pulse at Glasgow’s Tron theatre at Celtic Connections last month and is now about to embark with multi-instrumentalist Mike Vass on touring The Dead Stations, which involves Vass’s live and pre-recorded score, as well as two songs which Campbell will perform.
Campbell is a well-known figure on the Scots traditional music scene, both as a soloist, and as a fiddler with groups ranging from dance bands to, most recently, Scots early music outfit Concerto Caledonia – not to mention her partnership with husband Dave Francis in The Cast, which attained unlooked-for global fame when the Sex and the City movie used their limpid rendition of Auld Lang Syne.
In recent years, she explains, she’s been exploring self-realisation techniques with Paul Oertel’s Disciplined Freedom programmes and the creative arts practice InterPlay. “I really felt as if I needed to expand my understanding of creative development and deepen my awareness of how to access my material,” she explains.
“Pulse was born because I was experiencing myself as a musician and artist in ways that I had been dreaming of but wasn’t sure how I could access them. That’s been the journey.” Part of that journey, she continues, was going into David Gray’s Sound Cafe studio outside Edinburgh and improvising vocally and on fiddle, while Gray contributed electronica. “So we ended up with this bunch of tracks and I said, ‘This is not a gig, this is a show.’”
Meanwhile, she and Francis had been working with Youth Music Theatre UK and through that she met Kath Burlinson, who ended up as director of Pulse. If Pulse, which Campbell will perform during Edinburgh’s spring TradFest as well as in a three-week run during the Fringe, was a sometimes droll, sometimes downright shamanistic musical account of her “finding her way home” to traditional music and dance after an unhappy spell studying classic music at the Guildhall, The Dead Stations is another direction again, although also involving stagecraft and animation as well as music and song.
A psychological drama opening with a passenger alighting at a deserted railway platform in a forest, it is written and directed by Charlotte Hathaway and scored by Mike Vass. In it, Campbell will sing two songs, Sleepless and Eyes Fixed, written by Vass as part of the score, as well as performing her own material during the first half. The show will tour from 26 February, starting in Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye and playing Highland venues before finishing in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on 11 March, where the players will be joined by pianist Yoann Mylonakis, who contributed to some pre-recorded aspects of the score.
For Vass, whose similarly Highlands and Islands-hopping show In the Wake of Neil Gunn won much acclaim, scoring The Dead Stations stems from a previous collaboration with Hathaway, when they joined McFall’s Chamber and composer Amble Skuse in the Remembered/Imagined cross-disciplinary project.
“Compared to my Neil Gunn project, The Dead Stations is darker,” says Vass, “and I’m not known as a prolific songwriter, but the two songs that Mairi’s singing I’ve written over the past couple of years. She’s got such an amazingly soulful voice that I asked her if she’d be interested in trying them and was delighted when she said yes.
“Mairi also plays violin and viola on some of the scoring – for the live stuff I’ll be playing guitar and a bit of violin, as well as samples and things. It’s definitely been a departure from the Neil Gunn stuff and quite a new challenge, writing music that suits the mood of the narrative in the play. It definitely stretched me.”