After touring from Japan to the USA while still a student, Hannah Rarity is more than ready to record her debut album, writes Jim Gilchrist
Among the more resonant moments during Phil Cunningham’s recent BBC 2 documentary Wayfaring Stranger, about the migration of Ulster Scots and their music to America, was when the Scots singer Hannah Rarity sang that classic anthem of leave-taking, The Parting Glass.
Warm-toned yet delicately poised, it demonstrated Rarity’s ability to utterly inhabit a song, an ability which has already seen the 25-year-old from West Lothian appear on BBC’s Hogmanay Live, perform with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and globe-hop with that redoubtable all-female Irish-American outfit, Cherish the Ladies. This coming year should see her consolidate her reputation when she records her debut album in the spring, but not before she appears at this month’s Celtic Connections with a revered folk veteran, Cathal McConnell, and competes in the final of the 2018 BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year.
Rarity’s first recording, which she released towards the end of 2016, was a six-track EP modestly titled Beginnings, although, in truth, things had started happening for her in no uncertain fashion a year or so before that. A year before graduating from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in June 2016, she landed an astonishing opportunity when Phil Cunningham, in his role as artistic director of the Conservatoire’s Scottish music course, asked if she was free to tour with Cherish the Ladies. Cunningham passed Rarity’s details on to the band’s leader, Joanie Madden, who phoned the bemused student. Two weeks later, Rarity was touring the United States with them.
The Scot travelled with the Ladies, on and off, for two years, from Japan to Alaska, while completing her studies. Her last stint with them to date began when she joined them at last January’s Celtic Connections, then on one of the musical cruises that Madden runs, before touring the States with them once again. She got home in May.
“I’ve been very lucky,” she says of being thrown in at the deep end while still a student. “That kind of experience is invaluable and it’s definitely given me a lot of insight into touring. They’ve been on the go for 30-odd years and they kind of live on the road.”
Yet Rarity grew up with little or no exposure to the music she has embraced so effectively. She was raised in Dechmont, West Lothian – an area renowned more for its UFO encounters than for traditional music. At school, however, she was recruited into the National Youth Choir of Scotland. “I did mainly classical with them, but the teacher I had while singing with NYCoS noticed that I tended to favour traditional-based material and that my voice suited it, so that planted the seeds quite early on.”
After two years at Glasgow University studying film and television, she realised that it wasn’t for her, and auditioned for the Scottish Music course at the Conservatoire, entering in 2012, where she was mentored by such established folk singers as Rod Paterson and Fiona Hunter, as well as spending a six-month stint at the University of Limerick’s Irish World Academy of Music, where she was tutored by Karan Casey.
She’s not sure whether this year will see her touring again with Cherish the Ladies, but she has turned down work over the spring as she prepares to go into Glasgow’s Glow Worm Studios to record her first full album, which should appear in the summer, with her regular band members, guitarist Innes White, piper and whistle-player Conal McDonagh and fiddler Sally Simpson, plus guests.
The recording will feature some favourite songs that Rarity says she has been “holding on to for quite a while. It’ll be a mixture of traditional and covers of material probably from Scots singer-songwriters. I particularly love the work of Davy Steele and Andy M Stewart. And there will be a couple of my own songs.
“I’m quite an emotional person, so I’m drawn to a song or a story that evokes an emotional response, either of joy or of sadness.”
The power of song is something that she and another collaborator, guitarist Luc McNally, deploy in their work with Live Music Now, the charity founded by Sir Yehudi Menuhin in the 1970s which takes music to communities which don’t often experience live performance. She and McNally had been performing in care homes shortly before we spoke.
Which brings us back to that poignant rendition of The Parting Glass which, she explains, for the purposes of the documentary, was a hybrid of Scottish and Irish versions of the song. “I really enjoyed doing that. It’s a song’s ability to connect with an audience that’s important. I like to leave them with something to ponder on while they’re at the concert or after they’ve left.”
The Cathal McConnell Trio and Hannah Rarity play Glasgow Royal Concert Hall’s Strathclyde Suite on 24 January as part of Celtic Connections. The BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year final is at City Halls, Glasgow on 28 January. See www.celticconnections.com; www.hannahrarity.com