Imagine, on a table, in a house in Glasgow, a capacious cooking pot, into which women are tossing potent ingredients – not foodstuffs but music styles, Irish reels, bluegrass, Highland pipe marches, Nordic fusion … We’re not talking Macbeth’s “weird sisters” here, brewing toil and trouble, but the five women of the Kinnaris Quintet, a powerfully string-driven ensemble which hit the ground running with their enthusiastically greeted debut album in September and are due to share a high-profile bill with Shooglenifty at Glasgow’s Barrowlands during Celtic Connections later this month.
With the three fiddles of Aileen Gobbi, Laura Wilkie and Fiona MacAskill, alongside Laura-Beth Salter on mandolin and Jenn Butterworth on guitar, the Kinnaris Quintet pack a muscular yet inventively lithe dynamic, as their album, Free One, vividly demonstrates.
Yet the band came together in a pretty casual manner, explains their five-string fiddle player Aileen Gobbi. “All five of us saw each other a lot at gigs and loved each other’s playing, but we never really had a chance to play together.” Gobbi, who produced the album with the rest of the group, recalls, “I just thought, ‘Sod it, I’m going to give these girls a shout’.”
The result was that they gathered at her flat and started jamming, among other things having their merry way with a bluegrass tune one or two of them already knew – John Reischman’s Saltspring, their exuberant elaborations on which can be heard on the album. “We jammed about with that tune and were really excited by it. We didn’t set out to be anything or sound like anything; we just went for it and this is what came out.”
All five players have their own niches in the folk world and come from diverse musical backgrounds. “I grew up on the Irish scene in Glasgow,” says Gobbi, “Laura Beth had bluegrass. We all grew up playing different types of music and brought it to the table and put it in the big mixing pot, and what’s come out is something we hope people are enjoying. We certainly love playing it.”
The creative cauldron may be metaphorical, but the group’s zest is palpable on the album, with its beguiling shifts of style, timbre and tempo, which can morph from delicate mandolin chimes and fiddle sighs to pedal-to-metal acceleration, sometimes within the same track, then suddenly break into a very traditional sounding retreat march.
At a time when gender balance – or lack of it – among Scottish folk bands is provoking debate, the quintet certainly flies a flag for female instrumental prowess, although Gobbi insists that they never aimed to put together an all-girl-band: “It’s the million-dollar question everybody asks, but it just happened that way.
“But,” she adds, “we’ve realised that we’ve now got a bit of responsibility on our shoulders. I think the term someone used was that ‘women can’t play bangin’ music’, so we need to show that we can.”
And if, in the future, they should recruit any augmenting musicians, there certainly won’t be any “men need not apply” riders.
The sleeve notes for Free One describe it as being “an honest expression of our sound.” “We’re dead proud of the whole thing,” Gobbi says. With requests coming at them hard and fast from festival organisers across the UK and in Finland, they simply can’t fulfil them all: “We’d love the Quintet to be a full-time thing, but some of us are in full-time education, some of us are mothers, some of us are full-time teachers.”
The creative process continues, however, with members pinging ideas for new tunes back and forth to each other. And, having played an ecstatically received set at the Scots Trad music Awards in Perth at the beginning of December, they’re now looking forward to what promises to be a heady night at Barrowlands on 25 January.
“There’s a real sense of achievement when you get something like this done. Especially once you’re a parent,” says Gobbi, who has a four-year-old daughter, “You think you’re never going to get your life in order again, yet every gig we have coming this year is because someone has asked us, and some of these gigs are really huge. We’re kind of… ‘What’s next?’”
Shooglenifty and the Kinnaris Quintet play Barrowland, Glasgow, on 25 January. See www.celticconnections.com and www.kinnarisquintet.com