From the Ground: New album from Laura-Beth Salter and Ali Hutton a 'cinematic love letter to nature'

Mandolinist and singer Laura-Beth Salter and multi-instrumentalist Ali Hutton have taken a significant creative leap for their new recording, writes Jim Gilchrist

There’s an inarguably ominous tone to The 11th Hour, the opening track of From the Ground, the album which Laura-Beth Salter and Ali Hutton describe as their “cinematic love letter to nature”.

Listeners who know mandolinist and singer Salter from the Kinnaris Quintet or her duo with guitarist Jenn Butterworth, and Hutton as a piper and multi-instrumentalist with bands including the Treacherous Orchestra and his partnership with fellow Perthshire piper Ross Ainslie, are unlikely to have heard them sound like this. Their instruments are swathed in electronica and samples, pipes sounding out amid doom-laden effects for that opening number, although with folkier melodies emerging elsewhere.

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But if From the Ground warns urgently of an environment in jeopardy, it also celebrates the beneficent power of nature, and is a project the pair have wanted to do for some time. “Eventually we decided the pair of us would just go ahead and do it as a duo,” explains Hutton, taking a break from packaging CDs with Salter at his home in Glasgow.

One of Salter’s songs, Wake Lines, is a call for universal respect for humanity amid a fragmented world. “We couldn’t just focus on nature and the environment without focussing also on what people are having to deal with and have had to deal with for a very long time,” she says.

The album reflects a renewed appreciation of nature on the part of the musicians, who both grew up in the country, Hutton in Perthshire, Salter in Lincolnshire, but have since spent years living in cities and are both now based in Glasgow.

“I lived in Glasgow, studying and playing music and lost touch with nature for a long time,” says Hutton. “It has felt really good to recapture in some of the music memories of the sort of freedom you had when you were wee.”

It’s only in the past year, says Salter, since she moved to Glasgow with her husband and toddler, that she’s enjoyed more access to nature. “I love the hustle and bustle and music of living in the city, but especially during the pandemic I realised how much that pace of life can affect you. And that just stepping outside, with no phone… I did that every day during the pandemic and it was so good to have that space.”

Laura-Beth Salter and Ali HuttonLaura-Beth Salter and Ali Hutton
Laura-Beth Salter and Ali Hutton

They agree their soundscapes – augmented by fiddler Patsy Reid, drummer Paul Jennings and bassist Duncan Lyall, as well as spoken word from poet Jim Mackintosh and others – have been influenced by cinema. Salter cites the mood-setting scores of Scandi-noir, while Hutton enjoys the epic sounds of Icelandic bands such as Sigur Ros: “They’re very good at capturing the essence of where they’re from in their music. We’ve spent years playing sets of tunes and all that and we felt this time it would be nice to paint pictures for people, trying to capture surroundings and feelings.”

Ask whether they can possibly perform such layered music live and Hutton laughs: “We’ve just got to package up another 100 CDs then maybe we’ll think about that.”

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From sophisticated soundscapes to the unadulterated tradition of a champion bothy ballad singer may seem a quantum leap, but there are just the proverbial few degrees of separation. Hutton was a protégé of the late Perthshire piping maestro Gordon Duncan. Now Gordon’s illustrious father, Jock – singer, melodeon player and tradition-bearer – is the subject of an important new book, Jock Duncan: The Man and His Songs (Rymour Press) compiled and edited by the Fife singer and song collector Pete Shepheard of Springthyme Music.

Jock, who died in 2021, was a larger than life character, brought up working with horses in the ballad-rich farmlands of Aberdeenshire. To hear him singing bothy ballads or enact The Tradesmen’s Plooin' Match with inimitable energy was an unforgettable experience. As Shepheard suggests, this book presents the repertoire of “one of the great authentic voices of Scottish song”.