There is one particular day in the Cairngorms which is lodged in Jenny Sturgeon’s memory: “I’ve been up there in all weathers but one day I was going to go to Ben Macdui but wandered up to the plateau instead, in that way of just going wherever you fancy, letting your feet take you.
“It was one of these incredible clear days when you can see mountains far off in the distance and everything feels sharper. There were golden plovers calling all around and they ended up really close. One of those magical days that will stay with me forever.”
The 33-year-old Aberdeenshire-raised singer songwriter may live in Shetland these days, but ineradicable memories such as these suffuse her latest album, The Living Mountain, inspired by the celebrated book by Nan Shepherd. Written almost eight decades ago but not published until the Seventies, Shepherd’s book has been celebrated in recent years as an astonishingly lyrical and perceptive evocation of the Cairngorms and their attendant physicality and spirituality.
Not one to seek publicity, Shepherd, who died in 1981, would doubtless have been bemused to see her portrait now printed on Royal Bank of Scotland fivers, and indeed to find her vision enshrined in a music recording. The cover art of Sturgeon’s tribute shows the distant Cairngorm massif strung across the horizon like a blue mirage, and there is a glowing, weightless quality to some of these songs that has them similarly hanging in the air, accompanied by Sturgeon’s chiming guitar, dulcimer and piano and by empathetic accompanists including violist Mairi Campbell and cellist Su-a Lee.
Shepherd’s evocations ranged from geological deep time to the wildlife and weather of the fleeting moment – “the total mountain” as she put it – and she regarded going into the hills as a form of pilgrimage. Sturgeon can identify with that: “I suppose it’s similar to any wild space in that it does feel like a form of pilgrimage for me. Having got to know that book incredibly well, in the last little while it almost changed the way I experienced being one with the mountains.
“I may live up in Shetland now but to go for a walk, not just in terms of walking from A to B, but simply stepping out the door and seeing where I fancy going – there’s something quite freeing in that.”
You enter the realm with the first track, The Plateau – “step by step, foot by foot,” and subsequent songs are evocative and incantatory, with two of them based on Shepherd’s poems, including Water, with its bewitching line, “Oh burnie wi’ the glass white shiver” intoned over a vocal drone. The other is the atmospheric Fire Light, which Sturgeon earlier recorded with the Salt House Trio of which she is a member.
Sturgeon’s delivery, lyrics and environmentalism (she has a PhD in seabird ecology) bring to mind fellow singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, whom she greatly admires. Her wide-ranging activity has also created, with filmmaker Robyn Spice and curator Shona Thomson, a Living Mountain audio-visual show which she hopes to tour, Covid-permitting, in May and November of next year.
She has also created a nine-part Living Mountain Conversations podcast series with artists, writers and ecologists she encountered making the album. She also commisioned a guitar from Rory Dowling of Taran Guitars, fashioned from Scots pine, recycled from a bar shelf in Braemar, and walnut and oak from a mouldering Anstruther fishing boat. From the Cairngorms came heather and lichen inlay. “It’s beautiful,” explains Sturgeon, “quite a thin guitar but the sides are thick to create great resonance.”
Its bright tone joins not only other instruments, but also an intermittent cast of Cairngorm wildlife, from the chitter of small birds to the belling of stags: “the croak, the crack, the ke-a calling back,” as Sturgeon so vividly puts it.
The Living Mountain is released on Hudson Records on 16 October, www.jennysturgeonmusic.com
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