Su-a Lee on her debut album Dialogues: ‘Nothing was planned’

Bringing together the classical and folk traditions and involving an eclectic cast of guest musicians, cellist Su-a Lee considers her debut album “a snapshot of my life”. Interview by Ken Walton

For almost 30 years, the South Korean-born cellist Su-a Lee has been a permanent fixture among the ranks of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Her engaging smile, that mischievous fleck of colour she frequently adds to her hair, and in other fields her notable virtuosity on the musical saw with the unorthodox mixed-genre ensemble Mr McFall’s Chamber, all suggest a musician with a will of her own who cherishes the limelight.

Look behind the candid individualism, though, and a truly thoughtful, collaborative and generous personality emerges. When we spoke, she was on a week’s leave from the SCO to participate in Hands up for Trad’s 2022 Distil Showcase, where upcoming folk composers are invited to write new music, workshop it with professional string players and hear it performed. “It’s one of the things I absolutely love doing, to be able to help creators of such high quality music,” says Lee.

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It won’t come as a surprise, then, to learn that her debut solo album Dialogues, released next month on her own label, Sky Child Arts, is anything but an ego trip. The clue is in the title. In all but the final track – a haunting solo performance of Ae Fond Kiss dedicated to her late friend and fellow multi-talented SCO cellist Kevin McCrae – Lee features successively alongside a roll-call of like-minded talent she counts as her friends.

Su-a Lee PIC: Elly Lucas
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That they hail from either side of the classical and folk divide merely reflects the eclectic musical company Lee keeps – she once collaborated with Eric Clapton.

“You become the sum of everything you’ve done,” says Lee, who previously lived in New York, often works with dancers, co-presented a 2020 film on the Edinburgh Festivals with Kirsty Wark, and considers her life’s experience so far “a fantastic melting pot”.

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It was her folk musician husband, Hamish Napier, who proposed a solo album and helped her develop its creative concept. “We were thinking of lockdown things to do when he suggested it, and I said ‘absolutely not, that’s of no interest to me’.” What did interest her was drawing together her experiences of folk and classical and “delving further into the kind of music I’ve been really passionate about in the company of musicians I really admire”.

That’s what makes Dialogues so refreshing. With such divergent talent to call upon, it’s like dining off a menu created jointly by a crack team of master chefs, each with their own distinctive cuisine, but in a format – the track list falls into three progressive “Acts”: the Setup, The Development and The Resolution – that gives unity and balance to its consumption.

Contributors range from pianist/harmoniumist and Celtic Connections supremo Donald Shaw, accordionist Phil Cunningham, singer Julie Fowlis and Napier himself, to more classically-orientated musicians such as the all-purpose Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, cellist Natalie Haas and Elias String Quartet violinist Donald Grant, equally recognised as a traditional fiddler.

The common factor, of course, is Lee herself, who found the whole experience of creating new music in this way as thrilling as it was challenging. “Every single track felt like a whole different project, driven by the personality of whoever I was working with,” she explains. “There was never a formula. Nothing was planned. The pieces would change as we worked.”

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For someone more used to recording as an orchestral cellist, this process, she says, was a massive learning curve. “I’ve recorded all my life with the SCO, where you go into the studio, play what you’re told to play, then walk out. It’s a very different experience when you’ve got to direct things and make instant decisions.”

Will there be a follow-up album? “No”, she fires back instantly. “I’ve loved it, but I’m so happy that it’s finished. It takes over your life, far more than I thought. For me, it’s a lovely moment in time, a snapshot of my life, an exploration of where I’m at and where I’ve been.”

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Dialogues is released on 2 December on Sky Child Records, see www.sualee.com