The Scotsman Sessions #412: Esther Swift

Welcome to the Scotsman Sessions, a series of short video performances from artists all around the country introduced by our critics. This week, harpist Esther Swift performs the song Blue, taken from her debut album Expectations of a Lifetime

Harpist Esther Swift’s choice for her Scotsman Session is Blue – a song evocative of sea and skyscapes, inspired by a winter’s morning crossing of the Minch. It comes from her debut album, Expectations of a Lifetime, due to be launched at what she promises will be a “uniquely immersive” concert at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on 14 June.

Swift, a classically trained harpist whose playing and composition embraces folk, jazz and world music influences, explains how she wrote the song, virtually as its inspirational scenario unfolded: “We were coming from Hogmanay on the Isle of Lewis. We got up really early and it was dark when we left. It was beautiful; everything was still and frozen and covered in snow, there was crystalline blue everywhere and the moon making everything extra blue as well.

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“As we were crossing, fishing boats appeared and the seabirds accompanying them and this sort of fishing dance, between the fishing birds and the fishing boats, appeared in front of me. Then the mountains very slowly came into the light, the sun hitting them as we approached the land.”

Esther SwiftEsther Swift
Esther Swift

Not all the tracks on Expectations of a Lifetime recall such transcendent moments, however. Her debut album under her own name, as opposed to previous recordings with Twelfth Day and the Clouds Harp Quartet, it sees her songs couched in inventive settings featuring the genre-hopping Vulva Voce string quartet, jazz pianist Fergus McCreadie and drummer Alex Palmer, among others. The Peebles born, Edinburgh-based musician describes it as “inspired by Edinburgh’s urban nature, the changing seasons and the rich tapestry of people who make up this city”, but its title also encapsulates her reflections on a miscarriage she suffered a year ago and her conflicting feelings of sadness, expectations of family life and of her musical career.

Some songs on the album deal with the heartaches of the wider world as well: Problems to Sharpen the Young, for instance, based on a poem by Rachel McCrum, brings the issue of boat migration down to the overwhelming decisions facing one family, while Lateral Flow, now released as a single, memorialises the challenges of the pandemic for NHS workers and other carers on the front line.

Swift acknowledges support from Creative Scotland for the album and from the Help Musicians charity for the launch at the Queen’s Hall – which she promises to turn into “a breathing urban jungle” with the help of visual artist Oana Stanciu and sound and lighting designers Dave House and Sam Jones.

The end of June, meanwhile, sees her at the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther during the East Neuk Festival. There, with the help of professional musicians and local schoolchildren, she will create Zulu, celebrating the steam and diesel-driven Zulu fishing vessels once ubiquitous around Scotland’s east coast. The collaborative performance will evoke “the boats and the communities that depended on them, the storms they weathered and the lives they led at sea and on land.”

For further details, see www.estherswift.co.uk

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