interviewed by Iain B Pollock
Anna MacDonald is a singer and songwriter of folk songs that show her Celtic roots. A multi-instrumentalist she is able to play the piano, guitar and clarsach which she beautifully intertwines with Scots, English and Gaelic songs.
It is with a feeling of slight apprehension that I approach Anna MacDonald’s flat. I had spoken with her over the phone about this interview, and the organisational ability she had displayed had made me feel slightly childlike. The impression was dispelled when the door was opened, and a welcoming smile and a cheery hello set me at my ease.
Anna is a petite, strawberry blond girl, with a lovely smile and deep blue eyes which radiate mischief and warmth. She becomes a whirlwind of activity as my coat is taken and hung up. She ushers me into the flat, she sits me upon a comfortable black sofa and she provides me with a cup of tea. As she sits herself down, I take in my surroundings; various instruments dotted around a minimalist setting speak eloquently of a multi-instrumentalist thoroughly immersed in her music. She looks across a coffee table at me, picks up her cup of tea and in the intense calm, we begin.
Anna has appeared at a host of gigs and sessions recently, with precious little time for luxuries such as eating and sleeping; and yet whenever she does appear, trademark Moon guitar in hand, she is the epitome of amiability. Last year saw her join the profession of singer songwriters, with the launch of her EP ‘You held out your hand’, as well as getting chosen as one of the finalists of the FATEA awards, a website dedicated to grassroots music. She now stands poised upon the precipice of stardom, although such a statement may well be behind the times. Anna has already done an informal tour down in London, supported Kathryn Tickell, played at various festivals throughout the land and been reviewed positively in the Guardian and the Glasgow Herald. She has also performed in London with the Portobello Orchestra after being invited to do so by the conductor Anthony Weeden. His name may be more familiar from works including the recent BBC adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, as well as the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Wild Target.
Whilst Anna was born and grew up in Glasgow, her roots were laid during her holidays, when she spent a month of every year on the Isle of Skye, in a small village called Tarscabhaig. She tells me this means ‘Bay of Cod’ in Norse. However Gaelic was the language of her grandparents upon the Misty Isle and it is that language that Anna has studied and learned. She spent a year doing an immersion course at the Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college in Sleat, the romantically named ‘Garden of Skye’. One of the songs on the EP was Ged ‘s Grianach (my thanks to Anna for help with the spelling), a ‘waulking song’ which the women of the clans would sing when they ‘waulked’ cloth. This involves a rhythmic movement in order to shrink the material, Anna informally informs me as if everyone knows these kinds of thing, and the songs have a strict beat and tempo which keeps all the women in time. Further Scots Gaelic songs abound within her family.
Anna’s true passion is music, and it shines through whenever she touches upon the subject. She has developed a huge talent since she turned her hand to it. “I’ve always written, since I was wee and had the music in my head. Now it’s great to be able to express it, everywhere from local sessions to playing with an orchestra.” She plays the guitar, clarsach and piano, switching effortlessly between all three in between myriad songs she performs with a siren-esque voice. Anna composes in different genres of music, with some of her songs reflecting the traditional base of Scottish music, others taking on a distinctly popular feel and some even sauntering with abandon into the jazz field, such as Black Butterfly, but the foundational stone of this young woman’s talent is her songwriting ability. The lyrics of her self-penned songs change moods from boisterous and positively rowdy with the pirate song ‘Annie Bonnie’ through a spectrum of emotion, to thoughtful and almost philosophical when listening to the beautifully sparse arrangement of ‘Seany’s Lullaby’.
The topics that found her songs are strongly orientated around her friends, and subjects that capture her attention. Interested in history she wrote ‘Annie Bonnie’ about a historical figure who became a successful pirate. This song also tied in strongly with her closest friends. Her flatmate at the time, Jen MacNeill, is a MacNeill of Barra and has what could be described as an almost unhealthy obsession with pirates. Anna tells me with an infectious grin that “before we play this song, Jen always tells her favourite joke. ‘Why are pirates pirates? Because they arrrrr!’ Jen is a great storyteller. She always gets a laugh!” Her excellent fiddle playing, combined with both Anna’s skilful accompaniment and singing, thankfully ensured that the audience remembered the performance as opposed to the jokes.
Another song written for a friend is Naj’s Song. It is a truly delectable song, one that made me want to go out and meet up with old friends simply to find out how they were getting on. Although the song itself is honest and earnest, Anna tells an amusing story of how it was written. “A really good friend of mine was leaving the country and as she was telling me, the words to this song came into my head and I began working on it right away. Unfortunately that meant I missed the end of what Naj was saying, when she told me she would only be away for a month! I think the song was just about finished for when she came back …” The synthesis of comedy and sincerity works perfectly in parallel, the disparate parts combining to form a more powerful whole.
We turn from the present to look forward. Anna’s future seems so packed that even her formidable organisational skills may be strained. The small news involves a nightmarishly busy schedule of gigs and sessions across Scotland and invading down into England, as well as several radio interviews. The big news divides into two; the first is undoubtedly the collaborations with the Portobello orchestra and Anthony Weeden. The premier in London on March 26 2011 at St Clement’s church was an outstanding success, so great in fact that a sequel at the other end of the country has already been arranged. It will be, at Anna’s insistence, in the Sabhal Mor Ostaig on the Isle of Skye on 3rd September 2011. I ask Anna how she convinced a full orchestra to decamp from London to the Inner Hebrides, and she laughs as she replies, “Natural wit and charm! No seriously, Anthony heard my EP and invited me down, and the deal was that they would return the visit and come up to Scotland so I could host them. The orchestra seem to think the Isle of Skye is as exotic as Milan. I haven’t told them the truth yet!”
The second piece of big news arrives in the form of Anna’s album. She is collaborating with Fraser Fifield of Salsa Celtica and the Mick West Band fame, a well known folk player and composer. It is due to be released in time to coincide with sojourn of the Portobello Orchestra to Skye. “It will feature some of the works on the EP, although those songs certainly will be reworked. I hope that several new musicians will come on board as well. The album will also feature some unheard songs as well, but I don’t want to give away too much at this stage!” Anna’s natural discipline combined with a genuine creativity to produce songs of immense merit and subtlety make this forthcoming work highly anticipated.
Despite the success of her initial offering, despite the excellent reviews by expert music critics and despite an ability to bring imagery and poetry to life across a range of instruments and languages, Anna remains unaffectedly modest in her outlook on the future. “I’m looking forward to a busy summer. Probably the hardest part of it will be finding an outfit that works with my red guitar strap!”