Joy Dunlop, the golden Gael

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by Jolene Cargill

With a swish of golden hair and long limbs lamping under a cornucopia of elegantly coloured clothes, Joy Dunlop beams across the cafe.  She is at least 6ft one.

Despite hurrying into the café clearly flustered at being late and the nightmare of finding a parking space in the centre of Edinburgh she exudes luminosity.

As a singer Dunlop has become synonymous with Gaelic.  In 2010 she picked up one of two gold medals at the prestigious Mod, awarded for solo singing in Gaelic.  “It’s such an honour that it has not sunk in yet,” she beams.  What she does recall is that she was invited to have tea with Prince Charles after he presented the medal to her at a ceremony in Thurso.

“I had to turn him down and take off to a building nearby where I was singing with a couple of choirs.  I quickly hoisted up my kilt and ran off, it was really embarrassing!”

Last year was described as Bliadhna Joy Dunlop (Joy Dunlop’s year).  She pulled off a hat trick with the release of her debut solo album Dùsgadh ‘Awakening’ and was nominated as Gaelic singer of the year at the MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards.  It’s no surprise that she has been hailed as a national treasure.

But Dunlop is effortlessly affable.  And there is more to her than meets the ear.  With obvious delight she tells me that a true love of music means embracing it in all its forms.  “I have a properly schizophrenic music collection.  My guilty pleasure has to be Glee.  I love good music, everything from musicals to cheesy eighties power ballads, as long as there’s words I can sing along to!”

It’s refreshing to listen to Dunlop reflect on music; she is open to possibilities.  Her adventurous nature shines through before we start getting into details about her intimidating range of talents.  Dunlop is an award winning singer, dancer, teacher, translator, journalist and broadcaster.  She also sings with a variety of choirs and conducts an all male choir.  “That’s kind of my hobby”, she laughs.

The driving force behind all her pursuits is her lifetime love affair with the Gaelic language.  It’s not obvious from her accent but Dunlop is native to Connel, a small village outside Oban where ceilidh music is a regular fixture.  “I remember going to accordion and fiddle club dances when I was very young.  I suppose it was a bit odd!  I even had favourite dance partners, different ones for slow or fast songs.”

It was in her native Argyll that Dunlop first fell in love with Gaelic.  What’s astonishing about her close relationship with the language is that it didn’t come from her family; they don’t speak Gaelic at home.  It was born out of sheer curiosity.  Dunlop would listen to conversations and songs at social events where everyone would do a ‘turn’.  “We all went to dances every week.  It was so exciting.  I didn’t know what people were saying but wanted to learn.  When I first learned I could sign choruses of songs but didn’t really understand what I was singing.”

“There was one woman who taught me a lot and then I took Gaelic at school. I did a lot of music as well so it all seemed to tie in together.  Ceilidh events are still a big part of community life at home.”

Dunlop still performs in her home town when she can but it’s an entirely different experience.  “It’s become this running joke that now I am a Mod winner, they will put me on the official programme instead of getting me to fill in at the last minute!”

In a way, Dunlop’s life has come full circle.  At aged nine, she first performed with the Mod when her school sang with the choir.  “It was incredible.  Looking back, I was so lucky that people were so encouraging of young folk.”  With that first taste her love for Gaelic singing took root.  She didn’t know it yet but there was no going back.

Dunlop took a year out to improve her Gaelic at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic College.  “By the end of the first year I couldn’t bring myself to leave so ended up doing the honors degree.”  It was never her plan to make a career out of music or Gaelic.  In fact, at high school she had planned to study medicine.  As it turned out, this belied her raison d’être; to enthuse people about Gaelic and traditional Scots music.

Her sense of direction comes from a resolute belief in the power of music and song to bring people together in celebration.  Solo performances are strengthened by collaboration, in both her prolific support of Gaelic choral music and regular gigs on the trad music circuit.  “In the choirs you meet people from every walk of life.  I have made some great friends, some in their twenties and some in their eighties!”

Dunlop recently appeared at Celtic Connections with her troupe of musicians who she describes as somewhere between a trio and quartet; a fiddler, jazz guitarist and cellist who does a bit of everything.  “We play around with it.  It’s always great to get their perspective because they hear things in the music that I don’t.”

At just twenty seven, she has boundless energy as a performer but Dunlop has proven her commitment to Gaelic music with years of hard work behind the scenes.  With her extensive academic background, Dunlop is in demand for translation work and she teaches adult classes at Glasgow University.  And before competing in the Mod, Dunlop was one of its biggest champions.

After completing her Gaelic language and culture degree she worked for four years with An Comunn Gàidhealach, the oldest national Gaelic organization in Scotland.  “While I was doing the community and school work I was teaching, singing, dancing and dealing with the provincial Mod before working on it nationally and then competing in it.”

As part of the Gaelic development work she spent six months in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, a place that captured her imagination.  During her stay she discovered step dancing, a traditional dance that originated in Scotland.  Dunlop is planning to return to Cape Breton to do further research and has just applied for funding.  “Communities there are very Highland.  They play a lot of Scots music and hold proper dances and it’s great to be part of it.  Men always ask the women to dance.  It’s so traditional, and a relief not to have to drag your victim onto the floor!  You can do classes here but it doesn’t seem to be as popular.”

In music as in her life, Dunlop is a polymath who thrives on constantly pushing herself to try new things.  At the start of 2010 she won the Fatea awards, which recognizes acts with traditional folk at the root of their sound and use it to inspire new songs, tunes or arrangements.

Her debut solo album Dùsgadh ‘Awakening’ does exactly that; she breathes life into a collection of traditional Gaelic songs.  It was completed in three months, while she was in the process of moving to the West end of Glasgow, an area with a burgeoning Gaelic community.  Recording an album was inevitable.  “Every time I performed people always asked about a CD so I decided just to go for it.”

If like me, you don’t understand a word of Gaelic, it doesn’t matter.  Dunlop’s vocals are mesmerizing, mellifluous; at times they seem medicinal.  The album is characterized by the Gaelic and emotional range of the twelve tracks.  “I wanted to do different types of songs.  There’s a few love songs but there’s also fun ones that get your toes tapping and of course, heartbreakingly sad tracks.  Somehow I think Gaelic does sad better than any other language.”

All the tracks are traditional Gaelic songs but the album is bilingual in the sense that lyrics in the sleeve notes are printed in both Gaelic and English.  Dunlop was emphatic on that.  “The sleeve was important to me.  When I buy a CD I love to have the words.  I don’t really download music because I like to play out the experience of music.  Buy the CD, read the words and then put it on.”

She laughs about finding the inspiration for the title in a dictionary and says she hopes it’s not too naff.  Why did she choose to do a Gaelic album?  Singing in Gaelic is the only way to do justice to her heritage.  “It’s got a flow to it and there’s a wee bit of you that identifies with it, a sentiment, whether you recognize it or not.  When you are born and brought up with Gaelic, it feels more real than the tartan and shortbread image of Scotland you see punted at tourists.”

The tired clichés about Scotland played out in music is something that Dunlop has been determined to avoid since her formative years.  “I remember when I was young Mum had a Gaelic women’s CD which I loved so much I played it on repeat.  And I didn’t know it but I had already started learning Gaelic phonetically even then.  My dad had a CD in the car which didn’t appeal to me.  It was cheesy old Scots songs.  To me it didn’t sound right and when I grew up I realized that it was a cliché.”

Dunlop sees language as a significant part of her identity and she likes the freedom to play with words.  As an award winning journalist, she tends to write mostly in Gaelic but has written in English for magazines.  Her latest foray in writing is a weekly column in the Scotsman as their Gaelic TV correspondent.

“I talk about shows on BBC Alba.  Half the shows are on late and at obscure times.  The repeats from the 90s are hysterical.  But there is also good quality new material.  Given there isn’t a huge budget, I think they achieve a good range of Gaelic programming.  And they have good viewing figures from those who have access to it.”

It’s an exciting time for Dunlop as a pioneer of Gaelic across music, broadcasting and education.  With the Scottish Government’s push to raise awareness and funding for Gaelic development Dunlop is optimistic about the future of Gaelic development.

“A while ago we would have been on a hiding to nothing.  But I think Gaelic is coming round again.  People get into it younger.  Since the big push 25 years or so ago for Gaelic as a medium in education, it’s been opened out to all and that has definitely boosted numbers learning it.  Once you get into it you see how it ties in with everything, place names, sayings and your history.  The music side is huge.  The fun of the culture and socializing are all part and parcel of the Gaelic idiom.”

Her strong views about the importance of Gaelic culture often lead to debates with strangers and on one occasion nearly got her thrown out of a taxi.  “The driver was basically saying Gaelic was a dead language and I was arguing my case.  I think we should focus on the positives.  Societies with a good cultural identity tend to be much stronger.  And to me, there’s room for everyone.  We don’t need to lose one language or accent to bring in or accommodate another.”

We turn to the future and I ask her if another album of new self penned Gaelic songs is on the horizon.  Despite all her success and infuriating talents Dunlop remains modest.  “We have talked about it randomly but there are so many existing songs that are full of beautiful poetry. I am not sure mine would be good enough!”

She already has a big following in Ireland, the US and Canada and Dunlop plans to do more touring this year.  The prospect of performing to diverse audiences gives her a sense of pride in her musical and cultural heritage, something she hopes to bring out in Scottish and international audiences alike.

“We always get a different reaction outside Scotland.  There are so many fans of Celtic music in places we have been to in Canada and the US where audiences tend to know so much about their ancestors and cultural history.  I think it’s our language and unique culture that makes us special.  You see it in Scots abroad who tend to be more proud of their culture and cling onto the things that they left behind.  In Scotland we could do that more.  We should suck it up!”