Rachel Newton: Westward Bound
Rachel Newton is a singer and harpist well known for her interpretation of traditional folk song into both the English and Gaelic languages, as well as for writing and arranging her own music. In addition to the harp, she plays fiddle and viola and is a founder member of The Shee and The Furrow Collective and is a part of the Lost Words: Spell Songs collective, along with Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis, Kris Drever, Beth Porter, Jim Molyneux, Seckou Keita and Kerry Andrew. Rachel’s fourth solo album, West, was released in 2018 and she’s been releasing solo albums every other year: previous releases are The Shadow Side (2012), Changeling (2014) and Here’s My Heart Come Take It (2016). Nicholas John talked to Rachel about her background, how she started playing and found out just a little more about the harp.
SF/NJ: Rachel, where did you grow up and when did you begin playing the harp?
RN: I grew up in Edinburgh and attended a Gaelic-speaking school, where I was fortunate, from the age of eight, to receive free lessons in Clarsach, which is the Gaelic name for the Scottish lever harp. We were able to take the harp home at weekends. Free tuition in schools is such a great opportunity, especially with instruments that are rare and expensive to buy.
SF/NJ: What attracted you to the harp?
RN: It’s not very romantic, but it was just there at school so I went for it! It’s a good instrument to start learning though, as unlike the violin, which I started at the same time, it sounds good straightaway!
SF/NJ: Showing my ignorance here, but what is the difference between a lever harp and a pedal harp, and do you play both?
RN: The pedal harp has more strings, so has a bigger range and you can change key by moving the pedals with your feet, leaving the hands free to keep playing. With the lever harp, levers are used instead to sharpen the string by a semi-tone and change the note. Other than that they’re the same. The traditional Clarsach was wire strung and played with the fingernails, but a modern Clarsach, or lever harp, is generally played with very similar technique as a pedal harp. I don’t play the pedal harp, mainly because I don’t have a big enough car for one!
SF/NJ: Likewise: an acoustic harp and an electro-harp?
RN: I have one acoustic harp and one electro-harp. An electro-harp is like an electric guitar – it doesn’t make much of a sound unless it’s plugged in. I first started using one when I joined The Shee, as there were six of us and I wanted to be heard in a bigger band! I think playing the electro-harp has influenced the way I play the acoustic: the notes ring on more, so I have to dampen the strings a lot and this can have a good rhythmic effect. It has a great powerful bass and I really got into lyrical bass lines as opposed to block chords, which can often sound muddy on a harp, especially an electro-harp.
SF/NJ: What appeals to you about traditional music and how and where do you locate your source material?
RN: That stories and songs are so strong and timeless that they’ve lasted hundreds of years is really amazing to me. I never grow tired of them and there’s so much there to work with. I find my source material from a number of places, but I use a lot of online resources, such as Tobar an Dualchais.
SF/NJ: You are widely known as a skilled collaborator and you’ve played with many bands and with many different musicians on many different projects: what do you think are the best attributes needed to be a valuable part of such groupings of musicians?
RN: I think I’ve really benefited from playing in bands for many years before I became a solo artist. It gave me valuable experience that has much informed my collaborative work. It’s important in a group environment to remember that sometimes less is more, to know when to push through an idea and when to let it go and, most of all, to listen. I love collaborating and writing and performing with a really diverse mixture of artists. My next solo project is hopefully going to see me working with people from other artistic disciplines and I’m very excited to get started.
SF/NJ: Speaking of which, tell us about your work in the theatre and with poetry and storytelling.
RN: I’ve learned a huge amount from working in theatre and storytelling over the years. As much as I love the music gig format, it’s so refreshing to work in alternative ways and theatre work is a great challenge. I’ve been in several theatre shows and also worked as a musical director. Thinking about the ways in which music can contribute in theatre or poetry and observing how actors and storytellers approach their craft all really informs my own work as a performer. I think I like this kind of work partly because of my love for stories and narrative, which stems from being immersed in traditional ballads from a young age. The harp is such a versatile instrument; you can play chords, melody, bass lines and it sits well with spoken word without being too obtrusive.
SF/NJ: West is a beautiful album, the first truly solo record you’ve ever made, just your harp and your voice. Tell us more about how you recorded the album and what inspired it?
RN: I spent my holidays up in the North-west Highlands, in Wester Ross where my mother’s from and where much of that side of the family live. My great-grandfather was nicknamed ‘West’ because he lived on the west side of Achnahaird. There were a lot of A. Macleod’s there, so they’d give everyone a nickname so they could differentiate who was who!
SF/NJ: You wanted listeners to get a real sense of the landscape of Wester Ross: how did you achieve that in the recording?
RN: I wanted to record somewhere that had a real sense of place and meaning to me and my grandparents’ old croft house in Achnahaird was the perfect location. There’s been a lot of music played in that house and recording there was a huge inspiration. But I think it was quite a challenge for Mattie Foulds (who has recorded all my albums over the years) to make it work and sound like it does. But he has some great equipment and we borrowed a lovely vocal mic from Neil MacColl. A lot of the music was improvised and I included short instrumental pieces between the longer tracks. Mattie suggested that I do something along the lines of what I often do at concerts, so we’d go for a walk on the beach or into the mountains and then I would just start playing and hope that what I’d just experienced would come out in the notes.
SF/NJ: I have to ask you about recording Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ – that’s a brave choice of cover version!
RN: I’ve been playing it at gigs for a bit. One of my uncles, who lives on the island, loves it and he passed by the house and said ‘I hope you’re doing “Jolene” on the album’, so I thought ‘why not?’ and there it is!
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