Listening Post 147. The starting point is harmony between Scottish Gaelic—“spoken for over a thousand years,” Julie Fowlis observes, “yet considered otherworldly on its own shores”—and her enchanting, heaven-to-earth voice. On Alterum, she approaches otherness not only as a homegrown/uncommon language but also as a series of dimensions—a mystical plane of nearby hidden realms (magical/supernatural); proximate elements that give one another definition (land/sea); and human experience. With her sixth album, Fowlis, one of the preeminent Celtic singer-musicians of her generation, has a keen sense of when to mix and when to shift. She shares the stage with two extraordinary guest vocalists, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Though mostly traditional, Alterum dips into contemporary waters; while bending toward melancholy, it veers into lively puirt à beul sets. In Dh’èirich mi moch, b’fheàrr nach d’ dh’èirich (I arose early, would that I hadn’t) Fowlis sings from the viewpoint of a water-horse, typically a frightening figure in Scottish folklore but here a victim, pining for the mortal wife who deserted him and their child (video 1). A’ phiuthrag sa phiuthar (O sister, beloved sister) features a woman trapped in a fairy mound, appealing for help (video 2). In the corporeal world, the gentle Camariñas, sung in Gaelic and Galician, salutes a sister people in Spain who retain a Celtic identity but speak a Romance language (video 3). The hypnotic Windward Away, one of the album’s two tracks in English, likens “womankind, and her heart and mind” to a tall ship on a restless ocean (video 4). Rooted in one culture, Alterum nevertheless has a universal dimension—the otherness inside. Are we not all the sum of our contradictions, what we reveal and what we hide, self-knowledge and self-deception? Along comes an angel-siren singing in an almost secret language, inviting us to look into her harmony mirror and see ourselves. (Machair Records)
Note: For a review of Julie Fowlis’ previous album, Gach Sgeul, see Listening Post 5, July 27, 2015.
Dh’èirich mi moch, b’fheàrr nach d’ dh’èirich/I arose early, would that I hadn’t:
“The white brown wicked one/bore me a son
although coldly did she nurse him
Hill ò bha hò/Hill ò bha hò.
Tha calf of my song/was beside a hillock
without fire, protection or shelter.
Hill ò bha hò/Hill ò bha hò.
Mòr, my love/return to your little son
and I’ll give you a beautiful speckled withe.
Hill ò bha hò/Hill ò bha hò.”
A’ phiuthrag sa phiuthar/O sister, beloved sister:
“Little sister/Hù rù
beloved sister/Hù rù
Do you not pity/Hò hol ill leò
My grief tonight/Hù rù
In a little hut/low and narrow
Without a roof-rope/or a wisp of thatch.
The rain of the hills/streaming into it.
I am a poor woman/sad and miserable.”
“When you pass through Camariñas/through Camariñas, singing
The girls from Camariñas/are washing in the river
Camariñas, Camariñas/you are already taking me
as a person from Camariñas/I live in the world, agonizing”
“A tall ship came from windward away, on a grey Atlantic morning
She showed no lights or colors, in the hour before the dawning
On a full rig run to the rising sun, she reached our starboard quarter
And I’ll ne’er forget the name she bore, she was called The Neptune’s Daughter.
Her sails were white as ivory, and her rigging sang like harp-strings
Her spars were black as ebony, and her wheel spun free of lashings
Her cloak of grey was the spindrift spray, as she split the waves asunder
I can see her now as she crossed our bow, while we gazed in silent wonder.
Her course was set by destiny, and no helmsman’s hand could change her
We hailed her and we signaled, “you are standing into danger”
But she left us free on the westerly, and I watched her pale sail sinking
And if only I was upon her deck, was all that I was thinking.”