– ‘Hello folk radio DJ‘. With this email,
introduced herself to our station. And with this email she also sent us a pile of music files. A pile that has become bigger and bigger over time, as Iona releases new music on Spotify on a semi-regular basis. Four singles in 2021, three in 2020, a six-song EP in 2019. This lady has been busy. The initial idea was that I would start the story with Iona Fyfe’s first full-length album Away From My Window, released in 2018, and then continue from there. But once I started listening to Away From My Window there was so much I wanted to say about it that I had to decide otherwise. I’ll come back to the 2019 EP Dark Turn Of Mind, the 2015 debut EP The First Sangs, the 2016 EP East and the 2020/2021 singles in other reviews somewhere in the near future. (Which doesn’t mean you can’t listen to those albums and singles beforehand. I highly advise it, actually!!)
What do we know about this talented singer whose albums impressed me so much? If you look Iona up on Wikipedia, the accolades are so numerous that they will be tumbling from your screen: semi-finalist of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award in 2016; finalist of the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician Award in 2017 and 2021; Scots Singer o the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards in 2018; Young Scots Speaker o the Year in 2019 at the inaugural Scots Language Awards, Scots Performer o the Year in 2020, and Scots Speaker o the Year in 2021.
Quite a pile of accolades for someone who just turned 24!
So who is Iona Fyfe? She is a Scottish folk singer-songwriter from Huntly, Aberdeenshire. As a child, she found a love for poems in the Doric dialect (the popular name for the dialect spoken in the mid-northern region of Scotland), a love that she has kept till the present day. Attending singarounds, ceilidhs, and competitions from the age of five, Iona became an accomplished singer with a huge love for the Scottish folk repertoire. It was in those days that she met many revivalist singers such as
who influenced her ballad and bothy ballad style.
(Bothy ballads are songs sung by farm labourers in the northeast region of Scotland. In order to entertain themselves and the other members of the town, the young men of the bothy would hold musical evenings, the bothy nichts, with the music provided by their own impromptu band, the bothy band. A tragic song might be followed by a joke or a story, then a humorous song. Only rarely would a servant girl be present at these events, and musical instruments were also rare according to Wikipedia.)
Iona Fyfe’s love for Scottish traditional music and the Scottish language only grew while she was studying at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, so it may not come as a surprise that she graduated with a first-class honours degree in Traditional Music and holds an FLCM from London College of Music (a Fellowship of the London College of Music.)
To make her biography even more impressive, Iona Fyfe is also an active voice in the bid to get official recognition of the Scottish language, as well as raising a voice against sexual harassment. She champions equality within the music industry as well as fair pay for music streaming, and she is a member of the Scottish and Northern Irish brand of the musicians union.
You almost wonder how Iona managed to find the time to record any album at all, but she did. In 2015 she released her first EP called The First Sangs. A mini-album filled with 4 lovely folk ballads, partly recorded live. This EP was followed by a second mini-CD called East which was released in 2016. Away From My Window, Iona’s first full-length album, came out in 2018, and what a gem it is
Guise Of Tough is the song that starts this album, which is mostly filled with beautiful ballads. Guise of Tough itself is a more upbeat bothy song. To give you some advice straight away: don’t listen to this as background music! Get your headphones out. There is so much hidden in all these songs, the music is so well arranged and the musicians so good that it would be a shame if you missed something. Of course, Iona’s voice is the main feature of this album, but I want to focus on the instrumentalists first, as they can go unnoticed so easily, yet are so delightfully good. Just notice the notes of the acoustic guitar, the fiddle and the mandolin doing their wee ol’ dance around Iona’s crystal-clear voice. The beauty of the musical arrangement becomes even more apparent in the solo break. Jani Lang on fiddle takes the lead here, but there is so much happening throughout the whole song that it truly feels like a spring day caught in music.
Glenlogie is the first of many ballads that fill up this lovely CD. Again the guitar notes dance with Iona’s beautiful voice. The years of singing in competitions have given Iona an immaculate technique. Her voice has a natural beauty to it. It can be strong and powerful when needed but has an angelic side as well. In a way, Iona’s delicate emotional, yet strong style of singing reminds me ever so slightly of
Back Of The Moon
days. Not that weird, as they also recorded their own version of this traditional song. Both versions are one of a kind, but share a delicate tenderness. Both feel like they are gently caressing your ears. Both are clear favorites of mine.
With the third song Banks Of Inverurie, we leave the feel of spring in the music and enter the summer. Iona sings this a bit lower and I can’t help but notice how much depth her voice has gained since her debut EP. Trust me, her vocal abilities on the debut were already impressive, Iona just got even better over the years. I can’t help but close my eyes, stop typing and listen, drawn in by her song. And with those closed eyes I enjoy the soft repeated chords of the piano, suddenly appearing on the right side of my headphones, even more. (I warned you you should wear those, didn’t I?). As I said earlier, the arrangements on this album are just amazing. I am loving every note I hear. Although most of the songs are ‘old’ traditionals, steeped in history, the music sounds fresh and vibrant. Most likely because Iona gathered a talented group of young folk musicians around her, and you hear their youthful energy sparkle in every note they play.
The Swan Swims is the second more up-tempo singalong on Away From My Window. Again the band places that ‘hidden’ piano in my right ear. I can’t help but get a huge grin on my face every time I hear that. And that grin keeps getting bigger as the song progresses. I love the harmonies, the way the song develops – from a tender ‘duet’ between Tim Edey’s acoustic guitar and Iona’s crystal-clear voice – to a grand singalong. The border pipes kicking in after three minutes are just the icing on this Scottish folk cake.
Title track Away From My Window is the second change in feel. The song is darker, even feels slightly eerie with the ‘haunting’ strokes on the violin and the spoken text starting the song up. The lyrics of Away From My Window are pure poetry, as are most of the lyrics on this album. The words are full of pain and grief, but never say why. Every sad note leaves plenty of room for your own interpretation. Pure poetry in music. A stunning song.
I have to mention the liner notes at this point. One of the first things you will see is a list of sources where all these ballads came from. Something you normally see in a scientific article, but not in a booklet of a CD. It says a lot about the sense of history that Iona has. The love of her Scottish musical heritage and the Scottish language as well. As does the fact that Iona asked for a segment of Lizzie Higgings’ original 1969 recording of Boony Udny to open her interpretation of the song.
Most of the songs on Away From My Window are traditionals. Take Me Out Drinking is the first of the more modern songs. A lovely ballad, originally called When These Shoes Were New, was written and recorded by
in 1980. Iona shows a different side of her music in this song. Although still folk, it leans slightly more towards Americana; a style that fits her just as well as the more traditional folksongs or bothy ballads. Come to think of it. At no point did I even consider comparing her voice to that of another singer. It says a lot about the vocal talent that Iona is.
And So We Must Rest is a beautiful lullaby, written by Aidan Moffat for his young son. It is a warm caress put to music. Its chorus is a lovely duet between Iona and Cameron Nixon, who does all of the backing vocals on this album and I’m loving the synergy between these two here. This lullaby leaves me feeling all happy, open and warm, the perfect way to set me up for the full impact of Banks Of The Tigris.Banks of the Tigris is the only song on this album from Iona’s own hand, but what a strong song it is. This is what Iona herself wrote about it: ‘- Most of the headlines during my teenage years centred around the conflict in Syria and the Middle East… …I wrote this whilst feeling profoundly emotional after reading an article.‘
The contrast between the feeling of safety of And So We Must Rest and the haunting reality of Banks Of The Tigris is poignant. And it works. The message comes across loud and strong. With a hair-raising power equal to classic protest songs like
Goodnight Saigon or
Christina Stürmer’s Mama Ana Ahabak. I applaud you, Iona, for choosing to tell this story as well. I also applaud the arrangements on it:
The Eastern-like strings, drifting in and out of the song in the most eerie, breathtaking way.
The constant ‘dropping of spaces’ in the music with Iona’s voice cutting through, poignant, piercing.
The Middle Eastern male vocals and -instruments sliding in and out, disturbing, beautiful.
The contrast between Iona’s high, crystal-clear vocals and the dark ‘threatening’ drone always there in the background.
And that last eerie note, raising every single hair on my body! Well done Iona and Jani Lang on those arrangements. They are breathtaking!
Banks Of The Tigris could have easily been an impressive ending to this stunning CD, but Iona decided otherwise. It feels like she wanted to leave us with a cheerful note, not a sad one, so we get one last song as an encore.
So Pit Gair ends this album as it started. With a lovely up-tempo dance song. A cheerful end to a stunning album. Everybody that has a warm heart for folk music needs to have this CD. There are no ifs or buts about it. This is a must-have CD. And I’m so looking forward to introducing more of this talented lady’s music in the near future. But for now, enjoy Away From My Window. It is well worth it!
Cover art: Louise Bichan
pictures: Elly Lucas