Jolene Cargill caught up with Joy Dunlop (pictured) to have a chat about Celtic Connections, her new album and recruiting for MI5!
Joy Dunlop has many strings to her bow.  The Scottish singer is in demand as a teacher, translator, speaker and presenter. 

Currently filming a series on Scottish weddings for BBC Alba, Dunlop jokes that she will not be short of a gig in future. “If I ever need an alternative career maybe I could become a wedding coordinator!”

The first time I interviewed Dunlop I confessed straight off that I didn’t feel qualified to interview a multi-award winning Gaelic singer, step dancer and rising star.  The second time round it’s no different.  I still don’t speak a word of Gaelic and Dunlop towers a good few inches above me.
Dunlop finds her height can be an amusing ice breaker; she is just over least 6ft tall.  She chose the opening song for her new album Reflections because the title made her laugh. “The title was ‘If I marry at all, I won’t wed a tall girl’.  I just thought it was so funny and couldn’t resist putting it on the album!”

Faileasan ‘Reflections’ is an enchanting concept album.  It harks back to a rich musical repertoire, mostly undiscovered outside Dunlop’s native rural Argyll.  The collection of lesser known songs in the album are a kind of love letter to the West Highlands; the picturesque villages; the strong community spirit and the Gaelic music and Ceilidh culture.

After an intense period of production Dunlop is taking time out this week to perform at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow.  A seasoned international performer, Dunlop will be in her element at the major annual music festival and is thrilled to be on the line up with former Runrig frontman Donnie Munro.

This year marks twenty years of the festival with 18 days of concerts, ceilidhs, talks, art exhibitions, workshops, and free events to get the City on its feet with toe tapping traditional folk tunes, roots and world music.  “There is some truly amazing music at Celtic Connections and it’s right on our doorstep!”

It’s a fitting time for Dunlop to celebrate Celtic music and its connection to cultures around the world.  With her new album Reflections, Dunlop has embarked on a journey to pay tribute to her native rural Argyll and its distinctive musical sound, described on the album sleeve as West Coast flavour.

Her debut CD Dùsgadh (Awakening) was a hard act to follow.  It was named ‘Roots Recording of the Year’ at the Scots New Music Awards and was Album of the Month in The Scots Magazine.  It also received a four star review in the Scotsman and won the coveted Fatea ‘Tradition Award. 

“I think everyone can relate to strong sense of home wherever their home is.  Every time I go home, it feels like I never left.”

Dunlop offers something completely different with Reflections.  As a concept album about a place it’s a departure from the universal themes often explored in concept albums however, the album goes right to the heart of traditional folk music.

“It was actually during a tour of Argyll singing a collection of local songs that the idea for the concept album was born.  We were singing this collection of local songs and one of the venues asked if we had CDs.  I hadn’t thought of that! But it made perfect sense.  We were reaching people through the concerts and had all this material.”

To do justice to Argyll’s unique cultural standing Dunlop sourced every part of the album from the area, from the musicians to the photography on the CD.

“We have a wealth of talent with musicians like Karen Matheson and Donald Shaw.  I just got in touch and asked them, any chance?  I was delighted when they said yes straight away.  There’s a real mix on the album of professional singers and locals, including the all male choir that I conduct.”

Dunlop even got her family involved.  She asked her Dad, a retired electrician, to work on the album sleeve photography. “We told him we needed him to light up a Forest at night.  Off he went and worked with the photographer.  I think he had fun prancing about with cables out in the woods!”

The result is an evocative album, redolent with melodies and stirring harmonies.  Dunlop’s vocals effortlessly cast a spell while the musical arrangements bring a fresh, modern quality to the traditional songs.  And that reimagining is captured visually on the sumptuous album cover; Dunlop is pictured at night in front of a backlit Forest resplendent in a fairytale-like silver dress.

At the pre-launch tour of Reflections in Mull, Oban and Dunoon the audience response was through the roof.  “I think locals really understand the ideas behind it.  Folk were singing along.  It totally worked and it felt right.  People felt they were part of something special.  It just seemed to click for them.”

Reflections’ epitomises everything folk; it takes the listener on a journey through lullabies and darker romantic ballads to traditional mouth music.

“Mouth music is often funny, light hearted or has a secret meaning.  And it’s usually quite upbeat, so you can dance to it.  I love the fact that we have a strong Cèilidh tradition.  People know the songs and if you start singing, will join in on the choruses.  I actually appreciate that so much more after visiting areas, Gaelic ones included, that don’t do this.”

Living in the West end of Glasgow, Dunlop loves the vibrancy of City life.  At the same time, she has a growing appreciation for the strong sense of community at home.  And that’s an integral part of what she celebrates on the album.

“People look out for each other.  Me and my family joke about it.  I have a Bush Telegraph thing going on.  Well, I don’t know, but let me just ask my Auntie Betty.”

“Usually if folk ask ‘where do you live’ what they are asking is ‘where are you from?’  In Gaelic it translates as ‘who are you from?’  Folk want to know who your family is and there’s a respect for your lineage.  I always say Connel would be a great place to recruit for MI5.  It is funny!  And it’s definitely something I appreciate the older I get.”

Sourcing the material for the album gave Dunlop the freedom to explore in new ways how this vast musical heritage captured that precious sense of community.  And it’s clear from the thoughtful composition that ‘Reflections’ has been a deeply personal project.

“I hate using the word organic because it can be a bit over used but that’s what it was.  In a way it’s an odd concept to make an album about a place but it just felt very natural to me to pay tribute to the place I grew up and all the music I have always loved.”

Dunlop admits that at first she thought a concept album about a place could be “a bit odd”.  And with an all Gaelic track listing it would be easy to argue that Reflections misses an opportunity to reach a wider audience by being too exclusive.  But Dunlop hopes the local aspect of the album is not a barrier. “Its music you can enjoy wherever you are from.  The local aspect is an added bonus.”

“I think everyone can relate to strong sense of home wherever their home is.  Every time I go home, it feels like I never left.”

Making an album about her home gave Dunlop a chance to tap into a childhood that was spent roaming around outside, exploring the hills and inventing games to play.  But it also marks a deepening lifelong love affair with Gaelic music and culture.

“I was raking about in the archives at the School of Gaelic Studies for days.  And I found so many songs I recognised from when I was young.  There I was in a wee room singing away to myself!”

It was in Argyll that Dunlop first fell in love with Gaelic.  As a pioneer of the language across broadcasting and education Dunlop is at the forefront of Gaelic development and is proud to be a heart-on-her sleeve champion for Gaelic music as a way of bringing people closer to native Scottish culture.

Now a popular international performer with a big following in Ireland, the US and Canada Dunlop is used to performing to diverse audiences – and she is always heartened to perform for those who don’t speak Gaelic.

“The music can be enjoyed in itself.  I find people are just drawn to the music.  And it can also be a way into the language.  I know loads of folk who just started out playing the fiddle and ended up wanting to learn Gaelic.  The music and the language are all wrapped up.  I think that’s ultimately very special.”

Just for fun Dunlop teaches and sings with choirs around Argyll including the all male choir who feature on Reflections.  While working on Reflections she worked with the choir to produce their debut album to celebrate their tenth anniversary.  As conductor for the choir Dunlop is known as the ‘boss lady.’

“Somehow I ended up singing on the CD too! It’s all live material of mostly choral songs.  It was fun and we worked hard on it.  I ended up proof reading Gaelic at 3 in the morning.”

 After Celtic Connections and a performance at Coda music shop in Edinburgh, Dunlop will just about have time to catch her breath before she heads to the North American Folk Alliance Showcase in Toronto at the end of February.  But touring doesn’t mean a creative hiatus.

“I like the idea of a cross collaboration between Gaelic and another style of music.  Writing songs for the last album has given me a taste for it.  I have ideas just sitting there in the back! I will just let them brew for a bit!”

Find out more about Joy –

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