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Scottish singer Julie Fowlis brings Gaelic tradition into the pop world 

The story of Scottish singer Julie Fowlis neither begins nor ends with that of Angus Alick MacAulay. But, as is the case with all traditional music, to truly understand the tale, one has to dive into the river mid-stream.

Returning from World War I, to the tiny island of North Uist, MacAulay expected more than a slap on the back from the British army: He and other islanders fought less for country than for promises of land. An outcropping of peat and rock in Scotland's westernmost archipelago, to this day, North Uist's thousand-odd inhabitants speak Scots Gaelic as first language. When MacAulay's crew returned to find it still inhabited by the landlord, they did what any self-respecting Scotsman would do: stormed the crofts of Paiblesgarry.

Growing up in North Uist, 29-year-old singer Julie Fowlis heard such tales from her family and neighbors right alongside pop music and television. On Cuilidh, her 2007 album just released in America, Fowlis sings "Oran Nan Raiders," a tribute to the Paiblesgarry men in the original Gaelic, as are all the album's songs.

"I learned it from Alick MacAulay," the Raider's son, says Fowlis. "I learned that song in the house, on the croft that [Alick's father] fought for. It's very real, very close to home, and to people in the local area, it's very meaningful; they're proud that I can take that [around the world]."

That Fowlis, the elfin beauty with a voice alternating between piper's staccatos and flautist's glissandos, should spend her days in a fire-lit croft house, learning songs in an all-but-departed language, is a testament to her passion for the music. That she should do it on a pop-music label operated by indie-rock stalwarts Teenage Fanclub -- garnering the adoration of both folkies and BBC DJs, Ricky Gervais and Björk -- is nothing less than remarkable. But she's not alone: With the "new weird folk" movement's inherent tip-of-the-hat to tradition has come a new movement acknowledging the beleaguered traditions of British music, savoring them and representing them outside the folk-music ghetto.

No stranger to the folk world, Fowlis became well-known to Scottish-folk fans worldwide with Dòchas, a group of young "highlands and islands"-born musicians. But it's as a solo singer, and particularly with Cuilidh, that Fowlis has established herself as the voice of a generation of new traditionalists. Fowlis, however, sees any "movement" as one on the part of audiences, not musicians.

"There used to be this image of the folk musician," says Fowlis -- "a big beard, carrying a banjo, wearing a thick jumper." But now, "In Scotland, there's an incredible wealth of young musicians coming through at a high level of musicianship. People talk about a new folk revival, but we were always doing this -- it's just nobody noticed before."

That's certainly changing -- and it's not just Julie Fowlis they're noticing. Just over Hadrian's Wall, English folk group Rachel Unthank & the Winterset has launched a subtle assault on the pop world, rounding up a Mercury Prize nomination and sold-out London gigs with their gothic music-hall take on traditional Northeastern English folk songs. And this new folk/pop bridge is a two-way street: U.K. traditionalists such as Eliza Carthy and even the literally ancient Copper Family have begun "experimenting" with traditional song in more contemporary settings.

As Fowlis is quick to point out, there has long been an interest in traditional music from a pop perspective. Early on, the likes of Martin Carthy and even Bob Copper were scouring the countryside for an untainted line of orally transmitted music, but it sometimes seems the actual interest in digging for songs disappeared by the 1960s. At that point, the common theme seemed to be that radio and television had rendered these searches moot. The power of Fowlis, Unthank and others is their belief in the strength of folk's song line, and the radical idea that this music can stay fresh and new, because -- not in spite -- of the global, ubiquitous nature of today's sonic marketplace.

Fowlis acknowledges that it's not easy to find places where the music still flows from person to person, rather than CD to studio, but it does happen. "There are still pockets -- in Scotland, certainly, but in England as well. It's not the norm anymore, but it's out there."

"[When] I started touring, people were so surprised that I learned songs from real people and from my family instead of tapes and CDs," says Fowlis. "But that's the way I thought everyone learned songs. I'm not trying to paint a romantic picture -- we all equally listened to pop, and knew everything in the charts. But the Gaelic language and music sat alongside those things, and I never thought much about it."

 

Julie Fowlis with Callan. 7 p.m. Tue., Sept. 30 (doors at 6 p.m.). Club Café, 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. $20. 412-431-4950 or www.clubcafelive.com

click to enlarge Bliadhna Julie: Julie Fowlis
  • Bliadhna Julie: Julie Fowlis

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