The National; Birl-esque, Celtic Connections and our World tour!

THEY are two of Scotland’s most prominent traditional musicians, they’ve been a couple for 18 years, they once played in a band together, and yet they had, up until recently, never recorded any music together as a duet.

For Ross Martin (Daimh) and Eilidh Shaw (The Poozies), the timing had never been quite been right. But now, with the release of their debut album together – Birl-esque – that has all changed.

A beautifully nuanced collection of traditional tunes from the Lochaber area where the couple live, coupled with some stunning and unexpected cover versions, such as the Elvis Waltzes and a version of Dancing in the Dark that will have the hairs on your arms standing up, Birl-esque has been a long time in the making.

Why now, though?

“We were both part of a band called Harem Scarem for 10 years or so,” guitarist Martin explains.

“We made three albums together and did a lot of touring so we had plenty of opportunity to vent our musical ideas during that time.

“The band had a mini tour around Berlin organised but it became apparent as the time grew near that the dates were going to clash with every member of the band, apart from myself and Eilidh, giving birth.

“We valiantly offered to do the tour ourselves rather than cancel – mostly out of guilt as we had cancelled the same tour the previous year because Eilidh was having a baby – and that was how we made the jump into playing as a duo.

“Another 10 years of talk finally resulted in us recording an album.”

However, Shaw, one of Scotland’s most mesmerising fiddlers, recalls that the pair had not stopped playing music together,

“Since moving back to the Highlands we’d always played a lot of ceilidhs together and it was great when our kids got to an age where they didn’t mind being dragged along to stuff and could happily take care of themselves while we did our job.

“They’d come to the ceilidhs and have a few dances then curl up on the stage for a sleep when they got tired.

“We realised if they could handle a ceilidh on Eigg they could probably handle a world tour.”

Of course, for busy musicians with two children – and two bands – to look after, not to mention various teaching commitments, time is the real issue.

And it took an ingenious ruse to make the album happen.

“It was difficult to pin down any time to plan or organise it so in the end we did everything backwards, so that there was no way out,” says Shaw.

“We organised the tour that would coincide with the release of the album, then we booked the studio, then we applied to Creative Scotland for some funding to help pay for the studio, then we realised we’d better decide what we were going to play.

“Luckily going to the studio involved a 40-minute ferry trip to Skye so that gave us some borrowed time each day.”

There are a couple of tunes on the album penned by Aonghas Grant, the famous left-handed fiddle player of Lochaber – to give him his full name – and Shaw’s teacher. It is clear he has been a huge influence on her. His music sits alongside that of sometime collaborator Damian Helliwell and traditional marches and reels. And, of course, Elvis and Bruce Springsteen.

How did that come about?

“When our first child was born someone gave us a lovely present of a CD called ‘Elvis for Babies’,” says Shaw. “It was all his songs but played on xylophones and triangles.

“I know it sounds horrific but it was actually very nice and inspired me to play them in a ‘last waltz at the ceilidh’ kind of style.

And Springsteen?

“Ross has always been really into Bruce Springsteen so I just learnt that song to impress him, but I can’t sing that fast,” adds Shaw.

“We played around with it slowed down over a few drams in the house one night and it’s as much a surprise to me as anyone that it’s now on the album!”

The pair celebrated the release of the album with a short set of dates, which Martin explains is just the first leg in a world tour.

“We did 11 gigs that covered all four corners of the known world – from Eyemouth to Orkney and Elgin to Ullapool,” Martin says.

“We are currently on a world tour, it’s just broken up into different stages. The first was of course the Scottish tour we just did, the next leg is scheduled for the kids’ Easter Holidays and kicks off in Las Vegas in April and then takes in Arizona and Utah.

“Then the plan is some European stuff in the summer and possibly Australia at the very end of the year.

“We have done quite a few one-off gigs as a duo over the last few years but we never had a run before, so it was really good to be able to develop material and presentation.

“The latter was particularly beneficial as we are both used to playing with larger groups so having to get comfortable carrying the show with only two people was more of a challenge.”

Before that, however, there is the small matter of the world’s largest winter music festival.

Celtic Connections has been at the heart of Scotland’s folk revival, as well as being the one highlight in an otherwise miserable post-festive month.

BOTH Shaw and Martin are preparing for a busy period as the festival kicks off, with a sold-out Birl-esque gig on January 20, supporting the Friel Sisters at St Andrews in the Square.

Martin will be performing with Maeve Mackinnon at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on February 4, ahead of the release of her new album Stri, which features a plethora of special guests.

It is one of the great traditions of Celtic Connections that musicians get the chance to play with so many of their contemporaries – which Martin clearly enjoys.

“I love it,” he says. “I learn so much when I play with musicians that operate at the level these guys do. There were a few years there where I had a lot of work as a session musician. I’d get sent a bunch of mp3s and some flight details then learn the songs, get on the plane and hit the gig! It was a massive learning curve and hugely satisfying.

“I also have a couple of concerts with [piper] Finlay MacDonald.

“It’s always great to play with Finlay, he has a great attitude to life and music and his bagpipe chat is almost as good as his actual playing.”

And then there’s the wee matter of a rather special Daimh gig on January 28 to celebrate the anniversary of the Eigg buyout.

It’s a subject close to Arisaig-native Martin’s heart and one he’s particularly looking forward to.

“Last year saw 20 years of community ownership of the Isle of Eigg which was celebrated with the now traditional Eigg ceilidh, though this time it involved bands that had at least one resident of the island.

“The diversity was amazing – an island of around 100 folk can sustain the vital elements of Daimh, Pictish Trail, Ja Math Tha ceilidh band and the thrash metal behemoth that is The Massacre Cave. I thought this was a beautiful modern-day contrast to the very traditional island nights Celtic Connections has featured in the past.”

FOR Shaw, meanwhile, much of her time has been filled with preparations for the Grit Orchestra’s celebration of Martyn Bennett’s Bothy Culture at the SSE Hydro.

It will be an emotional evening for her.

“In 1997 Martyn and I both played at the Edinburgh Scots Fiddle Festival,” Shaw says. “It was just a few days before I set off travelling to New Zealand and the newly released recording of Bothy Culture was one of the few things I took with me.

“I remember playing it to practically everyone I met over there and it has been part of my playlist on tours and at home ever since.

“It was overwhelming to be asked but it’s been a real pleasure learning to play these tunes that were already implanted in my brain.”

And after the Grit Orchestra, Shaw will then be getting back to the day job with The Poozies at the Strathclyde Suite in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on February 1.

“We recorded a new album just before Christmas in Castlesound studio in Edinburgh with our old Harem Scarem bandmate Inge Thomson in the producer’s chair,” says Shaw.

“In an effort to have it ready in time for the Celtic Connections gig we’re launching a presale campaign this week. As well as the album on CD or vinyl there will be some other interesting and unexpected packages up for grabs…

“I can’t say too much at the moment as I haven’t told the others yet what they’ll be selling! But all will be revealed on Thursday, January 11.”

And after that can we expect the pair to somehow find the time to release a follow-up to Birl-esque?

“Definitely,” says Shaw. “It makes so much sense to us to have this project on the go. We can both carry on playing with our regular bands and working with other musicians but we’ve only really scratched the surface with this.

“Once we have the kids doing the roadying, driving, selling the CDs and tour managing we’ll be set up!”

Birl-esque is available now on Rhubana Records

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