Published: 03/05/2014 00:27 - Updated: 02/05/2014 18:42

Julie Fowlis's musical journey


Julie Fowlis at the Belladrum Festival.
Julie Fowlis at the Belladrum Festival.

A favourite of various BBC Radio 2 presenters, Julie Fowlis has co-presented the station’s annual Folk Awards, appeared on Later With Jools Holland, performed at golf’s Ryder Cup in Chicago in front of an estimated television audience of 500 million and even made a foray into Hollywood on the soundtrack of Disney/Pixar’s Oscar-winning animated movie Brave.

So she seems an obvious choice for the Friends of Highland Music’s spring event next Wednesday when she talks about her musical journey at the Waterside Hotel in Inverness, illustrated by music and song, of course.

First the singer and multi-instrumentalist talked to us about her musical journey, beginning with her native island of North Uist.

"I have been away from North Uist longer that I ever lived there, but it still has a huge influence on what I do on a daily basis. Because I was taught these songs by friends and teachers and people in the family, it’s not surprising that is the kind of material that I started off with, but it became important to me to stick with songs that were perhaps a little less well known or poets who should perhaps be celebrated like Sorley MacLean — I felt very strongly about including some of Sorley’s work on the new album because he was just such an amazing man.

"I grew up in a family with a great appreciation for music and in a community that was very firmly rooted in music. It was definitely all around and my childhood was probably different in a sense in that there was so much music around. As an adult with kids of my own, you do realise that not everybody has the opportunity to access music and be part of a musical community like that."

At the age of 15, Julie moved with her parents to Strathpeffer in Ross-shire where she took on other influences.

"The biggest culture shift was moving from an area where Gaelic was on a par with music to an area where Gaelic was much less used. My teenage years were spent trying to fit into a culture that maybe wasn’t too far removed from island life. But I’m glad I made that move. It made me appreciate where I came from more I might have been if I’d stayed on Uist.

"I was heavily involved in piping and dancing when I came to the Highlands and I kept that all going.

"Across the board in Uist and Strathpeffer, people would give freely of their time to teach. That’s changed a lot and people now pay to go to classes, but then it was much more part of the community with people who gave up their time to keep the young folk going."

Glasgow was the next staging post on her musical journey where  Julie studied classical music at the University of Strathclyde, gaining a BA in Applied Music

"The biggest thing was going on to study music, but at that time there wasn’t an opportunity to study traditional music at a higher level, so that’s how I got into university playing the oboe. I still play it — not often enough, but that’s down to two kids more than anything else!

"I will always be very grateful for that training. It gave me a grounding, which as a professional musician is invaluable in that I’m able to write and score music and have an understanding of the nuts and bolts I wouldn’t have had. Although it is a different genre, it’s all music at the end of day."

Before embarking on a solo career, Fowlis was a member of the predominantly female band Dochas, which won the Best Newcomer Award at the Scots Trad Music Awards in 2004

"It taught me that touring with your best pals is a great way to spend your early 20s. We are still technically together and we will get round to making another album one day, even if we are pensioners by the time we do it!"

Ireland has also had a big influence on Julie's music. Her husband Eammon Doorley is from Ireland and (together with Ross Lyon) the couple recorded the album Dual with Irish singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh exploring the Gaelic musical traditions of both nations.

"I was aware of music coming out of the Irish scene and as a young Gaelic speaker and musician, I loved those early trips to Ireland. You felt like you were meeting your cousins.

"I suppose,now being married to an Irishman, that the music is all one and the same, especially when they are connected by the language. They share such a long lineage and history. In saying that, they have their own separate identity, of course, but there is far more that connects them than makes them different. On a practical level that influences our sound with Eamonn playing bouzouki, but that has also morphed into a Scottish thing too.

"We enjoyed doing the Dual album. I guess that  was very much about our own thirst for knowledge and trying to find out about our own culture and enjoying that journey of learning about it and getting songs and tunes together."

Julie at the Inverness premiere of Brave.
Julie at the Inverness premiere of Brave.

Far away as it is from North Uist, Hollywood has also embraced Julie and her music which featured in the Disney/Pixar animated movie Brave.

"You would never have imagined, when you are starting out, one of your Gaelic songs being played during the ad break in the Oscars to millions of viewers in North America, going to a Hollywood premiere on the red carpet — all that sort of thing.

"If you wanted all that stuff, you definitely wouldn’t be playing trad music for a living! That’s not why I do what I do, but they were very interesting and enjoyable diversions along the way. They make for a good story in the bar!"

Cementing her international star status, last month Julie appeared as the cover star of world music magazine Songlines.

"You have to give yourself a label. When we played people would say we were too folky for Gaelic, too Gaelic for folk, too Scottish for British, too modern for the trad heads, but still too traditional for the modern folkies,... Oh, come on!

"The one place we did fall into was in this category of world music. I could put that label on it and feel comfortable. It is world music. It’s just an expression of a culture in a slightly modern way. Songlines to me represents that world music scene and it was a tremendous honour to be selected as the cover story because there is so much great music going on "

Which brings Julie's musical journey up to date with her most recent album Gach Sgeul (Every Story).

"For me Gach Sgeul is four years in the making. Any album is a representation of where you are at any given time and the influences you have. One of the songs I used to sing at primary school. Another is a lullaby I sang to my two girls as babies.

"The album itself has a fuller, tighter, band sound. That’s a product of years and years of touring. Perhaps people were expecting me to do something different and maybe sing in English, especially after my brush with Holywood. I love singing in English, but right now this is the material I want to record and I’m really pleased with it."

Julie Fowlis will be the guest of Friends of Highland Music at the Waterside Hotel, Inverness, from 7.30pm on Wednesday.

To book tickets, priced £10 or £5 concession. To book tickets telephone Moira Leslie on 01381 620412 or email

 Gach Sguel is out now on Machair Records.

Julie Fowlis
Julie Fowlis
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