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Richmond Folk Festival Artist Profile: Julie Fowlis

Julie Fowlis
Musician Julie Fowlis sings and plays Scottish Gaelic music. (Photo: Craig MacKay/Julie Fowlis)

Fowlis grew up on a rugged island in the Outer Hebrides, more specifically in North Uist. Her family history dates back over 700 years. It’s that timeline of Gaelic culture and language that inspires her.

“I guess it’s in the blood and it’s in the bones. The songs in the Gaelic language are very much a part and package of that.”

You can hear that tradition in the song ‘I arose early on a misty morning.’ Fowlis says she stumbled across a recording of the song while searching a website dedicated to preserving Gaelic recordings. 

It tells the story of a women who didn’t get to marry her first love. Fowlis sings:  “I would swear it even if a knife were held to me/that it was to you I gave my first love.”

 “If there’s a tragedy to be shared, it’s usually done exceptionally well in the Gaelic language.”

Scottish Gaelic falls under the large canopy of Celtic music and language. It’s sort of a catch-all for anything Irish or Scottish. The indigenous Scottish language spread from Ireland back in the 7th Century. And according to a 2011 Scottish Census, just over one-percent of Scottish people still speak it. 

“I was lucky enough to grow up in a place where the Gaelic music to me was as relevant and as alive and current as everything else I was hearing.”

Fowlis carries the weight of Scottish history, which includes stories from her childhood and poems from ancient authors and weaves them into a tale of the supernatural.

“Primarily the Gaelic otherworld. Which is a place of the supernatural, a place of legends and lore. Great storytelling and you know mystical creatures that come into our tradition.”

One of those mystical creatures is the Seal. Fowlis says they’re said to be the sons and daughters of Scandanavian royalty. But these children were cursed, then banished to the ocean, where they turned into seals, never to take human form again, except for special feast days during a full moon.

“Where they would come up on the shore, at the light of a full moon and they would shed their skins and dance upon the shore for a few short hours before the sun rose and they were drawn back again to the water.”

Another Gaelic singing tradition that Fowlis specializes in is called Mouth Music. Think of them as dance songs, full of rhythm. Many Mouth songs started as instrumental pieces that were later given lyrics.

“So syllables, words, sentences were chosen primarily on their rhythm and sound rather than their meaning.”

Fowlis admits that the subject matter in these songs can be a little weird.

“What happens is that these songs can be about, you know, they can be about manure, or cows, or porridge or all sorts of things. But it’s all about the sound, it’s all about the lift and all about the energy.”

American audiences may remember Fowlis’s singing from the 2012 animated movie Brave. Or they may have heard her singing with Chris Thile on “Live from Here,” when they played Carnegie Hall. She says she’s looking forward to playing for the first time at the Richmond Folk Festival. 

“We like to draw everybody in, and give them a little taste of Gaelic culture, of the Highlands and islands of Scotland.”

To see when Fowlis plays at the Richmond Folk Festival, go to Richmond Folk Festival-dot-org.

Ian Stewart/VPM Music 

Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.
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