Fiona Mackenzie - Elevate - The Scotsman


Elevating solo debuts to a new level


WHAT IS it with Gaels and the seabed? There is that strange, yearning poem by the late Iain Crichton Smith which, translated from the Gaelic, intones, "Without my knowing it you are at the bottom of my mind / like a visitor to the bottom of the sea"; while more recently, Kevin MacNeil, in his poem words. seahorses, writes: "I dreamt I was the seabed and you were the weight of the ocean pressing down on me..." Now the singer Fiona Mackenzie dons the emotional diving suit.

Startling, because Mackenzie is better known as a Gaelic singer (but not to be confused with at least one other singing Gael by the same name) either with her sisters Eilidh and Gillian in the vocal trio Mackenzie, or with bands such as Seelyhoo and the internationally known Anam. Here, she has joined forces with the ubiquitous producer Calum Malcolm, who has worked with everyone from RunRig to Blue Nile, to come up with an album which, one suspects, will make listeners and broadcasters sit up and take notice, well across the genre spectrum.

Launched during Celtic Connections last month, though officially released on Monday by Linn Records, Elevate consists largely of Mackenzie's own songs, in English, delivered in beguilingly plaintive tones and couched in distinctly contemporary settings, including shimmering electric guitars and some sweeping string backdrops. Musicians include Malcolm himself on electric guitars and keyboards, with acoustic guitar from Mackenzie's husband, Brian Ó hEadhra, Julian Argüelles on sax and and Dave Stewart on drums, while a multitracked Mairi Campbell provides the string section.

There are two joint compositions in Gaelic with her sister Eilidh - one of them, Hi O Hè, borne off on an up-tempo electronic tide, and Mackenzie's own beautiful setting of Sorley MacLean's heartrending Gaelic poem, An Roghainn - "The Choice", the singer's delicately ornamented vocals curling spookily over spare, reverberating piano from Malcolm.

Lewis-born, but now living in Inverness, where her Irish husband, Ó hEadhra (also a fine singer), is artistic director of the Blas Highland music festival, Mackenzie concedes that Elevate is rather different from what might have been expected. But, she points out, she has been writing songs throughout all her collaborations, and, she says, she is aiming here at a wider audience than the folk scene, although she adds that's not why most of the songs are in English. While she and her sisters grew up singing in Gaelic, it wasn't their first language. "That's something I want to work on," she says.

"If it had been another producer, it would have been an entirely different album," she says, crediting Malcolm's input "You hear his influence in a lot of the tracks. Some of them are pretty much how the demo started out - things like Bye Bye, although it has gorgeous strings on it now. It is a little bit more commercial, if you want to put it that way.

"It was fantastic working with him, although it took such a long time to do it," she laughs, noting that she's had two children since they started on the project. And while one suspects this album will indeed gain a lot of exposure beyond the folk airwaves, the arrival of children, now aged one and three, means she'll hardly be hitting the road big-time to promote it, although she hopes to do some festivals this year.

In the meantime, however, this weekend, she plays Greenock's Loreto Club tomorrow and, much nearer home, the Ironworks in Inverness on Sunday. A babysitter has been arranged.

The Scotsman
15 February 2008