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Story of a Celtic songbird

For someone who regards singing as something she does in between looking after her three young sons, Kathleen MacInnes doesn't half get around the world's stages.

POPULAR CHOICE: Though Kathleen MacInnes is a fan of old-style Gaelic music she is a big hit with modern audiences.
POPULAR CHOICE: Though Kathleen MacInnes is a fan of old-style Gaelic music she is a big hit with modern audiences.

In recent months, the Gaelic singer with the distinctive, peat-smoked voice has sung in Chicago, Cape Breton and Jordan, as well as keeping up a busy schedule of festival and concert appearances closer to home. And it looks like she's only going to get busier.

As she waits to see if her second album, Cille Bhride, wins her the Album of the Year title at the upcoming Scots Trad Music Awards and her gorgeous setting of Sneach air Druim Uachdar wins the Traditional Track of the Year title at the BBC Folk Awards, MacInnes has a further two recordings planned: an album of Gaelic hymns with fellow Gael Cathy Ann MacPhee and her Jordan project with Arabic music specialist Tareq al Naseer. She also features in Highland folk band Daimh's imminent tour, has a forthcoming bluegrass adventure with Cahalen Morrison, the Seattle-based Old Timey multi-instrumentalist with Isle of Lewis roots, and will be on BBC Alba viewers' screens on Hogmanay.

"It's funny because I was quite old when I started singing," says the South Uist native who had attained the venerable age of 29 when she branched out on this late-flowering career. "I sang at school and although it was a quiet place to grow up, there were usually ceilidhs going on back home, where there was music, mostly bagpipes and accordions, but it never really occurred to me to become a singer."

Growing up in the Hebrides in the 1970s, Gaelic was her first language. There were, she recalls, attempts to "teach it out of us," the intention being to help these children better themselves in the wider world. MacInnes arrived to work at the BBC in Glasgow just as Gaelic television was beginning and her native tongue earned her acting roles – she's appeared in Gaelic soap Machair and comedy shows including Ran Dan and PC Alasdair Stewart – and jobs as a presenter. It was while she was presenting the music programme Tacsi that MacInnes met Donald Shaw, the Capercaillie founder and now Celtic Connections' artistic director, who was the programme's musical director. Shaw encouraged her to sing and with her interest in the older Gaelic singers, including Nan MacKinnon of Vatersay, whose voice was saved for posterity by the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, MacInnes developed a singing style that suggests an old soul occupying a young singer's body.

"I was always drawn to the storytelling style of Gaelic singing, people like Nan MacKinnon and Chrissie Mary MacDonald," she says. "If you listen to Nan MacKinnon, just her speaking voice is special and when she sings you can hear that she's never heard jazz or rock'n'roll; it's an ancient music she's singing."

Old style or not, MacInnes's singing has taken a trick with modern audiences. Her first album, Og-mhadainn shamhraidh, won her the Gaelic Singer of the Year title at the Scots Trad Music Awards in 2006 and she was a popular participant in the Flower of the West tribute to Calum and Ruaraidh MacDonald, the songwriting team behind Gaelic rockers Runrig. It's the ancient music connection, she believes, that gained her an appearance in Ridley Scott's Robin Hood in 2010 and gave her a natural link with Jordanian Tareq Al Naseer when they worked together in the summer.

She says: "Tareq Al Naseer's musicians got right into the first song I sang and I'm sure it was a quality they recognised that's in their own music. When you go abroad you find Gaelic music regarded as world music. People are receptive to it and value it. I'm not saying Scottish people aren't receptive to it but maybe if we treated Gaelic as part of the world music scene, it would be more valued."

Gaelic music also suffers from an image of being downbeat and MacInnes acknowledges "we Gaels love misery". The first song on Cille Bhride, Teanga Binn mo Mháthair, was chosen for its positiveness and anyone who has been at one of MacInnes's gigs will know she is no miserablist. In fact, she's getting a reputation for her cheek. "When I first started singing, I'd just go onstage and sing because it was scary," she says. "When you're acting, you become used to putting on a costume and acting a part but when you're singing there's just you, and you feel exposed. It took me a while but I began to feel at ease and now I enjoy having some craic with an audience. Some audiences, like the ones on Jura and Colonsay, bring out the best – or worst – in me. I hope I don't get too outrageous but a lot of the songs I sing are quite sad, so it's good to have a laugh."

Kathleen MacInnes appears with the Halton Quartet at the Tolbooth, Stirling, tonight. Rob Adams talks to Simon Thoumire about the Scots Trad Music Awards in tomorrow's Herald Arts.

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