MUSIC is part of the identity we reveal to the world, from the tips of a punk’s fire-red Mohican to the toes of a Teddy Boy’s blue suede shoes. Beneath that tribal surface, however, music and identity intertwine too, burrowing deep into the fabric of our daily lives. Music might well be all that’s left at the very end, when speech has gone and recognition of family and friends has blurred, but a certain tune is still able to reawaken elusive memories of a time, a place, a person.

It’s a thought that has been very much in the mind of Sarah Hayes recently. A member of Glasgow-based band Admiral Fallow and a folk musician in her own right, her debut solo album, Woven, is infused with themes of identity, ageing, family, love, loss and location.

The piece began as a commission for the New Voices strand at the Celtic Connections festival in 2014, lifting fragments of verses from traditional folk songs and setting them to new music composed by Hayes herself; but it also gained emotional depth on personal and professional levels as Hayes viewed those themes through the experience of her grandmother’s dementia and her occasional work with the elderly in day centres and sheltered accommodation as part of the New Rhythms For Glasgow community music project.

“Seeing somebody not being able to communicate well verbally but then, as soon as the music starts, remember bits of words or sometimes full songs and get their feet tapping – that reminds you why music is so important,” she says. “When you’re struggling with things like ‘I can’t play this trill on my flute today, what’s wrong with me?’ it totally puts things in perspective.”

Having seen a much-loved member of her own family experience dementia, Hayes was more sensitive to what the people at her Glasgow day groups were going through. Seven years ago, vascular dementia took hold of her mother’s mother, Irene Harrison, after what’s thought to have been a mini-stroke.

“It isn’t just being a bit forgetful, it affects every aspect of your life,” says Hayes when we meet in the café of Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall. “You’ve collected all this stuff in your life, and it makes you who you are … and then it goes. It affects everyone around you. As a family member, you’re almost grieving for the loss of someone but they’re still there.

“It also reminds you of the importance of remembering that they are – I don’t really know how to say it – a person and not the disease. Meeting someone for the first time in that community project setting, someone with quite advanced dementia, what you see are the symptoms of it. Maybe you don’t know much about them, you don’t really get to know them, but you have to remember that they’ve got this whole history behind them – a life, memories, family, relationships. You’d go in one week and maybe someone would be a bit distressed in the middle of a singalong. And the next week, that same person would maybe be dancing. You have to take every interaction as it comes.”

Dementia isn’t the core of Hayes’s album, of course; it’s only one of the elements that draws bigger themes together. Woven is a beautiful, flowing piece of work arranged for a six-piece group (Fiona MacAskill’s fiddle and Mairearad Green’s accordion are the main foils for Hayes’s flute and keyboards) that allows Hayes to step into a more central spotlight as composer and singer than she has done to date on Admiral Fallow’s three albums. And, if we’re talking about the notion of identity, as a complete unit Woven is very much the sum of who Sarah Hayes is in 2015.

Born on The Wirral, Hayes moved with her mother and father to the small village of Warkworth, near Alnwick in Northumberland, when she was two and a half. She could already read by the time she started school, so took up music initially to combat bouts of boredom, first the recorder then the piano, from the age of six. Later she began flute lessons and, more informally, started singing too. All this without coming from a particularly musical family (although, she admits, her father did sing in bands in Liverpool in the 1960s, “so he’s got some good stories and photos”).

The folk music tradition is strong in Northumberland and, by chance, folk singer Sandra Kerr (whose main claim to fame is as composer of the music for children’s television show Bagpuss) lived around the corner. She became an influence on the teenage Hayes, encouraging her to listen to more folk music. Hayes also began to attend Folkworks summer schools and workshops in Newcastle.

“I went to the youth one for about seven years running, first when I was 11,” she explains. “It’s quite a baptism of fire because I didn’t really know anybody and you’re there for a full week – my first week away from home, and everything that goes with that. But you meet up with loads of young people from all over the country who also play traditional music, which is a nice realisation to have, because none of my school friends played folk music.”

Her dedication had its rewards: she was a finalist at the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Awards for three years in a row – 2000, 2001, 2002 – but also kept up the classical side of her music, passing her Associated Board exams on flute and piano. It was her flute teacher who suggested studying at a conservatoire and so, rather than doing the folk degree course at nearby Newcastle, she applied in 2005 to the RSAMD, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Glasgow has now been her home for a decade, her base for recordings and tours with Admiral Fallow, for sporadic gigs with a couple of small classical wind ensembles, for forays into folk music and community work.

“If I’ve got a week where I’ve got a band practice and then a chamber music recital and then a solo gig and some community music teaching, I’m not thinking, ‘OK, now I’m a pop musician. And now I’m a folk singer.’ It is all just music. But sometimes it can be hard to reconcile. If they’re all bubbling along well then it’s fine. But if I’ve not done one of them for a while … you think ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. And that can be a worry. But then at other times, if you’re just working away, it’s really beneficial because there are things that inform each other and help each other.”

Woven certainly benefits from the multi-discipline, multi-instrumental aspect of Hayes’s talent. The music is, at its heart, traditional folk but with flashes of jazzy syncopation in certain piano parts and an overall connectedness – especially the instrumental opening and closing tracks that reprise musical motifs and act almost like an overture and a coda – that’s bound up in her classical conservatoire training. It might be putting it simplistically, but it’s as if the lyrical content of Woven comes from Hayes’s Northumberland life while its musical structure comes from her Glasgow years.

“Agreeing to do this was completely out of my comfort zone,” she admits of the Celtic Connections commission that brought Woven into being and led to the 2014 festival gig. “I’d written the odd tune but nothing on that sort of scale. It’s amazing because you’ve got 45 minutes to fill and you can pick whatever musicians you want. But that can be quite daunting as well, because it is so open. You want to make the most of the opportunity and make something meaningful.

“A few of the songs I’d always sung, mostly unaccompanied, from a youngish age. Obviously when you sing these songs, you do research and find old recordings and delve into the history behind them, so you’re always aware of that when interpreting them in your own way. But I’d never really explored how they related to each other thematically. I started off by picking themes – personal subjects but obviously big topics as well – and finding songs in the repertoire that encapsulated them either in a fragment, a couple of lines, or a longer thing that made a bit more sense. ”

These range from old Northumbrian songs such as Sair Fyel’d Hinny (“the premise is this old man speaking to an oak tree, looking back on his youth and lamenting the fact that as the oak tree gets older it gets bigger and stronger, and he is going the opposite way”) to Where Ravens Feed by the late Middlesbrough-based songwriter Graeme Miles (“I wanted a song about appreciating your surroundings and being contented with your lot and happy in your own skin”). Only the former and another traditional song, Four Loom Weaver, retain their original tunes; all other lyrics on Woven are treated to new music by Hayes.

“I think, to begin with, it was me thinking I’d like to flex my composition muscles a bit and write some new melodies and some new chords and put a different slant on them,” she explains. “I knew I wanted to draw on all of the things I’d done up until now, and singing these traditional songs was a huge part of that. But I’m not a lyricist – I’ve never written words in song or poem form – and so I just wanted to seek out the words from the songs that seemed to fit best the overall theme. If I’d taken on the challenge of writing all the words as well, I’d have collapsed. It would have been too much.”

I doubt that the folk purists will have any problem with Hayes’s appropriation of, say, a few lines from Mary Brooksbank’s famous Jute Mill Song presented within a new melody. The Dundee-based campaigner’s sentiment about hard work for meagre pay remains intact and, indeed, perhaps even finds fresh relevance in our times of harsh ‘austerity’ policies.

“It was a conscious decision to choose those fragments from those songs because of the message that was there,” Hayes insists. “These kinds of songs have always been a vehicle for these kinds of things to be expressed. But I didn’t need this to be a political statement. It just sort of crept up. I’ve never really engaged politics with my own music but you can’t help but do that with those kinds of songs.

“Most of the time when I was thinking about picking them, in my mind I had the overall thing about how all the stuff you gather up – your life, your experiences, relationships and memory – become your identity. Your relationship with others and their identity, how it all maps out. I knew I wanted to pick things that everybody deals with at some point in their life. I wasn’t always picking them from a personal point of view, it was more to fit the bigger theme.”

The album does end on a particularly personal note, however, with closing instrumental Irene’s, dedicated, as is the album as a whole, to Hayes’s grandmother.

“My Nan was living by herself on The Wirral, and we’d go down and visit every few months as I was growing up,” Hayes says. “I absolutely loved spending time with her. I’ve got lots of really happy memories of being with her. She was a genuinely good person who always put other people before herself. She cared for her sister when she was unwell. She looked after different elderly neighbours and did their errands.”

Hayes lays out a series of photographs of Irene on the table. There she is in black and white, aged 20, on her wedding day to John, and again posing for the camera as a young woman with lush curly black hair. In later colour snaps that hair remains thick but now it’s white, and sometimes she looks startled as she didn’t like being photographed and had to be caught by surprise. These are casual but defining moments captured for posterity: washing dishes, with her daughter and granddaughter, in a living room decorated for Christmas. Sadly, Irene Harrison died in January this year and never heard the tune dedicated to her.

“I wish I’d been able to put that on, but none of it was recorded, so I couldn’t play it to her,” says Hayes. “She wouldn’t have understood what it was, but it would have been a nice thing to do. At her funeral I had a really early mix of that tune, and we used a little bit of it.”

It feels absolutely right that this personal story is threaded into the universal themes covered by the album. After all, personal identity is made up of tiny details as well as the big concepts such as love and loss. Woven isn’t just something of a self-portrait of Sarah Hayes or a meditation on life as expressed in traditional folk songs: it simply reminds us what a force music can be in all our lives.

Woven is released on Sarah Hayes’s own Night Vad label on November 20; see for details. A full-band performance of the album will take place in the Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow, on January 22 as part of the 2016 Celtic Connections festival. Admiral Fallow play Café Continental, Gourock on November 16; Hootananny, Inverness (17); The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen (18); La Belle Angele, Edinburgh (19) and Tolbooth, Stirling (20).