FIONA Hunter is talking about singing the traditional song What a Voice in the most unlikely venue for folksong she's experienced, the Hydro in Glasgow.

The title song of Hunter’s upcoming concert with fellow singers Kathleen MacInnes and Kaela Rowan at Edinburgh’s Tradfest, What a Voice was given a completely new life when the late Martyn Bennett took a recording by the great Aberdeenshire ballad singer Lizzie Higgins and turned it into the techno wonder Blackbird on his final masterpiece, Grit.

Hunter, who in 15 years with the folk band Malinky has carried traditional songs thousands of miles on extensive tours, never imagined she would sing such a song to an audience much beyond the average folk concert size. She certainly never foresaw singing What a Voice with a 90-piece orchestra in front of 10,000 people. And as for having a choir of monks (actually singers from Glasgow University) for company while she sang it as a stunt cyclist scaled a mock-up of the Cuillin ridgeline on Skye, surely not.

This, though, is just one of the memories Hunter has as a result of taking a call from the violinist and arranger Greg Lawson, who told her he was going to orchestrate Bennett’s brilliantly imaginative electronic adaptations of traditional music. When Lawson told Bennett that he would one day present his music with an orchestra, Bennett’s response had been, “Are ye now?” Hunter’s reaction was more one of intrigue than disbelief but that was for the original performance of Grit, which took place in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in 2015. Arenas weren’t mentioned, far less the aerial dancers and rowing boats that helped to make Lawson’s triumphant Celtic Connections 2018 adaptation of Bennett’s Bothy Culture at the Hydro such a spectacular event.

“When Greg got in touch initially, I agreed straight away,” says Hunter down the line from rehearsals for her Tradfest concert. “It was only during the build-up to that first concert at the Royal Concert Hall that I thought, What have I done? It was a massive undertaking, especially for Greg, but to be asked to sing Lizzie’s song and the song that Sheila Stewart sang on Grit, the Moving on Song, was such an honour, if quite a scary one.”

If that first performance with the Grit Orchestra turned out to be “very exciting and very emotional” (Sheila Stewart’s son, who now lives in South America, was in the audience and Martyn Bennett’s father had come over specially from Canada and came backstage to congratulate everyone), then the Hydro was off the scale.

“You never imagine when you’re singing in folk clubs that you’ll ever play in a venue like that to an audience that size,” says Hunter. “It was such an amazing opportunity. People say that the audience are so far away from the stage there, but all I could think about was this amazing sound that was being created next to me and all around me.”

She continues: “I’d watched the video of Danny MacAskill riding his bike up the Cuillin and I knew he was going to be recreating the climb, including the part where he rows to the shore, onstage while I was singing, but there was no distraction. I had a lot of familiar faces and musicians beside me and was able just to concentrate on singing.

"We’ve now performed Martyn’s music four times with the orchestra and each time it’s been a different venue and a different experience. Singing outdoors to a huge crowd at WOMAD was another exciting experience. You never get used to it and you never get tired of it. I hope we can do a lot more of these gigs.”

It’s her hope also that people attending the Grit Orchestra’s performances, or even just watching them on TV or on the internet, might be persuaded to investigate the songs and the singers Martyn Bennett incorporated into his music.

“These songs are still happening and can still be heard in folk clubs and the smaller venues that are crucial to carrying on the folk tradition,” she says. “And one of the things about What a Voice, the concert, that I feel is really important is that we’re honouring the singers, the tradition bearers, many of whom are no longer with us but who can still be heard on old recordings or on the fantastic online database that is the Kist o Riches or Tobar an Dualchais.”

A project set up to preserve, digitise, catalogue and make available thousands of hours of Gaelic and Scots recordings from the collection held by the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, Tobar an Dualchais has been a priceless source, along with the collection of American-born Gaelic song enthusiast Margaret Fay Shaw, for Hunter, MacInness and Rowan as they choose songs for What a Voice.

“We wanted to find songs in Scots and Gaelic that share the same stories because there are a lot of recurring themes and actual events that were recorded in songs in both languages,” says Hunter. “The idea is to celebrate the singers we’ve learned from, the women who have influenced us, like Jeannie Robertson, Belle Stewart, Lizzie Higgins, of course, and Ishbel MacAskill. It helps that Kathleen and I have worked together before because we’re three singers with quite different voices and singing styles, and Kaela having been good friends with Martyn Bennett makes a good connection.”

As we speak the three singers are working on harmonies as well as repertoire and preparing to sing a cappella as well as with the What a Voice ‘house band’, which will comprise multi-instrumentalist Mike Vass, pianist Mhairi Hall, double bassist Emma Smith and percussionist James Mackintosh.

The concert precedes two more significant events for Hunter, the release of a double album, to mark Malinky's 20th anniversary, and her own second ‘solo’ album. She is keen to point out that she hasn’t been singing with the band for all of those 20 years but keeps being reminded by her colleagues that she joined five years into the band’s career, so is a relatively senior member.

Throughout their lifespan Malinky have bucked the trend on the Scottish ‘trad’ scene for largely instrumental music and the new album continues their preference for songs by featuring guest singers including the great Ulsterman Len Graham and Scots singer Barbara Dymock.

There’s a sense of unhurried progress about both the Malinky album and Hunter’s own, as it’s four years since Malinky released their previous album, Far Better Days, and five years since Hunter released her solo debut.

“I’ve probably been thinking of possible songs to sing since my first album came out,” says Hunter. “But it’s a long process for me. I make notes all the time but I have to feel that I’m ready to sing a song and do it justice. I actually enjoy learning new songs and living with them for a while as they become familiar.

"The new album won’t sound radically different to the first one. I’ve been working with Mike [Vass] again as the producer and he’s been able to suggest different musicians, who have brought in their own touches. It’s not too far off completion and I’m looking forward to bringing it out and letting people hear it.”

What a Voice is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh on Saturday April 27; Tradfest runs from April 26 to May 6. For full details log onto