Hailing form Ullapool, in Scotland’s northwest, Rachel Hair is one of the UK’s most acclaimed and accomplished players of the Celtic harp, or clàrsach. She started her professional life as a soloist, but soon realised that the trio format gave her the sound she was looking for. The trio’s line-up has been in flux, but on the last album settled around the core of Rachel and her good friend, guitarist Jenn Butterworth, with double bassist Cameron Maxwell being the latest recruit. Now with this third trio album, the delightfulTrì, the Rachel Hair Trio have truly found their sound with a record that combines vibrant dances with, graceful and haunting airs and three moving songs. In the process they’ve cut back on the guest appearances that have expanded and orchestrated their previous records, to concentrate on what the three of them do best – making beautiful music together – and Trì is surely that.
One of Rachel’s building blocks is the mixed lineage and encouragement of her musically engaged parents, with her Irish mother’s and Scottish father’s heritage having both informed her unique style. She’s been studying music since being introduced to the harp as a youngster, while attending the highly regarded Fèis Rois tuition movement, which has been credited with bringing a whole new generation of Scottish youngsters to traditional music. Rachel subsequently excelled musically, going on to gain an honours degree from Strathclyde University. It was there that she and Jenn became good friends, sowing the seeds of their eventual musical partnership.
“For several years I worked as a soloist and after a while I begin to build a band round me,” Rachel explains, giving me an insight into the trio’s timelines. “It’s been through a few shapes, sizes and guises, but I guess when Jenn and I started to work together we really worked hard to get a good trio sound. We were at University together and were flat mates so have known each other’s musical styles for years. Cammy is the third bass player we’ve work with. The previous two – James Lindsay and Euan Burton – were working with other bands at the same time (Breabach and Salt House respectively) so couldn’t really commit to always being around for gigs and tours.”
She continues, “Cammy is the fiancée of a childhood harping friend of mine so he knows how to work (and deal!) with harp players… We’re a curious bunch! The other bass players have been more from a jazz background, but Cammy, however, has recently become more interested in classical playing. We’re finding he uses the bow a lot more than our previous bass players and that, combined with Jenn’s high octane driving guitar playing is adding another dimension to our sound.”
Rachel explains the decision to strip things back this time telling me, “We found with our last record we used a lot of guest artists and although we were pleased with the outcome, we felt it wasn’t a true representation of us live.”
The album was recorded in the Arctic bite of a Glasgow winter at Carrier Waves studios run by Keir Long of Glasgow electronica combo, Laki Mera. As Rachel reveals, “Keir is a great musical sound engineer who has a fantastic studio in Glasgow that more and more folkies are using. He has a great ear so he made the whole recording process a lot easier.” She’s written an informative and entertaining blog that describes the intricacies of recording. Inevitable challenges ranges from masking Rachel’s breathing from the close proximity microphones around the harp, to the more prosaic business of keeping her hands warm as the mercury plummeted and Jack Frost laid siege to the sessions.
With the sessions recorded, Rachel turned to another old friend. “Iain [Hutchison] and I were in the same year, same course and same halls while studying music together at University. It was just after we graduated that I recorded my first album, so it was only natural to use him,” she recalls, continuing, “since then though, he’s gone on to record the best in the business… The Transatlantic Sessions, Kate Rusby, Capercaillie, Michael McGoldrick and more,” confessing, “It wouldn’t feel right for me to be recording and not using him in some way. For this album he mixed and mastered it. I completely trust him and because I’ve known him for so long, we can second guess each other’s thoughts on the tracks.”
A lot of work went into pre-production, finalising the arrangements, sorting out the cues and guides, but again you can read the details on Rachel’s blog. She also confirms this really was a trio record when it came to musical input explaining, “It was a shared effort for most of the tracks. Jenn brought in songs and we decided which ones we liked. Some of the tune sets I decided on and others Jenn and Cammy brought to the table. It was very important that we all liked each of the tracks. There’s no point persevering and working on a tune only for someone to be hating playing it.”
She has a good point and the album is bookended by two tune sets that not only amply display the trio’s talents, but also reflect aspects of their lives at the moment. We’ve already brought you Jigs For Mann as our Tune Of The Day. Rachel explained in an interview at the time about the origins of the three part set, which reflect her association with the Isle of Man, where she is much in demand as a teacher, as well as an active participant in the island’s music scene, despite currently living in Glasgow. It provides a gorgeous opening with Rachel’s wistful, zephyrean first part, tightening up as Jenn’s guitar pushes the tune to a more portentous, minor-keyed mid-section, which lingers through the final Ta Cashen, plucked from the Manx tradition, with its lovely guitar overdub adding a spine-tingling counter melody.
The Doctor, which closes the album, is partly written by Cameron about his Border Terrier, who is actually called Rusty, although the trio have enigmatically bestowed the medical nickname. The tune presumably reflects the four legged friend’s quirky character, before breaking out into something that sounds almost like one of Jacques Loussier’s classical / jazz fusions.Rundtom I D Etter Christian Horne is actually from the Norwegian tradition, and is something that they’ve picked up on one of their extended visits, playing concerts in schools, as part of what sounds like a wonderful government backed initiative. Again Rachel’s blog is illuminating on these tours and might induce a greenish tinge amongst any UK parents reading this.
Betwixt and between those two stunning sets, there is plenty more wonderful music to get stuck into, including three songs and six more tunes.
Of the songs, Angel is one of Jenn’s and proves that when the opportunity arises she is a fine songsmith. Its tricky rhythm is typical of most of the material here, but it’s a fine tune and well sung too, with Jenn’s voice sounding strong, with its pleasingly natural timbre. It’s long featured as part of the live set, but is recorded here for the first time. It captures the dichotomy between heaven and earth and asks if angels are here amongst us despite the fact that the world, “…isn’t always black and white, sometimes it’s black and blue.”
The traditional My Darling Fair One is simply gorgeous, although here its not the distance divide between heaven and earth, but the Sound Of Islay that must be crossed as Jenn sings, “But If wings were mine now, To Scan The brine now, And like a seagull to float me free, To Islay shore, They’d bear me o’er now, To the maiden that’s dear to me.”
Roll On The Day is a poignant reminder, written by Allan Taylor and originally released on his 1980 album of the same title, of those whose lives have been blighted by the dust, grime and hard labour of factories and pits.
Of the tunes, two are compositions representing different generation of Scottish musical excellence. The Duke Of Fife’s Welcome To Deeside is an elegant and complex quickstep written by fiddler James Scott Skinner, born in the middle of C19th and known as The King Of Strathspey. The Marching Gibbon is fun, but with a stop-start, jerky structure that is apparently ever evolving, written by award winning jazz pianist and accordion wiz Tom Gibbs. The album’s notes suggesting this is an early draft, which Jenn has arranged for the trio, keeping a tight grip on the slippery chords, while Rachel expands on the melody, throwing in the odd glissando to heighten the thrills.
They dig into the tradition too and here Rachel’s dual heritage comes to the fore. Tobar Nan Caen, combines that Scottish tune, bowed bass and all with the tempo lifting Kitty Gordon’s, itself an Irish version of a Scottish reel.Starry Eyed Lads welds the Irish tune The Rolling Waves to one of Rachel’s compositions that gives the set its tile and starts with a cascade of harp that is simply breath-taking and canters along in bright and breezy fashion from there.
Tea Towel Polkas also marries one of Rachel’s tunes to another, one by the French flautist and piper, Sylvain Barou, producing a quick-fire dance with a wonderfully lithe bottom end as Rachel’s fingers fly across the strings. The title refers to Rachel’s mother who grew up in Antrim. Her grandfather lived in a house across the glen and would signal to his family for assistance, by hanging a tea towel out of the window, as he had no phone.
In the centre of the album is Rachel’s moving tribute, Tune For Esme, an elegiac lament for a young harpist (Esme Morris Macintyre of Kinnesswood) taken from this world too soon. Again the bowed bass makes its mark, but this is an outstandingly beautiful piece, which Rachel has dedicated to raising funds for Teenage Cancer Trust, a most worthy cause.
There are wonderful flights of musical fancy here, invoking Celtic myth and heritage, along with more personal moments and memories. The playing is simply superb and the attention to detail, is second to none. As Rachel has explained, however, “With his record we wanted it to be very truthful to what we are as a trio, so that what you hear is what you get live when you see us. We also feels it proves that the strength in the album is the three… The power of three if you like!” In numerology, three is supposed to be the number of inspiration, creativity, intelligence, imagination, empathy and communication, which pretty much hits the nail on the head – thrice, naturally!