Interview: Burd Ellen –Home, musical education, and recording during lockdown

Last year saw Burd Ellen’s album Says The Never Beyond receive five-star reviews and be praised as a top ten folk album of 2020 in both The Guardian and Folk Radio UK. SNACK magazine caught up with creator Debbie Armour and discussed the origins of Burd Ellen, the Our Stories Falkirk evening, and Debbie’s creative process.

How did Burd Ellen form?

A lovely friend sent me a message saying, ‘I’m playing a show in Glasgow, would you like to open for me?’ And I was like, ‘sure!’ The sound engineer bootlegged that and somebody I knew sent it to a couple of other people. And then we booked Sidmouth Folk Festival and opened for Stick in the Wheel off the back of that bootlegged set.

I phoned some people and was like, ‘do you want to come and be in my band, by the way? We’ve got loads of really scary gigs.’ We’ve been so lucky, and people have been so kind and so supportive. And it’s been really validating and gratifying to have such a consistently open and generous response from people.

The Our Stories Falkirk evening is in a couple of weeks and you’re performing a solo set drawn from the back catalogue of Burd Ellen. What’s going to inform the tunes that you pick?

The festival have asked for songs that talk about people and places, [which is] everything that I write about and everything I’m interested in, so I imagine that I’ll do a song about the place where I grew up.

Where is it that you grew up?

In Tobermory, on Mull. I’m from Glasgow originally, but we moved there when I was nine or ten. And I stayed until I was maybe twenty-five. There’s a lot of things that I did there that I would never have had the opportunity to do in the city, particularly artistically. I learned how to sing in the Mòd – I learned how to sing unaccompanied, in harmony, in primary school – and everything was taught to me by ear. You can’t buy that kind of education, that literally embodies your relationship to sound, and other people’s sound, and communication through sound. Singing in a language that is not native to you, having to find ways to use musical cues to enhance your and other people’s understanding.


Photo credit: Audrey Bizouerne

Says The Never Beyond has a range of languages, from English to Gaelic to Welsh. How did you choose your tracks?

The album’s heavily themed around winter song, especially winter song from the British Isles. It’s reflective of winter as a time of darkness and uncertainty, and also stillness and hunkering down. There are wren songs in every language of the British Isles, which I find a fascinating fact. I’ve always sung in languages that aren’t my own. More often than not it’s musically driven – it’s just because the tune’s nice! I’ve very neatly truncated the Welsh song down from ten verses to just one to minimise the impact of my bad Welsh on everyone else.

Did I notice Benjamin Britten amongst all of the traditional song choices?

He adapted a whole bunch of folk songs. I think it’s so important to keep your influences really catholic, with a small c, and listen to all sorts of stuff. Things that you don’t like, things that you wouldn’t even consider relevant to your practice and just keeping that really open. It encourages a diversity of end-product that I think the Scottish trad scene in particular can miss a little bit sometimes.

As it was recorded under the COVID-19 restrictions, what was the process of making the tracks?

I wrote all of the vocal arrangements. All of the arrangements for this album have been written for a very long time – long before Burd Ellen was even a thing. I tracked all of the vocals by myself and sent them to all of the other musicians and said, ‘just do whatever you want, and send it back to me’. And then it all went to Jim McEwan, my engineer, and Jim and I sort of glued it together with string and chewing gum. And he’s done a beautiful, beautiful job.

I would like to do a Highlands tour. And what I would like to do is to make some visuals and have a proper full band tour with some nice film. And just make it a bit of an extravaganza. But I think it’ll be 2022 now. Or we could just all stay at home and film sets for nice people that want to do it, like the lovely Great Place Falkirk!

Debbie Armour is performing at Our Stories Falkirk on Friday 12th March 2021. Tickets are £2.


Tickets from eventbrite.co.uk

All photo credits: Audrey Bizouerne


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