Renowned cellist Su-a Lee releases her debut album, Dialogues, in December. Aptly named, it consists of collaborative duets with leading performers in both the classical and the traditional music scenes – each track showcasing the nuance and versatility of Su-a Lee’s masterful cello playing and arranging. SNACK caught up with Su-a to talk about her ethereal new album.
What made you want to write the album as you did?
It really came around as a sort of lockdown project after all our work was cancelled in March 2020. It was during walks in the woods, with Hamish [Napier, folk musician and Su-a’s husband], that he said ‘You know what you should do? You should make a solo album.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, no, I can’t. It’s not really a thing that I’d like to do.’
We eked it out through these walks, where he asked, ‘Well, what would you like to do?’ I’ve played on loads of fabulous people’s albums, but generally as a sort of backing strings player. So I liked the idea of having more of an equal voice. That’s how it started.
How did you decide what to include on the album?
It was a very organic process driven by the person I was collaborating with in the duet. It was definitely a sort of conversation. Some of the more compositional collaborators said, ‘Well, I’d like to write something for you’, and others chose things that were closer to their heart or things they always wanted to do, or songs we’ve done before together, but in a different context.
The whole thing was a proper collaboration, even with people who had written music. For example, James Ross would come up with an idea and then everything other than the actual tune itself was what we put together.
Donald Shaw came with a bunch of sketches. And I just loved them all – I really couldn’t pick one. I said to Donald, ‘Can you imagine playing them all back to back?’ and luckily he went for it!
How did that development process work over lockdown?
The development was tricky because we weren’t allowed to be in the same space together, so a lot of it was through Zoom. We’d have to send each other sound files or recordings of what we were doing on the phone or on a computer. I then had to learn how to transcribe it, write it – I’d never done anything digitally before, music-wise! And of course, that just made it more painstaking as a process.
It also gave me the chance to really delve into the music. For example, Patsy Reid is a phenomenal Strathspey player. So to be able to have a recording of Patsy that I can play along with in a very slow, lovely, learning process – I felt very lucky for having that. I felt very lucky because nothing about it was rushed.
By the time we all met in the studio it was definitely more special. For me, to have gone through that is like writing letters, and you have a whole correspondence before you actually meet. It makes the actual meeting even more special. A lot of times that was very moving, but also you kind of get a bit more nervous. All the emotions are heightened. I came away buzzing from those meetings. It was incredible.
How did you organise your album into its final shape?
The planning of how the pieces would fit together, that was a real jigsaw. The order was really important to me. When I decided to have Donald’s as the first track, everything made sense, because it was like a presentation of more classical stuff. He’d written it specially to have a baroque feel about it, and it had a variety of different styles within that. Then it flowed quite easily from there.
I don’t know what you call it, a concept album, or whatever, but for me, it’s a snapshot of my life during this time, or of my life up until now. Just really celebrating that feeling of all these lovely people I’ve been able to work with, taking that one step further, one step deeper into our relationships. I am left with a lovely feeling of the time we shared to make this thing together. It’s been very special to me.
Dialogues was released on CD on 2nd December and will be released digitally on 20th January, with the launch event on 14th December