Some instruments are so commonplace on a traditional gig venue stage that you’d barely give them a second glance, but sometimes, something grabs your attention. Seeing a harp alongside drums, keyboards, and guitar isn’t commonplace, but it offers sounds and shades beyond what the typical band achieves when it works well.
Anyone who had the pleasure of witnessing The State Broadcasters in their prime knew what that sounded like, and it’s great to see one of the critical components of that group bringing a hugely interesting project to life. SNACK caught up with Gillian Fleetwood to talk harps, health, juggling and finding a new way to make music that works for all.
What got you started with music, and the harp in particular?
People always go ‘oooh, the harp eh?’ The harp is having a moment, its back, but because I grew up in Inverness at a time of intentional investment in traditional music, I was able to go to the Fèis a’ Bhaile [an event which allows youngsters to participate in traditional music and Gaelic learning]. I wasn’t from a family who did traditional music or who were Gaelic speakers but my granny’s pal taught accordion at the Fèis, and she was like ‘Send Gill along.’
Basically, it was a place to send youngsters during the school holiday as cheap childcare. I got punted to that to do accordion, and I did bagpipes and Gaelic singing. So, clarsach wasn’t a word I knew, that’s the Gaelic word for harp, so I didn’t know there was harp at the Fèis until I walked along a corridor and saw a room of blooming harps.
I thought ‘What am I doing bagpipes for? That looks super cool and a lot of fun in there.’ I just knew that was what I wanted to do, but I had to wait an entire year for the Fèis to come around again to do the harp. I completely fell in love with it at that point. The harp looks fancy and inaccessible, but I fell into it, and there were Scottish music opportunities available.
When I was a teenager, the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music opened out in Plockton, I’m a beneficiary of the system which invested in traditional music. I was at the age to take advantage of those things, I enjoyed it, and it made sense to do it, and now it’s my life and job.
Even though I came up through the traditional music system of doing everything by ear, I never felt 100% that I only wanted to do traditional music. I love pop music, indie, rock, classical. I’ve listened to and absorbed all those things, and while the harp is a traditional instrument, to me, it’s far more versatile than how it is usually used.
I assume that felt like a long year before you could start playing the harp?
I was 11 or 12, a year takes ages at that age anyway, but I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the harp. I was terrible at the bagpipes!
How did you end up in a band?
I went to the music school in Plockton and started applying to come to Glasgow. At that point, there were two options, there was the Conservatoire [The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland[ which was pure trad music, or there was a course at Strathclyde University, called Applied Music, which was super broad-ranging.
At that time, it was one of the few places in the UK where you could study jazz, so there was an incredibly high standard of jazz musicians and ambitious young jazz players. But you could also study rock music, studio production, community music and education, and I think, ‘What’s the point of music if you’re not using it in context’?
It’s all about how you connect with people, and that’s a strand that interests me, so it was a no-brainer that even though I got into the Conservatoire, and I could do that specialised thing, it didn’t click for me, not when I had the chance to study alongside people that I could learn so much from – songwriters, studio engineers. So, I went to Strathclyde, and from there I met brilliant people with different creative approaches.
Both would have had their advantages, but for me, it made sense to keep things broad. I made connections there that I’m still working with today, and I love that, and that’s a huge part of that story.
That course doesn’t exist anymore, and it’s a shame because it was brilliant for people like me who want to cross genres. It was a priority for me to make music that doesn’t sound like anything else, you need to make music that is about you.
You’ve done so much but do you have a most memorable experience?
Woah, that’s a huge question, there are loads and I’m genuinely grateful for it all. Making a life in music is a privilege and I’m lucky to do that. Working with Agnes Obel [Danish songwriter and musician] was really cool, I had a great time touring extensively with her and recording on one of her albums. Getting to tour Europe for months at a time and living on a bus was a mad experience, I loved it.
That covered the indie side, but on the flip side, I was in a band called The Duplets, and we travelled the world sharing Scottish music. We played the harp festival in Rio de Janeiro, which was amazing, and Mexico. What I loved about that time was we were welcomed into people’s homes and lives more than you’d do as a tourist. You are really face-to-face with people, seeing their culture. They love music so deeply in Mexico, and you get invited to people’s homes with their mums teaching you how to cook. Playing music is an immense privilege but connecting with people in that way is something I’m so grateful for.
How did this your new project Together With Yourself At Sea Level come about?
There’s a long answer and short answer. The long answer is I had that period of The Duplets, and The State Broadcasters and it was lovely, but my health was tricky. I was diagnosed with diabetes but they said it was a mystery type of diabetes, it’s not Type 1 or Type 2, we don’t know what it is.
Years went by, and it was super complex, I had to stop touring as much, I couldn’t perform as much, so I was managing it and struggling with my personal life and what it meant to my hopes of settling down and starting a family. I had to configure all these spinning plates with being a self-employed musician and all my ambitions to travel, tour and share Scottish music and write original music. It was hard, it felt out of my control, so I had to step back and fix it.
Through good fortune working with a doctor who ran a gene sequence on me, we found a super rare genetic condition that connected all my problems. I remember being asked ‘How many kidneys do you have?’ and I was like ‘I don’t know, can you not tell me that? You’re the doctor here!’
Basically, all of my organs were the wrong size or in the wrong place, and I was like what? No wonder I was having trouble! I had a super strict diet, which limited my energy to do anything and when doctors asked ‘How have you been surviving like this?’ I’d just answer, ‘What else could I do?’
Another feature of this rogue gene is that people are more likely to have neurodevelopment conditions, specifically autism and ADHD, and I’ve since been diagnosed with ADHD. Diagnosis has been so helpful for me in realising more about how my brain works and cutting myself some slack for things I’m terrible at, cos I’m great at other, often pretty niche, things.
That was a humungous light bulb moment and things came together. I went on a composition residency with Chamber Music Scotland who aim to democratise classical and chamber music, they’re a great organisation. So, they sent me on a classical music residency to Hospitalfield House in Arbroath.
I got there, and they said, ‘Oh you play harp, do you want to have a look at our harp?’ So, I saw it and I was like [sounds of shock, surprise and joy!] it was unreal, they found it in a cupboard and they restored it. It was a 200-year-old harp, and I fell in love with it. It’s a very early prototype of the mechanism that allows a harp to be chromatic. How you would approach composition on an instrument like that is very different to the clarsach I primarily play, and it blew the doors open on what I was able to write.
Also, pedal harps are so expensive, and I played one in my youth orchestra days as a kid, I know my way around it but I never owned one. And because it’s so old, it is strung lightly. The string tension is similar to my clarsach but because of the pedals, it allows a fully chromatic world to exist.
I love this harp, it’s amazing. I told Hospitalfield that it needed to be played, that a lot of investment has gone into this harp to make it playable, and it needs to be played or it’ll dilapidate again, so, can I come and play harp?
You’ve given them the premise there’s a problem to fix, and got yourself some work?
Yeah, I can fix that for you and they were like ‘Cool, do you want to write music for us?’ Yes, deal! So, this was in 2018 and 2019, and I had loads of plans for 2020, me returning post ill health on the back of new music, and then the world shut down. I was so ready to play at that point!
And then during the lockdown, we had a baby and I was on maternity leave, and having health complications on top of the pregnancy. I was shielding extensively, it was an intense time, but we had our baby in January 2021, a weird time to be in Glasgow.
I was in hospital for 10 days and my partner was only allowed in for two hours a day to hang out with us. I understand we were doing what we had to do, but it was so weird. Looking back, only having access to that support for two hours a day was hard. And during the pregnancy, none of our families saw me at all, and then no one met our child until he was four months old. We had been looking forward to starting a family for so long, and then you have all that to deal with. What a time!
So, the reason all this is relevant is, I had the suite of music but it no longer reflected who I was, as I lived through this very weird thing. Becoming a parent is huge, your life massively changes, so I dismantled the music a bit, rewrote a lot, and now finally we’re getting it out to the world, with help from Creative Scotland.
I think it’s important for artists to be honest, and at times music comes from an emotional place, and a lot of this music looks at the complexity of trauma. In the context of having to go through trauma to get to what we aspire to be, and how that feels and how we process that, that’s interesting, and such a personal thing, it’s all the big stuff.
I think we’ll be dealing with the personal and psychological fallout of the pandemic for years, and while money is needed in so many areas, cutting arts funding is only going to cause big problems down the line.
I completely agree. It’s so important to keep these flames lit. I don’t know where it’ll go, as I see so many contemporaries and peers who are incredible musicians and they don’t know what is next. My partner is also a musician, he learned plastering during the pandemic. That’s good, he can still be his own boss and can work around gigs, but lots of people are re-skilling and not being able to put the time in they want or need to do incredible art, and it’s worrying.
It’s tricky, it’s a complex time for a number of reasons, and it’s so hard yet vital to keep people employed and keep studios running for a number of reasons. To have support from Creative Scotland was huge with the project. I have health needs and I want to allow others with child or caring requirements to have any kind of voice to say what works for them, and what timetable is right for them. I need things to be structured and have clear communication as to what happens when, and it’s important for me to provide that to others. Using insulin is complicated and time-sensitive, and juggling insulin use with ADHD is… an adventure.
I think most things can be worked around and most problems arise because of people being stuck in old ways, but with communication and flexibility, all things are possible. It’s vital to keep communication open, and if people talk to me, we can make a solution to create an environment for the incredible musicians I work with to make them feel valued.
So, we needed a bit more budget to timetable work around healthcare and childcare, and so on. Also, we had to record this heritage instrument in a heritage site and be super respectful about using it, we couldn’t scrape floors or bash bannisters, and we had to get a lot of gear up to Arbroath. The complexity of creating a project that was flexible and open to allow the music to be expressive and transparent can only come out of a supportive working environment.
I’m pleased that through our tracking process we have been ahead at all times. The engineer said this never happens! We track people live, and we talk face to face, we brought a sofa in, and we made it fun and creative on the spot. That takes a lot of time to build, but then you work quickly and creatively, and working with people who are flexible is important.
In a nutshell, we tried to find a way to make a record that is super supportive while being economical and practical.
And while it sounds like you’ve used the Creative Scotland money wisely, because you have so many moving parts to fund, there’s an additional crowdfunding project on the go, how is that going?
It’s okay, it’s a necessity. Self-promotion is where I fall down. I just want to write music! Partly because of the time I had out, a bunch of things changed in the business, so I’m learning as I go. Getting pre-orders in to secure the release of the record, that’s a necessity. I’m working on self-promotion but it doesn’t come naturally, so we’re finding creative ways to make it fun.
The Creative Scotland funding helped us make the videos, and it’s really important to me that people see and hear this 200-year-old harp. Those videos are free, and that’s an important step to see what Hospitalfield House is, and what a special place it is. I love being in nature and working during difficult physical times, being in nature recharged me and helped me through this, and yet we are dealing with so many environmental and climate matters right now.
So, when I started to write the music, I thought it would be angry, but sitting in Hospitalfield House, there’s tapestry, wood carvings, beautiful furniture and an ethos of visual art, craft and human ingenuity and inventiveness. So, while I was expecting to make charged and anxious music, it came out beautifully.
Let’s be optimistic about things because change comes through making people feel good about change. I wasn’t expecting that sort of music to come out, but I felt good about that. So, it was really important to show the house, and show we need to get on with things. As a species, we are ingenious, let’s get on with making some changes.
The videos create momentum to get the crowdfunding going and give us the money to get the album finished. It’s a flavour of the optimism that surrounds the project, and I think people need that.
So, you’re working in beautiful surroundings, can you tell us about the band you’re working with?
They’re the best, they’re incredible at what they do. Iain Hutchison is the engineer, and he runs GloWorm Studio in Glasgow, they’re so busy and great. I have cello from Susan Appelbe who does a bunch of theatre work and I was in The State Broadcasters with her, she’s a total gem of a human. Laura Wilkie on the fiddle, who does thousands of projects, she’s amazing, she’s working on a great solo album and has worked with Rachel Sermanni, Honeyblood, Man of the Minch, and the list goes on.
Mikey Owers is a monster brass player, and he does Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and The Fratellis. Our percussionist is Tim Lane, who is also a trombone player and studio wizard. Finding a drummer who is sensitive enough to work with a harp player is great. He also plays the tongue drum, which is brilliant, it’s a solid block of wood with carved tongue shapes, and it’s tuned. That works so well with the harp, I love it.
And then, I worked with Chris Duncan on Bogha-frois [an LGBTQ+ collective for folk musicians] at Celtic Connections a few years ago, and we clicked, he’s a lovely person. His album Alluvium came out last year, and I loved it, I was chuffed for Chris, it’s such a great album. I spoke with him about the suite I was working on and asked if he’d look at the scores with me and see where it needs to go. He said, ‘let’s make a record’ and even though I didn’t know if I had any money, he said let’s do this, and that gave me confidence for the Creative Scotland application.
He’s a brilliant musician and so creative, and it helps to put the fire in my belly to do things. It was a punt, we hadn’t worked together much, but I’m loving working with him. It’s great working on an album that comes from a traditional music background but with someone who doesn’t do traditional music at all, it creates that cross-genre feel and the album is partly instrumental, so it adds different textures, including electronic aspects.
And of course, Martin Henry, my buddy from Henry & Fleetwood, he’s the songwriter behind De Rosa and brilliant solo stuff. He’s a genius, I love him.
So, you have a great band, will there be live shows?
We did a version in Hospitalfield in 2019, and then at Celtic Connections in 2020, and we were about to do more and then Covid hit. We played the new version at the Edinburgh International Harp Festival in April this year, so it is happening, we are doing it! I love playing live with that team of amazing people. There are parts of the suite that aren’t playable without the pedal harp, but I was keen to write music that with help from the band, can be played on the clarsach so we can tour it.
I’m not taking the Hospitalfield harp, but it can be played live, and that’s important, all in good time. We also integrated beautiful photography from Hospitalfield by Martin Henry and some of the recent videos by Beth Chalmers, Scott Armit and Connor Reilly into the live show, and it’s really added context and depth.
Was there a big change between the 2019 live shows and the recent one?
The biggest difference is that there are songs now. The previous version was fully instrumental but the aspects we added in and writing lyrics that explicitly tell what the music is about are important. Also, there were no horns or brass previously, so it was fun to add these. Sousaphone and harp! Dreamy.
If the crowdfunder meets the target, and if there’s anything left, that money goes into a pot to make live shows in 2024 happen, getting the band on the road. Also, the stuff I’ve written for the band in the new version, I want to keep that going, and add more songs we can play in this project.
Last December in Some Great Reward [Glasgow record shop], you played with Martin Henry and you quite literally balanced being a musician and a mother, how are you finding that in general?
It’s really hard! That was a lovely gig, it was an Olive Grove Records day and yes, at one point, there was a stage invasion from the toddler who just wanted a cuddle and I had to play the harp and do that. It’s quite a good analogy. You’re juggling but there’s a clarity that comes with it. I’m learning to be more focused and more assertive through being a parent. You value your time more, it’s hard, but at the same time, I wouldn’t change a thing. Living through what I’ve lived through gives me a different type of confidence and I trust myself more. It’s hard but worthwhile.