a musical landscape dominated by all that’s young and urban, an artist who sings centuries-old songs in Gaelic would not be expected to get much farther than the Inner Hebrides.
But with a celebrity following that boasts Ricky Gervais, Radiohead and Andrew Marr, Julie Fowlis has become the hippest singer-songwriter around and has set about making the dwindling language cool.
The 28-year-old folk singer from North Uist in the Outer Hebrides has attracted a huge and growing fanbase for her lilting, pure voice, with a beguiling appeal which Mark Radcliffe at BBC Radio 2 compared to Bjrk, Kate Bush and the Cocteau Twins.
Though Fowlis sings in a language understood by only 60,000 people in the far north of Scotland, she has captivated young followers south of the border. Her current four-week tour of England and Wales to promote her new album, Cuilidh, meaning treasury or secret hiding place, is expected to be a sell-out, helped by exposure on Women’s Hour, and forthcoming appearances on the shows of Marr, Radcliffe and Andy Kershaw. Now having signed with Shoeshine Records, an Indie pop/rock (rather than a folk) record label, she is poised to cross into the mainstream.
No one is more amazed by the sudden attention than Fowlis herself, who says things just rocketed after she won the BBC Radio 2 Horizon Folk Award for best newcomer last year. She sold 5,000 albums on the back of it. Her new album is expected to sell 1,000 in its first week. Nine videos of her performances are posted on YouTube. Her MySpace website has been visited 53,609 times. It was here that Phil Selway of Radiohead enthused about her beautiful voice and wrote: You’d need a cold heart indeed to not be touched by her music. Ricky Gervais, meanwhile, offered his pithy assessment of her album. It’s great. But I have no idea what she is on about, he wrote.
Radcliffe, more readily associated with indy guitar bands, believes she is a big new talent. Her voice is captivating and because of the language, there is a bit of mystery.
Fowlis was brought up on North Uist, where her parents ran a hotel, and music was a regular part of life. She moved to the mainland as a teenager and studied classical music at Strathclyde University, but her passion was to sing in Gaelic. North Uist is where she still sources all her material. The newest song on her album is probably about 100 years old they are mostly love songs or tell stories about events on North Uist. She has resisted pressure to sing in English: That would be doing it for all the wrong reasons.
While Puirt a beul sounds fantastic in Gaelic, in translation one song, for example, is about how the cabbage was ruined.
Fowlis received another boost when she was signed up yesterday by Paul Fenn, of the Asgard agency, who represents Dolly Parton, Steve Earle, Joan Baez and James Taylor.
Gaelic passion beyond language
Her vocal beauty and her passionate, engaging stage presence are such that the listener doesn’t need to understand the words to be able to enjoy her music
Debbie Koritsas, Living Tradition magazine
The sincerity and passion with which Julie sings, goes beyond any language barriers and reaches through the depths of your consciousness to unearth the most intuitive of sentiments.
Mike Wilson, Folking.com
Though Fowlis voices tales of intense rivalries between North Uist and South Uist, she could be singing about Rawlplugs for all we know . . .
Peter Culshaw, The Observer