Scottish musicians seem particularly adept at finding new ways of presenting their music but few are quite as charming as Nae Sweets For Shy Bairns, the debut album from harpist Heather Downie. From first listening I was captivated by her sound and I’m still impressed by the range of her sources and inspirations.
The first tune in the opening set, ‘For The Love Of Levers’, is written by percussionist Tia Files who supports Heather throughout the album. Heather generously lets Tia start and the piece thus has a syncopation which Heather carries over into the second tune. It’s good to start with a smile. The mood immediately changes with ‘Niel Gow’s Lament For The Death Of His Second Wife’, a lovely, reflective tune. Heather mixes one of her own tunes, ‘William The Conqueror’, written for her fiancé, with Jay Ungar’s ‘Wizard’s Walk’ and you realise that she is not going to do things the easy way. Both Gow’s and Ungar’s tunes were written for the fiddle and the first tune in the ‘Midnight’ set comes from another fiddle-player, Aidan O’Rourke, while its companion is another of Tia Files’ compositions.
Next Heather turns her attention to a classic of the pipe repertoire. ‘The Field Of Gold’ is a piobaireachd written by P/M Donald MacLeod and Heather attempts to reproduce the ornamentation of the piper on the harp. It’s not easy and, unusually, Heather sings a little of the canntaireachd over her harp at the end. Two very jolly marches are next and the album closes with ‘Under The Stars’, one of Heather’s one tunes played over field recordings made in Portugal.
There are two songs. The first, ‘The Best Of Us’, is co-written by Heather as tribute to her aunt and is pretty and sincere. The second, ‘Stronger Than You Know’, is written and sung by Corinna Hewat who also produced the record. But, nice as these songs are, the focus is, and should remain, on Heather and her harp.
Harpist and singer Heather Downie was introduced to Scottish music by the late Martyn Bennett at the age of nine and has been involved in music ever since. Graduating from the RSAMD with a first class honours degree, Heather went on to achieve distinction in her postgraduate diploma in performance studies. No stranger to performing Heather was a Young Traditional Musician of the Year finalist in 2015. She teaches at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and plays with the band Top Floor Taviers. She has toured across Europe and America and is the Co-founder of Harp Bazaar teaching and promoting group work for the harp.
In her debut album; Nae Sweets For Shy Bairns, Heather holds nothing back in her fresh, feisty approach to her harp playing. The album features self-penned tunes and songs such as the dark ‘Stalky Nightmare’ and rhythmic ‘William The Conqueror’ as well as a gentler sound in ‘Under The Stars’ which features a soundscape created from a field recording on a recent trip to Europe. Heather also honours the traditional with her arrangement of ‘Neil Gow’s Lament For The Death Of His Second Wife’ and her ‘harp take’ of Piobaireachd with Donald MacLeod’s ‘Field Of Gold’. The album also features percussion and guitar from Tia Files and guest vocals from producer Corrina Hewat.
The album launch is on 28th January 2018 at Celtic Connections in Piping Centre. The album will be toured nationwide in June 2018
The first thing I had to do was discover the meaning of taiver. Apparently it means a rag and, by extension, low or abject. Top Floor Taivers is a good name for a band but there is nothing abject or low about Claire Hastings, Gráinne Brady, Heather Downie and Tina Jordan Rees or their debut album, A Delicate Game.
There’s not that much delicate about their music either. The opener, ‘Johnny O’ Braidieslee’ begins with big piano chords from Tina counterpointed by Heather’s clarsach and Gráinne’s fiddle. It’s a great old ballad of death and derring-do and Top Floor Taivers do it full justice. Next is Findlay Napier’s ‘Princess Rosanna’ inspired, so we’re told, by graffiti on a Glasgow wall. The song is ostensibly about a woman who drowned in the Clyde although I’ve long fancied that Princess Rosanna was, in fact, a ship. Again, it’s given a robust treatment after an a cappella introduction – perhaps a shade too strong given the subject.
‘The False Bride’ is actually quite delicate and stately with piano and fiddle, despite the pain at the end of the story, but the ladies immediately return to the robust with ‘Everybody Knows’. Most people think of Leonard Cohen as being somewhat morose but he could be a bit of a curmudgeon with a bitter sense of humour and a wicked way with words. This is one of his best songs in that vein.
I love ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ but I always worry when someone covers it because, for me, the essence of the piece is Richard Thompson’s incredible guitar part. No-one else dare even attempt it. Top Floor Taivers begin the song with staccato piano chords before opening it out with fiddle but it’s Tina’s playing that expresses the story.
‘Jeannie And The Spider’ is by Heather and her brother Alasdair but sounds traditional and ‘Campfires’ is not so much delicate as fragile with lead vocalist Claire Hastings’ echoey ukulele sounding almost mournful behind her. ‘Ramblin’ Rover’ is a song that is being covered a great deal in the wake of Andy M Stewart’s death and it may be that, of all the songs he’s written, this fine rollicking piece will prove to be his legacy. Finally ’10 Little Men’ is Claire’s adaptation of a nursery rhyme complete with what I take to be synthesised sounds.
A Delicate Game is a fine debut album and I reckon that Top Floor Taivers must be a knockout live.