Mary Jane Lamond Moves Forward Through The Past.
By Dave Irwin
JUNE 28, 1999: CELTIC SINGER MARY Jane Lamond is determined to keep the past alive, but she isn't a cultural throwback. Like experimental Native American musicians who add synthesizers to traditional chants or progressive Finnish singers who put funk rhythms under traditional Lapland folk songs, Lamond is taking the old ways into the future.
"Someone described my music as trance/modern or cultural creative," says Lamond, who is based in her adopted home of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. "You have traditionalists and modernists, and then you have people in the middle who want to move forward in a modern way, but not abandon the past. Innovation is not the primary goal, but to move forward and bring what's good about the past with you."
Lamond's music on her debut album Suas e! (loosely translated as "Go for it") is an infectious blend of old Scottish songs handed down through Cape Breton's oral tradition, sung in traditional Gaelic fashion, but updated with alt.rock drums, moody atmospheric keyboards and funky bass lines. There are elements of the world music sophistication of Daniel Lanois or Peter Gabriel, though Lamond claims to have never listened to them until the album was almost completed.
"I grew up listening to Iggy Pop, the Sex Pistols and David Bowie," she explains. "So I bring all kinds of influences. I take a song that I like and try to figure out how I can put some sort of soundscape in behind that both accentuates the meaning of the words and also creates a background for the song."
Though she grew up in Quebec and Ontario, Lamond often visited her grandparents on the isolated island of Cape Breton in far eastern Canada at the edge of the North Atlantic. The area was populated by Scottish immigrants following the breakdown of the clan system in Scotland after the Battle of Culloden in 1745. An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 displaced persons accepted the offer of free land, as the British were trying to introduce their own colonists to counteract the existing French influence in the newly won outpost of the Empire.
"It was, at the time, the largest human migration in history," Lamond explains. "We have a little center of isolation, a microcosm of Scottish/Gaelic tradition. Even now, in 1999, we still have Gaelic speakers who are telling Fenian tales that originated in old Irish mythology, and a marvelous singing tradition, including songs that no longer exist in Scotland."
Lamond, who did not speak Gaelic, was so taken with the culture that she began learning songs phonetically. She went on to master the language and earn a degree in Gaelic Studies. She considered continuing on to a graduate program but decided to pursue music instead. She rues her time away from her adopted home.
"I'm away so much now," she sighs. "A lot of these people that I've learned these songs from are in their 80s and 90s. To go away to finish a Master's degree, I could miss a lot. I just bought myself a little hovel in Cape Breton. I'm very rooted in my community right now."
Lamond is a self-taught singer, belying her grace and vocal accuracy, especially on tricky a cappella songs.
"I had piano lessons as a kid," she says, "but singing was the only thing that really moved me musically. We sang a lot at home and I sang in choirs. I think half the trick, like learning any instrument, is the more you do it, the better you get."
Her background includes stints in bands in Montreal's post-punk scene, which she jokingly refers to as her dark period. But mostly she has been learning traditional melodies and lyrics, milling songs sung by groups to coordinate their work at turning fleece into wool, or obscure love ballads, songs as old as the Highlands.
"For me, each song has the circumstances in which I learned it," she explains. "There may be a memory of singing in someone's kitchen at 4 o'clock in the morning or being down at my 90-year-old neighbor's house learning the song."
Lamond's touring band includes Wendy MacIsaac on fiddle, keyboard/percussionist Cathy Porter, Brad Davidge on electric and acoustic guitars, bass player Joe Butcher and drummer Matt Foulds. As powerful and lilting as the album is, Lamond admits they are even more lively in concert. She has previously toured with Melissa Etheridge, the Chieftains and Crash Test Dummies. She first gained attention as the vocalist on Ashley MacIsaac's surprise contemporary radio hit, "Sleepy Maggie," which she co-wrote with Cape Breton native Gordie Sampson.
Although she sings exclusively in Gaelic, that does not diminish the power of the songs for listeners who don't understand the language.
"I was attracted to these songs before I learned the language," she notes. "There's so much inner rhythm in the poetry. There's an attractiveness to them without knowing what they mean, but that's not what I was aiming for."
"For me, the meaning of the words is supreme. I always set the song and the words first. The whole philosophy behind the album is that if you took away all that soundscape behind the words, you'd still have a fairly traditional rendition of the songs."
Lamond is currently working on a follow-up to Suas e! to be released in the U.S. next January. Some of the songs from the upcoming album are featured on this tour. She is still experimenting with the songs on an individual basis to find just the right ambience.
"Sometimes repetitive rhythms behind the songs will work the best," she says. "If I want to sing a song that has a fairly free rhythm or longer phrasing, sometimes if the band is doing something that is rhythmic and like a loop, that works best for the more traditional rendition on top. Gaelic singing is all about an emphasis on long vowels and rhythms and there's a whole technique to the songs. We think that if it's a sentimental song, we should have a lot of dynamics and rhythm changes, lots of rubato. I'm finding my new arrangements are less about that and more about creating a trance kind of a thing. For me, there's an exploration of what can happen with these songs."
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