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Features / ‘It’s like getting to record in Abbey Road’

Kris Drever (centre) with Ewen Thomson, Ross Couper, Eamonn Coyne and Maurice Henderson. Photo: Floortje Robertson

“MIND-BOGGLINGLY healthy” is how guitarist and singer Kris Drever, one of the brightest lights in Scottish folk circles, describes the Shetland music scene today.

Having made regular excursions north for slots at the Shetland Folk Festival – and gigs under his own various monikers – for many years, the talented Orcadian moved to the islands last winter. 

While the need to maintain an exhaustive work schedule means he has yet to spend as much time in Shetland as he would like, Drever did find a gap in his schedule this summer to record a new five-track EP.

Alongside regular musical sidekick Eamonn Coyne, the 35 year old mined the isles’ rich tapestry of traditional players for ‘Mareel EP’, which gets its formal launch at the Lerwick venue on Tuesday 9 September.

It promises to be a special evening: for one night only, most of those who play on the record will gather to perform it live in the same auditorium in which it was recorded.

Drever is certainly keeping it local: among the cast list are a trio from Quarff, the village he now calls home. His fiancé, Louise Thomason, sings harmonies along with Freda Leask on the EP’s two songs, underpinned by Graham Malcolmson’s top-notch work on the double bass.

“I knew lots of my neighbours were quite musical,” he explains, “and I hadn’t met some of them, so it was a nice icebreaker to go round and ask them if they wanted to make a record!”

One of the songs, ‘Wintermoon’, is a delicious, feel-good reworking of a 2009 track by his band Lau; the other a rollicking, banjo-enhanced stomp through the Ewan MacColl-penned ‘Moving On Song’, also performed by folk greats including Dick Gaughan and Christy Moore.

Freda Leask and Louise Thomason recording harmonies for the EP. Photo: Floortje Robertson

Both highlight the growing power and unique timbre of Drever’s soaring vocals, along with some sterling accompaniment from Leask and Thomason.

The EP also features three impeccably chosen sets of tunes, taken from different sources to ensure the musical heritages of Shetland, Orkney and Ireland were all represented.

‘Ooot and in Da Harbour’ draws on Maurice Henderson’s expert knowledge of Shetland tunes. One of the isles’ very finest fiddler players, he is someone Drever had wanted to record with for some time.

Coyne brought to the table a set of jigs, given the literal title ‘Three Jigs-ish’, while ‘Isles Tunes’ is a suite featuring a tune Drever learned in Orkney, another Irish number from Coyne’s repertoire, and a tune mutually stowed in their respective lockers by Coyne, Henderson, Ewen Thomson and Ross Couper.

“Ewen has a specialist interest in Irish music, so he plays the fiddle on those jigs of Eamonn’s – it’s kind of a representation of everybody there, geographically,” Drever says.

“Those things, to the untrained ear, are probably not that dissimilar musically, but the players would notice which bit is from where, and it’s conceptually quite a nice thing to do.”

You can hear all of the aforementioned fiddlers on the EP along with Margaret Scollay on piano, while Couper also dusted off his drumsticks for the recording sessions at Mareel in June.

It all came about through a happy coincidence: Lau soundman Tim Matthew is also newly resident in the islands, and Drever eagerly seized the opportunity to raid Shetland’s box of music-making talents.

“I’d been speaking to Maurice for a number of years about doing some recording with him,” he explains, “and felt that if we didn’t make it happen when circumstances were as they are then we never will.”

Drever is quick to lavish praise on Mareel’s recording facilities, which allow musicians to plug in and play from the venue’s capacious main stage.

“I think it’s fantastic. I have no qualifications, really, about its quality. That auditorium sounds beautiful – it’s like getting to record in Abbey Road or something, genuinely an exquisite place to record in.”

He is equally effusive when it comes to Shetland musicians – and not just its army of folkies.

“It’s kind of the envy of most other places in terms of the skill set available to you, the standard of player – in every genre there’s lots of really excellent musicians. You do find it across Scotland, there are lots of great musicians, but even within that Shetland has a high concentration.

“I think it’s cultural, to do with placing value on music. In Shetland nearly everyone seems to have some musical passion – they love anything from Dolly Parton to Cradle of Filth, but it’s not a passing interest, it’s a genuine passion.” 

And while some of those on ‘Mareel EP’ won’t be able to make the launch night, without downplaying those individuals’ ability, Drever says like-for-like replacements are not too difficult to come by.

“It’s a bit like the Real Madrid of music scenes: Cristiano Ronaldo can’t play, but it’s okay because Gareth Bale’s on the bench.” 

The EP launch takes place immediately before Drever and Coyne embark on a tour across the UK for much of September. He says it will be a ”quite unusual” opportunity for folk to hear the music replicated in the space where it was recorded.

“I’m disappointed I can’t take everybody on the road, but glad we get to perform it once, and the only time that’s going to happen is at Mareel.”

Eamonn Coyne and Kris Drever. Photo: Floortje Robertson
The “move along, get along, go move shift” chorus of McColl’s song doubles as an apt description of the continuously travelling musician’s lifestyle: once the EP tour is over Drever’s attention will turn to an extensive list of projects.

2015 should see the hatching of the fourth studio album from serial award winners Lau. Then there’s a project providing music to accompany a historical walk around Leith; a collaboration with Alan Kelly and Ian Carr in Ireland; recording with musicians from Brittany; a Scottish islands co-writing project with Shetlander Arthur Nicholson and Willie Campbell from the Western Isles.

In among it all are trips to South Korea, Brazil and Australia. But, though Drever has spent recent years garnering much-merited awards and critical acclaim, trotting the globe one minute and performing at Glastonbury the next, he remains firmly down to earth 

Indeed, he name-checks this summer’s inaugural ‘North Atlantic Sessions’ gigs in Sandwick and Fetlar among his highlights of 2014 so far.

“I love the social aspect of music here,” he adds, “It’s always been a big part of my own musical life wherever I’ve gone, getting out to play tunes with people because it’s what we do, and there’s lots of opportunities to do that here.”

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