Feature / Songwriter Jenny finds much to admire in islands’ natural and cultural worlds

Musician and songwriter Jenny Sturgeon, who recently moved to Shetland. Photo: Shetland News/Neil Riddell.

A SCOTTISH folk musician who recently moved to the islands is leading a nature-themed songwriting workshop this weekend as part of the Shetland Nature Festival.

Jenny Sturgeon, who lives in Channerwick, will lead two classes at the Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary on Sunday – before making her maiden appearance on a Shetland stage as the support act for Martha Wainwright at Mareel next Wednesday (5 July).

The workshops are aimed at arming participants with the tools necessary for exploring songwriting, including lyrics, meter, melody and arrangement. No previous songwriting or musical experience is necessary.

The Aberdeenshire-raised 30 year old only took the decision to pursue music full-time as a career around a year ago, having spent years studying biology and seabird ecology, but has already found herself inundated with work.

Since relocating to Shetland earlier this year she has spent much of her time on the road. Shortly she will be heading to Berneray in north Uist with bandmates in Salt House, a Scottish folk trio she joined last year, to record a new album.

Jenny, who plays harmonium and shruti as well as singing, joins guitarist Ewan MacPherson and fiddler/violist Lauren MacColl in Salt House, who are performing in Shetland as part of Fiddle Frenzy on Thursday 3 August.

Salt House, a trio Jenny Sturgeon joined last year and also featuring fiddler Lauren MacColl and guitarist Ewan MacPherson. Photo: Archie MacFarlane (www.foto.scot).

How is she finding life, as a professional touring artist, in Shetland? “So far, so good. It obviously adds a bit of complexity in terms of the travel, but it kind of means that when I’m back here I’m really here, rather than when I was living in Aberdeen.

“When I’m on the mainland I’m working, and when I’m here I’ve got time to do other stuff, delve into other projects a bit more. On the mainland it’s busy with gigs and workshops and rehearsing – it makes a clear distinction between the two, which is good.”

Jenny is “kind of overwhelmed” by the islands’ lively cultural scene. She was aware of the standard of instrumental fiddle music emanating from these parts, but was “blown away” by the quality and individuality of the singer-songwriters at a house concert in Lerwick shortly after moving north.

Although, having studied biology and seabirds, she is not pursuing a career directly related to her university days, there is a substantial amount of crossover.

“I didn’t really notice until I did a gig down in Edinburgh, the promoter said you should make more of this, all of your songs are about nature – to realise that the biology and the music were kind of one and the same thing. Being out in inspiring places, looking at stuff in quite a lot of detail, inspires a lot of the writing.”

She first learned to play music at secondary school. Having gone off to pursue other interests academically, she credits the late, much-lamented writer Lise Sinclair for rekindling her interest during a visit to Fair Isle to do seabird work in 2012.

“When I was living there we would meet up on a regular basis and sing songs, have a tune – it was her that kind of reignited the music thing, really.”

Back in Aberdeen, she started playing at ceilidhs and singing at open-mic nights, before she met the musicians she now plays in a band with – Jonny Hardie and Davy Cattanach of Old Blind Dogs – and initially recorded a few tracks for fun, which turned into her first EP Source to Sea.

Since then there was last year’s debut album From the Skein, followed earlier this year by an album of songs and tunes for St Kilda, The Wren and the Salt Air, in conjunction with the National Trust for Scotland.

She has also been taking songwriting workshops, doing teaching in schools and occasionally playing with contemporary trad group Clype.

Jenny says the classes are a great way of sitting down and considering the songwriting process.

“I’ve run quite a few workshops and people really seem to enjoy having the space to write, and being given little ideas for tools and techniques, and also some quite simple exercises to help with creativity.”

She generally writes using the harmonium to create the drones and general sound of a song, then takes it from there. “I like working with other people,” Jenny explains. “You get the bare bones of something, the lyrics and the melody and some kind of instrumentation before taking it to other people and seeing where it ends up.”

And she has already found a few folk in Shetland that she’s interested in collaborating with, something that will be easier in the autumn and winter when her touring schedule is less frantic.

  • Tickets to Jenny Sturgeon’s nature-themed songwriting workshops at Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary on Sunday (2 July) are available here. Tickets for Salt House’s Fiddle Frenzy concert on Saturday 3 August are also on sale now
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