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Features / The four voices of the Furrow Collective offer a distinctive take on traditional folk songs

The Furrow Collective. Photo: Seth Tinsley.

A QUARTET of highly rated singers and musicians from north and south of the border are bringing their inventive interpretations of traditional folk songs to Mareel this weekend.

The Furrow Collective are a four-piece consisting of Edinburgh singer and multi-instrumentalist Rachel Newton, Glasgow-based guitarist and singer Alasdair Roberts, Glastonbury singer and banjo/concertina player Emily Portman, and Maidstone viola player and vocalist Lucy Farrell.

The band are fresh out of the studio having just recorded their third album, on the back of receiving a string of BBC Folk Award nominations for their earlier releases.

With all four – distinguished solo performers in their own right – taking their turn to sing lead, concert-goers can expect rich vocal harmonies and adroit musical interaction as The Furrow Collective perform material from 2014 debut At Our Next Meeting and its fuller-sounding follow-up Wild Hog.

Shetland News caught up with Rachel earlier in the week – with the band eager to get back on the road following a snow-enforced weekend at home which saw them having to cancel a trio of shows in England.

Following a date at Glasgow’s much-praised Hug & Pint venue on Friday, the band will fly north for a show at Mareel on Saturday night.

It will be a maiden visit for three of the four, while Rachel previously appeared at Shetland Folk Festival with her band The Shee in 2011.

The three women in the group had already been playing together in Portman’s trio for around a decade when they decided they wanted a musical outlet to share their love for traditional songs, and decided to ask serial collaborator Roberts to join the mix.

“We decided we wanted to do something where we all took a lead, and explored our shared love for traditional songs, traditional ballads, so we wanted to work together but make it something different.

“So we asked Alasdair – we had supported him in Glasgow and Emily had done some backing vocals on his record, and we really like what he does. It came together [and] he fitted in really easily.”

Rachel said it was nice to add a male voice involved, while Alasdair has increasingly been playing electric guitar and “that’s worked really well with the three of us”.

While there are two Englishwomen and two Scots in the band, it is “not necessarily the case that we pick songs from where we from –  Lucy has a lot of Scottish songs, Emily has some Irish ones, myself and Ally sometimes have English”.

There are different musical tastes within the band which means “you find yourself performing songs you might not have chosen yourself”.

“It’s all traditional songs, but we sit down and work out how to play them and accompany them, and arrange them together, and it usually flows quite easily,” Rachel says.

“We’re always trying to think of new ways to frame these old songs. We try not to overthink it, not put too much in terms of the arrangement, keep it quite sparse, make sure the song is the most important thing.”

Wild Hog – in particular the boisterous, Roberts-led title track – also draws on some American and Appalachian influences. Elsewhere on the band’s most recent release things take an altogether darker turn with Scots murder ballad Willie’s Fatal Visit, which despite its subject matter has an uplifting feel – and the sparse, sympatico treatment of Many the Night’s Rest.

Album number three again sees Wild Hog producer Andy Bell at the helm, and Rachel says the band will be trying out at least a couple of numbers from the as-yet-untitled LP, due for release on Hudson Records in the autumn.

The Edinburgh-raised singer has been eager to get back to Shetland since her previous visit: “I had such an amazing time, and I’ve been kinda waiting to come back to Shetland ever since. I’m from Edinburgh, but my mum is from the North West Highlands, so it felt quite familiar in a way that I wasn’t expecting.”

For a community regularly inundated with folk music of all different stripes, this promises to be one of the most intriguing live concerts of 2018: “It’s quite an eclectic mix of instruments and sounds and textures; and sometimes we just sing!” adds Rachel.