FOLLOWING the maxim “do more of what makes you happy”, Cullivoe fiddler and singer Barry Nisbet is pouring his heart and soul into musical and seafaring pursuits perhaps more than ever before this year.
With the seasonally apposite title A Bright Ray of Sunshine (though he jokes that the title is “a little bit ironic, as there’s lots of misery in there!”), Barry has just released a first set of recordings under his own name.
A collection of 10 songs featuring seven musicians he mostly met during his time living in Dundee, it is a potent mix of bucolic Scottish folk with Americana and jazz flavourings that he recorded last year at a studio in rural Perthshire with engineer Robin Wynn Evans.
“It was kind of something that evolved,” he says. “I had a lot of songs when I was in Dundee and trying to make music more a part of what I did.”
Barry, who had been playing with bands including Wire and Wool and Two Thieves and Seven Sons, successfully applied for financial assistance through the Dundee Musicians Award scheme and “when I got that award I had to follow it through”.
Perhaps best known locally for his fiddle playing as a member of Yell favourites Rack n Ruin, his new musical focus has seen Barry stepping out on stage alone for the first time – with support slots for The Furrow Collective and Tide Lines in quick succession at Mareel last month.
“The last few weeks is the first time I’ve been doing it regularly – I’m still experimenting with that scenario. It’s something I can refine and it’ll be part of what I do.”
Both those solo performances and A Bright Ray of Sunshine offer a platform for Barry to showcase not only his fiddle playing but also his guitar skills and a robust, confident vocal delivery that gives real poise to songs like Train to Anywhere and Hunger’s Daughter.
Perhaps the “misery” he talks of is most overt on the stirring Comfortless Cove, a tale of a “beautiful little beach that has this really grim history” in Ascension Island, which was used as a base by the British navy to patrol the West African coast for slave traders in the early 1800s.
When sailors fell ill they were put ashore to Comfort Cove, where many of them died. Barry speaks movingly of “hearing the Atlantic surf breaking on the beach – then at the back the volcanic rock cuts all the sound and you’re in a place with sailors’ graves all around you”.
The album as “inspired by travels and sometimes by the seas”, and – of course – his upbringing in Shetland, including the dialect delivery of the seafaring tragedy Da Ballad o Da ‘Jessie’ and the lilting instrumental Brydon and Anona’s Wedding Waltz.
“I think Shetland turns a lot of us into travellers,” he said. “We’re less fazed by making long journeys than people elsewhere.”
Barry grew up “totally surrounded by music”, learning traditional fiddle, enjoying Shetland Folk Festival gigs and other concerts at country halls, and he remains “heavily influenced by the folk and alternative scenes”.
Though currently dividing his time between Edinburgh and Shetland, Barry has also had a heavy involvement in the Dundee Acoustic Music Club since moving there in 2013, which has put on shows featuring acts including Fair Islander Inge Thomson, American fiddler Bruce Molsky, the Corn Potato String Band and Karine Polwart.
Rack n Ruin still “manage five or six gigs a year – always a good excuse to come home”, while this year also holds in store some touring with Toulouse-based multinational band Tildon Krautz.
The diverse group contains members from France, Poland and Brooklyn, and will follow some French dates in April with a tour of Germany in October
Barry will also find time to indulge his other main passion, sailing, as he launches a week-long trip along Scotland’s west coast as part of his Sessions and Sail initiative in late July.
- A Bright Ray of Sunshine by Barry Nisbet is out now on Rattled Rig Music and is available through various online retailers and at stores in Shetland, Orkney and Dundee.