The new decade marks an exciting new chapter for Scotland’s fabulous fiddle-led Fara, as founding Orkney frontwomen Jeana Leslie, Catriona Price and Kristan Harvey welcome young Highland pianist Rory Matheson to the line-up.
Having bid a fond farewell to original fourth member Jennifer Austin, who’s moved on to other projects, Fara recruited Matheson via the fabled folk scene in Glasgow, their shared adoptive hometown. With all three fiddlers being fast friends from childhood, Jeana explains, “We weren’t only looking for an excellent musician we could enjoy listening to, but just as importantly, someone willing to put up with us on a full-time basis. Then from speaking to friends and fellow musicians, Rory was the name that just kept coming up.”
A 2018 finalist in BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year, Matheson hails from the rich musical heartland of Scotland’s north-west coast, where he learned his craft through the world-renowned Fèis Rois youth programme. While studying at Glasgow’s prestigious Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS), with top folk pianists Mary McCarthy and James Ross, he also began exploring jazz and blues, developing his distinctively diverse melodic, harmonic and rhythmic palette on both standard piano and digital Nord model.
“I’ve always loved the sound of a group of fiddles,” he says, “It can be so powerful in different ways, and those big, intricate Fara arrangements lend themselves so well to piano accompaniment. It’s also really interesting to explore the parallels between Orkney and Highland music – and to create new ones. And being the token male seems pretty good so far – I get a room to myself wherever we go. Even wearing make-up and tights for every gig isn’t actually too bad. . .”
Following those shared Orkney schooldays, Fara’s future co-founders pursued their own degree studies at the RCS, Royal Academy of Music, Royal Northern College of Music and Strathclyde University, courses that variously encompassed traditional folk, strictly classical, improvisation and contemporary composition.
The fiddlers’ ensuing collective sweep of top UK new-talent trophies included Catriona’s Dewar Arts Award, a Young Traditional Musician of the Year title for Kristan (who’s also a member of Blazin’ Fiddles) and Jeana’s Radio 2 Young Folk Award, in her duo with singer Siobhan Miller. Individual guest and session gigs, meanwhile, ranged from Belle and Sebastian to Nicola Benedetti, alongside periodic joint excursions back home, as riotous reinforcement to mighty Orcadian folk-rockers The Chair. The first formative threads of Fara’s rich sonic skein were thus already being spun.
And it was back home again in 2014 that they first performed under that name (taken from a nearby islet in Scapa Flow), opening the late-night club at Orkney’s celebrated folk festival. “After all of us being away in different places, doing different things, it was just such a joy getting together again, playing tunes we’d all grown up with – like another kind of coming home,” Catriona recalls. “And the audience were so lovely and supportive, too, really enthusiastic, so that spurred us on as well.”
Audiences further afield were soon sharing this enthusiasm, via other early festival bookings including Celtic Connections, Shetland, Cambridge and Tønder. “The Orkney show was originally only meant to be a one-off, but we had such great fun, we thought we’d try doing a few more,” says Kristan. “Then that first year was so exciting: we couldn’t believe we were getting to play all these famous festivals, and were just amazed by the response.”
Shortlisted in 2015’s Scots Trad Music Awards, for Up and Coming Act of the Year, Fara followed their critically-acclaimed debut album, Cross the Line, with a triumphant set at the 2017 Radio 2 Folk Awards, as nominees for the Horizon prize. Televised live from London’s Royal Albert Hall, it marked quite some journey travelled from that maiden gig just three years before, upstairs at the Stromness Hotel.
“The whole thing was a bit surreal,” Jeana says, recalling the Folk Awards show. “Such a huge, huge honour to perform in that building. The backstage is covered with pictures of stars who’ve played there – The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, every big crazy name you can think of, and there we were on the same stage, getting cheered by all these thousands of people. We went from sheer fear beforehand, to wanting to do it all again as soon as we’d finished.”
After winning a German Critics’ Choice Award that same year, Fara have continued to widen their reach, both artistically and geographically, drawing in strands of classical, Appalachian, jazz and indie-pop influence, while steadily multiplying the band’s fanbase across Europe and North America. All the while, nonetheless, the band’s deepest, dearest roots have remained back home.
“It’s hard to define exactly how Orkney inspires us, but first of all it’s just so stunningly beautiful,” Jeana reflects. “Even in bad weather: spectacular gales, massive black storms, waves crashing over cliffs – then the next day it can be flat calm, totally still and gorgeous and idyllic. It has so many different faces – the colours, sounds, the light and the water are always changing. Even on the same beach, you’ll never do the same walk twice.”
“I’m still floored by the landscape every time I’m there,” agrees Catriona. “But it’s all about the people, too. We all grew up playing within this really tight-knit community, where music still has that real, traditional social-fabric function, which I think makes you much more open-eared and responsive as a musician. There’s so much beautiful writing comes out of Orkney, as well – it’s just a really creative place in all sorts of ways.”
At the same time, since Cross the Line, Fara’s musical focus has shifted from traditional and other borrowed material to collaborative original compositions, matched with exquisitely wrought, radiantly inventive arrangements, as heard on 2018’s rave-reviewed sophomore album Times From Times Fall. “Now we’ve been together a while, the combination of our shared Orkney background with all the different styles we studied makes a really nice melting-pot,” says Kristan. “It pulls the sound in lots of different directions, but everything still gels together.” Interweaving self-penned instrumentals with new settings of Orkney texts, tracks range from intricately layered chamber-folk to gleeful headlong thrillers; haunting pastoral poignancy to gutsy anthemic ballads.
“We all still love the classic Orkney tunes, but lots of them have been recorded already – and a lot of them by our friends,” Catriona explains, “We wanted to create our own particular signature, and also to give back something new to Orkney music. When it came to writing the album, it was literally just all of us in a room together, jamming away, everyone chipping in suggestions, which is such an interesting way of working. It brings out all kinds of different ideas you’d never have thought of yourself – like ending up with tunes from all four brains instead of one.”
The release of Times From Times Fall, together with ever-bigger gigs, further extended Fara’s string of industry accolades, with nominations for Live Act of the Year and the £25,000 Belhaven Bursary, for innovation in Scottish music, at 2019’s Scots Trad Music Awards. A third Fara album is now in the pipeline – among a hectic 2020 schedule, including tours of Canada, Australia and China – as their newest fourth brain brings an influx of fresh ideas, energy and influences, together with a deep-seated empathy for the band’s beginnings, as Jeana explains.
“Although it’s different, having someone who’s not from Orkney, there’s actually a lot of similarities between our backgrounds,” she says. “Rory also grew up in a small fishing community, in another really remote place. But then there’s all his West Coast influences, too, which are newer to us, plus the jazz and blues elements – plus his musicianship’s just totally amazing. We’re all already learning a lot from each other – and we’re all really, really excited about what comes next.”