At the tender age of 18, Iona Fyfe has forged a remarkable career in the music industry. Paying homage to her hometown of Huntly in Aberdeenshire, she has revived traditional music and ballads with a contemporary flare for audiences across Europe. Mina Green caught up with her at Stereo for a chat about her love of bothy ballads, being a young woman in the industry and staying true to herself.
What can you tell us about your journey so far?
I started with Doric and singing and playing piano. There are competitions held by the TMSA (The Traditional Music & Song Association of Scotland) and you take part in a sing around. There are a lot of old source singers who give you a lot of inspiration. I never thought I’d do a degree in singing, I thought I’d do law or politics or something with a steady occupation. Growing up I realized I really loved doing it, and the TMSA gave me a lot of support and encouragement, which ultimately led me to getting into the course at the Conservatoire.
How would you describe your sound?
I think we haven’t experimented enough…yet! But it’s traditional with a contemporary interpretation, retaining traditional essence but pushing the boat out a little bit! I’d really like the sound to morph into something with more distortion or reverb. Maybe something like Fairport Convention, I’d love to have that big sound! I would do unaccompanied songs and ballads and stay true to myself, but still try to appeal to a younger and more open minded audience as well. Strike a balance that’s sympathetic to tradition, but different and contemporary.
What is it about traditional ballads that resonate with you?
There are a lot of literary collections collected by Americans, and the Aberdeenshire ballads make up a large percentage. There was a collection called the Child Ballads, collected by Francis James Childs, and 91 of 305 of them were from Aberdeenshire, which is where I am from. I think there’s a selling point to try and sing and play the music of your area, making accessible old ballads in a modern way to a different audience. I wanted to take a bothy ballad, and rock it up. I also take influence from a lot of English folk singers; I’m drawn to it. My heart lies in the likes of Nancy Kerr, Jackie Oats, and Bella Hardy. They’re different.
How have you found being a young woman in the music industry, do you feel you have been treated differently?
I think age is something that worries me. When people find out that you’re young, payment is an issue. They don’t treat you as if you are a semi professional. You learn to be a bit more firm, and smart with contracts. One time, I can’t remember what festival or venue it was, but I picked up the phone and they said ‘oh, I thought this would be one of the boys’ and I was like, ‘why would you think that? It’s me Iona’. They assumed it would be a man that would be doing the talking. I thought it was a shame.
What musician, living or dead, would you most like to collaborate with?
In terms of high profile Sandy Denny, in terms of tradition, there are some amazing northeast singers that have now passed but I would have loved to sing with Gordon Easton he was a pioneer, and Jimmy McBeath.
Do you prefer big crowds or intimate audiences?
Intimate audiences, I think if you’re on stage telling a story through song about something that means something to you, if it’s a folk club and everyone is listening to you and hanging on every word, even if there are only 30 people or 20 o r 10 there, it’s so much more important because those people are listening. With these big drunken crowds it’s not as worthwhile.
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to pursue a career in music?
Integrity is so important; and don’t undervalue yourself, don’t let anyone walk all over you or put you down. Be humble, that’s something I’ve learnt to do better, I used to do musical theatre, and we were all so mean to each other. Getting out into the real world, you become a more humble person. And if anyone younger is asking for advice, then give them the advice they need, don’t withhold information from people that would benefit from it. Be fair.