Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
I grew up in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, within the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland movement. I learnt poems in the native Doric dialect of the North East of Scotland, and ultimately started learning traditional ballads and bothy ballads. My family brought me to (and left me at) various folk clubs, sing-a-rounds and festivals around the North East of Scotland, so I learnt my repertoire from tradition bearers, who were always very kind and keen to impart their knowledge and repertoire. It all flowed very naturally – I started going to more and more folk clubs and festivals and started being booked. At 16, I auditioned to for a place on the BMus Traditional Music degree at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and was given a place, so I went! Before that, I previously wanted to become a politician, but now, I realise that folk music is politics and I can do both.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
There are so many brilliant female folksingers – several from the North East of Scotland such as Shona Donaldson and Natalie Chalmers. But for me, a sense of place, identity and landscape are the most important influences on my musical life. If I hadn’t grown up where I do, I wouldn’t have been able to visit the places of which the ballads I sing originate. I was lucky enough to have history on my doorstep. With 91 out of 305 Child Ballads being directly or indirectly linked to Aberdeenshire, I feel like I have an affinity with the narratives, stories and themes of some of these ballads – and I had the added bonus of being able to visit the ballad location. At 17, I moved to Glasgow and the shift from rural Aberdeenshire to the urban city rocked me internally. Everything was new and scary, but it only made my longing and affinity for the North East stronger. Sense of belonging and identity is really important in my work.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Finding a balance between conservatoire studies, professional touring and recording presented itself as a real challenge throughout my four years studying at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. When you do a degree in Traditional Music, you really have to work at developing and maintaining a profile, taking on tours internationally and in the UK, arranging and releasing music and working with other musicians, whilst you’re still in your studies. When you leave, you will already have established the beginnings of a career and will have clear objectives and knowledge of what the next steps for you are. In saying this, during my full-time studies, I toured to thirteen different countries, released my debut album, ‘Away From My Window’ and became the youngest ever winner of the title of Scots Singer of the Year at the MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards. To say that this was exhausting is a large understatement, but retrospectively, looking back, I’m very glad that I pushed myself.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I’ve recently been researching American variants of ballads which originated in Scotland, and it’s been very refreshing. I released a 6-track EP, titled Dark Turn of Mind, which was the first ever time I had recorded a song in English. I was terrified that my existing following would not approve of me not singing in Scots dialect, but the ballads were still traditional, they were just the American variants. I was really proud of doing something artistically that I wanted to do, without stressing out for months about what other people will think, or if they will approve of the controversial move to sing in English…
It was successful, as far as EP’s go, and was played on the likes of BBC Radio 2 Folk Show, BBC Radio Scotland etc.
Dark Turn of Mind EP can be streamed here
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
My strength lies within traditional folksongs and ballads, so I’d say I currently perform these best, although I have been known to have enjoyed belting out some musical theatre numbers…
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Usually there is a core 2 x 45-minute show, for folk clubs and arts centres. 90 minutes is a long time to fill, but it flies by, especially when you sing a couple of 17-verse ballads. Through touring in Europe, Canada and Australia, I’ve became aware of the need to diversify and be accessible to several different audiences. I did a tour of Austria, Switzerland and Italy last year which lasted around three weeks. Each night we would rotate setlists, in order to keep everything fresh. I think this is important, especially if you are on the road for quite some time; and also, if you have an abundance of repertoire which you want to present. I’m lucky that I’ve been working with incredible musicians who have been instrumental to the arranging of several of these folksongs.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
In my fourth year of university, I headlined 89 shows in Europe. In 2018, my band and I did a tour in Austria and worked with a brilliant agent and tour manager affectionately named Hasi. He acted as tour guide and for three weeks, showed us around Austria. We visited a beautiful town named Hohenems, in the the state of Vorarlberg in the Dornbirn district. We played in a venue called LowenSaal. It was October and the town was chilly, but the sun was shining. The boys in the band decided to hike a nearby mountain and I went for a walk and went to the most cutest little chocolate café (not a good move for a singer!) and eat my chocolate cake and coffee by a small burn. It was a rare peaceful idyllic tour day and the venue was a delight to play in and was airy and spacious with great sound and appreciative full audience.
Fast forward to February 2019, and I’m on a German tour (with one Austrian date), and we visit Hohenems again. This time, it’s freezing, and there’s snow and ice everywhere. The boys, again, decide to scale the mountain, but instead I find the most adorable coffee shop where I sit and prepare for the evenings show. The next morning, there’s a market sale in town and everyone gets bread rolls. I know this is more about place, than venue, but it all tied in to one beautiful experience.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Last January, I got to perform at the World Premiere of Disney Pixar’s Brave in Concert, which was held at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall as part of Celtic Connections. Working with the BBC Scottish Symphony orchestra was absolutely magical and getting to sing Touch the Sky and other hits from the film was so much fun, but challenging!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I think we’re all still searching for this answer. It is so subjective. For some musicians, it will be about financial success, some musicians will seek a high profile, some will seek a well-rounded lifestyle and happiness. For me, if I’ve created art which I’m proud of and retains authenticity and ingenuity, then I grant that as a success.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Take care of your health! Especially singers. Your body is your instrument, and your health directly affects your performance. When planning tours and performances, really look into the travel logistics and gauge how exhausting the travel will be. Plan your travel to allow you to rest before performances and other commitments, to ensure that you can showcase yourself at your best. I had tonsillitis nine times over the course of twelve months, and ultimately had surgery. Come to think of it, those twelve months were exhausting, and I was extremely run down – balancing university and full-time touring and recording commitments, paired with tiring travel plans. You will only be your best, if you feel good and sometimes you need to be more selective about the workload that you take on. Perhaps taking on less, will allow you to apply yourself fully to chosen projects. Our physical and mental health are paramount to us being able to function effectively, and we must take care of ourselves.
Perseverance is also an important thing. Sometimes it will feel that you are hearing “no” more then “yes”. Developing a thick skin will allow you to deal with rejection and critism and better yourself as a practitioner. If an agent or promoter or venue doesn’t want to work with you or book you, it’s fine. Move on and work on your craft.
What is your present state of mind?
Exhausted. (Not taking my own advice of travel planning…) I’m currently writing this in a coffee shop in Banchory, Aberdeenshire. I’ve driven three hours from Glasgow and I’m away to go into a secondary school to give a talk to pupils. After that, my band will soundcheck and do a show in Stonehaven, before driving back to Glasgow and then on to Reading. All in a day’s work, eh?
Aberdeenshire folksinger, Iona Fyfe, has become one of Scotland’s finest young ballad singers, rooted deeply in the singing traditions of the North East of Scotland. Winner of Scots Singer of the Year at the MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards 2018, Iona has been described as “one of the best Scotland has to offer.”(Global-Music.de) With a number of high profile appearances under her belt, Iona, a mere 21 years of age, has toured throughout the UK, Poland, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Canada and Australia. Iona has performed with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra as part of the World Premiere of Disney Pixar’s Brave in Concert at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Released in 2019, Dark Turn of Mind is Iona’s first EP entirely in English and features six ballads and songs found in both Appalachia and Aberdeenshire and has been described as “a new interpretation to the country genre” – Maverick.
Iona Fyfe social media: