Feature – Mary Ann Kennedy

Mary Ann Kennedy | Màiri Anna NicUalraig

What’s important to you about the work you produce or the way you make it?

I love living where I do – in Lochaber on the shores of Loch Linnhe looking up on to the best view there is of Ben Nevis. The landscape that surrounds us is very dynamic, constantly changing, as does the light that illuminates it. We built our Watercolour Music studios to make the most of this and it has a significant impact on the way that we, and the folk that come to record and write here, work. There’s something special about crossing the 3-minute Corran Ferry as well – it’s like permission to put the outside world behind and concentrate on what’s right in front of you in the studio.

I don’t much like being put into boxes, and that can happen often enough by geography, gender, age, language or genre. I make music, I write words, that’s kind of it. Labels on what I do only restricts opportunity – for myself to explore and, significantly, for others to encounter what I actually do rather than what they think I do.

My mother tongue is at the heart of my expression – I write and perform mostly in Gaelic, and for me this is a contemporary expression, and one not restricted to ‘traditional’ music, although of course that is a significant part of my musical heritage. Gaelic song has, like its parallel Scottish piping tradition or like other non-western musical worlds, a vernacular and a classical output, and it can be frustrating to have such a rich and varied musical world lumped together into ‘folk’, whatever that word means. I believe as well that my performance and writing have the capacity to connect, whether the listener understands Gaelic or not: it matters a great deal to me that I have the opportunity to share what I do beyond ‘Gaelic borders’.

Being able to work with Nick Turner, my husband and oft-times musical partner is one of the most important things in my life – we are a good team, we’ve evolved a great way of working together, our interests and skills combine to make a rather eclectic musical Venn diagram, and he’s there when the black dogs bark. I am incredibly fortunate that life, love and music are entwined as they are.

What effect do you hope your work has on listeners/audiences/people/the world?

I hope it adds to the ecology of Gaelic and Scottish music. We still live in a world where the bottom line is either a (usually younger) female lead singer at the front of a male band, or a rip-roaring all-male line-up. Some of my very favourite bands are exactly that, but in a world where big festivals are increasingly the focus at the expense of local live music, it’s too easy to go with the ‘safe’ choice, and it dismays me when organisers’ expectations and assumptions restrict the outlets for encountering something out of the ordinary, quirky, challenging or different. When I first thought about these questions last year, the question of gender was most current, but I have also now reached the age of invisibility, or more accurately, an age of unacknowledgement of creativity. I have a 5 at the front of my age, and while I feel like I’m only just getting going, I realise as many women do at this stage that the rest of the world doesn’t think like that. And that – just as with the gender debate – it doesn’t even realise it’s doing it. However, there’s nothing I like less than ‘poor me’: I have to find a reconciliation within myself that still strives to find a platform for my music but that is also true to being more concerned with interesting music and thoughts and approaches. I want substance – and I definitely want that with style too.

What do you enjoy about sharing your work?

I really love getting people to sing – ‘tha e math ’s tha e math dhuit’, it’s good and it’s good for you – so if I manage to get folk to do that and feel good about it and themselves, I’m happy. And to be honest, it’s rather cool when a bunch of folk sing your tunes and words back at you. Sharing work also means the musicians you work with as well as audiences – even though I’ve been making an effort to step out solo more often of late, some of my most rewarding musical moments remain in the collective. The Tiree Songbook was a glorious example of a community, and music and musicians raised in or supported by that community, creating something very special to celebrate a place, its people, their language and music, working alongside other highly respected musicians and connecting with audiences in Scotland and in the island’s global diaspora. We took the Songbook home to the Tiree Music Festival in July 2018 to share our collective joy in being awarded Community Event of the Year at the Trad Awards. The challenges of being an island community however meant that some of the musicians were fog-stranded at Glasgow Airport when we were due to go on stage at TMF. But such is the strength of Tiree’s community and its musicians, that other singers and musicians stepped up to the plate at a couple of hours’ notice and with no rehearsal, and the resulting performance was one of the happiest – and adrenalin-fuelled – I’ve ever done. Take it for read that the tunes and songs all went a little faster that day.

What does making new work mean to you?

I hope that writing new songs in Gaelic and deliberately aiming to occupy a creative space across genres helps break down preconceptions about the language. New work also gives me a kind of freedom – there’s no ‘you should only sing this song such-and-such a way’ about new writing, no rules, and that is liberating. And it has an impact on my performance when I do turn to traditional and existing repertoire – it gives me a renewed confidence in my having a right to put my own stamp on things.

Who or what inspired/inspires you to commit to your creative work and how?

I hesitate to use the analogy that I usually do to describe my working process – suffice to say it involves blockages and release (and it’s square). The blank sheet of paper is the scariest thing in the world for me – I need something to respond to, even if it’s a scribble or a couple of words, an image or thought. Home inspires me, Nick inspires me, the energy of making music with people inspires me. These are the things that make me keep going to finish something worth creating. I often like working to a brief, as long as I get to interpret it my way or go off-piste from time to time. I like to know where the music’s destined – whether for a play, or a choir, or a TV programme – that it has an end purpose and that as a result it will mean something deeper for some of the performers or listeners.

When I’m active physically, I’m active mentally and creatively – it helps keep the dogs at bay and gets an energy coursing through me. This is not easy, and I live with the oftentimes overwhelming effects of anxiety daily. But you can only decide to keep going. The current incentive is a half-marathon in May – my first half, in Tiree a couple of years ago, nearly did for me. I have no idea whether I’ll make this one, but we’ll see.

And if I was going to mention other folk whose work and general being inspires me: Jo Miller, whose holistic approach to life and music is what we could all take inspiration from; Aonghas MacNeacail as my first co-writer of songs, and whose poetry has been with me since I was at school; and Finlay Wells , my musical partner-in-crime – his musical imagination and openness, and his ability to talk philosophy, prog rock and petrol-headedness – sometimes concurrently – on the road, are rare finds and ones to be treasured.

What’s the next big challenge for you creatively/artistically and/or in business?

The album I was supposed to be making when I brought out my debut album, ‘An Dàn’.

‘Glaschu’, a love-song to my Glasgow urban Gaelic upbringing has been brewing since 2013, when I was musician-in-residence at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college in Skye. It’s released in April 2019 on ARC Music. I had this epiphany moment, realised that Gaels sing incessantly about the incomparable beauties (according to them) of their respective islands and Highlands, and that I should therefore be doing likewise with the songs of the city. And there are so many of them – bonnie, funny, horrifying, entertaining, the whole gamut. I feel so at home with them, having grown up in the Gaelic speaking and Highlander community of Glasgow. I’m excited about this – I identify as strongly with this story of urban Gaeldom as I do with my own songs.

What lights me up is that the songs are identifiable – tangible – people, places, events, locations. I can show you the photographs and studios of ‘Pàraig nan Dealbh’, an Argyll photographer based in Jamaica Street and immortalised by William Livingstone; I can walk through the park where I played as a kid and Màiri Mhòr nan Òran presided over a famous New Year shinty game a hundred years earlier; I can see John MacFadyen regaling the Gaels at the Ingram Street penny readings, telling their story and reminding them that there is hope despite deprivation and a twisted world; and growing out of the original album project, I can share a simple meal with the members of the Gal-Gael community whose boat- and life-building skills set in the heart of Govan have been an inspiration for a new song.

But the songs are also an empathy with arrival communities and peoples, wherever they come from, and wherever they end up. So many of the songs are universal themes and experiences of immigration, displacement, culture clash and identity – and I am proud that my mother tongue is able to articulate these stories so vividly. It’s an almost physical experience performing some of the songs.

What skills have been essential in your work so far?

Literacy, numeracy, diplomacy (hard-learned), negotiating skills (ditto), IT skills. Oh, and musical ability. What do I wish I could do better? Marketing, networking (the small personal hell for a social inept), social media savvy. Oh, and musical ability.


A piece of my work I am proud of..

I don’t often complete a piece of work and feel that I can walk away from it, satisfied that I did all I could to make it as good as possible. But I in danger of being proud of ‘Glaschu – Home Town Lovesong’. It’s me and where I come from. My work till so recently was always in about the body of the kirk – making stuff rather than expressing it myself, producing, being part of a band. If it’s taken me til now finally to say what’s been inside me all these years, then fair enough.

Mary Ann Kennedy – Mother Glasgow (Michael Marra, translated Kenna Campbell) from ‘Glaschu – Home Town Lovesong’ (ARC Music, April 2019)


My work..


Watercolour Music:  www.watercolourmusic.co.uk