Feature – Marit Fält and Rona Wilkie

Duo: Marit & Rona

How do you describe yourself and your work?

We meld tunes and songs from the Highlands and Scandinavia with voice, fiddle and låtmandola.

We are particularly interested in viewing traditional music as international. Gaelic song for instance does not (and did not) thrive as an independent entity – it did so within the broader scope of Q-Celtic song originally, and then as part of Scottish, British and European traditions. We are keen to explore this phenomenon, taking our perspective as European musicians brought up in the age of the internet in our arrangements of our music.

As a duo, we are also keen to subvert the expected roles of our instruments as being tune and accompaniment dominant, and are obsessed with creating a “fat” sound, which sounds much bigger than the sum of their parts. This approach has led us to frequently collaborating with other artists from different musical genres.

We are currently working with a Swedish/Norwegian reed duo, Skavlan/Ljungkrona on self-composed repertoire, and with Irish language rapper Séamus Ó Súilleabháin. We have worked with many other musicians in the past including those coming from the classical genres and from the Balkans. This type of collaboration is our bread and butter, and we were delighted to extend this cross-genre relationship in our work on two soundtracks for documentaries, most notably for the multi-award winning 16 Years Till Summer, which was nominated for a BAFTA in 2016.

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

The ultimate goal in our creative process is to make what we view as good music. As vague as this seems, it is difficult to be more specific that than. What is clear however, is that what we define is good is determined by us and not by what may be perceived as popular or a good business move.

We are primarily interested in arrangements – whether that be of traditional material or of our own material and finding out voice in that. This can be quite tricky when we are working music which isn’t from our own tradition (Rona is from Scotland, and Marit is from Norway/Sweden) and it has taken years to be comfortable in approaching “foreign” material. Central to our approach is respect. Firstly, respect the material and the tradition of the source. Secondly, respect your own background as a musician and person and finally, respect the duo as a partnership which makes a unique sound when playing together. In having this at the forefront of our minds then we feel that it is possible to create a sound which brings a unique perspective on whatever we are playing.

We have four major contributing factors to each arrangement – the tradition of the music, the perspective of both musicians and finally the established aesthetic of the duo as a frame of reference. No matter what we touch, it will sound uniquely us at the end of the arrangement process, and this can be really exciting!

What effect do you hope your work will have (or currently has) on listeners/audiences/people/the world?

We hope people appreciate the music as just that, music. One of the interesting facets of working predominantly in fusion, is the expectation for the music produced to be a representation of two or more genres. However we just happen to work in fusion as we have come together as musicians from different geographical areas, with different traditional backgrounds. We are far more interested in making a set which sounds whole, than a set deliberately juxtaposes two or more cultures in an academic way.

Our view as musicians is very similar to that as people – we view Scotland and Norway/Sweden as small countries within the European context, unique but partners for hundreds of years who have influenced each other in every aspect. Thus, although these two traditions are not the same, and should not be represented as the same, they can work together to make a cohesive piece of music through our arrangements.

As Scandinavia and Scotland are both Northern European nations, it is unsurprising that these genres complement each other. However, we have found it similarly fulfilling to work with more “different” genres. Rap artists, classical musicians and film-makers all come from the same perspective – how can we make great piece of art.

When striving for excellence, people are willing to work together so as to achieve this goal, and more often than not it works. Background doesn’t matter, language, gender and sexuality doesn’t matter until you let it matter. If we all enter the rehearsal room as equals, then we can all work together to make art. And it is this final cohesive piece of working together which we want the audience to hear – not jarring, but art for them to read as they feel fit.

What do you enjoy about sharing your work?

It is very cool to be on stage. There is something quite exhilarating about it, especially if you have a warm audience which you can communicate with.

We are particularly interested in meeting people associated with the gig. It can be quite funny for people to come up afterwards and ask us if we are sisters, having completely missed the fact that one of us from Scotland and the other Norway. We just smile and say “no”, but the prospect of saying “infact, we are not sisters but are actually engaged” is quite alluring. Sometimes we do say that, depending on the audience member.

When we are away gigging we love staying with local people, as this way can really get to know a place and the people there. Although it is great to see the museums and visit the palaces of places, our favourite memories normally are associated with times socialising with people. Who normally gets to eat a sheep cooked in the ground surrounded by naked Estonians just getting out of the Sauna? We do. Who gets to go to local market outside in -32C in the north of Norway? We do. Who has had the opportunity to go to a private bar and drink far too much local rum in the Basque Country? We do. And we have loved every moment and made fabulous friends doing it! It is the privilege of our lives.

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

Marit always jokes that her inspiration for becoming a musician comes from the Spice Girls and Abba. Rona from The Beatles and Pink Floyd. Although these are only half serious answers, these artists were (and are) very influential in our musical landscape. We have always been exposed to a range of musical styles, from classical to jazz, popular to folk and all of these musical influences play a part in how we approach our work as musicians.

The ability to communicate succinctly emotion, a great breadth of vision and an ability to innovate within a genre are particularly attractive to us. One of the best things about working within traditional music, is that from time to time you get to meet and work with musicians who have been a great influence on your work.

In particular, we are great admirers of Karen Tweed, Ale Möller and the MacKenzie sisters and have had the pleasure of meeting them all.

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

It is fair to say that we are not the best of business people – we much prefer making music than doing administration, something which we need to improve on! 2018 has seen us challenge ourselves to get better at the very necessary part of the business, and so far we have actually kept this resolution.

Creatively, we want to make more music with more people. In particular we want to record with a long term band we have As The Crow Flies. We have also applied for funding to record with Séamus Ó Súilleabháin, a project which we would hope to develop this year so as to book for next year. We are also beginning to think about recording a second duo album – we have the music for this already and are excited about making the album, if not so much about doing all the administration required to make this possible! 

What skills have been essential in your work so far?

Having a good solid foundation in technique has been essential to our work. It has allowed us to play with all sorts of people, and be able to match the vision coming from discussions. Sometimes it is impossible to match the technical prowess of everyone in the room (our work with a concert violinist comes to mind) but having an understanding of the theory and the instrument has been very useful.

Knowing what you don’t know, and a willingness to ask stupid questions has been central to maintaining this common language. We don’t know as much about an accordion as an accordionist does, so ask questions until it is understood better. In asking these stupid questions, it is amazing how much can be learnt. For instance, it is possible to chop on a clarinet – we had no idea. But we were able to incorporate this into our work with Skavlan/Ljungkrona very effectively.

We are also very lucky to both be multi-lingual. Marit speaks Norwegian and Swedish as well as English. Rona speaks Scots Gaelic, Irish and English. This is primarily helpful in situations were we can help each other out in situations where one of us is surrounded by an unfamiliar language. But we are also very willing to work in broken English, and to listen to a related language to try and work out what is being said. Although Rona doesn’t speak the Scandinavian languages, she has a substantial level of passive understanding by just being willing to listen. Marit has also sat through numerous evenings which have been conducted solely in a Celtic language. Our own interest in the five languages we have between us, has enabled us to communicate far more successfully with people who have none of these languages than would have been the case had we been monoglot English speakers.

Our interest in language has also influenced our view on music. We view different genres as languages or accents. Just because someone speaks English with a French accent, their English is no less valid than Rona’s native English. So it goes with music – although Rona plays a Norwegian tune with a Scottish accent, her interpretation of the tune is no less valid than a player from Gubrandsdalen, given that she has spent time with it, the tradition.

What makes you feel determined to produce great work/music/art/projects?

Primarily, we want to represent ourselves as well as we possibly can – we want to play well, be authentic to our artistic vision and to create interesting music. We are also very aware that in representing ourselves, we are also representing the communities which we belong to.

In being Marit and Rona, we are also incorporating our experiences as a Scot, a Scandinavian, as women and members of the LGBT community. Although we don’t deliberately aim to incorporate these identities into our music, their inclusion is inevitable if we are to properly represent ourselves. We don’t want to let these communities down.

Do you have an experience of discrimination or abuse that you want to share?

It is hard to know this definitively but we both suspect yes.

It has been long talked of now that women aren’t booked as regularly as men. It is hard to know why, though we suspect that there are several reasons. Women and men are brought up differently in society, with women encouraged to stay modest, with a testosterone driven masculine aesthetic encouraged in boys. Although it would be wrong to state that all musicians play to this stereotype in their artistic output, there appears to be a trend from male musicians to favour faster and more “aggressive” repertoire with women producing music which would be more internally investigative and slower. There are of course many exceptions to this, but perhaps this view effects the booking of female acts, as venues and festivals want to have music which is appropriate for filling big spaces.

There also lies a disparity in the instruments played at a professional level by women and men. Whilst Rona fits well within the female stereotype of being a fiddle player and singer, Marit is harder to categorise. There are few female musicians who play an “accompaniment” instrument. It is notable that only one man has ever employed Marit as their accompanist, whilst many women have employed her. It would, however, not be unusual to see a woman accompanied solely by men.

Gaelic is also discriminated against. Numerous bookings have been stopped due to the venue/festival “not liking that Gaelic stuff”, or having their “Gaelic” act. One occasion occurred when the festival said that by booking Manran, we could not be booked as the “Gaelic” quota had been filled. There appeared to have been little attention paid to the fact that Manran and us were at the opposite ends of the spectrum. In each of the occasions where a booking has been stopped through the filling of the “Gaelic” quota, the booker has said that they liked our music and that they were sorry that it was not appropriate for their festival.

Any idea, approach or message you want to share?

No matter your background, through hard work and artistic vision all music has equal value. After that it is just taste.

A piece of work we are proud of..

As The Crow Flies – Air Fair an Lail  https://soundcloud.com/asthecrowfliesmusic-1/air-fair-an-lail-master

This is with our band As The Crow Flies. We are proud of this as we think that this is a true fusion. This is a really old women’s song talking of Birlinn (a Viking inspired Gaelic Boat from the time of the Lordship of the Isles). It is definitely Gaelic in its style, but it is also quietly Norwegian, with the use of the hardanger. Everyone spend a very long time learning the difficult Gaelic phonetics (i.e. slender ‘r’ and slender ‘l’) and were willing to sing to maintain the feeling of a waulking song, and then build on the idea of communal singing as the song progressed.

A piece of work that has inspired or encouraged us..

Fiddlers’ Bid – Foroyar  https://soundcloud.com/fiddlersbidofficial/foroyar-tune

We love what they have done to this one short melody, and they trust their audience to be patient enough to wait for the long build up.