Emily Smith finds landscape and history, and the connections between them, endlessly inspiring for her music. That’s as true for the songs she writes herself as for the music she seeks out from older sources. In Smith’s case, the landscapes which most draw her imagination are those of Dumfries and Galloway, in southwestern Scotland.
“Local history is a big thing for me,” she says. “The traditional music, I try to trace back songs coming from Dumfriesshire. I’m very much inspired by the landscape in the songs I write, also. And there are a couple of songs I’ve done about historical figures from the region.”
Smith sings and writes in both straightforward English and in Scots. Though she’s won a number of top awards for both songwriting and singing, neither of those got her started in music. “My parents gave me an accordion one Christmas,” Smith recalled, and that eventually led to her joining an accordion orchestra and playing with other bands for ceilidhs, too. “When I was first starting out, I was very much more of an accordion player than a singer,” she says.
Smith grew up in the same area of Dumfries and Galloway where she now makes her home. “A lot of the traditional music that’s played around here is Scottish country dance band, all accordion and fiddle — there’s a very strong following for that,”she said. “If you were to stumble upon a session in a pub –doesn’t happen often down here but there are a few sessions — the majority of the tunes are Irish, because we’re so close to Ireland and a lot of the people here have connections there. All that was my background when I first got into traditional music, really.”
Both of the bands she was in decided they needed a singer and a spokesperson “and I’m not quite sure how it happened, but that became me,” Smith said, pointing out that she learned a great deal about stage presence and connecting with audiences from those experiences. She knew she didn’t want to pursue a course in classical music at university, though, so she was considering other careers, when she heard of the Scottish traditional music course at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. “I hadn’t really planned on that at all,” she says. but she got a last minute audition. “They accepted me in to the course to start that autumn, and just away I went!”
Though she values her time in Glasgow for the academic study of Scottish tradition as well as for getting her involved in the traditional musical scene beyond her rural home area, it was to Dumfriesshire she returned. Her most recent solo album, Too Long Away, includes both traditional songs and songs she has written, among them Sunset Hymn, which crystalizes a moment of a summer evening, and Winter Song, a meditation of the challenges and choices of settling in to make it through winter time. “We were snowed in when I wrote that one,” Smith recalled, laughing.
Smith was one of the writers who participated in The Darwin Song Project, in which songwriters were commisoned to collaborate to create songs about and inspired by the scientist. Last year, she and husband and musical partner Jamie McClennan decided to pay tribute to another figure from history, Scotland’s national bard Robert Burns, who was also a Dumfriesshire resident. “We started out choosing songs he wrote about this local area,” Smith says, “and then added a few songs, lesser known and well known, just because we liked them!” Smith handles lead singing on songs including the title track, Adoon Winding Nith, Silver Tassie, and The Plooman, while McClennan contributes outstanding fiddle playing and sits in on guitar and other instruments as well.
Smith is at work on a new recording to be launched in February of 2011. She’s booking dates in Europe in support of that, and in the meanwhile has a short run of concerts in New England and Canada coming up.
As she works on her own music and looks for traditional songs she’d like to sing, she often looks through old books of history and poetry, both to find songs and to find lines and ideas that suggest directions for her own writing. “ A big thing for me is still the local history side. I guess that just means that I’ve found it easier to relate to things that I know are sourced from this part of Scotland,” Emily Smith says. “I like to be able to go to the locations that are mentioned in in the story. It’s the story that really grabs me.”
photograph of Emily Smith at Celtic Connections copyright Kerry Dexter.