An Interview with Isla Ratcliff

Celebrated Scottish artist Isla Ratcliff is setting off on her first headline solo tour this spring…

Hello Isla, can you tell us where are you from & where are you living today?
I’m from Edinburgh. I have lived in a few different places over the years, but I’m now living back in Edinburgh.

Ah, Edinburgh, what do you make of the city’s music scene?
It’s great! There are lots of traditional music sessions in the city. Although I don’t get out to them as much as I would like, there’s a lovely community of musicians here. Also, the Edinburgh Fringe and the Edinburgh International Festival is an exciting time of year – I love the buzz around the city in August.
What are your first musical memories?
Going to my weekly violin lessons when I was 5 years old with Mysie Ferguson. Because I learned through the Suzuki Method, my parents attended all my lessons with me and led my daily practice at home. I remember practising with them in the mornings before school. My mum used to get me to do a shoulder stand when I got bored to wake me up! I also enjoyed teaching my granny what I had learned in my lessons. I have a vivid memory of going back home to her and taking my violin out of its case and proudly showing her how to hold it and how to play a few notes!

Where do your songs come from & how do you shepherd them into existence?
My inspiration comes from a variety of sources. I mostly write tunes inspired by people, by places, or by particular memories. My album ‘The Castalia’ features several of my own tunes. Some of these tunes were inspired by memories from my time in Cape Breton, some were written for people who I met in Cape Breton, and some were inspired by the story of my ancestors’ emigration to Canada in 1873. I’m also writing a tune for every Munro that I climb, so these tunes are inspired by landscape, weather and my emotions on that particular day. I sometimes
write a tune in my head and record myself singing it on my phone so that I can come back to it later. Other times I compose either on the fiddle or the piano.

You have been described as an ‘impeccable&’ fiddle player – can you tell us about your training?
I learned classical violin through the Suzuki Method with Mysie Ferguson aged 5-9. Then I lived in Ethiopia with my parents for two years aged 10-11, where I learned classical violin with Tamara Salomasova. We then returned to Edinburgh for the start of high school. I learned with Mysie for another year in S1, and then I attended The City of Edinburgh Music School at Broughton High School from S2 to S6, where I studied classical violin with Peter Markham, classical piano with Gillian Gray, and Scots song with Gillian Bowman. I also studied composition with
John Irvine and academic music studies with Catherine Frew. On leaving school, I studied a BA Music degree at Oxford University, followed by an MMus Scottish Music degree at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. However, a lot of my learning has taken place outwith educational institutions. I have learned a lot from playing with other musicians – at sessions, at gigs, at festivals, and on various creative projects. I feel very lucky to have met and learned from so many great musicians over the years.

So… desert island, solar power’d CD player, 3 albums – what are they?
That’s such a hard question! I’ll choose one from each of the three genres that I enjoy listening to. So I’d choose Pink Floyd’s “The Final Cut”, Martyn Bennett’s “Grit”, and Mitsuko Uchida’s recording of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in Bb major D.960. I grew up listening to Pink Floyd and other bands from the same era on car journeys with my parents as a child. They’re such a creative band and their lyrics tell a story so powerfully. I think Martyn Bennett’s “Grit” is one of the best traditional music albums ever made. And Schubert is one of my favourite classical composers. I especially love his Piano Sonata in Bb major – it’s so beautiful.

What is it about the music of Scotland that makes you tick as a musician?
There’s something homely about it. I love the possibilities that traditional music offers for self-expression, creativity, friendship, and connecting to people who have come before. You can take a tune and make it your own
while also respecting where it has come from. I love the community of the Scottish traditional music scene. It is welcoming and friendly, and the music is at the centre of that – it brings people together. I care about preserving the music, continuing the tradition and sharing it for many people to enjoy.

You’re just about to head out on tour – can you tell us about it?
I’m very excited to be going on my first solo headline tour this spring! I’m playing 10 gigs around Scotland – Glasgow, Mull, Ullapool, Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy, Stonehaven, Dundee, Montrose, Crieff, and Edinburgh. I’ll be playing material from my debut album ‘The Castalia’ plus a selection of songs.

Who is going on the road with you?
I’m very lucky to be playing with Ellen Gira (cello) and Iona Reid (piano). They’re both fantastic musicians and I’m very grateful to them for all their musicianship and hard work in preparing for the tour. They’re lovely people to
work with!

You’ll be previewing new songs that were not on your debut album, The Castalia, what are we to expect?
Yes, I will be singing a mixture of old traditional Scots songs and contemporary folk songs. I’m looking forward to sharing them with a live audience!

What does the rest of 2023 have in store for Isla Ratcliff?
I have plans to record some songs – either an EP or a full album. I have several gigs of my own music in June and July – Edinburgh Folk Club, Solas Festival, Stirling Folk Club, and Lyth Arts Centre Summer Sessions. I also have several gigs this summer with two other bands – The Outside Track and Smash Kafana. I hope to tour again in spring 2024, and I have an exciting project planned for 2025 – keep an eye on my social media and website!


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