Michael Alexander speaks to Monifieth-raised Calum MacCrimmon – founder member of internationally renowned folk band Breabach – which has teamed up with Scottish BAFTA-winning animator Cat Bruce to create a beautiful film and score based on Scottish folktale The Sea Maiden, being aired on February 13 with Dundee Rep.
During these strange and uncertain times, the “new normal” has taken its toll on people from all walks of life including musicians who, almost a year ago, suddenly found all their gigs cancelled.
Amongst them was Monifeth-raised musician Calum MacCrimmon who, as founding member of internationally renowned bagpipe-led folk band Breabach, went from a 2020 diary filled with concert and festival dates to something of an existential vacuum.
Reflecting on the year gone by, Calum misses the interaction of live performances almost as much as he misses the social element of gigs.
“Sometimes that interaction comes between the stage and the audience,” he says.
“But usually it happens before a show, during the intermission and after the show when you are just spending a bit of time with new people, or maybe old friends, and there’s a good kind of buzz in the air.”
Desperate to find some form of creative outlet, however, Breabach came up with a project in March/April which is about to be unveiled to virtual audiences via Dundee Rep.
The band teamed up with Scottish BAFTA-winning animator Cat Bruce to create a film with a brand new score based on Scottish folktale The Sea Maiden.
The film, called Dùsgadh (n. awakening), is accompanied by a virtual tour across the UK with Dundee Rep having secured a spot.
The hour long ‘evening with’ event on February 13 will feature behind-the-scenes footage and unseen live performances as well as a Q&A hosted by BBC Radio Scotland broadcaster and musician Anna Massie.
Calum said that while the project was born out of lockdown last March/April, the creative side quickly “grew arms and legs”.
“The band came up with the project in March/April in collaboration with Cat Bruce the animator,” he says.
“But the delivery of the project was the thing we really had to think about quite quickly as in how it might work if people can’t get inside of venues.
“The thing that really drove us to do it this way was we knew we were going to be putting this new material online, but we wanted it to support other areas of the industry.
“We wanted to be able to support the venues.
Supporting Dundee Rep
“On February 13, for example, Dundee Rep is essentially putting on that show and people are directed to the (online version of) their much loved venue.
“During these times, perhaps what’s having the biggest impact, is that every single side of the music industry has taken a big hit.
“We’re dealing with a situation where the venues, the agents the promoters, the managers, the sound engineers – they’ve all taken a hit. So it’s an absolute, totally crucial, we find ways to support each other, so we don’t all go down the sinkhole.”
Calum has played Dundee Rep in the past alongside his Breabach colleagues Megan Henderson (Fiddle, Vocals, Step Dance), James Lindsay (Double Bass, Moog, Percussion, Vocals), Conal McDonagh (Highland/Uilleann Bagpipes, Whistle, Flute, Vocals) and Ewan Robertson (Acoustic/Electric Guitar, Vocals, Cajon).
Over the years, he’s enjoyed Dundee’s music and culture scene – especially the underground scene.
He used to enjoy the Doghouse and various other music establishments and has been inspired by ‘folky’ artists such as the late Michael Marra and Sheena Wellington to current Dundee artists like Dave Webster and the Sinderins.
Of all the projects he’s ever been involved with, however, Calum is in no doubt that working with Cat Bruce on Dusgadh is the “most collaborative” project he’s ever worked on – and he’s delighted to be able to help an iconic Dundee venue direct.
“We settled on this story together before anything had been composed or arranged,” he says.
“We then tried to grow the story and change the story depending on peoples’ feelings about the scenes or the characters of the film.
“This was all before Cat had put hand to paper. From there we just kept sharing progress. Whenever someone got a new idea they’d throw it to Cat to see what she thought or she’d throw something to us and say ‘hey I’ve had this idea’.
“Just letting the story grow together as bit of a unit. Yeah, it was really different and it felt really fulfilling to do it that way.”
Impact of lockdown
Calum said they mainly had to record it and write it in isolation.
But when the lockdown restrictions lightened in the second half of last year, they did manage to get into a rehearsal studio together and run what they had been working on.
“The pencils came out and we made all the changes we could,” he laughs.
“We shared our thoughts then had to go away again to do some more writing and arranging. So we did get a chance to play the music altogether before recording. But then we had to record it all individually at home.”
The finished product
At the time of this interview, Calum is yet to see the finished product.
However, he’s excited at the prospect and even listening to the music and thinking about the animation pieces that he’s seen, he’s started picturing some of his family getting to hear and see the work while thinking about their own experiences through lockdown.
“I started feeling a wee bit emotional,” he admits.
“Once this is the finished thing with the full narration and physical element, if it triggers for some folk things they’ve overcome or faced up to across the time, then it’s done it’s job. I hope so anyway.”
Calum MacCrimmon’s Canadian-Scottish backstory
Based in Partick, Glasgow, the now 39-year-old musician’s influences can be traced far and wide.
Calum’s piping career began in Edmonton, Canada, at the age of nine under the instruction of Pipe Major Arnie Stone.
In 1991, Calum and his family moved to Monifieth where his feelings for traditional Scottish music deepened and an all too commonly seen bagpipers obsession took hold, inspired also by a long standing piping tradition on his dad’s side of the family.
It’s a period of life he reflects on warmly.
“My mum’s mum – she’s long since passed – but she lived in Monifieth,” he says.
“When we moved to Scotland from Canada, we went and stayed with her to begin with and then we ended up moving into a house in the same road. It was one of these situations where you wanted to be closer to the older generation.
“That’s what we did. I went to Monifieth High then moved to Glasgow after school.”
In 2004 Calum graduated with honours from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (latterly Royal Scottish Conservatoire).
This marked the start of his career as both performer and music tutor in Scotland and in many other countries such as Jordan, Canada, Australia and throughout Europe.
Between 2004 and 2008 Calum was acting musical co-director/accompanist/tutor for the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland.
This band was set up by the National Piping Centre to provide a platform for talented young pipers and drummers to push the boundaries of a pipe band stage performance both musically and visually.
Calum received two separate commissions to compose music for large ensembles in 2010. ‘Perception’ was written for The Gordon Duncan Experience and aired in late September.
‘Times Change’ was written for the internationally renowned Mr McFalls Chamber as part of the Distil Showcase 2010.
In 2010 Calum also released a debut solo album of his own work which crossed the genres of folk and funk – affectionately termed ‘Flunk’ by his all-singing, all-dancing, all-mental band, Mans Ruin.
Breabach, meanwhile, are renowned for uniting deep roots in Highland and Island tradition with the innovative musical ferment of their Glasgow base.
They have released six increasingly acclaimed albums, while fuelling their creative appetites in collaborations with indigenous Australasian artists, Quebec’s Le Vent du Nord, and most recently as artists-in-residence at 2019’s Celtic Colours festival with Cape Bretoners, Beolach.
Their 15 year adventure has included live performances from Sydney Opera House to Central Park NY.
They have racked up an impressive array of accolades including five Scots Trad Music Awards, nominations as ‘Best Group’ in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and ‘European Album of the Year’ in The Songlines Music Awards.
There’s no doubt Covid has taken a huge toll on everyone’s lives, and many uncertainties lie ahead.
But Calum does feel very positive about the year to come.
“Last year I felt like we had to accept we didn’t know anything,” he says.
“We didn’t really have a path forward. This year feels quite different in that sense. There is some sort of a path – we don’t know how gradual it will be – but there is a path forward and that feels much better. Perhaps we can get some live music on the go – you never know!”
For ticket information about the February 13 event go to https://www.dundeerep.co.uk/event/breabach-virtual-tour-(-d-sgadh-(awakening
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