James Graham: Keeper of Songs

17 Jan 2011 in Gaelic, Highland, Music, Showcase

JAMES GRAHAM’S head is full of Gaelic songs. ‘I don’t know how many I can sing off the top of my head,’ he says, ‘but I’ve learned hundreds of songs over the years.’

James is one of Scotland’s most highly regarded traditional musicians. In 2004 he won the BBC Young Scots Traditional Musician of the Year, becoming the first Gaelic singer ever to do so, and in 2007 he won the prestigious Mod Gold Medal, the highest accolade for men’s solo singing at the Royal National Mod.

Lochinver singer James Graham

Lochinver singer James Graham

He says that he finds it easy to learn the words of songs. Partly this is down to years of practice: ‘It’s just something I’m used to, because I’ve been doing it since the age of 10, learning words for Mods and things.’ 19 years on he is still absorbing new songs. ‘I learn a lot of songs driving on long journeys, just singing in the car.’

He is modest about his awe-inspiring capacity to retain so many lyrics, talking about songs as if they actively want to be learned. ‘Songs themselves help: their rhyme and rhythm and the way they’re written help you. You’re not just learning a whole heap of random words, they’re structured in such a way that helps you to remember them.’

As a Gaelic singer, James is one of the bearers of tradition, something he takes very seriously. ‘If I hear songs being sung by someone, say on the radio, that I want to learn, first of all I try to source the authentic words, because you get different versions.

‘I’ll maybe put my own spin on the song, but I’m definitely concerned about getting it right – having the right words, knowing the background to the song, making sure I understand it completely. There’s nothing worse than someone coming up afterwards and saying “it wasn’t that person who wrote that song” or “you had that phrase wrong”. It’s doing justice to the song, making sure you have it right.’

For checking the authenticity and accuracy of his work, James relies on Kenna Campbell, his teacher since he studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) in Glasgow from 1999 to 2003. Kenna, originally from Skye, is Scotland’s foremost authority on Gaelic songs.

‘She’s the oracle’, says James. ‘She’s really helpful for sourcing songs.’ He still studies with her. ‘I always like to let Kenna hear new songs before I perform them in public. She’s been a massive influence.’

Gaelic singer James Graham

Gaelic singer James Graham

Attention to words is only part of what makes a great singer: the voice also needs to be looked after. ‘It took me years to understand that it is an instrument. I used to think, och, it’s just my voice, but you can definitely see improvements if you do exercises – just like any other instrument it’s about practice and training. I’ve got a range of vocal exercises and breathing exercises. Kenna can tell if I’ve not been doing them every day, and I get both barrels from her if I’ve not done them!’

Two other formative influences who James is quick to mention are his great aunt Seordag Murray and Kenny Mackenzie, the former headmaster of Lochinver Primary School, who led the school choir to many Mod successes and introduced James, along with many other Assynt children, to Gaelic songs.

‘We used to have a great time going away to sing at the Mod, it was brilliant,’ he says. ‘There are a lot of cynical people who slate the Mod, because it’s competitive. They say it should be a festival without competition, but what I say to people is that there’s no doubt about it, if I hadn’t gone in for the Mod, I wouldn’t be singing now. It has its plus sides – all these kids coming through, being exposed to Gaelic and our culture. It’s a great opportunity for children to get involved. That’s my rallying cry for the Mod.’

These days he is repaying what the Mod did for him, working for An Comunn Gàidhealach as their Mod Development Manager, which he describes as his dream job. Between singing gigs and the job, he divides his time between Lochinver, Inverness and Glasgow. ‘I sometimes think I should really get a camper van, it’d save an awful lot of hassle,’ he jokes.

He was taken on to help to organize the Mod in Caithness in 2010, ‘At the start there was resistance to the Mod from the local Councillors, and because of all the rumpus with the politicians, they wanted someone dedicated to working on the Caithness Mod in particular, because it was a new committee and everything was being done for the first time. I was up there a lot, there were a lot of meetings, but in the end it went really, really well.’ He is now one of the organizers of the next Mod, to be held in Lewis in October 2011.

As well as solo singing, James jumps at opportunities to collaborate. He is part of a trio with pianist James Ross and cellist Neil Johnstone, and he has taken part in many projects with other musicians. ‘I really enjoy getting the chance to work with lots of different people,’ he says, citing as an example the Transatlantic Sessions. ‘It was amazing singing with James Taylor, it doesn’t get better,’ he says. ‘I was pinching myself!’

James Ross, James Graham and Neil Johnstone

James Ross, James Graham and Neil Johnstone

Yet despite all his success, James remains committed to his home community of Lochinver. As part of his studies, James researched the local Gaelic song legacy, digging up a collection of songs unique to Assynt.

The song tradition remains the one area where Gaelic is still strong in Assynt, where very few native speakers remain. James is part of a generation of young people who were brought up speaking exlusively English, and although older members of their families still spoke Gaelic it was not passed on.

James describes how he used to visit his Aunt Seordaig for Gaelic singing tuition. ‘But it was not about learning Gaelic conversation,’ he says, ‘it was to learn songs. My grandparents on my Dad’s side were Gaelic speakers so I’d hear bits and pieces, but not speak it, certainly nowhere near fluently.’

Now, thanks to Gaelic classes throughout his degree at RSAMD and then during two years at Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye, he speaks Gaelic fluently, and has recently qualified to teach the language using the Ùlpan system, enabling him to take an active role in the effort to revive Gaelic speaking in Assynt.

For the future, James believes that Gaelic song deserves a major event to boost its visibility and encourage new people to take an interest. ‘The one thing that’s missing is something really big, a flaghip project with real significance, like the St Kilda Opera.’

To keep the Gaelic song tradition alive and thriving into the future, new songs also need to be added to the pot. ‘There’s definitely not enough new material,’ says James. ‘I can only think of a handful of people writing in this domain.’ There is now a song-writing competition as part of the Mod, to help encourage new work, and this is something he hopes will gain in profile.

He has also started to try his own hand at song-writing. ‘I’m dabbling’, he says, ‘but I’ve nothing anywhere near ready to perform.’ However, he hopes that when he next records a CD, ‘it’ll be a wee bit different, and include some of my own material.’ Meanwhile, his two albums, Siubhal (Travel) and Greisean Grèine (Sunny Spells) are available from his website.

© Mandy Haggith, 2011