To be a folk singer in a post-Brexit, pandemic-bruised world is a demanding gig, but if anyone is up for the task it’s Iona Fyfe. Just turned 24, she’s a one-woman whirlwind of activity in many ways. Musically, she’s obsessed with the intricate history of traditional songs and introducing them to new audiences in new ways – “although there was never a moment when I went, right, I’m going to be a penniless folk singer,” Fyfe laughs over Zoom on a rainy afternoon.
She’s also a formidable campaigner. A champion of the Scots language and for musicians to be paid properly playing live, she’s also a prominent speaker (and writer in the Scottish press) against misogyny and sexism in the music industry. She’s debated with politicians Michael Portillo and broadcasters like Victoria Derbyshire on BBC programmes, utterly holding her own. She also has acute fibromyalgia, a debilitating condition that manifests in regular bouts of physical pain, which makes creative life tough. “But music means everything to me,” she says. “And I know it means so much to so many other people, too.”
Heritage of song
Born in the Aberdeenshire town of Huntly in 1998, Iona was brought up in a family of occasional, hobbyist folk musicians. Her uncle played in a Scottish dance band, and her cousins played fiddles, accordions and traditional drums. One also used to enter poetry competitions, which introduced her to traditional festivals as a very small child. This is where she encountered traditional singing. “You’d hear these harmonies, this music that wasn’t scored out, but just sung from the heart. It was so beautiful.”
I was very aware that I was competing against much older people who knew their craft inside out, but they were excited by the idea of a young person taking interest in it. Better still, they would give me songs and encouragement.
From the age of five she was entering competitions herself, hosted by the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland. She wasn’t pushed to, she smiles – “my mum and dad used them like babysitting services!” – but it was here that she developed her voice, a beautiful, bell-like soprano, delivering ancient ballads and tales without frippery or fuss. By her teens, she was competing in adult categories alongside some of Scotland’s greatest traditional singers like Jimmie Hutchison and Carole Prior, which proved formative. “I was very aware that I was competing against much older people who knew their craft inside out, but they were excited by the idea of a young person taking interest in it. Better still, they would give me songs and encouragement.”
At school she also dabbled in musical theatre and classical repertoire, but folk was her true love. Coming from north-east Scotland, a heartland of traditional ballads, was fortuitous. She’d often take an eighteen-mile bus trip to the Elphinstone Institute in the University of Aberdeen to pore through their song collections, and got her father to drive to places like the site of the early 15th century Battle of Harlaw when she was learning a ballad about it. “I couldn’t get over how amazing that was.”
At sixteen, she applied to study traditional music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland: she graduated with a first-class degree three years later. One of her latest campaigns is to get folk music included in the grading systems that examination boards apply to classical music. Anything that gives folk “the status it deserves” and helps people progress helps, she explains.
At 17, Iona released her first digital EP of traditional tracks, the appropriately titled First Sangs (“sang” meaning “song” in Scots). A year later, she had put The Iona Fyfe Trio together, adding shruti boxes, bodhrans and border pipes to her renditions of local songs like Bonny Udny, about an Aberdeenshire village she knew.
By the time of her 2018 debut album, Away From My Window, she had started to experiment further: it arrived as a concept LP inspired by source and revivalist singers, mixing archive clips alongside writing inspired by non-traditional artists like singer-songwriter Michael Marra and Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat. This was a big change for her. “I was twenty by that point – at sixteen I had the head of a sixty-year-old, where the idea of doing too much to a song was wrong. ‘Oh, my God, no, you don’t do that!’ But after a few years, I felt much more free to innovate because I felt like I’d proven myself singing traditional songs ’til the cows came home. I knew I’d proved to myself that I could really get inside a ballad, carry the story, tell the narrative in my language. Now I can try and take folk songs beyond that, to other people.”
She’s also broadened her repertoire on EPs and one-off releases. In 2019, she stretched her interests beyond Aberdeenshire to the US, recording and performing Appalachian songs with another trio she formed, The Auldeners, with mandolin player Callum Morton-Teng and American cellist Ellen Gira. Released the same year, her second album, Dark Turn Of Mind, was named after its title track by Gillian Welch, while a year later, she recorded Bob Dylan’s Girl From The North Country, noting how Dylan had said the song wouldn’t have existed without one of the most-sung folk songs of all time, Barbara Allen.
She’s also enjoyed writing, melding new ideas with traditional songs to political ends. On 2021’s Kenmure, she took Woody Guthrie’s song Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos), and recontextualised it in the light of the events of May 2020 in Kenmure Street in Glasgow, when the UK Home Office sent a dawn raid to deport two asylum seekers on the last day of Eid. Hundreds of people surrounded the van for hours. “Those people were so dehumanised,” Iona says. “Writing that track, using tradition in that way, felt important and relevant.”
Iona has also amplified her native Scots tongue in different settings. Last summer, she covered Taylor Swift’s Love Story in Scots, and recorded a “cheesy pop song” – her words – called The Cauld, to normalise its existence in the genre. More recently, she’s covered In The Bleak Midwinter in Scots, and translated Richard Thompson’s 1972 song Poor Ditching Boy, into the Doric Scots dialect. Thompson had written it after reading Aberdeenshire writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s coming-of-age novel, Sunset Song, so she felt the project was a “natural one”.
Scottish language campaigner
The preservation and promotion of Scots is hugely important to Iona. Spoken by 1.5 million in Scotland, it has variations all over the country, but still doesn’t hold the same status in culture or government as other minority languages like Gaelic. In 2020, she helped to found a campaign group for the language, Oor Vyce, that led to 35 Members of the Scottish Parliament signing a Scots Pledge to secure protection, funding and promotion of it.
Last year, Iona lobbied Spotify to recognise Scots language after not being able to tag her music in the tongue. “They told me instead to select the language closer to it,” she says, recalling her rage. In response, she cited the European Charter for minority languages, rallied MSPs to table a motion in Parliament, and met with senior Spotify editor Laura Ohls to discuss it. Soon after, they overturned the decision. Iona’s native Scots has also helped foster her connections with Europe. She’s always loved how the Eastern Scottish dialects of Scots have strong connections with Danish (the word ‘songwriter’ is the same in both, she points out, with delight). Mainland Europe was also where her career flourished until the pandemic hit. “By the time I was 19 or 20, I was doing four-week tours in countries like Germany and Austria with great audiences with disposable income willing to buy CDs. It’s a huge, huge market for folk musicians.”
They [Spotify] told me instead to select the language closer to it.
Then came the double-whammy of a pandemic and Brexit. Folk musicians have lost out terribly because of the latter in particular, she says. The paperwork and money concerns to tour abroad now are overwhelming. “People forget that it’s not about the big stars with their big vans – it’s also about the people doing a little festival in the middle of the French countryside, around a tour, which is their livelihood. It affects everyone. I made so much of my income that way. Something needs to change, and change quickly.”
But as UK lockdowns have eased, Fyfe has adored returning to live music. A recent show at Scotland’s annual Celtic Connections festival was “a joy”, she beams. Being paid to play live is another important subject for her: last October, she slammed the Scottish Rugby Union for calling for musicians to play for free at their Murrayfield stadium. “I’m sorry, but exposure doesn’t pay the rent and neither do free tickets to a rugby game,” she wrote in Scottish newspaper the Press And Journal.
At the same time, she praised Aberdeen FC, for whom she recorded The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen in May 2021 for a season ticket campaign – a track that entered the UK download top 40, and paid seven people (musicians, an engineer and a publicist) Musicians’ Union rates. “Organisations, if you want to work with musicians,” she said, “this is how you do it.” Her tenacity won out again: the Scottish Rugby Union reversed its decision.
The future looks incredibly bright for Iona. Last year, she became the first singer to win the coveted title of Musician of the Year at the MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards. Whatever challenges come her way, you know she will take them on without fear and do her damnedest to keep singing. “I just want to go on doing what I love,” she says. “And bring everyone along with me.”
Standing against misogyny in music
One of Iona’s most passionate areas of campaigning is against misogyny and sexism in the music industry. She has faced it constantly since she began performing live at 17. In 2021, she wrote about being propositioned for sex in return for help in securing a festival slot by a musician from a well-known Scottish band.
Women get desensitised to this behaviour quickly because we receive it all the time. It’s easy to just shrug it off because that’s what it’s done to us – but that has to be resisted.
What angered her most in her situation was the other person’s abuse of their power. Iona believes young people need to be trained to deal with these situations. “In the three years of my degree preparing to be a performer, this never came up. It’s vital that these conversations happen, including in curriculums”.
As a Musicians’ Union member, Iona is proud to see that the organisation has created a Music Sector Code of Practice to tackle and prevent bullying, harassment and discrimination. She’s also delighted that male artists like Sam Kelly have signed up to it. “That’s what we need more of – male allies.”
The way women are described as musicians also needs to change radically, she says. Promoters often refer to her as being ‘lovely’ and ‘beautiful’, and ignore her first-class musical education and experience, while her male band members are called ‘formidable’ and ‘talented’. “That absolutely has to change,” she says, rightly. “We deserve so much more.”
For more information on Iona Fyfe please visit: ionafyfe.com