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On The Table Read, “the best entertainment magazine in the UK“, singer-songwriter Marcas Mac an Tuairneir talks about his new Gael-pop album, Speactram.

JJ Barnes editor of The Table Read online creativity, arts and entertainment magazine

Written by JJ Barnes

I interviewed Marcas Mac an Tuairneir about his life and career, what inspires him about Gaelic music, and the work that went into his new album, Speactram.

Tell me a bit about who you are.

I’m originally from York, but I’ve been based in Scotland since 2003, when I came up to Aberdeen to study Gaelic. Now based in Edinburgh, in the intervening years I’ve been known primarily as a writer and media personality. My fourth collection of poetry, Polaris, was published this year by Leamington Books. I do regular spots on Gaelic radio and television, being named one of Bella Caledonia’s favourite media personalities, a few years back.

Marcas Mac an Tuairneir on The Table Read
Marcas Mac an Tuairneir

I’ve always sung and made music since I was a child, but I let it wither a little during my early adulthood. This album really is the result of the encouragement of Mary Ann Kennedy and Nick Turner and their embracing me and my left-field ideas. I’ve also been encouraged by winning the award for the best new Gaelic song at the Royal National Mòd, twice. Silhouette, which won at the Virtual Mòd, features on this album.

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When did you first WANT to write songs?

The first song I remember making was when I was young teenager, delivering papers. I was brought up listening to music from most of the Celtic nations and so I’d make up songs, walking round my local area, to make the paper round go quicker.

I always enjoyed poetry at school, thanks to a couple of amazing teachers who really brought the form to life. So, to now be part of the Gaelic community, where our poetry and songs are a literature of record and the link between them is indelible, it seemed like a natural thing for me. I do feel like I’m called to do it.

When did you take a step to start writing songs?

I had a band when I was a teenager at school which did a few gigs in the local area and it helped me to make sense of the world around me, hearing the songs back. This is still a key part of my songwriting – I engage with personal feelings a lot, but often put this into a wider social context.

I’m very aware that in writing in Gaelic, I’m contributing to a living tradition and that our contemporary bards and songwriters are the voices of the age we’re living in. So, writing contemporary Gaelic experience is key so that the songs carry on beyond us and people can sing the stories of the 2020s in years to come.

What was your first song released, and what was it about?

My first single was Fichead ’s a h-Ochd and it was a result of a commission from the National Library of Scotland, who wanted a number of Gaelic creatives to engage with the stories and legacy of the 1980s and their impact on the Gaelic community.

For me, this was a period of great change. Whereas Runrig in the 70s were writing about the lack of Gaelic in the education system in ‘Fichead Blaidhna’, the 1980s saw initiatives in Glasgow, Inverness and the islands, seeking to bring about Gaelic-medium education for the first time.

Marcas Mac an Tuairneir on The Table Read
Marcas Mac an Tuairneir

As a gay, genderqueer person, I couldn’t help but draw connections between this and the campaigns against Section 28. Both initiatives sought to bring about inclusion in schools and to allow minoritised communities to speak their truth. So ‘Fichead ’s a h-Ochd’ aims to pick up where ‘Fichead Blaidhna’ left off and combines those two themes, amongst a backdrop of 1980s electronica, contributed by my main collaborator, Nick Turner.

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What was your latest song released, and what was it about?

‘Nochd’ was my last single, around this time last year and it’s one of a pair, really. I wrote a song called ‘Dumbbells’ for the first iteration of Bogha-frois at Celtic Connections, alongside Josie Duncan and Marit Fält, which spoke about basically coming to terms with getting the flick with someone who was more interested in the gym than being with me.

‘Nochd’ deals with the hurt of that separation and picks up on ideas of body image which are so damaging to young women and LGBTQ people today. Instagram culture is really impacting our romantic lives with the benchmark always rising around the physical ideal.

Basically, I found myself returning to those intrusive thoughts around body image which affect us all. Walking past a shop window on Princes’ Street and seeing the mannequins being dressed, I looked at these perfect, plastic bodies in despair. The song was featured on a recent edition of the Gaelic documentary series ‘Trusadh’ on BBC Alba, and I was really pleased that the song helped me to bring awareness to the issue.

Focusing on your latest song. What were your biggest challenges with Nochd?

I found the writing of Èirigh came really easily. A few years back I was commissioned to co-write a new song for the University of Edinburgh’s Highland Society, to mark it’s 180th anniversary, alongside Pàdruig Morrison. Myself and the writer and academic Custal y Lewin also edited together a volume of history and reminiscences related to the society which is on sale through Amazon and the society. So, I had a lot of that society’s story in my mind as well as thinking about the Gaelic history of Edinburgh too.

The song talks about all the different Gaelic-speaking communities here – Highlanders and Islanders, Students, School-children and their families, members of the Gaelic choirs, academics and members of the Greyfriars congregation, amongst others. They all feature.

I got this one produced by Gary Keane who produced ‘Nochd’ too as we’ve built up a great musical relationship over the years. We were on a mission to not only create a pop sound unique to Gaelic, but a Gaelic anthem about Edinburgh. A lot of focus in the community is rightly on the Islands, Highlands and Glasgow, but Edinburgh plays an important role in the Gaelic story too and I wanted something that the young Gaelic-speakers here could engage with and identify with.

Marcas Mac an Tuairneir on The Table Read
Marcas Mac an Tuairneir

The lyrics are written in traditional metre, a form we call bàrdachd baile. In this way, the song links directly back to the tradition and was inspired by the Victorian-era Gaelic poet Niall MacLeod, who like me, was also the Highland Society’s bard. But the sounds of the track are directly out of the contemporary era. It’s one of my favourites on the album.

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How many songs are you working on right now?

The album includes fourteen tracks. Around half were co-written with Nick, with the rest either by me, or written in collaboration with others. Alongside Pàdruig, Gille MacKenzie, Rachel Walker and Adam Holmes all have a writing credit on the album. Alongside Nick and Gary, Adam Holmes also produced four tracks for the album. There’s also a track, Bruidhinn, which was remixed by Rod Thomas / Bright Light Bright Light. I’ve been a fan of both Adam and Rod’s music for years, so getting to work with them both was a dream come true.

Do you keep to a theme with your music, or just go where the mood strikes?

I think my songs work best when they have that personal, confessional touch, which allows people to identify with the wider issues. Bruidhinn goes directly against the xenophobia Gaelic-speakers face in the press and online, and is very much a call to arms. Èirigh chimes with it, but is more celebratory. Some of the songs deal with painful experiences, like Nochd. Balt na Fàire responds more generally to the online abuse artists face online. LGBTQ themes are also important here, as per Fichead ’s a h-Ochd.

The title track was the first piece of my poetry set to music, by Gillie MacKenzie, and is a response to the Orlando shooting. I deal with politics too – the rise of the alt-Right in England and our desire for self-determination in Scotland is at the heart of Crois-bhogha and I think the hope for the future, which the latter brings, is what permeates Nua-nòs.

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What is your favourite song you’ve recorded, and what do you love about it?

It’s a toss up between Nochd and Calman, I think. I’ll go for the latter as when I got the first mix through from Gary, I was in floods outside the Scottish Poetry Library, where I work three days a week. That song has been on a journey. It was originally written for a big project which I was led to believe I was going to be part of and was later dropped from the project with no explanation or apology, by the person dealing with the powers that be. That really hit me hard. I felt like news of that project was raining down on me everywhere I went and that I couldn’t escape. It really impacted my mental health to a devastating degree – I didn’t think I’d survive it be honest as the betrayal was both professional and personal. 

The thing is, with this song, believing it was going reach a big audience, I filled it with a message that is very important to me – recognising the contributions of women in the Gaelic community and in society in general. It was a thank you to the women mentors who have supported me creatively. But as the depression set in, the song just sat silent in my third poetry collection, Dùileach and I was just too heartbroken to go near it. Then one day a melody came into my head out of nowhere and the only thing that I had in the portfolio that was a fit was this.

Marcas Mac an Tuairneir on The Table Read
Marcas Mac an Tuairneir

I genuinely feel like this song came back to me as it had to be sung. So, I recorded it and passed it to Gary, who took it beyond these islands, beyond Europe and out into the world. I think you’d call that PopJustice.

Do you find other people’s music inspires you? Who do you listen to most?

The thing with this album is that we wanted to take the Gaelic music tradition in new directions. I worked in Gaelic-medium education for a few years, in two of Scotland’s cities, and what it showed me was that the young people learning Gaelic are from really rich, diverse backgrounds. Some of them struggle to connect with the Gaelic tradition, because it isn’t theirs at home and I felt the breach between Gaelic and youth culture widening. So I wanted to make music that knitted the contemporary world and the language together, whilst still being respectful and celebratory.

Gary, in particular, and Nick too got me to expand my musical horizons. Being a linguist, I’ve always taken an interest in music from around the world, whether it’s Eurovision or the World Song Festival, for which I’m a juror. Through Trond’s initiative, I’m exposed to music in a whole host of majority and minority languages and I get real insight into what contemporary musicians are doing to infuse pop music with their own cultures the world over. Gary, in particular really encouraged this, so with Nochd, we were looking to music in the Slavic countries, Ukraine and Russia and imbued that track with all that moodiness that I love.

With Calman, I was obsessed at the time with what was coming out of Istambul – I love the futurebass sounds of the Turkish DJs at the moment. With Èirigh, it was a case of making a uniquely Gaelic pop sound which also represented Gaelic’s place as a community language within Edinburgh’s wider cosmopolitanism. One of the tracks I sent to Gary was by Uzbek singer Sogdiana and a lot of folk on TikTok have picked up on that Eastern vibe in the beat, with the video teasers going live.

Then the songs with Adam really take me home to my pop / RnB roots in England. Did you know Adam live started his music journey as a HipHop artist? He really rolled up his sleeves and got back into that vibe for the work we did together and so there’s a heavy 90s RnB vibe to those four songs – Eternal, Michelle Gayle, Beverley Night, were my icons when I was a kid. I still listen to those mid-nineties albums all the time, so there’s a definite nod to that music.

Picking up with the eighties electro sounds, the 90s RnB vibe and then going through into the contemporary with Rod and Gary, I really wanted to fill the void in the Gaelic pop tradition that kind of dwindled after the 101 Band parted company and Runrig went stadium rock. So there’s an idea of picking up as well as bringing forward, but taking a wider approach as opposed to just pasting the language on top of the sounds of the UK chart. As Gaels, as Scots, we’re European, we’re international so that was really important.

Do you play any instruments?

I used to play the fiddle so I can read and write music on stuff like Sibelius, but to be honest I write songs solo by pacing around the kitchen singing along to a beat I’ve made on Reaper or that I’ve been given by one of the others.

Do you like performing live, or does it scare you? Where can people watch you?

I do get anxiety around singing live, which is why Lothian Gaelic Choir and doing the solo competitions at the Mòd is key. It challenges me to engage with the Gaelic tradition, to understand it in a more intimate way, so I can play with it on my own terms. I’ve learnt a lot of skills through singing with the choir and, with Inverness Gaelic Choir under Mary Ann’s leadership previously, as well as the Gaelic gospel choir, Soisgeul.

Marcas Mac an Tuairneir on The Table Read
Marcas Mac an Tuairneir

I would like to take these songs on the road, eventually, if there’s demand for it. Maybe combine it together with the poetry and do an ‘evening with Marcas Mac an Tuairneir’. The main thing for me is not about pyrotechnics but communicating the stories behind the work, so a bit of music, poetry and conversation would be the way forward for me.

Is your music available online, and where can people listen to it?

Yes. The album is set for release via Watercolour Music on 29th July and through them it’ll be available across all the usual platforms. I also run my own Bandcamp page, where folk can pre-order the digital download or CD. They get a download of the new single Èirigh with each pre-order and the video, directed by Alex Nichol of Chaos Dragon Media is out now.

Are you able to make music full time, or do you have day job?

I work three days a week at the Scottish Poetry Library, then combine my creative life with that. I’m the Gaelic Editor of two Scottish poetry magazines – Northwords Now and The Poets’ Republic – as well and I do a fair amount of freelance work around that – translating and interpreting, literary mentoring and editing. I am also at the forefront of film-poetry in Scotland, working either with Alex or on my own and I’ve made music videos for myself and others – Silhouette was done by me. I like to keep the plates spinning so I’m never bored.

Are your friends and family supportive of your music career?

My Mum is a mad Runrig fan and has followed them all round the country, going to concerts, so I guess it’s down to her that I’m following their footsteps, making contemporary Gaelic music. My parents don’t speak Gaelic so they’re a bit removed from it, but they have always supported me creatively. They got me my violin lessons and took me to York Music Centre for years on a Saturday morning. My Mum studied English literature too and always fostered a love of books in me, so for me to be a poet and lyricist makes sense when you think about that.

What’s something you never expected about being a songwriter? What have you learned that surprised you?

I suppose as a Gaelic student in Aberdeen in the early noughties I looked up to artists like Rachel Walker, Mary Ann Kennedy and Gillie MacKeznie and the iconic positions they hold within the Gaelic musical world. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that Mary Ann and Gillie would set my poetry to music one day. Working with Rachel is incredible too – we have more of a back and forth, a different collaborative vibe. When she approached me to co-write for her last album, Gaol, I was just blown away, to be honest, but out of that we’ve forged a fantastic songwriting partnership and the hits keep coming.

Have you had any experiences that really stand out because of your songs?

The response in Ireland has really been incredible, which connects to me very deeply being from an Irish diaspora family. Radio folk like Seán Ó Dubhchon on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta and Lisa Judge on Raidió na Life have really championed this music as well as the LGBTQ artists collective Aerach.Aiteach.Gaelach.

I’ve had some great support from community radio in Scotland – Robert MacInnes at Radio Skye has been fantastic and really generous as have the Ceòl is Craic show at Celtic Music Radio. Radio nan Gàidheal are amazing too – Cathy Bhàn, Pluto, Gillebrìde MacMillan and the team at Rapal always give me an opportunity.

The problem is within a wider Scottish context. It’s difficult at the moment placing the Gaelic language within the mainstream and with the music being consciously pop instead of folk and trad, perhaps it’s harder to place within that context, which is traditionally open to Gaelic. I don’t think it’s necessarily prejudice, but unconscious bias, perhaps, or just lack of familiarity with anything outwith an English-language milieu. But that doesn’t mean it’s OK. The UK’s big radio stations really need to address their approach to our native languages, other than English, and the way the latter dominates the airwaves. There is so much amazing music coming out in Welsh, Cornish, Irish, Manx and Scots – I live for the day we have a show on a station like BBC Radio 1.

Marcas Mac an Tuairneir on The Table Read
Marcas Mac an Tuairneir

Unfortunately, in the mainstream it’s a self-fulfilling cycle for contemporary music in our other languages. You get playlisted if you’re commercially successful, but radio plays a key role in that success. It’s time to break the paradigm, and that’s what Speactram is all about.

Do you have any important events coming up we should know about?

I launch my latest book again at the Gaelic Books Council in 1st July, then we’ll be looking to take this music on the road with a selector and some spoken word performances. Watch this space.

What is the first piece of advice you would give to anyone inspired to write songs?

Write how you speak. People want you to communicate with them on your own terms, so if you’re ferreting through the dictionary for fancy vocab, you create a barrier. Turn of phrase is key to a solid hook. Tell your own story too, I get messages over and over again how my poems and songs have taken audiences back to their own memories and experiences. Nobody can tell that story better than you, and people want to hear it.

And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

Yes, I think whether the album charts or not it will stand as a testament to what was possible for the Gaelic language in 2022. I think it’s going to be a watershed, creatively, for Gaelic songwriting. If it inspires just one person to make their own music on their own terms, then it’s done its job.

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