Fair Isle musician, singer and songwriter Inge Thomson has just released her first solo album, after many years of involvement with other bands and artists. Neil Riddell finds it a rewarding and surprising listen.
Weird sparkly noises, electronic bleeps, the sound of banging metal teapots full of water and golf balls rolling around the inside of a piano perhaps do not add up to the most traditional of templates when you are expecting to hear a mere folk music record.
But that’s just a flavour of what talented Fair Isle-bred musician Inge Thomson has come up with on Shipwrecks & Static, her endearingly eccentric debut solo album. The mainly self-penned 12-track, 46-minute LP sees her taking centre stage after years of playing, among other things, accordion and providing backing vocals for the likes of Karine Polwart, the recently-disbanded Broken Family Band, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Harem Scarem and Drop the Box.
The unconventional elements mentioned above should not dissuade you from checking out this gentle and intriguing record out, though. There remains a distinctively Scottish folk sound to the album, which sees Inge singing and playing buttons, piano, organ, mandolin, flute, whistle, percussion and, as she puts it, “other pings, tings, glitches and nonsense” – sounds you would instinctively be more likely to associate with latter-day Radiohead.
There is a distinguishable and strong Scandinavian tint thrown into the mix too. Her love of tunes from that part of the world, along with her obvious flair for the accordion, was inherited from her father. Inge comes from a truly musical family by anyone’s standards – so much so, in fact, that no less than four of her grandparents’ nine grandchildren are involved with music professionally. That includes a pair of master luthiers: her fiddle-fashioning brother Ewen and guitar-making cousin Inness. Her grandfather Stewart Thomson, meanwhile, she describes as “a marvel” – still teaching youngsters how to play fiddle at the ripe old age of 85.
“My folks – my father and his brother and sister – have been singing all their lives, concentrating on close harmony,” she says. “They have been performing as Fridarey for many years. We were often around their rehearsals, and singing at parties was common so we all grew up knowing and singing along to their ever-expanding repertoire. They still perform at special events and the band, which now also includes my two cousins Lise and Eileen, has great spirit and verve. The dance band on [Fair Isle] also had, and still has, a generous portion of Thomsons, with my grandfather at the helm.”
She has looked further afield for guest turns on Shipwrecks & Static; among those appearing are Scottish singer Heidi Talbot, Brighton-based multi-instrumentalist Tom Cook and Inge’s other half Martin Green, of fresh-sounding folk trio LAU fame. Particularly striking among the dozen tracks is playful 150-second opener John, a quirky little jaunt, while the pretty, laid-back instrumental Tin Man and near-lullaby Cradle Song (based on a poem by Anglo-Irish writer Louis MacNeice and set to music by Tim Dalling) also immediately catch the ear.
Having provided stellar backing vocals for several of the groups she has performed in, Inge’s voice stands up very well indeed to having the microphone turned up a few notches. It works especially well on the breathily seductive Cycle, featuring the kind of sparing accompaniment demonstrated on Harem Scarem’s spellbinding collaboration with the great American songwriter Will Oldham, Is It The Sea?, in 2008. A fine duet with a gentle and plaintive-sounding Rory Campbell on the more conventionally structured How Far? provides another highlight, as does the stark Take My Time, with chief accompaniment coming from Martin Green on an electric Wurlitzer piano.
On first listen the album can seem a tad disjointed, but perhaps that is more a consequence of its eclectic nature and Inge’s welcome tendency to oscillate wildly from one sound, and one melody, to another. It is the type of album which rewards the patient listener, rather than one seeking an immediate fix. On the whole, she has managed the trick of providing 40 minutes’ listening which is simultaneously absorbing and challenging, and in its best moments even beguiling.
So why the decision to strike out on her own after all these years? It has always been a desire, but something which she has simply not got around to doing because of a hectic schedule playing live with other artists and as a session musician. “I suppose I’d never got it together because I was always working with other folk,” she says. “I happened to be touring quite heavily with Karine and Steven [Polwart], just playing bits and bobs – you find that block of time between the sound check and the gig. I had a lot of material that I’d written for various bands that had just never got used. I thought at the time that I would get an album together of that material. But when I started demo-ing everything, a lot of them were not quite the right vibe, they were written for different bands and different instrumentation, so I wrote most of it as I recorded it.”
The album, she says, has been heavily influenced by glitch-pop electronica and leftfield artists like Norwegian singer-songwriter Hanne Hukkelberg and Danish experimental pop group Efterklang. Inge’s sweetly whispered, wispy vocals, embellished in places by Talbot’s backing, leaves Shipwrecks & Static sounding vaguely like an altogether more palatable Scottish folk incarnation of Bjork.
“It was always going to happen that I made an album that sounded a bit weird and slightly electronic. The melodies were pretty folky or Americana-sounding, but with sparkly noises and other things I found appealing thrown in. I did a lot of banging metal teapots full of water, rolled a golf ball around a Bösendorfer, which was an awful lot of fun, making funny noises. While it sounds electronic, a lot were actually organic instruments.”
Although she now lives in Scotland’s central belt in a small community nearby a number of like-minded musicians, Fair Isle is never too far from her thoughts and she tries to come home to visit as regularly as she can. Likewise, the sound and influence of the sea and sky are never too far away in the music she produces. It is most refreshing to hear an artist with a traditional background who is not afraid to challenge herself and those who listen to her, a trait no doubt partly imbued in Inge by her family.
She is looking to promote the album by playing at a few summer festivals with two as-yet unnamed musicians, and hopes to be able to perform the material in Shetland at some future juncture. In the meantime, other commitments are keeping her as busy as ever. The prolific 35-year-old, who has appeared in one form or another on around 20 albums, is touring with Norwegian Hardanger fiddle player Annlaug Borsheim – who visited these parts in 2005 – next spring.
Before then, she is taking part in Karine Polwart’s ambitious Scottish Songbook concert at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival on 16th January. That evening will see a diverse range of favourites and lesser-known gems from the past 100 years given a contemporary treatment by a cast list including Lorraine McIntosh and Ricky Ross from Deacon Blue, Emma Pollock, Kris Drever, King Creosote, Andy M. Stewart and the evergreen Phil Cunningham.
One musical alliance she will sadly not be able to reprise, however, is with fêted Cambridgeshire group The Broken Family Band. Heavily influenced by the American alt-country scene, they recently split after eight years. Inge appeared on early mini-albums The King Will Build A Disco (2002) and Jesus Songs (2004) and appeared irregularly on stage with the group when their schedules coincided. “I love them very much, and am having a hard time coming to terms with the split,” she says.
Copies of Shipwrecks & Static are available from Clive’s Record Shop or High Level Music, and you can find out more about Inge and her music on her website at www.ingethomson.com.