It is hard to imagine another small community so spoiled for concerts and festivals. “There’s dat muckle on” seems to be the most commonly heard gripe among Shetland’s culture vultures these days.
Whether such a sparse population can sustain the glut of live music remains to be seen. Meantime we may as well enjoy it. And with Mareel’s future seemingly secure, the latest talent to grace its stage will be Carrbridge-raised starlet Rachel Sermanni on Wednesday night.
The atmosphere will be in stark contrast to her only previous visit. Then, in early 2011, the now 21-year-old was the support act playing before a crowd fervently awaiting a set from record-shifting roots juggernaut Mumford & Sons.
“I’m really, really excited to return,” she told this newspaper. “The crowd were really fun, very excitable – as were all the gigs with Mumford & Sons. Whenever it’s somewhere like Shetland, or anywhere in Scotland, in the summer, it’s beautiful. It’s an adventure to go there in the first place.”
Some present at Whiteness and Weisdale Hall two springs ago said it was difficult to hear Sermanni’s set amid the hubbub. All the more reason to check out next week’s solo show, where the North Ness auditorium’s pin-sharp sound will showcase her formidable vocal range – “clean as cut glass”, in MOJO magazine’s words.
Sermanni, whose Tuscan grandparents migrated to Glasgow to open a chip shop, will draw upon the refreshingly cynicism-free, beguiling songs from 2012 debut album Under Mountains. It is captivating by any measure; even more so given tracks as fully-fledged as Eggshells and Ever Since the Chocolate were sketched aged just 15.
“I was really lucky,” she explains. “There were nine of us [recording], all on the same wavelength. They’re simple songs [but] in terms of arranging them, we tried not to do the first thing that came into our minds.
“The arrangements still evolve, even when I’m playing solo, as I get older, see different perspectives behind songs that I’d written years ago.”
There are repeated lyrical references to the natural elements. Although she grew up inland, the sea is a recurring theme in many songs.
“I really enjoy the element of space [in the Highlands]. I’ve not lived next to the sea, but a lot of our family holidays were along the west coast. I love the imagery that can come from it.
“A lot of my inspiration springs from a well that was established during childhood, and I suppose I still delve in there for a sense of play.”
The marvellously titled Marshmallow Unicorn’s name came at the suggestion of a drunk Irish musician following a Dublin open-mic night.
Fragments of dreams find their way into her writing too: “It’s rife with imagery that I experienced while sleeping. Breathe Easy, Black Current, Eggshells, Waltz, they’re all very much established from dreams.
“Song to a Fox, perhaps, is the one that’s not, even though it’s got the weirdest idea. All that was literal, I did see a fox running across the road, and there’s this weird connection I have with foxes – a favourite animal, simple as that.”
Such infectious quirkiness and a radiant personality allow her to strike up a natural rapport with audiences.
Coupled with a beautiful voice which flutters, soars and dives like a Highlands incarnation of Joni Mitchell, it’s small wonder Sermanni finds herself sharing festival bills with some illustrious names. A flier for the Ottawa Folk Festival lists her alongside Neil Young and Emmylou Harris: “I might get that poster!”
Following this handful of Scottish shows, which will include “a few newbies”, she has eight Canadian festival dates in July after which should follow a return to the recording studio.
Sermanni is the latest contemporary songwriter to lean on Scottish traditional music for inspiration. It is a world she “floats in and out of”, meaning – in common with acts such as Admiral Fallow, Frightened Rabbit and KT Tunstall – she is equally likely to find favour with folk festival crowds and farther-reaching audiences.
Shetland musicians play a valuable, if often indirect, contribution. Pub sessions in Glasgow are “dominated by the island crew”, Sermanni says, ensuring the trad scene will “always be healthy”, and those elements often “overflow into something more contemporary”.
“For such a small country, we’re doing good,” she adds.