Heather Downie – Nae Sweets for the Shy Bairns

Album Review | Self Release | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 5/5

It takes a listen to realise how brave and how decisive this album is and how much it demands your attention. The title Nae Sweets for the Shy Bairns, it quickly becomes apparent is very apt and as much a statement of intent or a manifesto. Harpist and Singer Heather was introduced to music at the age of nine by the late Martyn Bennett and the involvement in music has continued ever since. She is a graduate of RSAMD, a Young Traditional Musician of the Year finalist in 2015, teaches at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and is a member of the excellent Top Floor Taviers. On this her debut album Heather holds nothing back, she is fresh, confident and feisty making music that demands your attention. For “The Love of Levers”, Heather Downie’s Harp and Tia Files’ Guitar twine together in a way that is beguiling. Heather says this is the first set they played together and the interplay between the two instruments is testament to that. Fleet fingers and a funky pulse builds up between the guitar harp and Files’ percussion. Nigel Gow’s “Lament for the Death of his Second Wife” is a slow potent piece that burst with tension and emotion. Downie and Files play together beautifully, wringing every emotional nuance out of the fine tune. Stuart Hamilton’s sensitive recording at Castlesound means we feel the air around the instruments and hear every guitar harmonic and the dying resonance of the harp. As if this wasn’t enough Heather is also a sensitive vocalist and songwriter. The “Best of Us”, written for her aunt, features beautiful verse vocals and some simply stunning chorus vocalese. William and Wizards is another stunning duet with what sounds like an electro harp and a funky jazz guitar grooving over some tasty percussion. As slippery and hypnotic as a West African Kora, Heather’s Harp is pure jazz and makes Dorothy Ashby’s bebop experiments of the 50’s sound kitsch and stilted by comparison. “Stronger than You Know” features a fine vocal by Corrina Hewat and some wonderful production from Corrina that lift the track to Imogen Heap or Kate Bush level. Just stunning. Stunning too is “The Field of Gold showing that the harp, in the right hands can create the ornamentation and resonances of Piobaireachd or Highland Bagpipe Music. Like Dick Gaughan’s guitar playing on his version of “51st Divisions Farewell to Sicily”, Heather manages to coax the eerie stops, runs and harmonics of the pipes from her Harp. Downie keeps surprising right until the end and “Under the Stars” is Heather and Tia duetting with sound recordings from South Portugal. Downie confesses to being a compulsive field recorder, capturing ambience and places as memories. “Under the Stars” transcends any labels of traditional music and becomes the universe. Heather shows she can be the Steve Hillage of the Harp, Tia throws some weird shapes on the guitar, the vocals kick in and we are gone. Ambient Chill Out master musicians that deftly avoid all the clichés associated with both those labels. This another way of coming at the electronica traditional music of Shooglenifty and the Peatbog Faeries and as left field as the best of Martyn Bennett. You could base an entire career on the emotions, musical potential and ideas in this track. It’s not nearly long enough, I could listen to the first two minutes on a loop all day. A stunning and unexpected closer which I’m not ashamed to say made me cry. Heather Downie manages to perfectly communicate the emotions tied up in a very special moment in an atmospheric place. This is an absolute monster album you should rush out and buy now, full of great depth and beauty.