In continuation of our highly irregular but highly inspiring series spotlighting musicians reinventing traditional music, we spoke to Scottish bagpipe player Brìghde Chaimbeul on the day her newest album, Carry Them With Us was released.
We’ve had our eye on Brìghde for quite a while now. Her fresh take on the small pipes, drones, ornamentation, melody and mood are equally breathtaking, tear-jerking and empowering. Depending on the tune, Brìghde’s music will have make you want to have a good cry, celebrate with friends in the pub or go climb a mountain. But it’s really hard to pinpoint what exactly it is about her playing and music that makes it so unique. Because it is bagpipes and it sounds like bagpipes. But at the same time, it sounds nothing like the bagpipes. The amount of space she creates in her compositions, even when she’s on a hot reel, her music sounds 1000 meters wide but it’s just her and her wind powered instrument. Juxtapose it with the revival of minimal church organ drone music, an instrument whose power is extremely overwhelming, Brìghde and her humble pipes, are like your shadow in the summer sun, making you seem ten-times taller.
Her first album, The Reeling (2019) is quite “traditional” in its form and arrangements. They’re just incredible played and produced. Her collaborative album Las (2022) with fellow small piper, Ross Ainslie and guitar player Steven Byrnes is also fairly straightforward but the harmonies between her and Ainslie are majestic in their subtlety. It’s undeniable that the three of them had a great time playing those tunes together. On her most recent album, Brìghde is even more stripped down, letting the tones and drones of her pipes do most of the talking while she fingers beautiful, simple melodies. She’s joined on the majority of the album by acclaimed saxophonist and composer Colin Stetson, another who pioneered a new style for a well-worn instrument. The album is a remarkable reinvention of a centuries old tradition and its only a matter of time before her work is listed among modern ambient traditionalists like Kali Malone, Ellen Arkbro and Sarah Davachi.
Read our conversation below:
So the first question. Why did you start playing the pipes and what’s been your trajectory from then until let’s say up until The Reeling came out?
I first started when I was pretty young, maybe about seven or eight. Where I grew up in Skye, in a place called Sleat, there were quite a few pipers around and traditional music was quite celebrated in the area and the primary school I was at, there was a lot of music coming through. But the first time I kind of have a memory of wanting to learn the pipes is hearing Rona Lightfoot play when I was very young and she ended up being on The Reeling actually which was pretty amazing. But yeah, I think that was my first memory of being inspired by the pipes. But also, apparently, when my mom was pregnant with me, she’s a sculptor and she was working on a piece that was inspired by a piece of pipe music and she used to always have a piper playing while she worked. I don’t know if that’s any reason for why I decided to play the pipes
Like a personal human being standing there playing while she worked?
Yeah a couple of times. Not the whole time she worked. And then she went on to do some more work with the piper while she was still pregnant. Then there was a great teacher in my school called Niall Stewart who I started learning with and then this progressed on to the big Highland pipes and I did a lot of the competitions as well when I was a child. It’s quite a big thing in Scotland so there’s a whole competition circuit and I did that. Then when I was about 14 or 15 I met Hamish and Fin Moore who are pipe makers and Hamish Moore was kind of the first person to revive small pipes into like the folk music world in the 70s and 80s. He kind of remade the instrument again from old museum drawings and audio samples of the instrument because they had largely gone extinct until this time as an instrument to be played and performed. So when I met them they said you need to try the small pipes and they gave me a set and when I started playing them I just totally fell in love. I loved how I was able to play with other people and be a wee bit more I suppose experimental with it because I was starting kind of by myself. I wasn’t guided by a teacher or competitions. There wasn’t a set way or expected thing to do with this instrument so I enjoyed that and yeah that just became my instrument I suppose.
So maybe you’re getting this question a lot and maybe it’s hard to answer but do you see yourself or recognize yourself as being an ambassador for this new generation of Celtic, Gaelic and traditional music whether from Scotland or from Ireland. Do you see yourself within that scene and do you feel something about bringing people into the tradition that otherwise wouldn’t be interested in it?
Yeah I suppose to an extent. Like, the starting point of it coming from tradition and using the Gaelic songs and stories and stuff as material is very natural to me. I feel very connected to it and as part of who I am. So in that sense it’s kind of my natural starting point. It’s not like I’m going out of my way to be presenting something traditional. But on the other hand because it is my heritage and everything I do feel connected to it and I do feel quite strongly about it being preserved and appreciated. I think it’s very rich and diverse and precious. But that’s the thing, it feels natural. I don’t feel like I’m forcing anything. But of course, I would like to promote the language and that whole side of it. The people that told the stories and sang the songs and the fact that it has survived this long. And a lot of that is thanks to the people who recorded all these people back in the 50s in Scotland. That’s such a valuable resource. But there’s a stereotype when it comes to Scots and the folk side or traditional side of Scotland. And I suppose I want to show it’s not all tartan and shortbread and kilts and all that.
Yeah it’s definitely been an uphill battle for me as well to try and convince people. I really like the music that you’re making. I think it’s really important in terms of both reviving and holding onto and representing traditional music. But still when I approach people that I work with here from the experimental or more avant-garde side of music. Everyone still kind of cocks their head, “It’s like bagpipe music?” I’m like you just have to listen to it. It’s not what you it’s not what you think it is.
Yeah there’s such a predetermined thought when people hear even just the word bagpipes. But I suppose because it’s the small pipes it’s already such a different sound. But yeah you are sort of battling against all these stereotypes that are very strong in people’s minds.
So you mentioned that you started playing the small pipes and that because you weren’t in any formal kind of education or training with that instrument it allowed you to be more experimental or maybe more expressive. So what was the initial inspiration for The Reeling? What made you decide, “I’m going to make an album and it’s going to sound like…” You maybe didn’t intend for it to sound different but it wound up being something more than just a bagpipe record you know? Did you have a vision or a plan for that album?
I think that there’s two things with The Reeling. Firstly, who I was working with. I think when I first started playing with Aidan just the way that we played together it was already just moving away from it sounding like maybe another folk Scottish record at the time. Because a lot of that, the backing is more rhythm or guitar and I think the fact that the backing with me and Aidan O’Rourke is just fiddle, it’s very much concentrated around the drones and the tonal quality that the pipes naturally produce. And I was really drawn to that because I was already just… I mean as a piper I already like that sound where it’s just kind of going round and round naturally. But I was getting tired of the typical backing on tunes as well. So I think that’s one thing. Then obviously with Radie Peat (Lankum) and Rona Lightfoot as well. Having Rona on it meant it was very much led by the voice too. So it kind of had that element to it. And then yeah the second side of it was just I suppose wanting to present… I don’t know. I’m trying to…
Yeah I know that it’s kind of a shitty question as well. It’s hard to…
I don’t think it was really mapped out or thought through. Again, it was a very natural process but I think The Reeling is unique to the people I worked with to create the sound. But I think the main thing with it is that it was the natural way of the pipes at the forefront of the arrangement rather than trying to fill out the melodies with other rhythms or other sounds.
One thing I want to reflect on what you just said is that, you know I interviewed Ian Lynch (Lankum) a few years ago and Matt Carmichael over the summer and I think there’s a universal thing for new artists working in traditional music from Ireland and Scotland having a love of the drone. Do you want to wax poetically for a minute about the loving the drone?
I think it’s interesting because recently the drones are becoming more loved but I feel like even in the revival or up until recently the drones would have been turned off and it was more about backing with rhythm and having a groovy guitar or just the melody not really being based around the drones. But for me, it’s just as a piper, the drones are right next to your ear. The drone is closer than the chanter. So that’s what I’ve been hearing since I started playing the pipe. With so many pipe tunes it doesn’t sound the same without the drones. So yeah I think it’s crucial.
You had such a structured traditional upbringing with the competitions. Can you kind of guess where tradition ends and your own voice begins in terms of the decisions you make for arrangements or phrasings and stuff? Do you ever make conscientious decisions to play scales in a certain way or play melodies in a certain way? You were talking about how you kind of got tired of traditional backings. Did you ever get tired of melodies that kind of kept popping up?
It’s funny because in my head I think I am going back to be even more traditional. So losing that guitar backing or that rhythm behind you to just go to the pure melody; I think that’s really traditional. But I suppose it’s what you do around that that makes it sound new. I do think that if I hadn’t gone through the competitions, it’s such rigorous technical training, I feel like you need that foundation to be able to develop and then go further because I can decide what I want to do based on the technical foundation that I already have. I’m definitely thankful in hindsight for doing that. In terms of the boundaries. I think a lot of it is in the moment and in collaboration. And I definitely have a sound that I want in my head. I don’t think it’s any conscious thought though, like the tradition is there and this new thing is going in any particular direction.
I had read an interview with you and a Portuguese piper and you talked a lot about tuning and how important tuning is. You said it came a lot from the competition training.
Yeah definitely. It’s such a big part of it and it really changes your ear a lot. But that’s why it was interesting working with that piper because they really wanted to explore it not being in tune. I was probably more of a perfectionist when I recorded The Reeling. But I’m starting to accept and and not be in that sort of headspace, like the dregs of the competitions. I’m starting to not be stuck in that so much now. But there’s just something magical about the pipes when it’s like perfectly in tune and when you can hear it come into tune. So that’s what I kind of did in the first track off of Carry Them With Us. Just kind of getting that effect of it being out of tune and then coming in tune because I just think it’s such a magical moment when you hear it all like a straight line coming through.
And somehow it feels like the sound waves just push harder when it is all in tune.
Exactly. It definitely brings that special sort of trance-like atmosphere. It’s much more effective when the sound waves are aligned I think.
I know that you have an affinity for different styles of piping especially because it exists all over the world. So what have you gained from looking into piping from other countries?
Probably more a technical thing and quite specific ornamentation. It’s probably the main thing because everyone styles ornaments differently and like ornamentation in Scottish piping is quite a rigorous thing again. Like while you’re learning there’s a set way to ornament tunes and you know looking at other styles kind of makes you think outside the box and about how important ornamentation is as well as the phrasing, the articulation and the way the tune is presented in the end. It’s quite a technical thing but I think that would be the main thing.
All right let’s get onto some of the newer things in your life. Obviously, you know you have a new album that came out and you just had the Caroline Polachek guest spot. Can we start there? How did that come about and did you ever expect anything like that?
No, I didn’t really. She just messaged me on Instagram that she had come across The Reeling I think in a Spotify playlist and she really liked it and yeah it was really fun. I mean it’s totally different and it’s great to be doing something that’s totally different.
I also saw that Iggy Pop played one of your songs on BBC. That’s kind of cool right?
Yeah that was cool.
Do you have anything else coming up like working with more artists from outside the traditional music world?
Just continuing the collaborations that I’ve had recently.
Yeah so let’s continue on then with collaboration. How did you meet Colin Stetson? Did he approach you or did you approach him? How did that come about?
I think he initially asked me to record a piece for a documentary he was working on.
Are you the one on the Among the Stars?
Seriously? I heard that score and the first track I was like, is this Colin Stetson recreating bagpipes on a saxophone or on a synthesizer? But no, that’s you.
Yep, it is, yeah. So that was our first connection but that obviously was all remote and that was in the pandemic as well. But then after that I was in the process of planning my album and I just thought that he would be perfect for the sound that I wanted. I asked him if he would be up for recording on it and he was and we just yeah organized from there. Prior to being in the studio we hadn’t played any of the material and I hadn’t even sent him anything so it was very fresh going into the studio. But I think it brought a certain energy.
Well you’re both very adept and skilled musicians I can imagine that there’s no struggling.
It was an amazing experience working with him.
Do you know Danny Macaskill? The cyclist from Skye.
There’s a great video of him cycling on the Cuillin Ridge on Skye. And then obviously your first music video from the new album also is from that mountain range. And I’m curious, do you still live on Skye and what role does Skye play in your music?
I don’t live on the Isle of Skye anymore but my mum and dad live just over the bridge, pretty close. Yeah so I go there pretty often enough. I suppose with a lot of the material being traditional it’s always very connected to a place. That’s probably the main thing. I mean Skye probably in particular because that’s where I grew up and I know it. The Outer Hebrides, that’s where my dad is from, I have family there so I would go there a lot as well and there’s a lot of songs and tunes that come from there. But I think it’s just that sense of place, a lot of the songs have a direct quote or a direct reference to a specific or particular place and I do think that it’s quite important. It’s not just like a tune, it’s not just a melody, it’s it’s about where it comes from, who it’s about, where it’s about and that’s what I love. I wanted to have that sense of place a little bit in those videos as well because it’s all connected.
What are you hoping for or planning for next?
I have a couple of projects in mind. I don’t want to give too much away. But it’s developing more of a live thing with collaborating cross-dimensionally. But yeah it will be a process but that’s kind of where I’m at just now.
Well I hope someone will finally program you to come play in the Netherlands so I can come see it in person.
Yeah I would love to.
Grab Brìghde’s new album Carry Them With Us here.
Photo by Camille Lemoine