A band focussing on songs, a band with an exciting success story. Malinky are one of the rising stars of the Scottish scene, their success being closely linked to the Danny Award. And now, Malinky's female singer even joins the most important Scottish band. All this is definitely worth a story, so we took the chance to catch Malinky's Karine Polwart at this year's Tønder festival.
Malinky were formed in 1998 for a one off gig at the Edinburgh Folk Club, by four musicians who knew each other from local pub sessions. This might have been the end of the story, if Malinky would not have decided to play at the Danny Kyle's Open Stage at Celtic Connections 1999. They directly won the prestigious Danny Award, and that's quite how the whole story started. In the audience was Ian Green, who decided to sign them for Greentrax. A year later at Celtic Connections the Malinky debut album was launched with many festival and press people around, and the band was immediately booked for some of the great festivals of the summer 2000 season. One of these organisers was Carsten Panduro, who booked them to play at his Tønder Festival, probably the most important showcase for Celtic Music on the European mainland. Karine summs up: "The whole thing has been a bit out of control. But it's great. Normally it takes years to get to do any great festivals, but we got there in more or less the first year of proper gigging."
One of the reasons why they are so successful is without doubt their strong emphasis on songs, something which only very few young musicians can offer. All the reviewers loved their debut album "Autumn leaves", including FolkWorld. "To have the emphasis on songs is quite deliberate, because there are not many bands alike, there are the Old Blind Dogs and a few bands which have like 50 % songs, 50 % tunes. But there is quite nobody at our age doing primarily songs, so it's a niche market. We are quite lucky because that is kind of what made us known. And also we are having two singers instead of only one, and having a man and a woman, which is kind of unusual. It's good for us, becaus we are not competing with anybody."
Those songs are for a big part traditional, but some of the highlights of the Malinky repertoire are those written by Karine Polwart herself. Two of the songs on the Malinky CD are hers. "It's great to write a song and have people singing along to it, that is a great honour. And "Where do ya lie" is going to be on Roy Baileys next CD - I have never had any song covered by anyone before - it's great. Partly he sings it as his encore when he goes to festivals; it's like wow - that's been a real kind of shock, it's great."
Karine always loved singing since being a kid, singing in school groups and things like that. She only got to folk music and in particular Scottish music when she moved to Edinburgh 5 years ago. "I joined an evening class in folk songs, and that brought me in going to sessions and meeting people there. So that's how it came about. But I have always been singing since I was small, so it is great to get to do it for your living. I love Scottish traditional songs because they have got great stories and history behind it." She regularly goes to libraries to find out more about the histroy behind the songs, but also to find new songs. Other sources for songs are singers she meets and the modern modern medium to pass on songs - CDs. The other important source for songs in Malinky is the second singer, Steve, who has been singing since he was little as well, knowing a lot of songs. He studied also at the School of Scottish Studies, which means that he has access to a lot of songs that aren't widely known.
The two instrumentalists of Malinky are not Scottish, though they live now in Edinburgh: Mark is from Antrim in Northern Ireland, and Kit is from Plymouth in England. "The songs that we do are almost all Scottish, but most of the tunes are Irish tunes, so we kind of combine the two traditions. And we are hoping to be writing more stuff in the future, Mark and Kit are beginning to write tunes, so hopefully when we make our next CD, we have more stuff of ourselves."
Malinky's success had another result for Karine. Malinky's debut album was produced by Davy Steele, the great singer/songwriter/entertainer, who loved the music of the band. Then Davy got really sick, leading him to stop touring with the Battlefield Band which he joined only two years ago. When the Battlefield Band was looking for a replacement, Davy suggested that if they were looking for a woman then they should think about Karine. So with these awful circumstances, Karine joined the band in August. "We have had two gigs in Scotland a fortnight ago, and on Wednesday we go for America for a months. So it's brilliant, but it's rotten that Davy is not well, so it's kind of double edged. Not entirely cheerful circumstances." Still Karine is looking forward to work with the lads. the Battlefield Band are planning to record a CD with the new line-up at the end of this year, which should be out early next year.
Joining one of the most successful Scottish bands takes of course a major commitment of time. "I had to give up my job, I have had a day job since the beginning of the year, but I am now so busy that I don't need to." Still, Karine believes that she will definitely have enough time for her other two bands, Malinky and MacAlias, her duo collaboration with Gill Bowman that has more a Country/Pop Style. "It is quite confined, the thing about the Battlefield Band is that they plan their tours so far in advance, so you know exactly what days you have to work round. That makes it a bit easier to schedule things. Next summer could be a bit complicated for festivals; I think we are competing for the summer festivals..."
Being in Edinburgh right at the source of the new Scottish politics, I ask Karine if the Scottish Parliament has changed anything for Scottish traditional music. "I don't think it has yet. Two months ago there was a debate in Parliament especially about traditional music, and that was the first time it ever happened, to get the government to pledge support for traditional music. And just last week, the Scottish National Cultural Strategy was published, and traditional music is part of the deal with tha, and I think they have increased the money which will be given to traditional music. So that is a good sign. But I think a lot of the position of traditional music has to do with the press as well. Because the government can be a support, but the music needs to be regularly in the media, and I think internet is also a great way to get across. There has been a big push from a lot of musicians in Scotland to write to the national papers to ask them to give more coverage; and it's kind of working. So that is quite good news. But the main thing is to get on television and radio, and that will make the government listen. With the Scottish parliament there is potential, but it is still a bit new."
This sounds like the scene is quite healthy for the moment, still the Edinburgh news of the last few months have not been too rosy: The closing down of the legendary folk music pub, centre of the Edinburgh folk scene, the Tron Tavern, and the end of the Edinburgh Folk Festival - is it just coincidence that those two things happened at the same time? "It's been a bad time as all has happened at once, but there is still loads and loads of musicians, and not just Scottish musicians, but also a lot of Irish musicians and English musicians who come to live in Edinburgh. Yet I think there are not as many places to play music as there used to be. The folk festival's demise is a pity, but I don't think it will be the end, I think something will come out of it, maybe encourage a few new ideas. The Tron was a real loss I think, it was a great venue for sessions but also for gigs, and it has not really been replaced. There is another new pub called the Castle Arms which is quite good for sessions up there, but it isn't that cosy, and there is not that venue downstairs like it used to be at the Tron. But the Edinburgh Folk Club is really doing well, it's under new managment, and they have been pulling in great crowds. It is now at the Pleasance at the university. There are still every week live gigs, and quite every night there is good sessions, so you can find somehting somewhere."
"I think with Celtic Connections being so successful,Edinburgh has kind of struggle to offer an alternative. Because Celtic Connections have all the international big names, and they come to Scotland only once a year, so they come in January, and you got really stuck. But ouside Edinburgh there are still the great festivals like Killin, Stonehaven, Tinto, they are still there."
Yet she puts a jealous eye on the Tønder festival: "Still, they are not as good organised as this festival. We could do with a festival like this in Scotland, somebody should sort that out, we should be getting over the Danish to advice us. Best would be to bring along the Danish audience and organise everything, and place that in Edinburgh..."
Sweet folk dreams....
Latest published CD: Autumn Dreams; available from Greentrax; reviewed in FolkWorld No. 14
Further infos/contact: e-mail Karine Polwart.
Photo Credit: All Photos by The Mollis.
The Malinky photos were taken at Tønder Festival 2000; the second photo shows Danny Kyle, to whom the DANNY Awards are dedicated; and the second last photo shows Edinburgh's Royal Mile.
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