Stories make humanity. They shape us, explain us, give us a solid place in the world. They show us who we are, our myths, our hopes, our past. Everything has its story. Stories can be told in music as well as words, and on her second album, Carry Them with Us, Brìghde Chaimbeul reveals hers. From her heart, from the Scottish tradition that formed her. And every one of them weaves its spell, as a good story should.
The Scottish smallpipes, with their double-note drones, were in danger of falling into obscurity before Brìghde (pronounced Bree-chuh) Chaimbeul, a native Gaelic speaker from the Isle of Skye, became part of their more recent revival. Her piping has earned her a BBC Young Folk Award and a Horizon Award, and seen her perform for heads of state at the Cop 26 climate conference in Glasgow. She’s brought the instrument to a global stage, and with this album, she’s taken it beyond folk music, discovering a place where the tradition and minimalism meet, offering her the freedom to experiment in sound and create something completely her own.
“I’m always led by the drone,” Chaimbeul explains. “To be a piper you must have a natural attraction to drones. That’s the minimalist aspect, the atmosphere it creates, rather than a rhythm. The other side is melody, one or two of them in a tune, repeating them so it becomes trance-like, and getting lost in them a little bit.”
Carry Them with Us is undoubtedly Chaimbeul’s vision, but collaborator Colin Stetson, an experimental saxophonist and film composer probably best known for his work with Arcade Fire, helped her realise it.
“The sound he creates is the sound in my head, it was what I was going for.” Their musical partnership began on Twitter, not long after she released her acclaimed first album (The Reeling). “He tweeted something and I started listening to his music. He uses atmospheres that inspired me. During lockdown he contacted me to record something for a documentary and I asked him if he’d listen to a track of mine. That was in 2021, and he came over for a week in July last year. We were basically writing and recording at the same time, playing together. Considering he came in cold, what he achieved was amazing. I got so much from working with Colin.”
They seem to inhabit the same space, breathe the same air. Often it’s hard to tell where one instrument ends and the other begins - as she notes, “his style and breathing fit with the pipes.” It’s hypnotic, alive – listen to “Tha Fonn Gun Bhi Trom: I Am Disposed of Mirth,” where the music sometimes seems to suddenly bubble and flutter into the air. It’s not studio trickery, simply the way they played.
“There are times it sounds as if something’s going on,” Chaimbeul agrees, “but it was all organic. Only a few of the tracks have overdubs, because of sound bleeding from microphones, and for layering textures, such as with the harmonium. I like to keep it live, for that flavour. The only studio tinkering was some basic mixing.”
Both musicians are innovators -“there are times he sings into the sax to give a different tone and texture,” Chaimbeul says, while she has developed a way to coax alternative tunings from her smallpipes. With the constancy of the drone as their foundation, and small changes to the melodies as they progressed, the music becomes immersive as Chaimbeul and Stetson weave over and around each other.
Together, they created an album of stories. Some, like “Crònan (i)” came spontaneously as the pair played in the studio. Others, “Pilliù: The Call of the Redshank” and “Pìobaireachd Nan Eun: The Birds,” grew from traditional pieces.
“They’re inspired by birds. They come up often in Gaelic folklore, and in old songs connected to piping,” Chaimbeul explains. “You often find vocables that are meant to imitate bird song, which I love, like the swan on “Pìobaireachd Nan Eun.” It’s as if there’s a connection between Gaelic and the language of birds.”
Those old things, stories, birdsong, are part of the tradition that surrounded Chaimbeul as she grew up.
“They’re a way of connecting to old things, to understand their value, and bring them to life.”
Chaimbeul tells them with a voice that’s completely her own. Her singing at the close of “Bonn Beinn Eadarra: The Haunting,” arrives like a ghost, its spectral feel lingering long after the track is over. On “Banish the Giant of Doubt And Despair,” her playing brings the tale alive, as the daughter of the king of the land under the waves sings a tune before her wedding, and then when a giant, marauding the Western Isles, hears her. Enraptured, he cannot stop dancing, he ends up in the Atlantic, to the island of Hiort, where he topples over and drowns. Everything is there; the joy, the movement, the way it speeds up, turning wild and abandoned as the giant is captured by the dance. It’s storytelling in music, the past given new colours.
Stories even inhabit the album’s title. The phrase Carry Them with Us comes from Scotland’s Iain Sheonaidh Smus, a man who was able to recite all the old tales from memory.
“If someone asked for one that he didn’t want to tell just then, he’d say, ‘I didn’t carry it with me,’” Chaimbeul says. “So it’s the idea of carrying all the stories and the songs with us.”
Tradition shaped Brìghde Chaimbeul, and she wears that history proudly. But on Carry Them with Us, she shows her music has grown beyond labels. It might draw on folk music and minimalism, but led by the drone, she’s taken the leap to tell new stories.