To drift downriver is to go where the current takes you, winding out towards the river’s mouth, where it meets the sea: to move from a smaller body into a greater one.
Downriver is the new album from vocalist Karen Matheson. As the lead singer of the internationally-renowned Celtic supergroup Capercaillie, Matheson has been the mouthpiece for one of the most organic and thrilling contemporary folk fusions – a textured, multi-layered take on traditional music that is accessible to today’s audiences while still resonant with the music’s ancient overtones. Yet Downriver is something different – simultaneously a departure (from the Capercaillie sound) and a return (to Matheson’s roots). Its title is a fitting one, as Downriver finds Matheson lowering her guard, trusting her instincts and her Gaelic upbringing, and going where the current takes her.
“The original plan for Downriver,” Matheson explains from her home in Glasgow, “was for an all-Gaelic album of songs I’ve known all my life.” Growing up in the small Scottish village of Taynuilt, Karen was exposed to a rich tradition of Gaelic song through her family and at local ceilidhs (music-fueled social gatherings). “The first songs I learned were in Gaelic. My mother spoke it to my grandmother – I guess so that I couldn’t understand what they were saying about me!”
”At first I hesitated to record these songs,” Matheson says of the Gaelic core of Downriver, “because they were so well-known where I grew up. They were very popular songs at ceilidhs, and songs that old people in the village sang. For a long time, I thought recording these songs would be hackneyed or predictable. But one day it dawned on me: that’s the exact reason why no one else has recorded them.” Letting her love for these songs guide her, she sat down with her husband, Capercaillie keyboardist and noted producer Donald Shaw, and performed some of the songs with simple piano backing.
“It felt so natural,” she remembers. “These songs are so emotional. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes.” The combination of the timeless material with stripped-down arrangements was a revelation to Shaw and Matheson. “Sometimes,” she reflects, “you can try too hard. You feel responsible for trying new things with traditional music – and that can be great fun. But you don’t have to always rework things. Doing the songs like this proved very cathartic.”
Once they had decided on the core repertoire, Shaw and Matheson turned to someone they knew could help them adapt these songs from traditional a capella performances to tasteful acoustic instrumentation. “We decided to enlist Donal Lunny from the outset,” says Matheson of the legendary Irish arranger, producer, and multi-instrumentalist. “He’s very inventive with his ideas for old tunes, particularly the rhythms.” Lunny’s legacy includes such influential Irish bands as Planxty, the Bothy Band, and Coolfin in addition to producing innumerable essential albums of traditional music. He arrived at the Downriver sessions without having heard a note of the material.
“Donal flew in from Japan,” Matheson recalls, “and the sessions began. The feeling was very loose – more like a pub session than a recording session. We tried to capture that spontaneity and excitement.” The idyllic location of the session – an artist’s retreat in Argyll, Scotland overlooking the picturesque Sound of Jura – played a part in the sound of the album. “It wasn’t really built as a recording studio. It was designed as a place for artists and poets to come and concentrate and create. We brought in the equipment…and those views, those landscapes,” Matheson explains, “gave us this amazing sense of space. We tried to capture that feeling, as well. Much of Downriver wound up being recorded live there in Argyll, with very few overdubs done later.” Worth noting is that Argyll is not far from Karen’s childhood home of Taynuilt, the source of much of the material.
“While the original plan was for an album of all Gaelic material,” Karen explains, “that changed when James Grant came in with two new songs, written in English. James wrote a lot of material on my last two solo albums, Time to Fall and The Dreaming Sea.” Rather than disrupt the album’s flow, guitarist Grant’s contributions eloquently compliment the traditional heart of Downriver, sounding more like extensions of the tradition rather than diversions from it. His “I Will Not Wear the Willow” is a traditionally-styled murder ballad. “What is not so traditional,” says Karen, “is that it’s written from a female perspective.”
“What I feel this album has that my other solo albums don’t,” Matheson says, “is a certain coherence. The others had a lot of different sounds and styles, and were more polished and produced. This one has a definite mood throughout.” A lot of the credit for that consistency goes to Donald Shaw, whose arrangements and production enrich and elevate the songs without ever overpowering them. The result is an album that sounds fresh yet is imbued with a familiar, hearth-warmed sense of home.
“This album,” Matheson summarizes, “is about reflection. About going back to your roots. As an artist, you eventually come all the way around to where you’ve started. That’s the gift of traditional music – it’s always there for you.”