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Highland musician brings adventures from the wider world into his debut album longlisted for the Trad awards

By Margaret Chrystall

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With his debut album on the longlist for this year’s MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards, young Highland musician James Bauld is laughing about its title.

Musician James Bauld after a day walking with both a Brazilian and Italian hiker he met. Meeting people is one of the experiences he enjoys when he sets out to explore.
Musician James Bauld after a day walking with both a Brazilian and Italian hiker he met. Meeting people is one of the experiences he enjoys when he sets out to explore.

“I called it Where I Belong and the funny thing is, I don’t really know where I belong – I grew up in quite a few places across the Highlands. Born in Inverness, I lived in Invergordon and Dornoch, went to school for a while in Tain – and I also lived in Plockton and North Uist!”

James’s name was included on the longlist for this year’s Trad awards album of the year nominations and now there is just one day to go before voting closes for the public to make their choices.

The artwork for the cover of Where I Belong is by Petermakesprints.
The artwork for the cover of Where I Belong is by Petermakesprints.

His debut album was out in March earlier this year. James completed his UHI university degree this summer. And as well as his own tour in March, James played the Blas festival last month with a night at Newtonmore presenting his own music on the bill alongside Ewen Henderson’s big commission piece for Blas, Lèirsinn.

“I'd had some tutoring from Ewen with the Ceilidh Trail when I was a bit younger. Ewen had composed and also I was playing music I had recently composed, so it was very much new traditional stuff that night – or new in the sphere of things.

“Also in Ewen’s band was Hamish Napier who plays flute and had given me one of my first-ever flute lessons, and some of the other Hendersons [from Ewen’s family] were also in the band. Also there was Ingrid Henderson’s husband Iain MacFarlane who had given me my audition on the panel for the National Centre Of Excellence in Traditional Music when I went to the music school there. I also knew him when he was teaching at the music school in Plockton, so it was a lovely evening to be a part of!”

Where I Belong might not be a title pinpointing a place where Jack's career is centred, but he has been fostered and belongs to the music community across the North.

It is flute – specifically wooden flute – that is James’s main instrument, along with playing whistle, piano and composing.

But his awareness of music started young thanks to his family.

James Bauld and his wooden flute.
James Bauld and his wooden flute.

“My earliest memories are with my granny who was very much into music and folklore and she is a storyteller and sings herself. She used to take me to pipe band in Strathpeffer, when I was living in Invergordon, so those are some of my earliest things.

“I spent most of my summers in Uist and did some of my primary school over there.

“So I had musical influences from the trad-y stuff from Uist and some Highland things too.

“I used to go to Feis Rois in Evanton and that’s where I got my weekly whistle lessons.”

Why did he think it had been flute that had clicked to become ‘his’ instrument, of all the ones he could have picked?

“I had done a couple of trial lessons on guitar and pipes and they didn’t really stick – nothing did, until I tried the whistle which led me on to flute, then on to wooden flute – which I am obsessed with now!

“Flute is the thing that got me into serious practice and really enjoying music.

“I’ve had other influences – my mum used to listen to jazz music, so I have slight jazz influences.

“My Uncle Andy, has travelled all over the world and he has given me random CDs and suggestions of bands he has seen, from all over Africa as well.

“He took me to my first gig in the Ironworks when I was about 12 or 13 to see Public Image Limited.

“And I had various other music genre influences from other family members when I was growing up!”

James Bauld. Picture: Callum Lewis Gibbs
James Bauld. Picture: Callum Lewis Gibbs

James thinks back to early days with the flute.

“It was flute that really clicked with me and my second study throughout school and uni was piano, I was taught piano by Andy Thorburn at Plockton.

“When I’m composing music, I’m almost thinking more from the piano side of things – I seem to think more through the lens of piano for that.

“But when I’m playing melodies and performing, it is always flute!”

James described the attraction of the wooden flute.

“There is an incredible satisfaction I get from playing it and the sound that comes out of it that I just don’t get from any other instruments I’ve played.”

But James had to wait to get a chance to explore and learn the wooden flute.

“I got some of my first lessons on classical metal flute, that’s what started me out.

“I couldn’t get a specific wooden flute tutor in the Highlands there wasn’t really anyone at the time or within reasonable travelling distance.

“So I only picked up the flute properly when I went to the music school in Plockton where Dougie Pincock taught me. Wooden flutes are really expensive and not easy to get hold of – the cheapest wooden flutes are about £1,500 for one with a couple of keys. So it’s a big investment. One – I didn’t have an instrument but I also had no-one to tutor me until I went to music school

“They had an instrument library you could borrow stuff from, so I borrowed one from there for a couple of years, before getting my own one.

“The wooden flute has a different sound and atmosphere and it’s got its own quirks. Some of the notes are made by open holes you cover and then some of the other notes are keys, so there is a huge variety of grace notes and texture and tone that you have with a wooden flute, as it has both those ways to make the notes. You don’t get with a metal flute.”

The sound of the wooden flute is one of the signatures of James’s album, but so are the tracks as many namecheck a host of places.

“For me Where I Belong is maybe more about the people around you and your surroundings, rather than simply a physical location. It's environment and where I feel at home or at rest. It's also belonging. and wherever I have found a feeling of belonging. Most of the tunes are written about different experiences.

“In my free time I do quite a lot of long distance running and long walks, hiking and long cycle trips.

“There are tracks on there about Eastern Europe and about various hillwalking adventures, outdoor or music adventures – and meeting people, having all these different experiences. Ultimately, it’s often about feeling welcomed and belonging.”

Walking in Albania is reflected in a couple of James's tracks on Where I Belong.
Walking in Albania is reflected in a couple of James's tracks on Where I Belong.

James talks you through the track From Bajram Curri To Shkoder which was inspired by a journey through the Albanian alps.

“There is a famous mountain pass between Valbona and Theth, two high altitude mountain villages. The scenery is kind of similar to Scotland in some places, but the rock is unique.

There is not really much public transport in Albania, but there are bus companies that start and finish in different places but there is not a timetable, so to even try to get to the start of this walking route – and because I was coming from Kosovo rather than the capital – it was a bit awkward trying to figure it out.”

James reveals he often goes off on his walking and hillwalking expeditions on his own.

Albania – James felt some of the landscape reminded him of Scotland.
Albania – James felt some of the landscape reminded him of Scotland.

If he gets a few days free from music commitments, he might just take off somewhere on the spur of the moment, taking a whistle.

“I’ve done a few writing things when I’m away, and having a really clear head because I am by myself, I find ideas come to me.

“For a commissioned writing project I always like to go into nature, get out of the city and just be by myself.”

His Uncle Andy encouraged James to set himself physical challenges, such as ultramarathons and like his uncle, James seems to have the travel bug.

“My travel adventures are inspired by Uncle Andy.

“It was him who probably got me into cycling and mountain biking too and a couple of years ago it was him who signed me up to do my first marathon! He signed himself up as well and we did it together.

“It got to the point a year and a half ago when I was pushing him! So we did an ultramarathon from Glasgow to Edinburgh, to Leith, 65 miles or so.”

There’s a track on the album it inspired.

“Final Steps To The Water Of Leith – part of that tune came to me in the last bit near the canal, when you go down the steps to the Water Of Leith.”

In the last week, James has been making videos to illustrate his album tracks and he was busy on that when he first tried to access the Trads longlist, but couldn’t get the link to work.

“I thought ‘I’ll come back to it’, but later on that evening I was playing a session in Glasgow and one of my friends came up to me – someone I hadn’t seen in a while – and said ‘Congratulations on being on the longlist!’.”

Delighted to be on the longlist, James says he isn’t sure he would make the shortlist.

“I’m not superconfident, there are quite a few friends who have released great albums – and big names like Skerryvore and Talisk.”

And some of his past tutors he namechecks, including David Foley and Peter Noble – who taught James composition at UHI – have albums on the list.

“So I’m up against my tutors too!” he laughed.

James was going to spend time on his social media in the last few days inviting friends, family and people who like his music to vote for Where I Belong. And he joins a longlist that is packed with the rich feast of North talent the area can boast these days where his music has earned its place.

James Bauld, longlisted for a Trad award with debut album Where I Belong.
James Bauld, longlisted for a Trad award with debut album Where I Belong.

And just one final question for James reveals a big exciting project on the horizon which may be one of 2023's landmarks that could crown his year so far.

“Probably one of my biggest things is coming up next month. I applied to a commission and sent off some of my portfolio of music including some of the tracks from my album and some written scores I have done over the past few years.

“Now I have written music for a show to be performed at the Royal Albert Hall and I’m also a soloist in that performance!

“In mid-November I will be playing the Royal Albert Hall with an orchestra of 100-150 people playing my musical ideas! There will be about 40 musical instruments.

“And I ended up having about 360 pages of music.

"I was working on that over the summer, so it's pretty exciting!”

Voting for the MG ALBA Scots Music Trad Awards will close on Sunday, October 15 at midnight.

To vote for your choice of the longlisted album and your shortlist choice from that – and to vote in the other categories in the MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards too – click on the LINK:

Instagram: @jamesbauldmusic

Bandcamp: you can buy Where I Belong.

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