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Malcolm MacWatt: The Settler
by George Graham
(Need to Know Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/17/2021)
The revival of Celtic music over the last couple of decades has brought together some interesting combinations of influences. The venerable Irish band the Chieftains have often invited some musically diverse casts to appear on their recordings. There have been a number of transatlantic collaborations, such as the group Solas and American fiddler Eileen Ivers, taking up some traditional music with varying degrees of eclecticism. This week, we have something of the opposite, a Scottish musician who incorporates American folk and a good deal of bluegrass in his music. It’s Malcolm MacWatt, and his new release is called Settler.
Born in Morayshire in Scotland, near the North Sea, MacWatt grew up on traditional music in his family. As an avid outdoorsman with a love for hiking and snowboarding in the Scottish Highlands, some of that love of the country finds it way into his music. But with an affinity for American folk, and an appreciation for the common ties that might exist between the cultures with the history of Scottish migration to the American South, MacWatt brings them together on his new album, with banjo, Dobro and other bluegrass sounds incorporated in his music, which lyrically draws on Scottish lore and the emigration to America. On his website, he describes his music as “Trans-Atlanticana.”
This is his seventh album or EP, since his debut in 2018. He also performs with a group called The Glass Mountains. His last recording was an EP called Skail a Scottish word for going away by water. It was made during the pandemic lockdown in his London flat. The new album, a full length recording, was also recorded by himself, with MacWatt playing all the instruments, but with guest vocalists, including singers from both sides of the Atlantic, including Laura Cantrell, Gretchen Peters and Jaimee Harris from the US, and Kris Drever and Eliza Carthy from the UK.
The album definitely sounds outwardly like an American folk record, with the bluegrass instrumentation, but lyrically, the Transatlantic aspect is apparent. MacWatt writes some lyrics that could pass for 200-year old Celtic folksongs, and there are a couple of what could be described as protest songs, or songs about social justice, and about the displacement of indigenous people.
Opening is one of those protest songs, Avalanche and Landslide with the American singer Jaimee Harris as guest vocalist. The bluegrass influence is front and center. <<>>
Letter from San Francisco is a story of a young man pursuing the Gold Rush, who ends up going downhill. It’s nicely done. <<>>
The Ghosts of Caledonia is an upbeat waltz that looks back on the lasting historical consequences of decisions and actions taken. <<>>
Laura Cantrell makes an appearance on the track called The Curse of Molly McPhee which is one of those original songs that sounds like an old traditional piece. The lyrics about a woman being accused of witchcraft add to the aura of antiquity. <<>>
The story of the emigration from Ireland and Scotland has been the subject of many a song. MacWatt writes from the perspective of the mothers whose sons leave for the New World. <<>>
The folk tradition, especially from the British Isles has many songs about adultery and its consequences. The Miller’s Daughter is MacWatt’s addition to the genre, about a woman married to a man who was not her true love. <<>>
Malcolm MacWatt’s take on the displacement of indigenous peoples is the basis of the song Trespass, which is powerfully done with the scaled back instrumentation with just the guitar. <<>>
Kris Drever makes his appearances on a song called John Rae’s Welcome Home, a historical ballad about a little-known Scottish explorer who did his work in Canada. <<>>
Malcolm MacWatt’s new album Settler is a relatively rare occasion of a Scottish folk musician drawing primarily on American bluegrass and folk for musical influences. It’s also impressive because with the exception of electric guitar on one track, MacWatt played all the instruments, in part because of necessity, recording at home during the pandemic. The added backing vocalists are a nice touch, but MacWatt carries the day with his songs that evoke traditional ballads and his tasteful musical backing. An interesting feature of the CD is the last track, called About the Songs… An Oral Explanation in which he does just that, talking about the tunes in order.
Our grade for sound quality is an “A.” Though it’s a homemade recording, the audio is first-rate, with good clarity and warmth. The album was mixed in London by one Phil Dearing. <<>>
“Trans-Atlanticana” as he calls it, is a very good way to describe Malcolm MacWatt’s new album. It’s a sort of best of both worlds in the folk vein.
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