Songlines talks to Celtic Connections’ artistic director Donald Shaw as the festival prepares for its 23rd edition
This interview originally appeared in the December 2015 (#113) edition
Donald Shaw is a man who wears a multitude of hats. Not only is he the frontman of Capercaillie, but he also runs Vertical Records, who have just released Karen Matheson’s new album, Urram. Then there’s the small matter of being artistic director of Celtic Connections, with next year’s impending launch coming up. When we speak, it’s just ten days to the programme announcement.
“I forget every year what a ridiculously large festival it is,” Shaw says, sounding somewhat relieved that the wait is almost over.
“This is my tenth year, which is really scary because I think about a show, and think ‘Oh I’d love to have that artist back, it must have been only two or three years since they were here though,’ and then I look back at the brochures and realise it was seven years. It’s really weird, it’s like a kind of time warp.”
Given the scale of the programme – 18 days in 20 venues and over 2,000 artists – I wonder if his decade-long experience makes the task in hand any easier?
“I think the process of it in my mind gets easier because I’m more relaxed about the fact that some things are just out of your control, so once you become aware of that and you can’t control the destiny of every idea or every artist, then I think you get settled into it. It’s like life: you look at the positive in everything, so if something doesn’t work out, then it will open the door to something else.”
Last year’s opening night concert was the highly acclaimed and still-talked-about performance of Martyn Bennett’s influential album, Grit, complete with a full orchestra and a bevy of singers. So what has Shaw planned for this year? “In the last ten years there’s been a certain amount of glamour and pizzazz attached to Celtic Connections, with some headlining names and international artists, and although obviously the backbone of the festival is traditional and roots music, sometimes that side of it doesn’t get so much opportunity to be in the lights.” So the opening night on January 14 2016 will feature a concert called The Carrying Stream – Celebrating 50 Years of the TMSA (The Traditional Music and Song Association) in Scotland, an organisation founded by Hamish Henderson.
“It’s really an opportunity for a night for the old ballad singers, young musicians and legends coming together and just celebrating the traditional music of Scotland and the journey the TMSA has taken over the last 50 years.”
Another hallmark of Celtic Connections is its special commissions and this year there are several including Pilgrimer, which is a re-imagining of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album by the renowned Scottish novelist James Robertson, together with the singer-songwriter Karine Polwart.
For the last 15 years, a 200-plus contingent of music professionals congregates for five days during the festival (January 27-31) at Showcase Scotland, the industry-focused event. Every year there is a country focus and next year it’s France, or more precisely, artists either based in France or with French labels. Particular highlights are the Cameroonian singer Blick Bassy (“a beautiful singer,” pictured right), Zoufris Maracas (“a great, vibey band, very French!”), Cheikh Lô and a very special show, Piaf, for the 100th anniversary of Edith Piaf.
“It’s a really beautiful show, the story of her life and all the songs,” says Shaw. “It’s nice for us, because to recreate the experience, we’re going to do it in the Theatre Royal, an old, art deco theatre – the oldest theatre in Glasgow, which we haven’t used before.”
Another new venue for 2016 is Drygate: “it’s a brewery which is a great new venue, with a really cool upstairs club. We’ve got a few shows in there, under the title ‘The Shape of Folk to Come’ so it’s artists that are a bit more experimental. For instance we’ve got a night of experimental pibroch [pipe] with Calum MacCrimmon from Breabach, with two bands, one from New York.”
With a programme of this scale, it can’t be an easy task to devise a theme. “If there is a theme this year that’s running through it, I’ve kind of paraphrased it in my mind as ‘Pilgrimage, Immigration and Troubadours,’” says Shaw. “We’ve been watching what’s been happening with refugees and immigration, how strange it is that in the last 100 years, music has been defined by the ability of people to travel freely around the world and create new music. When we look at what’s called world music now, it’s almost impossible to think of a magazine like Songlines existing if it wasn’t for the freedom of movement of musicians around the world.”
Donald Shaw’s Festival Picks:
As the man himself says, “it’s the usual massive programme” so here are a handful of gigs to get excited about…
The Carrying Stream – Celebrating 50 Years of the TMSA, January 14
Piaf! The Show, feat Anne Carrere, January 27-28
Pilgrimer, a reimagining of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album, January 16 (world premiere)
Toumani Diabaté with the RSNO, January 17
Bwani Junction performing Graceland, January 23
RURA, Aoife O’Donovan and The East Pointers – a special collaboration, January 29
+ Find out more about Celtic Connections 2016
+ Enjoy the music of a selection of the artists playing this year with our Celtic Connections 2016 playlist below