Mairi Campbell is a unique musician. Her work as an instrumentalist, singer, composer, tutor and theatre maker defies boundaries and genres – rooted in Scotland, but extending far beyond.
She was born and brought up in Edinburgh, with family links to the Isle of Lismore. It was the viola and classical music that Campbell began with, starting lessons at a young age. She had a musical house – she and her three sisters had formed a string quartet by the time she was eleven.
A few years later, she was studying viola at the City of Edinburgh Music School, and a few years after that she was studying at the Guildhall in London. As she’d later explore in her one woman show – Pulse – this world of classical music wasn’t entirely for her. After graduating, and being penalised for playing one of her own compositions in her final exam, she began playing with the Kreisler String Orchestra – an award winning conductorless orchestra.
Still she did not feel completely at home in the classical world. It was only after a visit to Cape Breton that Campbell embarked upon something of a cultural homecoming. Here, she began to find her feet in folk music – fiddle, song and step dance. Returning to Scotland, she joined Freeland Barbour and Co’s legendary ceilidh band The Occasionals, and joined forces as a duo with her now-husband – guitarist and singer/songwriter Dave Francis.
Performing as The Cast, Campbell and Francis’s collaboration has been ongoing now for more than twenty five years – five albums and countless gigs together, a much loved part of the folk scene.
Their first album – The Winnowing – featured a version of Auld Lang Syne. Their rendition led them to some remarkable places. Firstly to the 1999 Presidential Awards in Washington DC, where they performed to an audience including Seán Connery and president Bill Clinton. Also in the audience that night was Sarah Jessica Parker, who then arranged that the recording to feature in the 2008 blockbuster Sex and the City soundtrack.
Campbell’s work has been met with much acclaim, including a number of Scots Trad Music Awards: Instrumentalist of the Year, Scots Singer of the Year and Tutor of the Year. She’s developed a highly original approach as a tutor, workshop leader and facilitator, where exploration and creativity in a supported, welcoming environment are the focus. She’s worked widely as an educator, including running hugely popular voice and fiddle retreats at the family croft on Lismore.
Recent years have seen her move beyond the confines of the form and genre of Scottish traditional music. Firstly with her solo show – Pulse. It’s autobiographical, beginning in the Guildhall, restricted and disconnected by the stuffiness of her classical training. With a stage that’s entirely bare but for a pendulum made from a stone from the family’s Lismore croft, she tells the story of her own cultural homecoming – back to that same croft, changed, via Cape Breton, Mexico, traditional music and dance. As The Scotsman wrote: “A mesmerising performer with such a gift for accents and physical comedy that it’s easy to forget her main job is folk musician”. With Pulse, it became clear that Campbell’s creative outlook is much wider than this.
She followed Pulse with another solo show – Auld Lang Syne – two years later, in 2018. As before, the show was co-devised with and directed by Kath Burlinson. In this same vein, it’s a story about the song, and her relationship with it, and as one review of said: “Mairi Campbell transcends the role of performer.. An incredible storyteller”.