Scotland is very fortunate in the depth and strength of its traditional musicians. At any given time, there are several generations working in the music sector and as the workforce naturally changes through time, older musicians have different priorities to their younger colleagues. In order to better appreciate these differences, Hands Up for Trad are asking musicians who have been working within the sector for a good few years the following questions.
Thanks to Laura-Beth Salter for sharing her thoughts with us. Laura-Beth is a mandolin player, singer, writer and mandolin tutor based in Glasgow. She can mainly be seen performing with The Shee, in a duo with Jenn Butterworth and Kinnaris Quintet as well as regular dep and session work. LB tutors the mandolin at events such as Feis Gleann Albainn, at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, weekly classes at Glasgow Fiddle Workshop and for Falkirk’s Youth Trad Project. In 2013 she was nominated for MG ALBA Scots Trad Composer of the Year for ‘Breathe,’ her New Voices commission and album for Celtic Connections.
Why did you become a musician?
I was really lucky that I grew up surrounded by music in Lincolnshire. My Mum and my Step-Dad, Graham, ran a weekly session in the Marmion Arms in Haltham where they and some friends would play all sorts of music – old-time, blues, bluegrass, folk. As I would go with them every fortnight I got a lot of the tunes and songs in my head before I even picked up my first instrument, so when I finally started to play I kind of already knew what I wanted to learn. My first instrument was tin whistle!
On the alternate weeks I’d be at my Dad’s, and he and my Step Mum would have a music night every Friday where we’d go through all of his vinyl – mainly heavier stuff like Motorhead and Led Zeppelin but I loved it, and it got me started on listening to a really broad range of music, and got me to pick up the guitar.
I grew up in a really supportive musical community, and I ended up playing little slots at folk clubs with Mum and Graham, getting asked to get involved in writing music at school etc. Once I hit my teens I had decided that bluegrass on the whistle maybe didn’t work, and after seeing the incredible ‘Bluegrass Etc’ at Spilsby Theatre I got completely hooked on the mandolin. I begged for a mandolin for about two years, but I already had whistles, fiddle and guitar so Mum was a bit hesitant. I think it was the point when I sang along with every mandolin solo on Bela Fleck’s Natural Bridge album that changed her mind, and I finally got my first mandolin. I never looked back really. Also, Mum played fiddle and Graham played 5-string banjo, so secretly they knew mandolin would complete the line-up of the family band 😉
I don’t think I ever set out to ‘be a musician,’ I just wanted to spend as much time as possible doing what I loved and was incredibly lucky to have a family that wanted the same for me.
What has changed about your music as you get older? Do you think about it differently?
I definitely think about music differently now. I went to Newcastle University to do the Folk degree when it hadn’t long started, and got in cahoots with some top players who really challenged my outlook on my own standard. It was brilliant getting to jam with them, learn tunes from all over the UK, Scandinavia and America. I realised that although I was quite rooted in Bluegrass and Old-time music, I didn’t want to stick to that genre alone, because I really love opening up to new styles. At the end of uni I got to go on tour in America with an amazing band from Finland called Frigg. This was like an enlightenment into percussive accompaniment, cross rythms and grooves on the mandolin and I think that is still a huge influence on what I do. The energy of their music, the harmony and the arrangements really inspired me. After this I saw my role in The Shee differently too – as a sort of snare drum at times, and realising what a different role the mandolin could have to guitars in accompaniment.
I do a lot more writing now too. In the early days of The Shee I would spend quite a long time sourcing American songs which I felt we could take the words and re-arrange as a band to fit our sound. It got increasingly more difficult to find the right songs because I become more and more aware that I really need to mean a song in order to be able to deliver it well. I still spend the time searching through old songs, but now dedicate a bit of that time to writing my own as I don’t think it can get any more genuine than that.
I don’t think my music will stop changing, because I am really influenced by my surroundings, and I have never felt really grounded in a specific tradition. The most recent change was my move to Glasgow ten years ago. The scene here (and extended folk music scene reaching all over Scotland) is just so vibrant! All of my music is still really heavily influenced by American music because that is what I grew up with, but if I hear something I love, from any tradition, I will try and learn it, or at least learn from it.
What are the different aspects of your work?
I am lucky to have a pretty balanced gig/teaching ratio. I absolutely love teaching the mandolin, but I always feel like I am a better teacher when I feel motivated musically by gigging. However, I have realised that I don’t enjoy being away all of the time, and I really like being part of a wider community – something which my more regular teaching really helps me to feel. I feel like teaching at Glasgow Fiddle Workshop helps me get to know a large proportion of the type of people that would come to folk gigs, and building these kind of relationships are invaluable to me.
What are your priorities as a musician?
My priorities are varied – making new music, challenging myself and trying to come up with new sounds are pretty much as important to me as learning about other/older traditions, learning from the people rooted in them and listening to a lot of music that is new to me.
I would like to leave behind songs that are relevant to this time, to my experiences and that are honest. That is a really big priority for me.
My teaching is also very important to me. I feel like trad music can be a profession, but it can also be a past time, and I like to help make it accessible to those people. I have spent quite a long time developing mandolin workshops that are inclusive and enable people to have a go at playing in public who love it, but aren’t confident enough to without a bit of help.
What are the major challenges you’ve faced making it as a musician?
Money! I have spent a couple of years trying to build a bit of stable work so that I am not always stressed about income. It took me a few years to realise that the stress of not knowing my income from month to month was having a detrimental effect on my creativity. To solve this I started looking for other work in the trad music sector, volunteering to help on projects and getting involved in community events. I now program the Late Night Sessions at Celtic Connections and do some work for Hands Up for Trad as well as being focussed on developing my mandolin tuition. This has given me a platform to be able to get back to being creative without worrying so much about the bills. Its a really difficult balancing act because sometimes you just need a prolonged amount of time to write and rehearse something without it paying – these can be some of the most important elements of what we do as musicians. Now I see these times as an investment into something important, rather than unpaid work.
Another challenge is balancing work and home life. Sometimes, with gigs getting booked and contracted sometimes more than a year in advance, I end up missing out on important family gatherings and friends’ weddings etc. Our families are really understanding, but it is still tricky to explain this sometimes, as most people outside of the creative industries can take holidays from work. I sometimes feel really torn – if I pull out of a gig then I let my band down, but if I don’t then I let my family down. This is just an ongoing challenge, but I have made it a little easier by asking my family to let me know of any plans as early as they possibly can – I just got a wedding to put in the diary that’s in two years! My husband and I are both self employed musicians, so work away a lot, and when we are home we are both very busy creating or getting prepared for the next job. It does help that we both do the same thing though, as it means there is an underlying understanding of the need to spend time working, creating etc.
What’s the best advice you have ever had?
Tom Amenta, a friend from the UK bluegrass scene, spotted me trying to play along in a session when I was very young and was always supportive and encouraging. He sat me and my Mum down one day and suggested that I think about where I’d like to be in five and then ten years time. It was the first time I had ever considered music being a viable part of my future and I’m really grateful for that.
What is next for you?
A new album with Kinnaris Quintet, some gigs with The Shee Big Band, more involvement in the discussions surrounding trad music in Scotland (through The Trad Talk etc), a book of tunes for the mandolin sourced from mandolin players in Scotland, some new mandolin workshops for intermediate players and hopefully some concentrated time on writing new solo material later on this year.
Thanks to Laura-Beth for taking the time to answer these questions. Read all our A Life In Trad Music articles. If you would like to keep up with all Hands Up for Trad’s news and events join the Hands Up for Trad newsletter. Remember and support musicians by buying their records and going to their performances.