From Scotland: Lau means light
It’s not as though the three men who make up the Scotland-based band Lau were exactly looking for something to do when they decided to join up to tour, write, and record together. Each of them had easily half a dozen projects going already. Still, ”I think we’re all sort of on the same page musically,” said guitarist and singer Kris Drever. “We were in two duos, and three duos -- we were all doing music together,” said Martin Green, who plays accordion. “It just seemed to make more sense to become a trio and work together.”
It turned out to be an inspired decision.
Outside of Lau, fiddle player and composer Aidan O’Rourke is probably best known as a member of Blazin’ Fiddles, a seven piece band which tours the world showcasing various styles of Scottish traditional music. “In Blazin’ Fiddles, the music is about resurrecting the old fiddle music of the highlands,” O’Rourke said. “Originally there was a showcase of players in a bunch of different styles, then it developed into a band. The original idea there was to focus on the old tunes and styles. Lau’s more about taking it someplace else.”
Taking it all sorts of different places, actually -- in live performance, the notes and melody lines fairly leap among the the three men, with connection and musicality so powerful it becomes a force of its own. Much of the music is composed by one of the three, and all of it is arranged by the group, and it is not, in fact, so far off tradition as all that: they have been nominated for and won BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and Scots Trad Awards as well.
Based in Scottish tradition though it is, much of the music they play and record is original, and created or finished in a collaborative way.
Drever is the singer in the group. Many of the songs he chooses are from the Scottish tradition. “I’m writing new melodies for them, quite a lot of the time. In the Lau project we all bring along a number of fairly complete melodies. and some more skeletal bits of music, and do a bit of writing together as well. It’s using many processes and then keeping the things we like.”
Each the three men has, in recent years, been awarded a New Voices commission by the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow. Drever chose to make his project --commissions are typically an hour or so of music -- a song based collection, while O’Rourke’s was a mixture of jazz and folk influences, and Green’s incorporated funk, space, and electronic music. New Voices awards are made by the festival’s programing committee and the music is presented in special concerts during the festival. “This provides an opportunity for artists and composers to experiment and - in many cases - to push the boundaries of their work in a supportive and constructive environment,” pointed out Claire Snedden of the Festival’s press office. “Each year, three commissions are awarded to composers and musicians, the majority of whom will be receiving their first major commission. These concerts, traditionally held on Sunday afternoons, are always well attended by critics, musicians, and the general public, all waiting to hear the future of traditional music in Scotland and beyond.”
When Aidan O’Rourke received the nod for one of these awards several years ago, it was his first major commission to compose music. He began writing his own tunes “quite late on, actually, I was in my twenties. I was encouraged all the way through my teens by fellow musicians who were right in there saying give it a shot, but I always thought it was not within my grasp.” He’s since written quite a few tunes that other artists have recorded, and has been commissioned by bands and theatrical groups as well. One of the things O'Rourke likes about Lau, and one of the reasons he liked the idea of teaming up as a trio with Green and Drever in the first place, was that “it gave me an opportunity to use some of the tunes I’d been writing, the melodies I’d been writing over the years, that weren’t really fitting in with any of the other bands -- slightly more off the wall rhythms, and harmony that didn’t fit the traditional bands.” When O’Rourke writes music, he’s found it best to give himself a bit of space, in his imagination and often physically as well. “For me to write a lot, I’ll head for the highlands. I find it clears my head,” he said.
O’Rourke grew up in those highlands in Oban, in the west of Scotland. Green comes from Cambridge in southern England, and Drever is from Orkney, a group of islands off Scotland’s northeast coast. They crossed paths in the lively music scene of Edinburgh enough times that they knew it was time to begin working on projects together and so Lau came to be.
It turned out to be a natural decision to make. “They’re great friends of mine, they’re fabulous musicians, and we all read off the same page, I think, in terms of composition, and about working,” Drever said. It seems clear, too, that while each of them takes the music very seriously, no one of them takes himself too seriously. That respect for both creativity and for humor comes out in music and in performance, and it’s helpful when scheduling the work with Lau in the midst of other commitments. “We rehearse quite a lot. It’s quite complicated music, so to keep it energetic and interesting for us, we rehearse, and that’s where we rewrite the music too, all the time, “ Drever pointed out. “We like to get music done so we can go out and gig it a few months before we record it,” O’Rourke added. “I think that’s absolutely one of the most important things, to play and get audience reactions, to take it on the road rather than just rehearsing it and then recording.”
Enthusiastic and increasingly sold out audiences across the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada, a recent commission to compose work with the Northern Sinfonia, along with awards and briskly selling recordings suggest that Green, O'Rourke, and Drever are succeeding at connecting traditional music with the twenty first century and taking the music and the listeners along new paths with that. One of the ways they give a nod to connections between past and present is in the name of the band. They went back to Drever’s native Orkney, a place known as much for its ancient connections with Nordic lands as its history with Scotland, for an old word spoken there: Lau means light. It seems a fitting name for a band which will likely keep on adding to the future of traditional music for some time to come and, no doubt, in unexpected ways.
Lau’s latest recordings include Arc Light, Lightweights and Gentlemen, and Lau Live
Kerry Dexter is the Music Editor for Wandering Educators.
Kerry writes about music, the arts, Ireland, and Scotland at Music Road, and her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, and The Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas and other places. You may reach her at music at wanderingeducators dot com. and @kerrydexter on Twitter