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Malin Lewis – Artist of the Month Interview


Scottish piper Malin Lewis’s new Halocline album is a work of subtle, nuanced beauty. We met to learn more about it.

It’s unusual to come across a debut full-length album that has as much confidence and clarity as Malin Lewis’s Halocline, and more unusual still to find out the Scottish piper designed and built their own instrument. “Yeah, I started when I was about fourteen,” Malin begins. “I was always obsessed with the sound [of pipes] itself and not so much the music or the tunes. Just how pieces of wood can make these noises and the different shapes – like what makes the bagpipes different to a clarinet. When I was about ten I used to drill holes in sticks and put my chanter reeds in them.”

Although this was very much a primitive method to begin with, it led the way to a far more unique approach. “They sounded awful!” Malin laughs. “But it was the spark of something and I soon approached a local wood-turner, who very generously taught me the turning side of things, and I just worked out the pipe making side of it myself. I really enjoy that holistic approach to music; making the pipes and starting to compose for them and immersing myself in every aspect of it.”

This fascination with pipes and woodwind coincided very neatly with where Malin was born, coming from the Highlands of Scotland. “I grew up near the Glenfinnan area,” they explain. “The MacDonald brothers Allan, Angus and Iain, three very famous pipers, come from there and I feel like folk music is almost pop music in the Highlands. It’s what you consume day to day and it’s what my parents were into – they loved people like Sharon Shannon, Martyn Bennett and Duncan Chisholm – so that’s what I grew up on. But there’s something about the bagpipes and that wall of sound. The harmonics of an in-tune set of bagpipes is really amazing; it’s such a pure sound that really envelopes you.” 

As we mentioned above, Malin began honing their craft from a young age, with one particular mentor copping up. “I used to play in piping competitions and things,” they tell us. “But then there was this really lovely person that used to help out there called Farquhar MacDonald and he was a labourer I think, but he used to play in the pub. There were lots of people that helped me, but he really encouraged me to see music as more than just piping and he got me playing sessions and made me realise it was something I could do as a living. So when I was about fifteen I really set all of my time to it.”

Malin’s sound feels fresh, unique and quietly uncompromising, a detail they feel comes from childhood. “People ask if I’m from a musical family, but I’m not,” they say. “It’s something I picked purely as a hobby because I was bored in school. I think that has really allowed me to do my own thing with it and not have social pressure to continue the tradition or anything. But also, it made me just love it, because my parents never had to encourage me to practise; in fact, they usually had to ask me to stop, because we were living in a caravan for a few years.” Malin stops with a laugh. “But it was just something that was really me and I made it into my identity, it wasn’t passed on, so feeling that ownership was important to me.”

It feels like this all feeds into Halocline, but Malin also cites influences as important. “I grew up on the albums of Sharon Shannon, Duncan Chisholm and Martyn Bennett and Martyn has been a huge inspiration,” they explain. “There’s something very raw about those albums; it’s about the vibe and as much as I love a lot of the contemporary stuff out of Scotland just now, it’s very crisp, clean and polished. So right from the start I chose to work with Andy Bell, because his is a more indie sound and a rawer capture. I really wanted something that sounded zingy and organic, but with some rough edges. I wanted that freeness to it.”

Photo by Jonathan Doyle

Although the sound on the album is considered and never overbearing, Malin changed their mind about the size of the setup. “It was always going to be a small band, probably a quartet,” they tell us. “But then I got asked to do New Voices for Celtic Connections and for that you compose for a seven or eight piece band, and I saw an opportunity to test my arrangement skills and write for different instruments. So that all came together and getting to perform it before going into the studio was really worthwhile.”

The accompaniments are always sympathetic to the pipes, but the textures they provide add richness and excitement to the music, particularly Sally Simpson’s fiddle and Matthew Herd’s saxophone. “I really love soprano sax,” Malin smiles. “I’ve dabbled, but I’m not good enough to play it on the album. But you get a lot of it in Bulgarian music and that eastern European sound, as well as Nordic countries and that melodeon, bagpipe, saxophone world. I love that timbre and that sound, it’s really earthy. The small pipes as well; they’re an octave lower than the Highland and border pipes, so bouzouki blends with them really well. It has that Galithian European vibe that I love, but it also blends with the small pipes and the harmonics really do something for me.”

Malin feels that Halocline is a collaboration between themselves and the chanter, so it was key to get the sound balance right, something Andy Bell excelled at. “In Andy’s mix I feel he treats the smallpipes almost like a vocal,” Malin says. “They’re crisp and clear at the front of the mix. I think that’s really cool and it feels like a very fresh way of shaping instrumental music. We recorded loads of different layers and textures and many are very tastefully low in the mix so that when listening on good speakers or headphones there’s a myriad of swirling layers that dance around above your head.”

Importantly though, a lot of the magic of Halocline comes from the uniqueness of Malin’s own instrument, a detail that shapes the sound of the record. “I have this new chanter that’s two octaves instead of one, and it’s chromatic,” Malin explains. “It has this ability to play the music from eastern Europe and Scandinavia that I love, but there was a really important point in my life when my identity, this instrument and music all came together. This was when I was about eighteen and I’d been out for a few years, but I was still coming to terms with my identity and learning who I was. And there was something about having a truly unique instrument that gave me a voice within the folk scene and made me feel I could mould this little space of queer bagpiping with an instrument that wasn’t held back by tradition or limitations.”

Halocline Documentary – Malin Lewis

Halocline is out now Hudson Records (released 3rd May 2024).

The album will be available digitally, on CD, black LP and limited edition blue LP. It is available to pre-order now at https://hudsonrecords.ffm.to/halocline.

Malin is touring their debut album across Scotland and England throughout spring and summer, stopping at venues from An Lanntair on the Isle of Lewis down to Pound Arts in Corsham.

Malin Lewis Tour Dates

10.04 – An Tobar, Isle of Mull

11.04 – Bunessan Hall, Isle of Mull

12.04 – Corrie & Sannox Hall, Isle of Arran

08.05 – Tradfest, Edinburgh

09.05 – Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre, Isle of North Uist

10.05 – An Lanntair, Isle of Lewis

11.05 – SkyeLive, Isle of Skye

17.05 – Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal

18.05 – Kirkgate Arts, Cockermouth

19.05 – Kirkstanton Village Hall, Kirksanton

20.05 – Lowther Pavilion Theatre, Lytham

26.05 – Knockengorroch, Galloway

31.05 – Lyth Arts Centre, Lyth

01.06 – The Gathering, Inverness

06.07 – Moorforge Folk Festival, Gilcrux

20.07 – Pound Arts Centre, Corsham

21.07 – Folk by the Oak, Hatfield House

More: https://www.malinlewis.co.uk/



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