There are many ways to discover new artists, some better than others. While we can debate our favorite ways, I think I speak for everyone when I say the absolute worst way to discover a new artist is to find out they had to go public with #metoo allegations in response to career backlash. These headlines almost always override the artist’s music and work for exclusive focus on their victimization by the industry. In an effort to counteract that trend, here is an unusual artist I discovered through this less than ideal pipeline: Iona Fyfe.
The most immediately recognizable thing about Iona Fyfe is that she’s a Scottish artist who often sings in… well that’s kind of the confusing part. The language (or dialect of English depending on your feelings about the United Kingdom as a political entity) is called Scots, and it’s a surprisingly well preserved cousin of our tongue spoken in the rural south of Scotland, where the Celtic languages of the North mixed with Old English. It’s a strange thing to our American ears, where even the most divergent dialects of our country are still fully intelligible. In the slowest, syrupiest songs in Iona Fyfe’s catalogues, you might just think she has a strong accent. In faster folk songs like “Guise of Tough,” the language barrier is far more jarring. Fyfe’s language uses words and sounds that feel intuitive and gel with the musical/poetic vocabulary of the English tradition, but to our ears it’s mostly nonsense.
However, the effect of Scots is still artistically compelling to English speakers. Since we are steeped in the same musical and poetic traditions, and we share several roots, grammatical transformations, and entire words or sentences. The music still makes emotional sense, communicating everything important and not a lick more. Coming away from the songs, I found myself understanding what the music meant, but not what it was about, which makes for a fascinating if unmooring listening experience.
Then there’s Fyfe’s English language work, which is more accessible if less compelling. Her 2019 ep, “Dark Turn of Mind,” is entirely in English, and built around a cover of previous blog topic Gillian Welch. While the ep isn’t as good as her Scots language music, it represents something unique about Fyfe, that her music is conversation with the Southern American folk tradition. This connection is partly musical, Appalachian folk is built off the musical framework of Celtic and English folk, and partly ethnic. Since the 90s, many white southerners have begun tying their cultural identity to the Celtic tradition, rather than to the Anglo-Saxon or American Nationalistic traditions. Analyzing this cultural shift is beyond my pay grade, though it was a constant feature of my upbringing. The only place I’ve ever been outside North Carolina and the surrounding states is Scotland to visit my brother studying abroad. The label of “Scots-Irish” is a fraught identity, but it’s good nonetheless to see Fyfe reciprocating a more wholesome vision of white Southern identity from across the pond, especially by covering our music from our cannon.
I encourage you to check out the Iona Fyfe discography. If you aren’t a folk person, it will probably remain a minor curiosity to you, but it’s a gimmick that’s worth your time. I wish her the best on her post-Covid career, and hope to see her extend her relationship to American in the coming years, because God knows her nations relationship to Europe is strained right now