“My earliest memory of playing an instrument is tinkling on the beautiful old (but not so in tune) piano at home. It was one of the ones with candlestick holders on the front and intricate casing. Having worked out how to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and other such classics, my parents thought it was maybe time I started lessons, no doubt they wanted to hear something other than nursery rhymes. So aged seven I began piano lessons which I continued until my early teens. The old piano was replaced a few years later with a newer model and I can still remember the dismay of watching as dad chopped up the old piano for firewood. My sister and I were given a candleholder each and the pin rails were recycled as bobbin holders, wall mounted above mum’s sewing machine.
“By the time I turned 14 my enthusiasm for classical piano was falling by the wayside as I had discovered a piano accordion stored in the attic. My grandpa had played accordion in a local function band and this new-found instrument had been given to my mum when she had taken accordion lessons during her childhood. It was a full size box (120 basses) and she had to lug it all over town before the days of trendy backpack-like soft cases. She gave up playing after a couple of years and the accordion was banished to the box room. It was a good job I found it when I did, as had I been any smaller I don’t think I could have lifted it, but I cleaned it up and even though it wheezed and coughed as I tried to play it, I was delighted by its showbiz jewel-encrusted white mother of pearl bodywork.
“For Christmas that year I was gifted a new, shiny, red Chinese-made accordion and began lessons with Keith Dickson. Every Saturday morning Keith travelled down from Lanarkshire to Dumfriesshire and taught in a draughty village hall. We mainly focused on learning the traditional march, strathspey & reel medley of Scottish dance tunes which were the standard entry in accordion and fiddle competitions. Entering these competitions gave me something to work towards but they didn’t do my confidence much good as I often got too nervous to play faultlessly through to the end. Sitting on a vast town hall stage, the adjudicator would be sat behind a screen and would ring a little bell to signal me to start. It was always the bell that got me!
“Alongside these nervous weekend activities I joined Keith’s ‘Accordion Orchestra’ or KODA as it latterly became known, and our school ceilidh band Celtic Caboodle which was run by our physics teacher Kev Bailey. Both of these bands were out performing at ceilidhs, functions and fetes every weekend so I learnt from an early age that as a musician you often don’t spend weekends at home. Thinking about it, I’ve actually had a lifetime of weekend engagements as my mum was a dancing teacher so Saturdays were spent learning/helping at dance classes and performing at shows, gala days and old folk’s homes. My earliest performance as a dancer was as a mouse in A Windmill In Old Amsterdam aged two and a half, another early memory is entertaining in the local old folk’s home dancing to Make ‘Em Laugh dressed as a clown and wondering why all the old people didn’t look very happy.
“I didn’t begin singing until my mid-teens when I was chosen as KODA’s new singer alongside the addition of a piper, fiddler and drummer. Despite being shy and somewhat daunted at having to be the front person of the band, these years singing with KODA schooled me in being comfortable talking to an audience. You don’t get a tougher audience than a room full of white-haired, box and fiddle club attendees horrified by a band of 13 accordions backing a wee lassie belting out Shania Twain’s Man I Feel Like A Woman.
“Having got over the fear of singing in public, my attention turned to singing, and even though I enjoyed various types of music, my love for traditional song was sparked by going to see Irish band Dervish at our local theatre. I thought Cathy Jordan was amazing. I bought their double CD Live In Palma and proceeded to learn all of the songs by heart. On leaving school I intended to take a year out and prepare a folio to apply to go to art college but out of the blue I heard about a new degree course in Scottish Music at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (recently renamed as The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland). Moving from rural Dumfriesshire to Glasgow was a big step but I was so excited to discover that there were other people my age who also loved traditional music. I studied Scots song, piano and accordion and spent many happy hours researching songs and learning from my tutor Alison McMorland.
“During my second year of study I entered BBC Radio Scotland’s BBC Young Traditional Musician of The Year Award. The final was held at Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow in January 2002 and I was delighted to be chosen as the winner. Winning the award brought with it a record deal and a summer full of festival bookings. I put a band together and started rehearsing material. A lot of things happened quickly that year, I don’t think I had even attended a folk festival before that first summer so I felt like a whole new world had opened up to me. Nine years on, I have a career that takes me all over the world touring and recording. The thought of being a professional musician didn’t even cross my mind until I was in my twenties but I guess I’ve always known entertaining is in my blood.”
Thanks to Emily Smith for the latest in our series of artist blogs. Emily will be touring material from her latest album Traiveller’s Joy from 20th October onwards – see full details below. Emily will also be performing live and chatting to Aled Jones on his Good Morning Sunday show on 23rd October 2011 on BBC Radio 2.
No shows booked at the moment.