Ceitidh Mac in conversation
Ceitidh Mac first came to the North East to study Folk Music at Newcastle University. It was through her degree that she first got involved with Sage Gateshead’s artist development programme, going on to headline one of the From The Glasshouse events spotlighting local artists. Ceitidh is one of four Artists in Residence at Sage Gateshead in 2022/23.
We recently sat down with her in our Music Education Centre to find out more about her story and what she’s working on right now.
- So Ceitidh, what music do you remember first loving?
My Dad is from Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, but I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Pembrokeshire. I remember going to ceilidhs when I was 4 or 5 years old and I loved the music. It’s a constant energy of strings in that setting, it never stops.
- BBC Introducing DJ Tom Robinson describes you as a “Welsh-born Tynesider”. What do you think of that?
Maybe being a bit of an odd fit in the music industry is the way you see my roots.
I don’t play Welsh or Northumbrian folk music, but they are a subtle influence.
- If you could appear on a playlist alongside another artist, who would it be?
I listened to Laura Marling a lot growing up. I really love the descriptive part of Joni Mitchell’s song writing and her melodies are really unusual.
- Why have you chosen to do a residency at Sage Gateshead at this point in your career?
As an independent musician it’s hard to find the time to be creative because you’re also doing all the booking, all the managing, and playing the gigs.
The bursary I receive as an Artist in Residence allows me to take a break from having to say yes to everything.
Aside from my residency I’m doing some workshops in schools, some session work, and I’m touring. It does just about balance out, but I’m always unsure of where things will be in a few months.
My living costs are quite low because I live up here in the North East. But only in the last few years have I been able to do music full-time. Before that it was always about finding ways to sustain myself so I could do music as much as possible.
- Tell us about your residency project
I’m making a radio ballad, which is a documentary type radio show made up of interviews with people talking about their lives in their own words, woven together with original music inspired by the interviews.
I think of the project as an audio tapestry.
The music will include melodic phrases taken from the way people talk and the rhythm of their speech. It could also include recordings of the environments where I’ve met people.
Last week I went to Gateshead library to see if people would talk to me, and I recorded the sounds of a parent and child group meeting in the library. There was a surprising amount of sound for what you expect to be a quiet, and severe sounding space.
I visited a youth group in Gateshead and asked them “Where is somewhere you go a lot?” They talked a lot about online spaces like social media and how much a part of people’s lives that is. I wasn’t even thinking of online spaces.
- Why did you choose the radio ballad format?
I find radio exciting, particularly the idea that all sorts of people are listening to the same thing at the same time. I really noticed that in lockdown, there was the constant comfort of radio being listened to by so many people at the same time.
Hearing people speak in their own words, sharing that lived experience, and combining that with music is something I want to explore.
I like writing songs about how odd humans are – taking everyday life then zooming out and saying “it’s funny that humans do that.”
- What challenges have you faced so far in this project?
Finding people to interview has been a big one. A lot of people might be willing to talk with me but don’t think they really have something to say. But they all have interesting stories to tell.
- What do you think is your best interview question?
“What are you hopeful for or worried about?” has generated some good answers.
Also, “Where do you like to spend time in the North East?” A lot of people say places near water, where they feel calm.
- BBC Radio 2 recently used something like the radio ballad concept for their 21st Century Folk project. What makes this format relevant today?
A big part of it is hearing people’s stories in their own words, but people that you wouldn’t normally hear. It’s about building a space where that happens.
Folk music has always been a way of communicating stories in song.
I didn’t realise BBC Radio 2 were doing their project when I started my residency, and they have focussed on people from the North East too. The difference is how I will include the actual voices of the people in the performance itself. I want the music to build from the people I’m speaking to.
- How do you know when you’ve heard a good story?
I think for this project it’s about the way people say things, not just what they tell me. With radio you’ve got to paint a picture with your words and some people are just really good at that.
- Where do you see this residency fitting in your journey as an artist?
I really think a residency like this existing will have a big impact on music being made up here because it gives people the time to actually work on projects.
It’s hard in the music industry because I have an idea of the path I want to take, but you never know what’s going to happen.
I’m excited about building a bigger band for the end of residency performance including a few singers, some fiddle players and others.
I’m really interested in the radio side of the music industry. As part of my residency, I was given £500 to go towards mentoring. I had a session with a mentor from the radio sector. He helped me think about imagining my show from the listener’s point of view.
- You are known as an artist with a really loyal following here in the North East. How did you build that?
I’ve been in Newcastle for 10 years, and some people have been coming since my first gigs. People are really supportive here and there’s a lot of music coming out of the North East. So, I think a lot of it is down to being part of this scene.
I really want to make it possible to have a career in music and not have to move away from the region. Part of the reason why I keep going is that I think it should be possible to sustain yourself through music and also be able to do that from the North.
- We completely agree Ceitidh. So what was the last great gig you saw in the North East?
I saw Little Simz in Newcastle at NX. She communicates so powerfully.
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