Piping Live! is fast approaching and it’s great to see the festival returning to the Old Fruitmarket for the Friday night concert on August 12.  Located in Candleriggs and starting at 8.30pm, this year we have RURA + Ross Ainslie and and Brighde Chaimbeul who are sure to provide an exciting blend of cutting edge traditional music. This will be a great show and tickets are available from the Piping Live! website here.

Exactly ten years ago, just after RURA launched their first album with Greentrax Records, Break It Up CDTRAX364, I spoke to Steven Blake about his piping, the band and their plans for the future. Steven’s working life has changed since that time, as he is now the very busy Director of The National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland. RURA have also changed, as they had five members in 2012, with Adam Holmes providing vocals on three tracks of the album, but now have four members who are Steven Blake (Pipes & Keys); Adam Brown (Acoustic & Electric Guitar); David Foley (Bodhran & Flute) and Jack Smedley (Fiddle & Strings).

•Steven Blake at Celtic Connections 2020. Photo: JohnSlavin@designfolk.com/Bagpipe.news

RURA: Laying the foundations of their future

Piping Today #57, 2012.

I’m a folkie. There, I’ve said it.  I love pipe music, but this is part of a wider appreciation of the many styles of traditional music with roots in the British Isles. That is a very wide spectrum, covering lots of genres including Highland bagpipe, English harmony singing, Bluegrass, Irish Sean Nós or Bothy ballads — to name a diverse few.

My first love would be Scottish traditional music, or folk music as it is usually called — it is our folk music after all.  It is a vibrant, if somewhat hidden, scene which mostly exists in back-rooms of pubs, hotels and village halls across the country.  However it does get a chance to dust itself off and present to the wider public in the summer months when there are more than 300 folk festivals in all shapes and sizes held across the UK.

Until recently, it did not hold much attraction for young people, though the lack of youth is being addressed a little due to the glamour of high-profile events such as Celtic Connections or the Scots Trad Awards — just go to the festival clubs at these events and you will see what I mean.  I can only hope that some of the ‘young things’ partying at these events will stick with the scene to become the CD buyers and audience which keeps the genre alive in years to come.

•The RURA line-up ten years ago with David Foley, Jack Smedley, Adam Holmes, Steven Blake and Chris Waite
Photo: JohnSlavin@designfolk.com/Bagpipe.news

The big-name events can’t take all the credit though, as improvements in traditional instrument instruction from primary school to degree level have brought youngsters in at the grassroots and provided an educational pathway for their chosen instrument.

The fact remains that many of the revered performers of the folk scene have been around for 20 years or more, and there is not enough quality young musicians making a big impact on the concert platform. So when a new young band like Rura comes along, people take notice.  When that new band have Highland pipes in the line-up, it grabs my attention and after listening to their excellent debut CD a few times I wanted to know more.

So I met with Steven Blake, the piper with Rura, and went back to his roots. 

Steven’s interest in the pipes was first piqued when a piper from Boghall and Bathgate Pipe Band visited his primary school.

He eventually went along to the band when he was eight.  Band tuition at that time proved to be rather inconsistent, so he went for lessons at the College of Piping with Dugald MacNeill and started again.  

“It is somewhat ironic that I went to Dugald given what I do now but he basically made me start from scratch — which was a big deal for an eight-year-old,” said Steven. “He was very harsh, which was great for me, and I got a really good grounding from him and the ideal of pursuing quality has never really left me.”

Steven’s mum was keen to enrol him in a school in Edinburgh, so she applied for scholarships and managed to get funding from the army.  This process included an interview which meant Steven had to play in front of Pipe Major Gavin Stoddart. Once Steven had played and left the room, Gavin wrote such a glowing letter of recommendation that it opened the door for the talented youngster to attend whichever school he wished. 

He chose to attend Stewart’s Melville College because of what they were doing with piping in the school, and was taught by Robert Burns — “a good name for a piper” as Steven put it.  Not long after starting at Stewart’s Melville, he gave up lessons with Dugald as school took up so much of his time.  He admits that he lived most of his life at school and only went home to Livingston, West Lothian, in the evenings to do homework and then sleep. 

Steven added: “My school life was the busiest I have ever been but it is also the most relaxed I have ever been. It is the most I have ever practised and when lunchtime came I was delighted to get the pipes out for an hour’s practice. 

“Once I got to sixth year I got a set of smallpipes and started attending lessons with Finlay MacDonald at The National Piping Centre, as I wanted to be sure I was playing them correctly.  

“Until that time I was always doing competitive piping, was regularly in the lists of people who won prizes, and I felt that it was the road I was supposed to be going down.

“At the same time I was listening to folk music, I was also doing a bit of piano and I was involved in concerts at school. 

“The concerts were mainly classical music, and I was the first piper and the only folkie, but because I was relating to other musicians I wanted to represent the pipes as being parallel with other forms of music.  I always wanted to step up to the plate and see where I fitted into the big wide world rather than just within piping.”

Steven views himself as a musician first and a piper second, and even though he was a successful young solo competitor with a promising future on the boards and pipe major of the school band, he had no problems making the transition from the piping scene to the wider musical world.

Lessons with Finlay really opened him up to other forms of pipe music, and other music.  This led him to the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician competition, earning him a place on the Traditional Music and Song Association’s Young Trad Tour in 2008. This expanded his musical horizons and made him realise it was really what he wanted to do. 

Steven admits there was no traditional music influences in his family — the only real tradition his family had was in boxing — but his mother encouraged him to pursue his ambition.  “It is very different experience growing up in the central belt of Scotland compared to people who grow up where traditional music is part of a legacy,” he explained. “Myself and many others have approached traditional music purely from a musical ascetic.

“I keep in touch with James MacKenzie from Lewis who was on the Young Trad Tour with me, and he is one of my favourite pipers to listen to, especially for traditional playing.  I can always hear a Gaelic style come through in his music, and although I can mimic the style, I don’t think I will ever be the genuine article as James is.

“I think we both have quite different approaches;  if we were both to play the same jig for example, James would give it a totally different feel than I would.”

Steven’s lessons with Finlay quickly moved from smallpipes to Highland pipes, and this reflects his thoughts on how versatile the Highland pipes are as an instrument. 

“There seems to be an attitude within piping that Highland pipes are for competing and playing solo, and Border and smallpipes are for playing with other instruments, but it seems so arbitrary to me why that would be the case.  Highland pipes can be an instrument like any other, and be tuned to concert pitch as well, and that is why I mainly stick to Highland pipes,” he said.

In 2008 Steven started his BA (Scottish Music — Piping) degree at the RSAMD, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. His first Monday of Freshers’ Week followed on from his last day of the Young Trad Tour and it was a culture shock to go from the highs of being on tour to the business of academic life.

•RURA at Queen’s Park in Glasgow
Photo: JohnSlavin@designfolk.com/Bagpipe.news

However, it is from attending his degree course, and the people he met and connections he made, that have taken Steven back to a situation where he can go on tour as a musician.

“One of the most important parts of the course for me was being in Glasgow with its great music scene and venues.  Many of the most important conversations I have had have happened when socialising with other musicians.  The practical education of being around the scene,  going to music sessions and meeting people who are working in the music scene, and talking to them about their work and music — all of that can not be underestimated,” he said.

Two of the most important connections Steven made were with fiddler Jack Smedley and flute and bodhran player, David Foley, who are in the same academic year but doing the BA (Scottish Music) degree. 

Although in many ways they are opposites, Steven and Jack were keen to team up. He explained: “We initially did some duo work together and people said that there was an interesting balancing act going on in our playing.  I like to push things sometimes to the point where they begin to become erratic or messy and Jack does really well to rein me in. In a lot of instances we see things that the other misses and so tend to naturally balance out each others approach.  Jack has an amazing, precise technique and we play off each other well. It is a massive compromise for us to play together, and it took a while for us to realise that, but now it comes naturally.  

 “We have spent an enormous amount of time together. We were in the same classes all day at the Conservatoire, apart from the piping ones, were in the same halls of residence, and then shared a flat together and we also socialised together. One night in a club, we made a decision that we would definitely have a band up and running before we left the degree course.

•Chris Waite, Jack Smedley, Steven Blake and David Foley at Piping Live! 2010
Photo: JohnSlavin@designfolk.com/Bagpipe.news

“We both really liked the playing of David Foley so we asked him to be involved and he brought a lot of good ideas.  Our first ever gig was at Piping Live!, and it was good of Finlay MacDonald to offer it without really knowing what we were going to do.  I don’t think we were called Rura at that point but it was the beginning of the band.

“Craig Muirhead was also involved with us at that time but he was following a more traditional route than us and he had a lot of pipe band commitments.  So we decided we had to hold out till we found a guitarist that could provide the sound we wanted to suit the sound we were trying to create.

“Not long after, we met Chris Waite. He was doing the BA Applied Music degree course at Strathclyde University, and he was happy to join the band. Chris is also a very good piper, and he really understands what I’m trying to do with the pipes in the band — he even understands about the tuning issues —  which is such a big help.

“One of the biggest challenges we have is incorporating Highland pipes into a folk band line-up, and I’m quite strict about not rehearsing with Border pipes, which frustrates the guys sometimes I think.  

“Much of the technology for Highland pipes is designed for playing sharper than concert pitch and I sometimes find it a bit of a struggle to get a good tone.  I think that is a universal issue in piping, and most people will say it is easier to get a good sound when they are sharper than concert pitch.

“When I’m playing with Jack I will slightly adjust my chanter by sharpening my top hand and my B, and flattening my D — but only a little — I always make sure the chanter sounds good with my drones.  Jack adjusts his intonation on the neck of the fiddle as he is playing, and he also tunes up the fiddle, but not perfectly in tune with itself.  He will tune the bottom two strings, and then tune the top two strings so the instrument is more in line with the pipes. 

“Tuning is always a concern and we are constantly refining how we do it — it is always a bit of a struggle.”

The band got their first big break, and first official gig as Rura, at the Speyfest Music festival in 2010 closely followed by another gig at Piping Live!.  The fifth member of the band, singer Adam Holmes, was added after these gigs. 

Adam’s voice, with a Scottish accent, brings a contemporary style to the songs, which lends a contrast but at the same time perfectly matches their music.

The three songs on the CD couldn’t be called folk songs, and Steven admitted that the band were unlikely to ever record a traditional song such as The Baron O’ Brackley, but I’m sure Adam could do a great job of such a big ballad.  

Steven explained: “With our songs we have a chance to explore a wider array of music and we don’t want to get stuck in one pigeon hole.  The Insider Festival, which we played recently, was just about music, with lots of genres mixed in, and as long as we are playing our music to an audience it does not matter what it is called.”

From summer 2010 the band worked very hard on their craft and sought advice on how to take things forward. Jennifer McGlone of Glow Arts helpfully pointed them in the direction of the Danny Kyle Open Stage at Celtic Connections.  The band put in a lot of work before their performance and they were rewarded with a Danny Kyle Award at the start of 2011.

This led them to getting gigs at the Celtic Connections festival club straight away, giving them immediate exposure to a new audience and festival promoters. Most of their 2011 gigs came about because of the exposure they got from their festival club performances as well as more guidance from Jennifer.

•David Foley, Adam Brown, Jack Smedley and Steven Blake at Celtic Connections 2019
Photo: JohnSlavin@designfolk.com/Bagpipe.news

It made for a busy year for the band with so many performances, preparing and recording a CD and fulfilling all their academic commitments. On top of all that they also do lots of admin work, constantly emailing to chase new gigs.

As offers to perform came their way last year the band made sure they were ready for them, and their efforts proved worthwhile as they were voted as “Best Up And Coming” act at the Scots Trad Music Awards in December 2011. 

Steven explained: “We worked very hard for those opportunities so we did not take them lightly.  We put a lot of time into rehearsing so that when we went on stage we were delivering a good version of ourselves.   I think it was all the preparation and support from people outside the band that led to the award.

“The material for our album came directly from our concerts, we didn’t sit down at any point and say ‘Let’s write an album’.  We wanted our first album to be a proper representation of what we do, and say, ‘Hi, we’re here’.  

“There are little tweaks on the album which we couldn’t do live and the last track is a good example of that.  

“We want to use the album to push the amount of performing we do on to the next level. Ultimately we want to spend a lot of time gigging with Rura and we want our music to grow.  We don’t want to keep reusing the same old ideas. We want to hear a progression in our music.

“We don’t really know in which direction our music will go but we will keep making new music which is grounded in a real appreciation of the tradition.”

Steven has been planning a career as a professional musician for a large part of his life, and through Rura he is starting to see those plans come to fruition.  

“The ideal scenario would be to spend a large part of the year playing and touring our music to a wide range of audiences at a mix of festivals and concerts at home and abroad,” he said. “We love playing at festivals, and we are a high energy band suited to festivals.  We want to grow to a level where we can make a living out of it — that is what we are all after.

“People might say we are putting all our eggs in one basket and I certainly don’t have any solo project that I want to put out there yet.  I would say that I’m involved with Rura as much as could be in any solo project.  That may be a difference we have compared to many other bands — every member of Rura has such a say in what happens in the band.  We argue so much in rehearsals because everyone is so involved.  

“It feels like Rura is all of our solo projects come together in the one place, and it is ticking that box for each one of us. 

“I think I could say that each individual feels like the music in Rura belongs to them but that we are sharing it with all the members in the band — it is a true collaboration.  It is never a case of ‘we handle the melody and you deal with the accompaniment’. Everyone gets a say on both aspects.

“I want Rura to be a big part of my career up until the point the band reaches its natural end.  If that natural end is in 50 years that would be great but if it is in 20 years or five years, that would also be great as long as we have given it our all.  I think it has along way to go before we are done with it.”