Feature/Interview

#IWD2021: violinist, vocalist and composer Seonaid Aitken

Hailing from Glenrothes, violinist, vocalist, arranger, composer and BBC Radio Scotland broadcaster Seonaid (pronounced ‘Shona’) Aitken is one of Scotland’s best-loved jazz musicians. In recent years she has twice been awarded ‘Best Vocalist’ at the Scottish Jazz Awards, while her gypsy jazz band Rose Room received a ‘Best Band’ award. For 19 years Seonaid played regularly with the Orchestra of Scottish Opera. As a session musician, she has played with a wide range of musicians and bands including Carol Kidd, Eddi Reader and The GRIT Orchestra. As well as a technically outstanding and engaging performer, Seonaid is an accomplished arranger and orchestrator, her work featuring on television and at the National Theatre of Scotland. She has received commissions from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Red Hot Chili Pipers and Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival. Fiona Mactaggart caught up with her for International Women’s Day:

Seonaid Aitken. Photo credit The Face London

Firstly Seonaid, were there musicians around you as you were growing up?   

Absolutely. My Mum was a classical pianist, so we had a piano in the house. I tinkered for years and years, made up my own wee tunes and copied things I’d heard. I didn’t have formal lessons until I was about 12. My Dad’s an accordionist. They both were into musical theatre so I was taken along to all the rehearsals. I was immersed in all of that wonderful music.

And teachers or mentors..?

I started when I was 8 with Mairi Holligan; she was a great violin teacher. We used to play duets and play in all the local amateur orchestras together. She really took me under her wing and mentored me. She was just brilliant. I had singing lessons at high school, also when I went to music college. I had a wonderful violin teacher at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Erika Klemperer. She was the most inspiring woman who explained everything so well and made me really think outside the box. I was on the classical course – violin first study, piano second. I really just wanted to be on the jazz course, so I did all the jazz modules that I could!

Are there any women who you work with regularly and are inspired by?

I’ve got an amazing female strings team who I’ve done a lot of recordings with over the past few years. Patsy Reid who’s a violinist and viola player, she’s a trad musician but also has classical training so she’s got the groove, the chops and the technique; Alice Allen is a cellist with incredible rhythm, a beautiful player; and Kristan Harvey is who I normally choose for my second violin – she’s a folky but is classically trained too, similar to me. I just love playing with them.

Alice also invited me to be part of the Scottish Freelancers Ensemble, which started up during lockdown and is run by Alice and her duo partner Katrina Lee. A lot of the orchestral musicians were looked after, but the freelancers were just kind of left on their own during lockdown, so they had this great idea to start up this collective. As well as focussing on the freelance musicians around Scotland, they’re choosing fantastic repertoire, digging through old pieces and looking for under-represented groups and women composers.

Seonaid Aitken

Seonaid Aitken. Photo credit Adam Bulley

Some Scottish musicians choose to move their base to London, others stay mostly or even exclusively in Scotland. What are the pros and cons of either for you?

I think I would have stayed in London if it hadn’t been for a job I interviewed for: it was a dancing and fiddle show and it ended up touring around the world. That took me away for maybe 10 years…and then I finally chose to return to Scotland. My family and friends are here and also we’ve got such a unique identity as Scottish musicians – I don’t think London should get all the talent!

Can you recall any particularly memorable projects in the UK that you’ve been involved in?

Forming my band Rose Room and winning the Scottish Jazz Award with them was a massive highlight for me because I only started playing jazz properly just over 10 years ago, at the same time we started Rose Room. I’m just proud that people really like our music, come every year to the jazz clubs and festivals and really support us. And Edinburgh Jazz (and Blues) Festival have been great to us. We did an online gig for our 10th anniversary at the festival last year, that was definitely another highlight.

So how is it, having a foot in different musical camps?

It definitely doesn’t get in the way. I do play a bit of trad but mostly I’m drafted in as the string section these days, which is wonderful because you get the chance to play lush arrangements plus a bit of the tunes. Stylistically you’re definitely hearing a lot more jazz harmony creeping into folk music. It depends on who’s playing. People like Tim Edey, who is an incredible, award-winning guitarist, he’s a great jazz as well as folk player. People like Kris Drever and Dave Milligan, of course, who interweave different styles.

Jazz is my absolute passion

And then there’s your broadcasting…

 The BBC were really great when they booked me to present the show ‘Jazz Nights’. They said: look, we know first and foremost you’re a performing musician, so we’re going to work around your schedule. It’s a Sunday night show and would often get in the way of festivals or Sunday gigs. But they were great and I would pre-record a lot of shows – until the pandemic, since when they’ve all been live! Jazz is my absolute passion so I’m getting the chance to research all these incredible artists, choose all this brilliant new music, and also discover old recordings.

A hypothetical! If you were a man, how do you imagine your career might have been different? 

I don’t know actually. I’ve been very lucky to have had some really great opportunities. I don’t feel I’ve been held back at all by being a woman. I think more than anything there’s often insecurities that come in when you’re asked to do a certain project and you think: Oh, am I able to do that, am I good enough to do that?

Sometimes I think that men are good at the bravado side of things. Still, I’ve never let that hold me back. I’ve been worried, but I’ve said yes. If I don’t try, then I won’t know. That’s what happened with the BBC presenting job. They asked me to try out, and I thought: what have I got to lose?! I can just be rubbish and they don’t book me in, and I just carry on as a musician. No problem!

What projects do you have currently on the go?

It’s usually my own projects that come last in the pecking order. Being a freelancer, you take the work on, you honour that and then if you have time at the end to think about your own creative stuff, you do that. It’s good to have that luxury of being busy. Currently I’m working on a gig for Glasgow Jazz Festival, with Rose Room. It’s a virtual one, so I’m putting my video editing skills to good use! I’m also doing some children’s videos for Children’s Classic Concerts. It’s a mix of everything I do: classical, a bit of folk, jazz, and show stuff. It’s online, on all their platforms. A whole month’s worth of resources that the kids can get involved with.

I’m also doing some arranging for a composer, Tim Phillips, for his new album. And Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival has commissioned me to write some new music.

I’m very, very happy to promote other women, and make sure we’re standing on each other’s shoulders, boosting each other

This is a feature for International Women’s Day. What does IWD mean to you?

We need to celebrate our fellow women. The great thing is lately there’s a lot more prominence given to women artists, in music in particular. For me, maybe the age I am now, I’ve built up my career, I’m quite settled in what I do, I know where my niche is, so I’m very, very happy to promote other women, and make sure we’re standing on each other’s shoulders, boosting each other. Of course, the main thing for me is that you’re promoting people who are really great, who you believe in. There’s plenty of talent out there.

LINK: Seonaid Aitken’s website

Seonaid’s new single ‘Papillon’ on YouTube

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