The Living Tradition
& Hazel Wrigley
- by Yvonne Stevenson Robb Issue 23 September/October '97
When I first met the Wrigley sisters, it was in the Ayres Hotel in Orkney. They were nearly sixteen years old and I had not been playing music very long. They were friends of a friend of mine from Stromness and she had taken me along to my first session experience.
While I was sitting waiting for a tune I could join in with (it was a long wait!) and the confidence to go public, I had a good opportunity to watch two very impressive young girls at their music. Jennifer 'flying' on her fiddle and Hazel switching effortlessly between guitar and keyboard. I had no idea who they were and knew nothing about them except that it was a joy to watch them play. Their ease, confidence and humour with music was infectious. Six years later I still feel the same when they perform - so do many other people. The difference now is that they are young women: professional musicians with a range of creative performance, organisation and life skills that is astonishingly mature for their years.
It's been an interesting transition to witness. The musical development is easy enough to understand. It's just what you would expect of sophisticated and creative musicians developing throughout their careers - though the rate of development is unusual. Their third duo album is due to come out within a couple of months, following on from "Dancing Fingers" (produced in 1991 when they were just thirteen) and "The Watch Stone" which was released in 1994. Meantime, with 6-piece group "Seelyhoo", they have a new album this year following the success of "The First Caul" and Jennifer features alongside the best of young upcoming scottish fiddlers in a new album being released on Green Linnet Records. They are experimenting more in developing new musical associations such as the latest grouping with Simon Thoumire.
Experience shines through their music. Their style is a blend of Jennifer's own compositions, contemporary and traditional material from Ireland, Cape Breton, Shetland and mainland Scotland. Jennifer's playing is supple and expressive and Hazel's accompaniment is always spot on, always interesting. She is strongly rhythmic, with a noticeable jazz influence and attracts many supporters in her own right. Much has been made of the almost telepathic attunement, often experienced by twins, that is evident in their music. And both women are as restless and musically inquisitive as each other. Humour and fun feature strongly. You are never sure what controlled liberties they are going to take next with a tune. Non-malicious irreverence that maintains musical integrity is really good fun.
However, there's more. Consider also the following - they have just professionally organised, fund-raised and sourced venues for a successful first world tour? (You know it's successful when the venues are full and they get invited back); they are researching and producing a book and CD of Orkney tunes, due out later this year; they are commemorating the works of the late George Mackay Brown adding a musical dimension in creative partnerships with renowned storyteller David Campbell; meanwhile they are preparing creative concepts to produce and present national radio programmes, maintaining teaching commitments, taking charge of their own PR, doing all the tedious administrative stuff such as taxes, bookkeeping - not forgetting the inevitable travel. Then Hazel has determined to find out how the television industry works so that in future they/she might be able to work more effectively in that medium.
Jennifer and Hazel are doing more than just survive in a business that they moved into at a very tender age. They are doing it with style. Producing and creating excellent music, contributing positively to the traditional music scene as performers, composers, researchers, arrangers and teachers. It demonstrates a lot of life maturity for such young people.
They are deeply committed to certain things. They do not make a fuss about it but then that's not the Orcadian Way. For example they are generous with their efforts to encourage young or aspiring musicians and are motivated by a desire to raise the profile of Orkney music. Orkney's musical tradition is not recorded and pushed as much as it is elsewhere in Scotland or in the neighbouring islands of Shetland. But these two are excellent musical ambassadors.
I think in future they may make a significant attempt to do for Orcadian music what Tom Anderson did in Shetland. Yes it's a big claim - but they did come under the tutelage and influence of the late great Tom; moreover they have a lot of understated determination for the task and plenty of time in which to do it.
Over to the Wrigleys
Hazel, in what ways are you and Jenny similar or different?
Hazel - We are totally different in personality. I am much more impetuous and often work very fast but without so much care. Jenny would be much more likely to take her time and make sure that everything was absolutely right. This can, of course, be a volatile combination sometimes.
Jennifer - Hazel is a get-up-and-go type who makes things happen. I'm quite cautious and tend to ponder things before doing them.
What was the start of your performing career?
Jennifer - Originally, I played with my elder sister Emma who plays accordion and piano. We joined the Orkney Strathspey and Reel Society and eventually were asked to do spots at local concerts.
Hazel - Later on I decided I was missing out on something and got more involved with my guitar. Soon Emma had to leave to go to Aberdeen to study music so we were just left as a duo.
Jennifer - I guess the start of performing was when we were thirteen, playing at a local concert and Attic Records asked us if we would record an album. We released it three years later and that opened a lot of doors.
Which people influenced you most?
Jennifer - People we met through the Strathspey and Reel Society like Pat Shearer, Hugh Inkster, the "Jolly" family, Tommy Mainland and Davie Eunston. There were loads of them all making music fun. I also loved learning from Tom Anderson and listening to Sean McGuire, Willie Hunter, Mark O'Connor and Aly Bain.
Hazel - I love all types of music. My playing was most directly influenced by the local people of Orkney and Shetland. The swing style of guitar that was introduced by the legendary Peerie Willie Johnson was all around the two islands and Willie was always there, encouraging and helping me along. After travelling a little, I found new styles from the more Irish influenced accompaniments. There are so many musicians that we have met and had tunes with that, I can't blame my style on anyone in particular. Accompaniment is so much about listening and watching all other people and trying to understand different ways of looking at things.
What's the most important thing to you both about playing music?
Jennifer and Hazel at the same time - Communication!
Hazel - We are trying to tell people where we come from and what it's like in our music. The thing about us is that we've always enjoyed it. We play because we love to play and without that buzz we wouldn't feel that we were giving our audience a true performance. The day I stop enjoying something is the day I will stop doing it.
What is the motivation behind the Orkney CD and book?
Jennifer - For years, people asked us how to get hold of books of Orkney tunes. There are some tune books, but mostly only available in Orkney so when Mallinson Publications asked us to make a book and Cd of our favourite tunes we were more than happy to accept. Our aim is to promote Orkney and its music because of the love and respect we have for it.
What changes have there been since you won Young Tradition of Year, Jenny? (It's nearing the end of interview. She likes to be called Jenny.)
Jenny - I was amazed how many people had heard of the award when we went round the world. It does help a lot on the gig side when trying to get work where you are not known.
What was the first world tour like?
Jenny - The ups and downs we had organising it, made it very stressful for about six months while we were still trying to do work as usual. I don't think either of us really believed we would pull it off until we were on the plane. But, we did and it was a big success.
Hazel - We swore we would never do it again - but we are already organising trips back to most of the places. I do remember Jenny and I wandering around London at one am on the 2nd of January, a few days before we had to leave, trying to find a hotel close enough to the various embassies, so we could get the final paperwork stamped in one day.
What was it like to perform for Prince Charles in front of Yehudi Mehuin at the recent Live Music Now event?
Jenny - It was quite nervewracking beforehand because of the prestige of it all. The whole building had to be checked before royalty could enter and so it was very high security. Just before the concert started we were all moved out of our dressing rooms so they could check and we didn't get a great deal of time to relax before performing. When we did perform, we just let go and enjoyed it. Afterwards we met Prince Charles and he was really nice.
Respect for them is growing apace. And so it should be.
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