Having already performed in Hamilton, New Plymouth, and Wellington, Emily Smith and Jamie McClennan put in another welcome appearance over the weekend at Simon Burt's intimate series of Canon Heath House concerts. With their distinctly Hibernian flavour, but much broader musical horizons, the duo seamlessly weaved together time-honoured texts with more contemporary material, including covers of firm folk favourites such as Joni Mitchell and Don McGlashan. The pristine beauty of Smith's entrancing vocals, whether accompanied by her acoustic guitar or accordion playing, possesses an unerring ability both to soothe and elevate the spirit. Originally from New Zealand, lantern-jawed multi-instrumentalist McClennan moved to Scotland in 2002 to become Smith's husband, producer, and musical collaborator, having accompanied her throughout her career on guitar and fiddle. At Canon Heath House he borrowed what he claimed felt like an “elephant” viola, but on which he nonetheless produced some exemplary string stylings that were at times reminiscent of Dave Swarbrick. Together, Smith and McClennan write songs that not only convey a variety of distinct moods and textures, but also tell stories abut people, places, and things in the customary practice of the best folk music, blurring the borders between ancient and modern.
Smith has been a leading singer-songwriter in the Scottish folk scene for over a decade and entertaining international audiences with her unique blend of traditional and original songs. Much of her childhood was spent reeling around to music in her mother's dance school, rather than performing it. Assuming everyone knew how to do a highland fling, she spent her weekends at ceilidhs instead of nightclubs. She started learning piano at the age of seven, soon moved onto snare drum in the local pipe band, and subsequently found a passion for piano accordion, on which she became National Mod champion at the age of eighteen. It was not until she performed a solo with the school choir in her late teens, however, that she discovered her singing voice. In 1999 she moved to Glasgow, where she gained an Honours degree in Scottish Music from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. While focussing primarily on Scots Song, she also studied accordion and piano.
Smith’s career began to take off after she was named BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year in 2002. The accolades continued in short succession as she won the USA Songwriting Competition in 2005, Scots Singer of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards in 2008 and 2014, and two nominations in the 2012 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards for Folk Singer of the Year and Best Traditional Track. Her 2014 album Echoes featured special guests Jerry Douglas, Aoife O’Donovan, and Kris Drever, and was nominated for album of the year at the Scots Trad Music Awards.
From its humble beginnings in a rural farm shop, Smith's annual Christmas tour across the UK is now in its sixth year and regularly sells out. She has performed and recorded with many musical greats from the folk scene, including Barbara Dickson, Richard Thompson, Eddi Reader, Jerry Douglas, and Beth Nielsen Chapman. She was a guest singer on the Transatlantic Sessions’ live tour in 2013, alongside Mary Chapin Carpenter, Teddy Thompson, and Aoife O’Donovan. BBC television appearances have included Transatlantic Sessions, Songs of Praise, Hogmanay Live, and Santer. She has released nine studio albums in total, including Songs For Christmas (2016), from which Find Hope was selected as part of the BBC Radio 2's December playlist. Smith and McClennan released two albums in 2018 - the live Unplugged and While Rovin On A Winter's Night. Their next studio album, Small Town Stories, will be available later this year.
“Bursting with joy and talent,” as The Telegraph put it, Smith and McClennan have graced the stages of rural villages and grand concert halls, including appearances at the Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, the Cambridge Folk Festival, the Tonder Festival, Canada's Edmonton Folk Festival, and the Australian National Folk Festival. Having scaled back on traveling to focus on their two young children in recent years, they are currently touring New Zealand as a duo, cooking up a delicious combination of covers and new material that draws its inspiration directly from Scottish and New Zealand folk music, as well as traditional Americana roots. Like a mature Laphroaig from Islay - the most richly flavoured single malt peated whisky in the world - they only get better with age.
Smith and McClennan will perform at the KatiKati Folk Club on Friday 15/3 and at Auckland's Cafe One2One on Saturday 23/3.