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Tuesday 23 October 2018

Frances Black's daughter Aoife Scott: 'We're an annoyingly talented family'

After years of uncertainty, Aoife Scott realised her true calling when she moved a crowd to tears with a song. And as the daughter of Frances Black, she knew what to expect from a life on stage. She tells Lauren Murphy about her musical clan and the importance of the female voice being heard

Singer Aoife Scott outside her pretty gatelodge home in Co Kildare.
Photo: Steve Humphreys
Singer Aoife Scott outside her pretty gatelodge home in Co Kildare. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Singer Aoife Scott at her home in Co Kildare. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Aoife (left) and her cousins Danny O'Reilly (from The Coronas) and Róisín O'Reilly (Róisín O) performed in the 1916 Centenary celebrations. Photo: Andres Poveda
Aoife with her mother Frances Black and brother Eoghan. Photo: Tom Burke

There is a moment that Aoife Scott distinctly remembers when she was a child.

Her family were performing in Belfast and "it was a big venue," she recalls. "I remember the panto was on at the same time, so me and my brother were playing backstage with all these costumes and then they dragged us out for the encore. I remember my brother shaking like a leaf, but I was thinking, 'This is great craic!'"

Such an experience may not be common in most young people's lives, but Scott's childhood was slightly different to the norm. As the daughter of Frances Black, she - along with her cousins, Coronas frontman Danny O'Reilly and solo singer Róisín O - are the next generation of Ireland's famous Black Family. (Indeed, you may already have seen the trio's much-lauded a cappella telling of folk song 'Grace', filmed at Kilmainham Gaol and broadcast on RTÉ's 'Centenary' programme in 2016.)

Yet despite her famous bloodline, there are no airs and graces about the chatty Liberties native, who treads a line between contemporary folk and the trad scene she adored as a teenager. When we speak, she's in an amusing fluster between texting family members about their collective appearance at TradFest (more of which later), and frantically prepping for her photoshoot, urging boyfriend and musical collaborator Andy Meaney to clean the windows of their pretty Kildare gate lodge before Weekend's photographer arrives.

Singer Aoife Scott at her home in Co Kildare. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Singer Aoife Scott at her home in Co Kildare. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Perhaps Scott's down-to-earth persona is partly because she is more appreciative of her burgeoning success as a musician than most. A self-confessed late bloomer, it took a eureka! moment several years ago for the thirtysomething to admit to herself that music was her true calling, despite being embedded in a successful career in television production. The tipping point came when she was working on a 1916 docudrama for TG4 and they were in need of a singer to set the mood on set.

"I was running around, production managing like a lunatic and the director asked me to sing a song. I said, 'Eh.... no way!' and they said, 'Go on, we need to set the vibe!'," she recalls, smiling. "So I sang 'The Bold Fenian Men', just trying to remember the words and not thinking about the effect it might have on anybody - but according to the director, everybody was crying."

Scott was subsequently invited to sing on the series' soundtrack and was surprised that "the reaction that people had from my singing was bigger than the reaction that people had for the documentary. I was amazed," she says, shaking her head. "It made me go, 'Oh, maybe I am a good singer, after all?' But at the same time, I was like, 'But what about the documentary I spent the past two years working on?'"

The realisation that music (arguably) has more longevity than television as an artform was like a lightbulb being switched on, she says.

"I get to tell stories, because I spend half my gig talking - as you can imagine - and it's so powerful," she nods. "You get to see into other people's lives and they tell you what they were affected by. I probably get that from my mam, but I think that's one of the major reasons why I do it. For me, music is more powerful."

These days, Scott embraces her family's background as entertainers but admits that there was a period of teenage rebellion where she felt otherwise.

"I would have had a big chip on my shoulder when I was younger, particularly about doing it as a career," she agrees. "I told everybody that I didn't want to do it as a career because it was too hard, which was definitely the truth - but I was also afraid of everybody comparing me.

"But I think I kind of matured and I said, 'Y'know what? I'm always gonna be compared to them - and it still happens today - so if I can just not really care anymore and just sing, that'll make me happy.' It was a fear of failure as well, because all my family had been so successful, and here I am, coming to the game a bit later, a bit older."

She is right when she says that it is "pointless" to even think of denying her roots when they are so obvious in many ways; she both looks and sounds like her mother, in particular.

"Genetically, I sound similar to my mam and Mary when I sing, so there is no way of getting away from that," she laughs. "So for me, it's, 'OK, I could fight this for the rest of my life, or I could actually embrace it and be proud of it.' So I am; that's who I learned from and that's who I am. We're an annoyingly talented family and I do feel sorry for people having to listen to us and see us all the time. It's annoying, like, 'Here's another Black family member coming out of the woodwork'. At the same time, we're all very close and supportive of one another."

The family closeness is something that Scott is drawing on for her forthcoming TradFest gig on January 28. Dubbed 'The Secret Sessions', it will see her invite some female musical friends, family and other big names into a 'singing circle' for a one-off gig.

"It's a small venue - St Mary's Chapel in St Patrick's Cathedral, which only holds about 60 or 70 people," she explains. "I approached TradFest with the singing circle idea because I had done some festivals around the world where they had this 'women's singing circle' idea and it was amazing; the power of it was unbelievable. Really, it's more of a gig; we're all women, we're all in the round and there's also a secret element involved.

Aoife (left) and her cousins Danny O'Reilly (from The Coronas) and Róisín O'Reilly (Róisín O) performed in the 1916 Centenary celebrations. Photo: Andres Poveda
Aoife (left) and her cousins Danny O'Reilly (from The Coronas) and Róisín O'Reilly (Róisín O) performed in the 1916 Centenary celebrations. Photo: Andres Poveda

"The idea is that people would buy the tickets based on the fact that they don't know who's coming, so there'll be some musicians from the festival line-up, and some others that aren't on the line-up. I've had a few years of being involved with TradFest - I launched my album there in 2016 and played showcases before that - and they're the reason I am where I am. The support they've given me, and to young musicians every year, is incredible."

Indeed, the fact that this year's TradFest line-up is dominated by female musicians has not been lost on Scott.

"Bringing women into it is important because traditional music in particular is very male-orientated," she agrees. "I remember being at one large festival in America in the past and I was delighted that my face was one of the main pictures on the programme - but then I started to notice that there were no other solo women really on the line-up. It is crazy, but I've noticed that if a festival already has a female singer booked, then there's no point in me approaching them - because that 'criteria' has already been filled. But with TradFest, they don't have that criteria."

Talk turns to the recent #MeToo movement, and while Scott says that she has luckily never had any really bad experiences in the industry, she's well aware of the importance of people telling their stories.

"I'm very lucky because I manage myself and I book all my own gigs and do everything myself, so I have a certain control over that - and I'm very lucky to have Andy, who helps me with it all," she says. "But I guess sometimes you do feel like you're a female, and sometimes your voice isn't as strong as it would be if you were male.

"I've never had any big 'me too' experiences but, that said, when I was looking at everyone else sharing their stories, it does start to make you think, 'Well, that happened... and that happened.' So I feel like it's well overdue and the TradFest are showing their support without really making a big deal about it. They're just saying, 'Look at all the talented women we have in Ireland and from around the world' and celebrating women in a really joyous way. I'm really proud to be affiliated with them, and to have been invited to perform."

Her first gig at the festival on January 24, meanwhile, is another female-oriented affair with international and multi-cultural group Radiant Arcadia, based mainly in Denmark.

"I went over for a week in November and met all these amazing women," she enthuses. "The idea behind their group is that it doesn't really matter where you come from; it's all about being women on stage, and really loving each other. That sounds really hippy-dippy, I know," she laughs, "but it's the best craic ever. There's no real political talk; they just get up on stage, they're from all different backgrounds and they're just like, 'I'm gonna enjoy myself, and this is what it's all about.' They taught me to be less about my ego and all about the love, and that's the main thing I think you should have in life."

Being involved in such projects must be empowering as a female musician, I say, in today's current climate.

Aoife with her mother Frances Black and brother Eoghan. Photo: Tom Burke
Aoife with her mother Frances Black and brother Eoghan. Photo: Tom Burke

"I'd always be honest about how I feel about things, so while I'd love to say, 'Yeah, I'm feeling really confident and empowered - go, women!', I'm terrified at the same time," she shrugs, smiling. "You just hope that you stepping a little bit outside your comfort zone and outside society's box, that people are gonna go, 'Yeah, that's cool!' You're always gonna worry about being judged, but you have to keep doing things that are good craic. That's what it's all about."

Having spent most of 2017 on the road, playing gigs in the far-flung reaches of the US and on board several folk-oriented cruise ships in the Caribbean, 2018 will see Scott continue to boost her profile with another flurry of gigs before hopefully getting back into the mindset of writing for her second album.

The topic of 'feeling the fear and doing it anyway' comes back up. "Fear was definitely a factor for everything in my life, up 'til recently," she admits, nodding. "You have to just forget about it and close off that voice. The next album is probably gonna be a different sound to Carry the Day, because that album was a culmination of everything I'd sang up until that point, from the first song that I sang at a Black Family session when I was 16, up until the week before I recorded the album. So it's kind of like, 'Oh my god, what am I gonna do now?!'"

She becomes somewhat subdued for the first time in our conversation until I remind her that she has already conquered her biggest fear by quitting her job and following her dream of a career in music. She perks up, more philosophical this time. "True. I just didn't want to wonder what might have happened if I'd tried to sing, or do something that makes me really happy as a person.

"I felt like I would have wasted my life - so I did it. It feels weird to talk about it; I feel like I'm in a therapy session!" she says, laughing loudly. "But I forget sometimes, so it's good to remind yourself."

Aoife Scott hosts 'The Secret Sessions - Song Circle' at TradFest on January 28 and performs with Radiant Arcadia on January 24. See tradfest.ie for more details.

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