Some powerful Celtic magic took hold of me when I first pressed play on Ailsa Tully’s new EP Holy Isle, and all I could think of was vast misty moorland. When I later learned that Tully grew up on Welsh moorland – the Black Mountains, the gateway to the Brecon Beacons – it made complete sense. In this collection of songs Tully demonstrates the power in her celtic blood, vividly conjuring these images. She played the cello from an early age, but found classical training was suffocating and uninspiring. Aged eighteen, she moved to London to attend Goldsmiths university and started writing pop songs. However growing up in the countryside, alongside regular trips to her father’s homeland of Scotland meant her songwriting never strayed far from her Celtic roots. Setting and environment remain paramount to her identity as an artist.
Tully often adventures out with a portable zoom microphone to record the sounds of the Black Mountains moorlands, and other Celtic holy grounds such as the Isle of Arran. These recordings establish a feel of the natural world in her music. I believe there’s more to it than just the chirps of birds. In Tully’s new release you can hear that wildness is in her blood, not in a rebellious or controversial way: in fact the exact opposite. The wildness of nature: slow, unapologetic growth that can overtake, sweet smells after a storm, the mist of early mornings.
Last year, Tully signed to Dalliance Recordings and as gigs begin again, Tully’s live schedule is jam packed: she’s just finished a UK tour with Another Sky, as well as a slot at London’s All Points East festival. Perhaps Tully’s career will adopt nature’s pace: effortlessly, patiently taking over. Holy Isle is a gift, offering solace, time to breathe for her listener, just as the moorland has done for her.
Wax Music had the pleasure to sit down with Ailsa and discuss her musical journey so far.
Do you have a favourite tune from the EP?
This is tricky. I think my favourite is ‘Sheets’ but they all have a different place in my heart. I’ve sat with the tracks for a long time and it’s so nice to play live. It’s nice to play an uplifting song, one that’s a bit more lighthearted.
Your cello playing in ‘Sheets’ is super playful. But then there’s such sadness in the cello in ‘Holy Isle.’ You play a few different instruments on the tracks: do you feel like there’s one instrument that you use to express yourself through the most?
I’d say the bass. I don’t feel like one instrument is more expressive than the other, but maybe just what’s necessarry for for the song comes through. I don’t feel particularly expressive with the cello, because I was trained classically. I felt quite removed from what I was playing, not very emotionally connected the instrument. It’s been nice to reintroduce it and understand it’s emotion; you can make it what you want it to be.
How old were you when you started playing cello?
I think I was about eight.
Do you feel you were aware at that age that you weren’t able to express your creativity through that instrument?
No, it took me a really long time, perhaps until I started writing songs. If you’re in a band you’re thinking more about what you wanna say, but I was just playing other people’s music. It wasn’t that I felt I was lacking it when I was younger, but as time went on I wanted to pursue writing but found I didn’t know how to express myself.
Maybe it kind of represents where you were personally – not knowing how to express yourself?
I would just write songs trying to disguise everything, thinking that nobody would know what the tracks are about. And therefore they were terrible songs; people would ask “what’s this? What are you saying?” And I didn’t really know.
If you’re trained through a classical system it can be really damaging; I mean for me it was. I felt like I had to very quickly turn away from that as a medium because it was very classical focused, no other music exists in that circle. I didn’t want to do that, so where did that leave me?
When I finished my A-Level in classical music, which I did terribly in, I was told I couldnt be a musician. I felt like my life’s dream had been crushed. But my heart wasn’t in it; my heart was in a different kind of music so that’s what ended up happening. Thank God I didn’t end up at a conservatoire, trying to play the cello terribly!
Yeah and actually being able to express yourself instead of playing things that were written hundreds of years ago.
Exactly, by a man. I don’t think it’s particularly relevant to me. It’s taken me quite a long time but I think now I’m at a point where I’m really happy to be really honest.
Are there any artists at the moment that you feel are blending more classical instruments with a contemporary sound like you are?
Yeah, Dirty Projectors, I was listening to them a bit for ‘Holy Isle.’ There’s a particular song that I’ve forgotten, they used a string quartet in a really unusual way. That made me think about how I’d want to incorporate that. Also, many of the friends I work with, like Thallo who did clarient for ‘Sheets’. She makes Welsh language indie pop stuff but she’s putting loads of classical instruments in. It’s something I want to incorporate because it’s part of my artistic sound world.
I wanted to ask you about where you grew up, because before I even knew anything about you I listened to your music and I had an image of misty moors. And then I read you grew up in South Wales near the Black Mountains. I’d felt that straight away in your music.
How amazing! I really want that to be conjured in everyone’s minds, so that’s great.
Was the moorland something you missed when you moved to London?
They just mean so much to me. They have so much of a calling for me and that’s been a huge influence. And I don’t really know how but I think it’s thinking about ancient spaces and how voices interact with them. South Wales has lots of little churches, and I was in a choir; the way the wind would come together with voices and singing and how long that has existed for. I’m not a particularly spiritual person but it feels like sometimes it’s like embedded in me. There’s been a lot in my childhood that’s been about places and their meaning and ancestry and I suppose it all kind of feeds in and makes itself clear.
And a huge part of Celtic culture is a connection with the people that came before.
Yeah I think that’s really cool, I love that stuff. And folklore. I don’t really put folklore into my music but I’m really interested in it.
It sounds like that all really stuck with you even when you moved away. So did your inspirations change when you moved to London, did you see a shift in your songwriting? Or did you kind of just hold on to that image?
That’s a really interesting question. I probably did a bit of both. The people I met at Goldsmith’s were very influential, and I started just being involved with a music culture. I’d never been in a music culture before, so it felt like a huge shift into a real community, and realising how it could help and shape me. I definitely spent a while being like “hold on to your Welsh, Celtic roots.”
But you let yourself go eventually?
I just let myself embrace everything. I had a really clear idea of what I wanted to do from quite a young age and then it felt like it took time to let myself change.
Do you think living in the countryside made you feel free, rather than trapped?
Yeah it felt really free. I’m really close to my sister and it was just basically us and my parents. My nearest friend was probably a half an hour drive away. But I just loved it, I really enjoyed growing up there, it feels like a strong part of my identity comes from there.
And I think that kind of links to one of your lyrics that I really loved: “maybe just being is enough for me.” [‘Sheets’] When I heard that lyric I was thinking about the fact you’ve got this tour coming up: How do you feel about having a busy tour schedule? Won’t this be the opposite of “just being”?
It’s going to be great, but it’s trying to juggle it all; it’s not always easy. The older I get the more comfortable I am being still. I don’t feel the same crisis anxiety that I used to. I used to feel like I must always be busy and I must be creative. I’ve learned to let myself be still and calm and to just see things. I feel like as I get older that’s something that seems to come more naturally that I’m more at ease and have a more open state of mind.
Do you find that being able to access that state of mind, and being more mindful, means that you can embrace the busyness of being a musician? Or do you resent the busyness?
I think music is a really hard thing to do if you are naturally prone to being anxious because it doesn’t make sense. Unline other careers, which have a clear trajectory, music is just “see what happens!” I think mental health in music is really difficult; also management, labels: if you don’t have the right one it can be a real nightmare from a mental health perspective, and for your career. I don’t think it’s not the easiest thing to do.
Yeah and that kind of links to another of your lyrics that stuck out for me [what song] “I’m sorry I let you down.” [‘Holy Isle’] That straight away made me think about the expectations, from others and yourself, when you’re a musician. Are expectations a scary thing for you at the moment?
That was about my ex partner. ‘Holy Isle’ as a song is exploring our relationship. It’s very meaningful for me in many ways because it’s set in the Isle of Arran and I’ve been going there since I was really young; my dad has been going there since forever, and his grandparents. It’s a Scottish island we’d return to all the time as a family and I’m also named after one of the islands off the Isle of Arran; everything is here.
I was there for a family reunion and me and my partner at the time were going through a really hard point. We were looking over the Holy Isle trying to work through stuff having very difficult conversations. And there’s sounds in it that are recordings of Holy Isle, wherever I go I take my Zoom mic and record. The song is all about exploring our relationship and the line “I’m sorry I let you down,” is for him. I am sorry that I let him down, because obviously we’re not together anymore. Wanting to please people is part of my personality and that lyric is important because I had to make a decision for myself in the end, so I guess “I’m sorry that I let you down” but I had to.
Making that decision for yourself links in with everything we were saying before about growing up, not being able to express yourself in life and in your music.
I think this EP is a lot about putting myself first; this is the first time I have really done that.
Yeah, you don’t see the story and that you’ve grown up whilst writing those songs as well.
Yeah, totally. It’s funny.
And unapologetically making decisions for yourself?
Yeah, I guess so. Which is necessary sometimes haha.
Yeah! It doesn’t make you a bad person
No, no definitely not.
Words: Geneieve Miles // Photos: Adam Whitmore
‘Holy Isle’ is out now. You can stream and purchase Ailsa’s discography via Bandcamp.