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For 'Brave' singer Julie Fowlis, music is history -- ancient history

June 26, 2012|By Todd Martens
  • Merida's instrument of choice is a bow and arrow.
Merida's instrument of choice is a bow and arrow. (Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar )

Singer Julie Fowlis is typically used to songs that are a tad older than the ones she sang in Disney/Pixar's  "Brave.  "Her comfort zone is about eight centuries ago.

There's plenty of fanciful elements in "Brave"  -- magical wisps, a crafty witch and a mother turned into a bear -- but when it comes to music, the film is grounded in history. Along with composer Patrick Doyle, Fowlis is part of the Scottish contingent working on the film's score, aiming to marry Gaelic traditions with  its symphonic elements. In so doing, Pixar even pushed a classicist like Fowlis out of her comfort zone, having her sing her two songs in that crude ol' language known as English.

"That was a nice vote of confidence from Pixar, having only heard me sing in Gaelic," Fowlis says. "There simply aren’t any recordings of me singing in English, so they probably didn’t really know what I sounded like. I barely knew myself."

Plenty have an idea after the film took in $66.7 million in its opening weekend, as Fowlis is given two showcase songs that capture the emotions of the film's young, brash princess Merida. Nervous  initially about singing in English, Fowlis turned out to be a little too perfect.

"As a Gaelic singer, I received a very bit of funny feedback," she says. "There’s quite often a lot of emphasis at home placed on diction and projecting the story and the words. You have to make sure you catch every ending of the words to make sure the story comes across. After we did the first two recordings and were emailing back and forth, they said to me, ‘Your diction is really good. You can be less good at that.' "

Fowlis recorded her vocals in Edinburgh, Scotland, after receiving a surprise call for the job from music supervisor Tom MacDougall. In Los Angeles last week for the premiere of the film, Fowlis says one question she keeps fielding since coming to America is who represented her and helped her land such a plum gig. The answer: no one. 

"The phone call came out of the blue," Fowlis says, as MacDougall relayed to her that the Pixar team had a stack of Gaelic albums and kept returning to hers. She added to a score that was already steeped in Gaelic flourishes. Composer Doyle leaned heavily on Scottish instruments, writing much of the score to be interpreted by harpists, flutists, fiddlers and a team of bagpipe musicians. One song, "Noble Maiden Fair," performed by actors Emma Thompson and Peigi Barker, is sung partly in Gaelic.

A native of Scotland, Doyle, whose credits include last year's  "Thor"and 1995's "Sense and Sensibility," embarked on a history lesson for "Brave." He studied the country's folk traditions and focused on "waulking songs": slow-paced working songs that emphasize a story and vocals. They informed "Noble Maiden Fair," which gradually became more Gaelic as the film progressed.

"That was a lullaby originally, but [co-director Mark Andrews] ended up wanting much more of a Celtic lament," he says. "So that morphed. I wanted to write something that was simple and quintessential Scottish and Gaelic. The simple things in life are the most difficult to create in film. Think of this most simple melody: ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star.’ Everyone knows that, but you try and write one of those, especially in a simple Scottish/Gaelic sound."

"Touch the Sky," heard early in the film, has more of a pop structure. There's a hint of a bagpipe at the end, and its furiously strummed melody is laced with woodwinds, but it dabbles in Gaelic traditions in much the same way a Taylor Swift hit nods to country. Yet the song's thirst for independence, Fowlis says, isn't all that different from the messages in the songs of yore.

"I sing songs that are 800 years old, and with all that time the words, the analytics, the melodies and the phrasing are all very different," says Fowlis, currently an artist in residence for Scotland's digital archive project Tobar an Dualchais.

"People are essentially singing the same things," she continues. "That’s what comes through to me with that song. The songs are presented in different ways, but the topics are the same."

The film's "Into the Open Air" hit a little closer to home for the 34-year-old mother of two. The song's focus is the sometimes tense relationship between a mother and a daughter, and perhaps that's why Fowlis believes it works as a stand-alone song apart from the film.

"I don’t want to spoil the picture for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but I just kept thinking of my two girls while singing this," she says. "My oldest is 2, and some of the guys were saying I wouldn’t know the emotional, tugging-at-the-heart-strings bond between mother and daughter because my daughter is only 2. I’m like, ‘No, no, no, no. At 2 years old, I get how complicated the mother-daughter relationship is.’ " 

And she didn't even have to become a bear to find out.

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