Few singers can list Sudan, Iraq and the Brazilian rainforests as performing venues, but few singers are like Karen Matheson.
Lead singer with Capercaillie, whose travels have taken in such locations and who recently celebrated their 30th birthday, Karen’s musical roots are as deep as her voice is resonant. She is equally at home in English or Gaelic, proficiency in the latter due to major influences in her early years.
“I heard the language and loved it and that is where my passion comes from”
“My mum and gran were both Gaelic speakers, and although they didn’t speak to me in that language – that was very much frowned upon – I used to listen to Granny sing. I heard the language and loved it and that is where my passion comes from,” says Taynuilt-born Karen. “Even in primary school my teacher Morag Robb, who was from Strontian, encouraged Gaelic singing and poetry. So I did the Mod circuit at an early age, then joined the ceilidh scene.
“Gaelic songs are very special to me and when I started singing in English, it was challenging.”
Although the collaboration between Karen and her husband Donald Shaw – through Capercaillie – goes back over 30 years, they were making music together long before that. They met at Oban High School when Donald was 12 and Karen 16.
“He’s four years younger. Does that make me a cradle snatcher?” laughs Karen. “Donald’s mum had put together a four-piece band and we used to go round the local ceilidh circuit. We were very, very young.
“Then Capercaillie came along, with Donald, Sean Craig, Martin McLeod and Mark Duff who were all at Oban High. It was instrumental only and when they were heard by a radio producer, he asked them to do a session for BBC Scotland.
“They asked me to come along and sing and that’s when it really started”
“A recording was made and the BBC came back and asked if they had a singer. So they asked me to come along and sing and that’s when it really started.”
The rest, as they say, is history, and whether it is a full house at Celtic Connections or a wee church hall on Skye, Karen gets the same buzz out of performing – and the same nerves.
“Singing to a large audience is absolutely nerve-wracking but sometimes with smaller audiences it’s worse because you are so exposed. However, I love both.”
Up close and personal gigs stood Karen in good stead for her solo career, and with three albums to her credit she’s proved life outside Capercaillie is equally rewarding.
“My solo stuff is more intimate, more contemplative,” she says. “It gives me the chance to stand back and be a bit more retrospective, and it means I don’t have to sing at the top of my voice and be heard over the band. I feel very fortunate to be able to do both.”
“Hector is very musical, but is a wee bit reticent to embrace the tradition”
It comes as no surprise that the musical gene has been carried through to Karen and Donald’s son.
“Hector is very musical, but is a wee bit reticent to embrace the tradition, shall we say,” continues Karen. “Having been brought up in it at an early age, he doesn’t think it’s cool to play traditional music. However, I have seen a change in the last year as he is going round whistling and singing tunes and he plays his father’s new CD in his room.”
In between touring with the band and escaping back to Taynuilt – “it is still home regardless of the fact we have lived in Glasgow for 30 years” – Karen is busy in the recording studio.
“I am working on two albums at the moment – a solo one which I started recording four or five years ago but abandoned when my mother took ill. I want to finish it. I also want to do an album of purely Gaelic music which is something I have wanted to do for a long time. I am sourcing material for it now.”
Karen’s doctrine is quite simple – to keep on singing.
“We had a great time celebrating the anniversary, releasing an album and touring all over the place. I wouldn’t have believed there was still so much support out there for us. It is great to feel we are still part of it and not just some some old codgers!”
- The band celebrated their 30th anniversary in 2014.
- Actor Sean Connery is a fan, describing Karen as having “a throat surely touched by the hand of God”.
- The name of the band comes from a type of Scottish wood grouse.
- Their next event is on July 21 in King’s Lynn.