The Cairngorms feel like home to Jenny Sturgeon, who spent childhood exploring the unique landscape. In adulthood, its plateau, nooks and crannies are still unique despite their familiarity. As seasons shift so does the quality of light and sound of the place – an ever-altering essence driving the 36-year-old musician’s album The Living Mountain. This audio-visual concept album is inspired by Nan Shepherd’s seminal book of the same title, which engrossed Jenny upon first reading. Each song is dedicated to a chapter exploring the air, water, rocks and plateaus of these mountains.
Much like plotting a route into the Cairngorms, Jenny likes that “there are no rules to songwriting…There are tools and techniques to make the process easier, but creating a song is completely up to the writer. The structure, lyrics, melody, and accompaniment provide so many possibilities for creative expression.” Here, she discusses field recordings and creative collaboration with The Great Outdoors.
You grew up playing and exploring in the Cairngorms – can you recall the effect the landscape had on you in your younger years?
The door was always open in our house, with people and animals coming and going all the time. The outdoors was an extension of indoors and so I’ve always felt totally at home pottering about outside. As a kid we’d spend weekends walking and camping in the Cairngorms. I have very fond memories of this landscape and it always feels like home.
Was it these formative experiences outdoors in nature that inspired you to go on to study birds and make ornithology your first career? Can you tell us a little about your connection to the natural world?
I think it was these formative experiences outdoors in nature that inspired me to study animal biology. Like most young kids I loved animals, particularly wild ones, and this enthusiasm and wonder never went away. As well as watching birds and mammals, and guddling about in ponds and streams for minnows and tadpoles, people in the local community would bring injured wild animals to our house for my mum to look after. At different times we had crows, a pheasant, a common gull and a kestrel. Getting to see these animals up close and watch their behaviour had a lasting affect on me and fostered a life-long passion for observing animal behaviours and learning about ecology of different species.
Has music always been a creative medium by which you express yourself?
Music and art have always been important creative outlets for me. When I first started songwriting I it became my most expressive creative outlet. I love how songs come together, from initial seeds of ideas to a finished piece of music – I like there are no rules to songwriting. There are tools and techniques that help to make the process easier or give prompts, but creating a song is completely up to the writer. The structure, lyrics, melody, accompaniment all provide so many possibilities for creative expression.
How and when did you discover Nan Shepherd’s work and what about it inspired you to create the concept album and accompanying film visuals?
I’ve known about Nan Shepherd for a long time, but it wasn’t until my partner, Will, gave me a copy of The Living Mountain that I read any of her work. I was instantly engrossed in this special book and having just finished the final tour with audio-visual performance Northern Flyway I was looking for a new project and concept album to get my teeth into. It was the experience of working on Northern Flyway which inspired me to explore The Living Mountain as an audio-visual performance and project album.
I felt that it was important to have a visual element in the gig, given that some people in the audience wouldn’t be familiar with the landscapes and that others who knew the mountains might experience it in a different way through the visuals and music. When I first began thinking about the project I got in contact with fantastic filmmaker Shona Thomson and Scotland The Big Picture (who I worked with for Northern Flyway). They were instrumental in providing and creating the incredible visuals which accompany the live performance of The Living Mountain.
Can you detail some of the processes of making The Living Mountain, including the exploratory trips and capturing of field recordings?
I was keen to include the sounds of the Cairngorms in the album and writing of the music. I had multiple trips into the hills and forests to gather sounds and inspiration.
It was really just a lovely excuse to go walking and exploring! For all the trips I had the company of a friend or family member and this added so much to the experience. The research and development phase of the project was great fun, and included using hydrophones to record the underwater sounds of lochs in the national park, recording Golden Plover near the summit of Ben Macdui, camping in Scot’s pine forest and on the plateau.
Many field recordings from the Cairngorms feature in the album and a field recording made whilst I recorded the album runs through the entire album.
For you, what is it about the Cairngorms landscape that boasts such a lyrical and musical quality?
That is a good question! I suppose it’s that it feels quite unique to other mountainous areas in Scotland.
The plateau is such a distinctive feature of the area and then at the other extreme exploring the nooks and crannies opens up a whole new world of mini landscapes. Depending on the time, day, month, year, it changes so much – the quality of the light, the shifting weather and the seasonal changes in sound.
What are you working on at the moment and what can your fans expect from you in the future?
At the moment I’m working on creating new music for ‘Birdvox’ a new band with Inge Thomson and Sarah Hayes, as well as working on my next solo project – a water based idea themed on my previous career as a seabird ecologist. It’s early days, but for me this is one of the most exciting stages of working, where I get to research, explore and develop ideas and follow interesting leads and sparks of creativity.
You can follow Jenny Sturgeon’s adventures and work at jennysturgeonmusic.com.