Category Archives: kathie touin

Goodbye and Farewell, Keith Emerson

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Keith Emerson and Kathie Touin

Keith and the author at the Wiltern Theater, Los Angeles, in 1993 after an Emerson, Lake & Palmer concert (photo: © Kathie Touin)

Last night I was stunned to hear the news that Keith Emerson had died. This morning it seems that he killed himself. I’m heartbroken and devastated beyond words, but I feel I need to say something about what he has meant to me.

Keith’s music crashed into my life 34 years ago and turned everything upside down. He is the reason I became a professional musician and have spent my life trying to live up to the standard he set for rock keyboardists. His work has kept me going through some of the darkest days of my life, and helped me celebrate some of the brightest.

I met Keith 21 years ago and we became friends. He was funny, kind, generous, silly, occasionally thorny and never anything less than supportive of my music.

Kathie Touin, Keith Emerson and Charlie 1993

Myself with Keith wearing a t-shirt bearing my cockatiel’s namesake, Charlie Parker (photo: © Kathie Touin)

I haven’t seen him often over the past few years, though we’ve stayed in touch. I was delighted to be able to attend his concert at the Barbican in London last July and give him a long-overdue hug.

His was an immense talent, and I’m struggling to accept that his voice is now silent. It’s unthinkable that I won’t get a ridiculous email in my inbox, or be able to pick up the phone and listen to his wild tales of life during ELP’s heyday.

I was recording the string part on a song for my new album yesterday, probably at the time this awful event was playing out halfway across the world in Santa Monica, California. Though I’d written the song about someone else, the lyrics seem almost eerily appropriate now. But then Keith and I always had an uncanny connection.

I thought I’d post the lyrics here as a tribute to Keith, though the song won’t be completed for a little while yet.

Thank you, Doctor Emo. I will miss you terribly. But we will still connect every time I sit at the piano and play your music.

Lotsa luv,

Kathie Touin

BETWEEN HEAVEN AND THE SKY

The leaves were drifting down
when I heard the lonely sound
a barren fruit tree in the wind
that lost its voice that once could sing

And underneath a rosy moon
I knew that you’d be leaving very soon
but you were never meant for me
You were far too rare a thing

You always moved through the world
like a ghost
Darker than ocean
and paler than sky
Like a cup that has broken
you fill me but I lose you
somewhere amongst all the stars
where you shine

I never thought you’d come to stay
an errant star that rainy day
but how was I to ever know
How deep your footprints on my soul

You always moved through the world
like a ghost
Darker than ocean
and paler than sky
Like a cup that has broken
you fill me but I lose you
somewhere amongst all the stars
where you shine

Somewhere between heaven and the sky
I hope you have found the answers why
You dog-eared the pages of my past
I hope you’ve found calmness and peace at least

And now I wander here alone
beneath a sky so wildly blown
but I can hear you calling me
that cloudy voice I’ll always know

You always moved through the world
like a ghost
Darker than ocean
and paler than sky
Like a cup that has broken
you fill me but I lose you
somewhere amongst all the stars
where you shine

© K. Touin 2014/2016 (BMI)

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Isn’t this where we came in?

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Ellen Grieve, Tom Ashman, Hannah Bown, Kathie Touin, Fiona Driver

Kathie Touin (top) with fellow UHI students before Celtic Connections gig
(photo: Gemma Hahn)

Now then. Where were we? Ah, yes, I was just about to embark on life as an adult student at the University of the Highlands and Islands through Orkney College on the Applied Music BA degree. A journey which I was going to detail and follow in my blog as it progressed.

Only it took far more time then I expected, even though I was part-time, and the blog fell by the wayside in my effort just to keep up.

It was fascinating and I learned more from it than I expected, though not always through the coursework. It was more a case of realising what I really want from music at this point in my life.

And sadly being a student again was not what I wanted after all. This felt a bit strange as I’ve spent the years since I attended the Berklee College of Music secretly wishing I could go back and complete the degree I left half-finished. I still regularly have dreams that I have gone back, usually involving the scary elevator we had to use to get to the dorm rooms.

I think the idea of a music degree consisting almost entirely of practical skills that presumes a certain level of musical knowledge is a good one and I wish everyone I was on the course with the best of luck with it. If I was only just starting out it would be great.

But the amount of time I spent on the work showed me that I should be spending that time on my own writing and recording and developing my new business, Starling Recording Studio.

I opened my home studio to the public last month and am enjoying working with local artists. Between sessions I’ve at last started on my own next recording which I’m finding very satisfying, especially with all the new gear I have.

It was stimulating working with other musicians on the course and the residentials I attended in Inverness and Glasgow were challenging and helped me understand aspects of my own musicianship that need work.

Being at Celtic Connections in Glasgow in January was a wonderful opportunity and I’m grateful for the chance to have been a part of it.

So, the blog is back and I have some catching up to do. Husband Graham, Roscoe the Rescue Dog and I have been on some brilliant adventures lately here in Orkney, so I’ll be reporting on those, as well as keeping you up to date on the new album’s progress and any developments at the Starling Recording Studio. You can also follow the studio on Twitter @StarlingOrkney as well as on Facebook at facebook.com/StarlingRecordingStudio.

See you soon!

Kathie Touin

Island Hopping Part One

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North Ronaldsay sheep and lighthouse

North Ronaldsay sheep, which eat seaweed, and the lighthouse

(Note: Since my last blog, Roscoe the rescue border collie has come to live with us. I’ll be telling his story soon in another blog).

My husband Graham and I have lived in the Orkney Islands – in the West Mainland – for nearly two-and-a-half years. There are around 80 islands in the archipelago, about 16 of which are inhabited. In all the time we’ve lived here we’ve only managed to get to two of these: Shapinsay, which is nearest to the capital of Kirkwall, and Hoy, the High Isle, the one that dominates the skyline and is more like the Highlands than the other islands in Orkney.

But all that changed in the last week when we had visitors from England, who gave us an excuse to do a bit of island hopping. Why it requires someone else to get us out there, I don’t know. We could go any time, it just feels as though there are always other things that need doing.

Two weeks ago we all piled onto the Earl Thorfinn ferry and headed north for a day trip to Orkney’s most northerly island, North Ronaldsay. It’s famous for its two lighthouses, the Old Beacon being an iconic image of Orkney that appears in all the tourist brochures.

North Ronaldsay lighthouse

The ‘new’ North Ronaldsay lighthouse, built in 1852

It was very exciting to head so far north – the furthest north I’ve been in my life. It was a beautiful sunny day, so we sat outside and enjoyed the views and watched for interesting birds. The ferry stopped at the islands of Sanday and Eday, between which I spotted several Arctic skuas and had a gorgeous view of a pomarine skua which, while seen in Orkney, aren’t that common.

On arrival at North Ronaldsay we watched in amazement as they lifted several cars off the ferry and onto the quayside using webbing under the tires and a crane on the ferry.

Car being lifted off the North Ronaldsay ferry

Car being lifted off the North Ronaldsay ferry

North Ronaldsay is a small island, less than three square miles, and quite flat. There is only a population of 60, with just one child in the school, which doesn’t bode well for the island. There isn’t enough work to entice young families in and so, although housing has been built, it could be faced with a dwindling population.

North Ronaldsay landscape

North Ronaldsay landscape

We had lunch at the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory. The island is the first stop for migrant birds heading south so there are often unusual sightings, especially if storms blow the birds off course.

We were able to get a lift to the northern end of the island where the lighthouses are. As we approached I asked the driver about the scaffolding surrounding the Old Beacon. He said there had been funding granted for restoration but work only got as far as erecting the scaffolding before the money ran out. It’s apparently been there for nearly five years, rusting away and spoiling the appearance of this wonderful old building.

The Old Beacon, North Ronaldsay

The Old Beacon, North Ronaldsay

This is a topic that rose several times during our visitors’ stay in Orkney: there are many things in Orkney that rightly deserve preservation, but with resources stretched thin and a remote location with relatively few tourists, compared to places like Stirling Castle, it’s doubtful they ever will be preserved. It’s a shame, but understandable. Battles must be picked and with a country as rich in history as Scotland it can be a difficult choice.

Our other island visit was a three-night stay on Westray. We’ve often stood at the Brough of Birsay to the north of where we live, gazing out across the sea to Westray’s Noup Head lighthouse. Westray is bigger than North Ronaldsay, just under 20 square miles, with a population of somewhere around 500 (we’ve read anything between 300 and 600).

The landscape reminded me of West Mainland, where we live, albeit with more hills. We stayed in the main village of Pierowall, set on a lovely crescent-shaped bay, and had our dinners in the hotel there, the only restaurant on the island. There are three cafes, but the hotel is the only place to get evening meals since the second hotel on the island was bought and turned into a private residence.

Papay ferry from our cottage window

Papa Westray ferry coming into Pierowall from our cottage window

Roscoe came along on his first ever holiday. This was a good way of seeing how he’ll be when we go on our holiday sometime in October. He loved it and had a whale of a time!

On our first day we took the ferry over to the neighbouring island of Papa Westray, or Papay as it’s known locally. The name means ‘Islands of the Priests’, as there are several important religious sites there. There is an excellent website about the island: http://www.papawestray.co.uk/

According to this website, the next stop from North Hill on the island is the Arctic Circle, and the island lies roughly at the same latitude as Stavanger in Norway! It’s four miles long and only a mile wide. If you want to bring your car it has to be lifted off the ferry by crane, just as in North Ronaldsay. It’s a perfect island for bicycles, if it’s a nice day.

The ferry to Papa Westray

The ferry to Papa Westray

It certainly was nice the day we were there – warm, sunny, with hardly any wind. We had booked the Peedie Package Tour. The morning was spent touring the island, which has more than 60 archaelogical sites. Our guide, Tim, was formerly the RSPB warden for the island and has been there more than 20 years, so was full of information.

The Knap of Howar, the oldest dwelling-house in Western Europe, Papay

The Knap of Howar, the oldest dwelling-house in Western Europe, Papay

We visited the Knap of Howar, thought to be the oldest known dwelling-house in Western Europe, which dates back to around 3800 BC. The tour also took in the St Boniface Kirk and Holland Farm with its tiny museum of island life.

Roscoe guarding a Viking Earl's grave, St Boniface Kirk, Papay

Roscoe guarding a Viking Earl’s grave, St Boniface Kirk, Papay

Tim drove us back to the hostel at Beltane House, which provides accommodation on the island, where we were served a fantastic lunch of the best carrot and coriander soup I’ve ever tasted, homemade quiche with salads and excellent homebakes. Clearly people had been busy preparing all the food for us.

Because we had Roscoe with us, I sat outside in the sun with him, hoping to swap over with Graham at some point. One of the women spotted me, and brought my meal out to me! I felt very spoiled.

In the afternoon we were taken on a guided walk by Sarah, the RSPB warden for Papay. It was a brilliant walk, beginning on a pearly-white sandy beach, which Roscoe immediately began digging up with gusto. This attracted the attention of a group of grey seals, who came in quite close to shore to see what he was doing. I think some people weren’t thrilled to have a dog on their tour, but I believe this redeemed him a bit. I don’t think the seals would have come in so close without him making such a commotion, and people seemed generally to warm to him after that!

Seals coming in to watch Roscoe on the beach, Papay

Seals coming in to watch Roscoe on the beach, Papay

We had a brilliant walk along the cliffs and up over the maritime heath, seeing bits of the shipwreck of the Bella Vista, nesting shags and our first ever Primula Scotica, a diminutive pink primrose that only grows in special places in Orkney and Caithness. We also viewed The Bore, a distinct line in the sea where the Atlantic meets the North Sea.

Primula Scotica, Scottish Primrose, Papay

Primula Scotica, Scottish Primrose, Papay

Roscoe tackled his first stiles, and showed that he just might make an excellent agility dog!

Great auk commemorative statue, Papay

This statue and cairn commemorate one of the last Great Auks. A ‘victim’ of yarn-bombing!

All in all it was a great day, and we were really thankful to the people of Papay for making it such a nice experience. I can’t recommend the tour enough!

More about our time in Westray in Island Hopping part two.

Kathie Touin

Birding By Bus Around Orkney’s West Mainland

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Birding By Bus passengers at Skaill Loch on a wet day
Hello? Remember me? Sorry for the long silence after the Christmas blog. Between several illnesses and a trip to California I’m afraid it all went a bit quiet here for awhile.

As I write this, the sun is shining between bursts of heavy snow showers. Last week here in Orkney we had spectacular warm, sunny weather and spent a happy Sunday afternoon in short sleeves, planting trees.

But the most recent Sunday was altogether more cold and wet, and we spent it riding around in a minibus for the RSPB Birding By Bus annual outing. Despite the damp and chill, we had a very nice morning out and were lucky enough to see quite a lot of interesting birds.

We began at the Ring of Brodgar car park where lapwing, curlew and snipe were displaying. It was a bit too windy to hear the snipe drumming, a noise created when they dive and the air thrums through their outspread tail feathers.

Moving on from there we headed for Skaill Loch, near the neolithic site of Skara Brae, where we had some lovely views of wintering whooper swans, goldeneye and tufted ducks, a pair of Slavonian grebes and some rare visiting glaucous and Icelandic gulls (which actually breed in Greenland).

Whooper swans on Skaill Loch

Not much was visible further on at Skaill Beach, though I was delighted to see four long-tailed ducks, a species which I’d only seen come across once before. For some reason the sight of ducks on the sea still seems strange to me.

Graham and I had been at Skaill Beach two days before when we had a brisk, refreshing walk and, in the tangles of seaweed and wrack above the tideline, found a remarkable number of common skate egg cases – fourteen in all! It’s lovely to see so many as Orkney is one of the last remaining strongholds for this rare skate.

Common skate egg cases found on Skaill Beach
The minibus continued to head north and we piled out at Marwick Bay. Aside from some turnstone and a red-headed merganser that I managed to miss, there wasn’t much about. But someone in the group picked up a small skate egg case, which I later identified as a spotted skate from my egg case chart (yes, I do have such a thing).

Inland from Marwick we stopped at the Loons Hide, one of my favourite places to see birds. And what a selection awaited us! Examples of every species of dabbling duck (as opposed to diving ducks like the long-tails) that breed in Orkney were there – shoveler and teal with their dazzling colours, smart-looking wigeon, the pretty but slightly drab gadwall, and a few omnipresent mallards. But best of all, my favourite was there, the stunningly beautiful pintail. There were a pair, swimming with the other ducks.

A mixture of ducks – wigeon, pintail, mallard and gadwall

Mute swan, the Loons
Displaying lapwing

My favourite – the lovely drake pintail
 We sat and ate our lunch with the soundtrack of wildly displaying lapwings, squeaking and diving away outside, as we watched the ducks, greylag geese and a dabchick, or little grebe.
Short-eared owl hunting

Moving on we headed up over the Birsay Moors where a sharp-eyed tourist spotted a handful of hen harriers, and we were treated to five different sightings of short-eared owls! 

These owls are very easy to notice as they are diurnal, which means they hunt during the day. A pair of ravens made an appearance, with one of them doing its tumbling display.
 All in all, a good day out, despite the weather being less than perfect. 
I enjoyed trying out my new toy, bought with birthday money – a zoom lens for my Canon DSLR. Some of these photos might look a bit fuzzy but it’s because, even with the zoom, I still had to crop them to get the birds to where you could see them well. Perhaps someday I’ll have one of those enormous lenses you need a stand for but this one should suit me well, especially living in a place as picturesque as Orkney.

Thanks to Eric Meek, who was performing his last official duty before retiring as the RSPB’s main man in Orkney, and to Dick Matson, of the Orkney Field Club and RSPB Local Group Committee, for providing the excellent commentary. Looking forward to next year’s trip already!

To learn more skate egg case identification as well as the skates and rays that can be found around the shores of the UK, go to www.eggcase.org.

You can also visit the SharkTrust’s website at www.sharktrust.org 

or the Orkney Skate Trust, who are studying the Common Skate, at www.orkneyskatetrust.org.

Kathie Touin

It’s officially Christmas

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St Magnus Cathedral

 It’s officially Christmas. At least it finally felt that way on Sunday night when I was lucky enough to sing with the Festival Chorus in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney’s largest town. Along with the Orkney Camerata orchestra we performed Parts I and II from JS Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

With its lovely warm red sandstone walls, the cathedral is a very special place to perform. And from my perch in the back row of the alto section I had a perfect view of the attentive audience with a very tall Christmas tree in the background.

The soloists, who had come up from the south for the performance, were wonderful. I especially enjoyed mezzo Judy Brown’s aria ‘Slumber in Blissful Repose’, her soaring vocal chiming beautifully with Gemma McGregor’s flute.

Between the sections of the Oratorio, Catriona Price and Tabea Sitte played Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins with the Camerata. I thoroughly enjoyed this, as the young women clearly relished the challenge of the music.

I have sung with choirs before, including once for HM The Queen at the Royal Festival Hall in London with the Voicelab project.

But I must admit I’ve never been a big fan of classical voices. I don’t enjoy opera, which I’m sure makes me a musical philistine. But I find the singing style too mannered and unnatural.

The cathedral, with its soaring ceiling, arches and oddly-shaped roof spaces, pulls and twists musical sound around inside it. Notes reverberate for ages amongst all these nooks and crannies, and the return of the sound happens at different times in different places.

Some of our singers were complaining about the acoustics, that it made it difficult for them to hear themselves. I tend not to worry about this, especially in a choir – I figure if you just sing the right notes with the right amount of enthusiasm the sound will sort itself out just by dint of the sheer number of voices!

But that night, as we sang with nary a microphone or amplifier in sight, I suddenly understood why classical singing has developed the way it has. Obviously in the early days, music was written mostly for religious services, so it would have been heard in big, echoing stone barns of buildings. Anyone singing in a ‘normal’ chest or head voice would never be heard.

But hearing the voices of tenor soloist Joseph Doody and bass soloist Jerome Knox cleaving softly through the air made me realise this is why classical singers sing as they do. It carried magnificently throughout this enormous, weirdly echoing space and sounded beautiful and pure.

I learned something else that is borne out of the acoustical nature of the cathedral.

The organist, Heather Rendall, explained to me that if she is playing in this sort of situation, where the soloists and orchestra are a fair distance from where she sits at the organ keyboard, she has to anticipate the music and actually play just slightly ahead of when it will be heard.

I’d come across a similar phenomenon playing keyboards in bands using a slow strings patch, which has a very slow attack, so I would have to play the chord ahead of when I wanted it to actually sound. But I can hardly imagine doing this with something as complicated as Bach.

So Sunday was an evening filled with glorious music and voices, and I had an unexpected lesson in classical voice and acoustics.

Thanks to Glenys Hughes for leading us so ably. I appreciate the opportunity to sing such wonderful music in such a beautiful setting.

Kathie Touin

New-fangled gizmo

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Christmas has come early for me this year – I have a new mobile phone! After a nail-biting few days when its delivery was delayed by gales, snow, sleet and ice (in other words, normal Orkney winter weather) it has arrived in its absurdly small cardboard box.

Is this a sudden extravagance on my part, I hear you ask? Not exactly. Is it the latest iPhone with apps or an Android with other things I know nothing about? No. It’s whatever I could get for free on my current arrangement with my mobile provider.

It’s a fluorescent pink, wafer-thin object with a QWERTY keyboard. I can’t vouch for whether or not I’m going to get on with this particular bit of technology. It’s main selling point seems to be the inverse of those VW Golf ads that are running at the moment – it’s like a Blackberry but it isn’t one.

Now I love a gadget as much as the next person, and will happily babble on for hours about the things I have in my recording studio and the things I’d like to have in it but don’t (yet).

But somehow having all the latest communication wonder-products doesn’t do it for me. It could be due to age.

I blame this for my first reaction to my new phone’s tiny keyboard, designed for someone with fingers the size of toothpicks. How am I supposed to use this? More to the point, if I’m wearing contacts, how am I supposed to see what I’m doing?

I mean I’ve only just got to grips with predictive text!

My main disappointment is that it doesn’t have as good a camera as my previous phone. I feel let down by this.

Yet I don’t feel the need for my phone to have a camera equivalent to my DSLR or to have it play my music collection at me. I just like the idea of being able to take silly photos of reasonable quality at will. And to have a reasonably interesting game to play when I’m bored. We’ll have to see what’s come with this one.

I can tell you’re desperately curious as to why I’ve suddenly felt the need to get this device. No insatiable urge to upgrade for me.

We have a beautiful floor in our upstairs bathroom made of smooth stone pebbles. Unfortunately it doesn’t agree with the display screen of mobile phones when they are dropped face-down on it. This has left my old phone with a beautifully artistic crazed look to the screen, but has sadly rendered it useless.

So I’m going to go plug in my new toy, get it fired up and see how long it takes before I start swearing at those tiny little keys… Wish me luck.

Kathie Touin

Been there? Done that? Now you can get the t-shirt!

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Last night I had the pleasure of playing the piano at the Lynnfield Hotel in Kirkwall, here in Orkney. It’s one of my favourite restaurants, so I naturally accepted when they asked if I’d play for a couple of hours on a Saturday night.

With a cosy welcoming fire, comfy antique furniture, a fine selection of single malts and excellent food, it’s a lovely place to while away an evening.

Looks like I’ll be playing there again as part of the schedule of Christmas delights they’re planning, so watch this space!

In other news, the Kathie Touin Shop is now open at Café Press. Come peer inside and see what we’ve put together for you.

Everything from t-shirts to teddy bears, mugs and wall plaques, hats and bags, badges and underpants! All featuring quotes from some of my lyrics.

And yes, now you, too, can own THE t-shirt made famous by the song, ‘T shirt’ on my CD Butterfly Bones. Go out and proudly show the world, “Yes, it is. Really.”

Visit www.cafepress.co.uk/kathietouin
 

See you there!

Kathie Touin

PS With only a matter of weeks until Christmas (sorry) my shop is also a great place to find presents!