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Brìghde Chaimbeul
Photography Henry Redcliffe

Bagpipe bliss: meet the musician playing pipe on Caroline Polachek’s album

We chat to Brìghde Chaimbeul about her big bagpipe break, and why the misunderstood instrument isn’t just for kilted men in marching bands

You’ve heard of a private chef – but have you heard of a private bagpiper? The Queen had, and that’s why she employed one to wake her up every single morning, her own personal alarm clock puffing away in the frosty palace grounds. But after death (rip Liz) comes rebirth, and now those very pipes, once the soundtrack to every kilt-wearing, scotch-swigging, Highland cliché, seem to be undergoing a bit of a rebrand.

This past London Fashion Week, the distinctive sound of bagpipes chimed through Camden’s Roundhouse as J.W. Anderson debuted his AW23 collection, a collaboration with subversive Scottish dancer Michael Clark. And just a few days before that, celestial chanteuse Caroline Polachek dropped new track “Blood and Butter”, her gossamer vocal making way for a blistering bagpipe solo two-thirds of the way through. Within the space of a week, the tide had turned. Were bagpipes back in business?

At her following Valentine’s Day show, Polachek played new album Desire, I Want To Turn Into You and was joined on stage by Brìghde Chaimbeul, responsible for the “Blood and Butter” bagpipe break featured on the album. When Chaimbeul’s time to shine arrived, the packed out Hammersmith Apollo responded with utter glee, their rapturous applause proving that there’s plenty of appetite for some pipe.

We caught up with the musician about the positive response to the show, working with Polachek on the new album, and dispelling those bagpipe misconceptions. Plus – if you’re looking to blow your own bag out – Chaimbeul recommends some artists to start you on your journey to piping paradise.

Hi Brìghde! When did Caroline first ask you to contribute to the album?

Brìghde Chaimbeul: She approached me in October 2022 to ask if I’d be up for contributing a solo to the track. It was really exciting to be involved in such a cool cross-genre collaboration and also that Caroline wanted the pipes on the track.

What was the album recording process like?

Brìghde Chaimbeul: Caroline is really great to work with, and I really respect how open-minded she is, her appreciation for all types of music and the strength of her own musical vision.

I used two different bagpipes – one called the Scottish smallpipes and the other called the Border pipes. They are both Scottish bagpipes but are blown with bellows [an air-pumping device] tied to the elbow, rather than the mouth-blown bagpipes most people know.

‘I love the constant sound of the drones, it can create a very trance-like, hypnotic atmosphere’ – Brìghde Chaimbeul

Your bagpipe solo got a huge reaction from the crowd at the Hammersmith Apollo. What does it feel like to bring bagpipes to the masses?

Brìghde Chaimbeul: Firstly it’s very exciting that the crowd loved it, but I also want to disprove the stereotypes and connotations surrounding the instrument. There’s definitely a stereotype surrounding the type of person to play the pipes and the sound is often associated with cheesy anthems. The world of bagpipes is so diverse, even just in Scotland there are at least four different types of pipes, and nearly every country in Europe has their own bagpipe tradition. There is so much more to it than the traditional stereotype. Also, tartan and bagpipes don’t always have to go together.

Apart from yourself, whose pipes are helping to dismantle the stereotype?

Brìghde Chaimbeul: The recent Ecurie Ecosse car ad featuring Ross Ainslie is pretty cool.

When did you first become aware of the power of bagpiping?

Brìghde Chaimbeul: I wanted to learn the pipes from when I was around four years old. I heard an amazing woman called Rona Lightfoot playing them and I loved it.

You encounter a hostile alien race and sound is their only mechanism for communication. What song would you play to them on your bagpipes to inspire them to spare you and the rest of the human race?

Brìghde Chaimbeul: I think I would play “Harris Dance”, it’s such an uplifting melody.

Is there anything about the sound specifically that made you want to pick up the pipes?

Brìghde Chaimbeul: I love the constant sound of the drones, it is very unique to the pipes and can create a very trance-like, hypnotic atmosphere.

For anyone interested in getting into the genre, where would you recommend they start?

Brìghde Chaimbeul: There are so many great artists out there. If you like to dance, listen to Niteworks, Martyn Bennett or more traditional Daimh. One of my favourite singers is Kathleen MacInnes, and Irish records are great too such as Kevin Burke and Mick O’Brien.

If you’re into radio take a look at programmes on BBC Radio Nan Gaidheal where you can also get into a bit of Gaelic! I also have two albums out called The Reeling, and LAS (with Ross Ainslie), and I have a new one coming out in April 2023 which I collaborated on with the amazing saxophonist Colin Stetson.

Thank you Brìghde.

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