Scots singer and harpist wins Celtic album award | HeraldScotland – HeraldScotland

Songwriters have no shortage of topics when it comes to inspiration for their compositions – love, heartbreak, family, desires, loss, places and pets among them, writes Mike Ritchie.

A love of sailing around the world on oil tankers for weeks at a time in huge seas in darkness and keeping watch for icebergs as the vessel’s engines drone miles from dry land, family and friends might not, at first, appear likely fodder for a musician.
But, Chloe Matharu, a singer-songwriter and Celtic harpist from Wemyss Bay in Inverclyde, who happily served as a navigational officer for eight years with the Merchant Navy, can proudly prove otherwise.
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And that’s because her exquisite debut album, Small Voyages, which presents an intriguing insight into a new tradition of maritime folk music with thoughtful song writing embellished by her voice and superb harp playing, has won its first award.
It has been named as Celtic Music Radio’s Album of the Year after a listeners’ vote and this really took her by surprise.
HeraldScotland: Chloe Matharu swapped the Merchant Navy for song writingChloe Matharu swapped the Merchant Navy for song writing (Image: Chloe Martharu)
“This is the first time I’ve actually won anything and it is music-related, which makes it all the better,” said Ms Matharu, who sings in both English and Welsh, and released the eight-track record in September last year.
“It’s amazing to see Small Voyages come this far as I started off writing the songs for my daughter but then decided to be bold and share them.
“Celtic Music Radio’s award is so special and I’m so grateful to everyone who voted for me.”
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Ms Matharu started learning the harp when she was about ten during her schooldays in Edinburgh and later, as a teenager, she appeared on the folk circuit in line-ups that included Dick Gaughan, Michael Marra and Bert Jansch.
“There was a revival of the traditional folk music scene but I realised that it was a tough business from which to have a steady income so, as I had been obsessed with oil tankers as a child, I became determined to go to sea, much against my parents’ wishes.
“After St Andrews University, I joined the Merchant Navy and was the only female cadet in an intake of 80 but I had something to prove and just got on with showing everyone I could do it.”
Her first postings were aboard 80-metre-long oil tankers with crews no more than 10-strong.
“As a deck cadet I trained onboard coastal oil tankers and spent much of the time sailing around Scotland and Ireland,’ said Ms Matharu, whose last rank was 2nd Mate though she has since passed her Chief Mate’s exam. 
“At the time I was frustrated about being kept in Northern Europe and dreamed of bigger and better ships that would sail to far flung, exotic places. 
“However, when I finally made it to these vessels, I realised my cadetship was the best time of my life, sailing on tiny ships and feeling part of a small crew and close to the sea. 
“You could feel vulnerable on a small vessel but it was exciting, too. We had watch-keeping duties, four hours on, eight hours off, four hours on and there were safety drills and cargo work.
“Day in, day out there was a real sense of community. As part of the crew, you felt you belonged and because of the constant risks at sea, we all looked out for each other.”
HeraldScotland: Chloe Matharu is delighted with the awardChloe Matharu is delighted with the award (Image: Chloe Matharu)
These memories show up in her carefully crafted songs as she draws on her Merchant Navy days, inspired by the natural world experienced at sea.
Her thoughtful and sensitive song writing on Small Voyages – recorded at Dramatic Studios in Ayr and produced by Brian MacDonald – offers an insight into the modern seafarer’s life as Ms Matharu’s voice, coupled with her harp playing, form a haunting combination perfectly suited to the reflective nature of her material.
In her recorded work she blends field recordings of the natural world with that of the harp, creating a backdrop for emotive lyrics and haunting melodies. 
Her songs have been described as “a new maritime narrative” with the voice of the female seafarer delivering a refreshing outlook in a new tradition of maritime Folk music.
Whilst crossing boundaries in her career at sea, Ms Matharu – who is of mixed Indian and Welsh heritage – says she is keen to explore breaking down cultural and gender barriers through the language of music.
Though she only started to perform live in October 2021, she has notched up appearances at Celtic Connections a year ago in Glasgow and several prestigious folk festivals in the UK.
Now she is looking ahead to more gigs in 2023 but members of her family and friends are unlikely to be in the audiences.
She laughed and said: “They have heard me playing at home so much over the years they don’t come to shows. I am keen to get more gigs arranged but one already confirmed is March 18 at Greenock’s Beacon Arts Centre plus others in Leeds, London, Glasgow and Stirling.”
• Small Voyages is available here.
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