The Kennedy Center

The Wrigley Sisters


Scottish duo The Wrigley Sisters, with Jennifer on fiddle and Hazel on guitar and piano, combine brilliant technical ability with humor and a light touch to produce traditional and contemporary music from the Orkney Islands.

The people of the Orkney islands, off Scotland's north coast, have always been great travellers. But where traditionally it's been fishing, whaling or the merchant marine that's taken them from home, for Orcadian twin sisters Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley, it's music that has mapped their course around the world. Their playing - Jennifer on fiddle. Hazel on guitar and piano - has captured audience hearts from Norway to New Zealand, Sydney to San Francisco, securing their reputation as one of the top young acts on today's international folk circuit. Young as they are, though - still only in their mid- twenties - their performing career dates back more than ten years, to when they started out playing at local dances in Orkney. The story really begins, however, on their joint eighth birthday, when they were presented with their first fiddle and guitar.

Each took lessons at school, and then with private tutors, going on to play for several years with the Orkney Strathspey and Reel Society. "I still remember the first time I went along, to the Junior section - it was horrible," Jennifer says. "There were all these kids there from the rival school, who we used to play at netball and stuff; they were all brilliant players, and I didn't know any of the tunes - I came out at the end in tears, saying I was never going again. But Mum said I couldn't give up like that, so I went back the next week, and gradually it got better. Then I started getting really keen, really into the tunes I was learning, and that was enough to get me hooked."

For Hazel, a key catalyst was meeting the legendary Shetland guitarist, "Peerie" Willie Johnson. "I was introduced to him at a concert in Kirkwall, and I just found him so amazing, not even so much for how he played - to me everybody was amazing, because I couldn't play anything - but just the way he'd sit you down and show you all his secrets; he just shared information so freely. He's someone who teaches you to teach yourself, and he really gave me the inspiration to learn." By the time they reached their teens, the twins were playing regular spots - often with their big sister, Emma, on accordion - at local concerts and ceilidhs around the islands. It was at one such event that they were spotted by the owner of Orkney's only recording studio, who suggested recording an album.

It took a while to get off the ground, but the eventual result. Dancing Fingers, was finally released when they were just sixteen. Gaining radio airplay throughout Scotland, the album marked their launch onto the wider folk circuit, with offers of bookings starting to come in from around the country. Logistically as well as musically, however, this presented a whole new set of challenges. "People in England, particularly, just don't realise how far away Orkney is," says Jennifer. "One of those early trips we did, the first gig was in Cornwall, down on the south-west coast. It took us three days to get there: we pressed the mileometer on the car as we left the house, and it was 984 miles - then the next day we were playing in Middlesborough, right up in the north-east! We'd only just passed our driving test at this point, and of course we'd taken it in Orkney, where there weren't even any traffic lights or roundabouts, and suddenly there we were driving a thousand miles, on motorways and everything. That first car we had clocked up 30,000 miles in ten months.

Within a few years, the combination of such punishing distances with an increasingly busy touring schedule - accelerated further by the release of their second album, The Watch Stone, in 1994 - prompted the sisters to move to Edinburgh, where they quickly became immersed in the city's thriving folk scene, playing virtually every night around the circuit of pubs where musicians congregated. It was out of this network of new friends and contacts that Seelyhoo, the six-piece band that Jennifer and Hazel fronted for four years, was formed, performing a dynamic blend of folk, jazz and pop styles, and releasing two well- received albums. The twins' steadily rising profile as a duo, meanwhile, led to an invitation to perform at the prestigious Evolving Tradition festival, at London's Barbican Centre, in 1995, where they caught the ear of a scout from the Auckland Folk Festival, in New Zealand - an encounter which was to boost their career to a whole new level. "We were looking into the cost of flights to get to Auckland, and we realised that round-the-world tickets would actually work out cheaper," says Hazel. "So I then got this bee in my bonnet about us doing a world tour - it was absolutely stupid, to be honest, I nearly had a nervous breakdown organising it, all the visas and work permits and different currencies and stuff, on top of setting up the actual gigs; it was a whole new ball game, but in the end it came together." It certainly did. The Wrigleys' first, three-month world tour, in early 1997, covered Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Ball, Australia, New Zealand, America and Canada. Coinciding as it did with Jennifer winning the BBC Young Tradition Award, the UK's premier accolade for new folk talent, it laid the foundations for their current international success, which sees them touring abroad for around ten months out of every year. "It really did change things dramatically," says Hazel, "going into that kind of global market at that point - suddenly all these doors just started opening."

As Hazel's near-nervous breakdown suggests, despite the demands of their now worldwide workrate, the Wrigleys continue to manage themselves, just as they have since embarking on that first ever trip outside Orkney, backed up today with just the services of a part-time agent, and a small independent Scottish record label. "We realised early on that we needed to be organised about the business side - just things like making sure we had signed contracts, cast-iron agreements, before we set off to play," Hazel says. "Our Mum and Dad had always been self-employed when we were growing up, so they gave us loads of good advice, and I think we got from them the idea of not paying anyone to do stuff you could as well do for yourself. A manager just always seemed like an added expense, besides the difficulty of finding the right person. It's easier now, too, with the Internet and e-mail - we take a laptop and a mobile phone with us on tour and keep in touch with things that way. It's hard work, but it means we always know things are being done the way we want." A SECOND WORLD tour, revisiting most of the territories covered during the first, followed in 1999, with another provisionally scheduled for 2001. Following their initial visit to the US, as well as the success of their third album, Huldreland (voted one of Folk Roots magazine's Top Ten albums of 1998, among other accolades), demand for the Wrigleys' music has been growing especially fast over there, resulting in four transatlantic trips during 1999 alone.

While this globe-trotting itinerary has meant them seeing less and less of their beloved Orkney, however, modern technology enables them to keep in close touch with family and friends on the islands. "It is amazing, sometimes," says Hazel. "There was one time we were in Singapore, sitting in the back of a moving car, and the phone went and it was Dad, clear as if he was calling from round the corner. So we had a chat with him, and then the next thing, we were sitting in the bar of the Raffles hotel, having a Singapore Sling, the phone went again and this time it was our granny; Dad had obviously called her to say we were around and the phone was working, and there she was, talking to us on the other side of the world. She just couldn't believe it - neither could we, hardly." THE LONGING FOR home, too, finds frequent expression in the sisters' music, both in the traditional Orkney tunes they play, and in their own compositions. "When we've been on tour for a long time and I'm really missing Orkney, that's when I start to write music about it, based on a kind of dream about what Orkney is," says Jennifer, whose tunes have been covered by artists like the Tannahill Weavers, guitar maestro Tony McManus and Irish fiddler Liz Doherty. "It's like a way of being there in your head, even when you're actually a long way away." That strong sense of place and identity, amidst the global village of the 21st century, is one of the features that gives the Wrigleys' music such freshness and potency. The other is the technical mastery, tempered by both playfulness and depth of expression, grounded in all those childhood hours of practice. "We were so keen, almost right from the start," recalls Jennifer. "We just played all the time, every day, just playing tunes in the house - we must have driven Mum and Dad mad. And it's still like that, even now we're working so hard, which I think is what keeps the music fresh.

The Wrigley Sisters