Swampy Cello's Sarah McWhinney on her self-titled debut EP

We speak to Sarah McWhinney, aka Swampy Cello, about how observing rural life and bothy hopping around the north of Scotland helped inspire her debut EP

Article by Niamh Carey | 05 Nov 2019
  • Swampy Cello

"Caves are really exciting!" Sarah McWhinney grins. The low-key folk legend, and cello phenomenon, has spent a lot of time in caves. "I used to explore them growing up, and I was really interested in their rock patterns and water systems." McWhinney first picked up the cello aged nine – during a rare moment surfaced from her caving explorations – and has barely put it down since.

The sound she has refined over the last five years is unique and unparalleled to any current experimental folk artists, which she owes to her time spent in caves. "Water erodes caves in a really slow way, gradually changing its form," she says. "The idea of things slowly developing into something new – all the layers of time building up, with the various patterns that form around that – seemed really connected to music for me."

The result is a cacophony of patterns that interact with each other in highly unexpected ways. Using only the cello, McWhinney creates a vast collection of sounds that, when filtered through loop pedals and the like, become somewhat alien to more traditional uses of the instrument. Plucked reverberations weave around swoops of the bow; thumping beats go on a wander with undulating scales; fluid melodies echo alongside scratching strings. Layering these sounds together produces music that is both contemplative and intangibly enjoyable.

For McWhinney, nature has always been foundational to her music. Even her name is infused with environmental imagery, and it’s why she called her solo act Swampy Cello. "I found out a few years ago that my surname literally translates to 'one who lives in a muddy, boggy field'," she explains. "I loved that, because it made me think of wading through the Scottish landscape. And I think ‘wading’ is the right word here, because you don’t go for a walk on the land when it’s raining – you wade through. A lot of my music feels like that – as if you’re immersing yourself in layers of the landscape."

As research for her self-titled EP, McWhinney spent weeks planting vegetables, observing rural life and bothy hopping around Glenelg. "I loved how slow the pace of the day was there," she says, "I found a totally different rhythm of life. There was so much stillness everywhere you looked." Each track on the EP is named after bothies around Glenelg and the north of Scotland, which was reflective of the recording process itself.

"It was a time of rest for me," she says. "I’d been playing live a lot, but didn’t feel like I had any structural framework for the shows, as I mostly improvised my sets. So during the writing process, it was about playing until I found something I settled on. It’s probably the only thing I can sink into [...] I have a really busy brain, and playing is a place of calm for me." So naming tracks after bothies – places of shelter at the end of a long ramble – reflected McWhinney’s process of finding her own music in the hills. That feeling expounds itself to listeners, who she hopes will find a pocket of calm and warmth within the intricate layers of Swampy Cello.

A Glasgow School of Art graduate, McWhinney’s creativity goes far beyond music. Making film accompaniments to her live performances, she creates an atmosphere that lets you sink further into the landscapes she renders with her spectral sounds. Mossy colours, fluid silhouettes and abstract shapes all flicker to the music and play out alongside each other. These shapes are based on water and how it transforms solid material very gradually. "When making the films I wanted to focus on the random interplay of water-like movements and how they come together at points," she says. "It almost feels like having another instrument in the room, like adding a voice to the conversation."

So how does this enhance the music? "The projections are a way of adding to the feeling of being absorbed into something. It’s about sucking people in through all their senses."

The result is a captivating blast of sound and visual imagery that create both a space of relaxation and a total absorption in the present moment. The listener will roam the landscapes that Swampy Cello expertly weaves, and hopefully find some quiet space inside a busy brain. That’s what McWhinney wants: to give listeners the same feeling of ‘drifting’ that she gets when she plays. "I guess the end goal is to take everyone down the rabbit hole with me," she muses. "I’m not quite there yet, but that’s the aim." So take a leap into the caverns with Swampy Cello; you certainly won't be disappointed.

Swampy Cello is self-released on 8 Nov
Swampy Cello plays The Old Hairdressers, Glasgow, 25 Nov