Scottish multi-instrumentalist, composer and singer Phamie Gow reveals how her childhood home in the Borders has shaped her life, her music and her spirituality.
My parents have lived in the village of Westruther, just west of Lauder, my whole life.
They bought their cottage shortly after leaving art school in Edinburgh and it is like a museum of their lives. I’m lucky to have had an incredibly idyllic upbringing in the Borders.
My memory of childhood is of sunny days climbing apple trees, eating all the apples and picking rhubarb in the garden. I remember running out into the fields, flopping into the barley, looking up at the blue and white sky and dreaming about my future prince. I had a very innocent childhood.
This place is the one constant I have had throughout my life and it is such a blessing to me. In some ways it is really stabilising, because when you move around the world a lot, it is so easy to lose yourself. This cottage and the Borders are in my soul. All I need to do is think of this place when I am abroad and it helps me to feel grounded.
I started playing the piano when I was at Westruther Primary School, and when I was eleven I taught myself to play the harp from a cassette tape. Six months later I did my first public performance and apparently people were really struck by it. I was in all the local papers and my musical journey began from there.
It always felt really natural for me to play the harp – as if it was part of my body. After that performance, though, I had to get lessons and completely relearn to play to get the proper technique.My first harp was rented. They are expensive instruments so I was very lucky to have had that opportunity.
Astonishingly, my father, Nigel, made a harp for me when I was twelve. He is very modest about it, but it really was an amazing achievement. I remember when he first tuned it – the whole mahogany sound box was crackling. There is about a ton of pressure in the strings alone, between the harmonic curve and the sound box. It is very special to me. My father is a very musical person but he never had the chance to learn to play an instrument, and I think that is why he encouraged me to pursue music.
At this stage in my life I was at school in Dumfriesshire, where my father taught art. We lived in Moffat during the week and came back to the cottage every weekend. This is when we’d really explored the Borders as a family, visiting Duns Castle and Melrose Abbey. There are lots of great shops in Kelso and we’d often spend the day there together. I was incredibly unhappy throughout my teens because I was horrendously bullied.
But, looking back, I believe those bad times happened for a reason and, although they were awful, they have shaped the way I am today. I have realised that everything in life happens for a reason. Good things – and not so good things – happen, and they are all there to teach you something. It’s a good lesson. Life is never still – there is always movement and change. There is so much divine nature in life.
Growing up, I was a very keen swimmer and used the swimming pool at Duns most evenings and every weekend. In the summer, we’d go to the Watch Water reservoir in the Lammermuir hills. The minute I reach water I feel safe – it’s something about being completely encapsulated, I think. As a teenager, swimming was a very important form of escapism and therapy for me, and I still make time to swim regularly today, wherever I am in the world.Both sets of my grandparents lived in the Highlands, and though they didn’t know each other, both knew the same old crofter, whose name was Phamie. It is a diminutive of Euphemia. Greek names were common in the Highlands because of the tradition of classical education. (Extraordinarily, my parents both attended the Highland Games at Glenfinnan one year, but didn’t meet each other until some months later.) It is good to be the only Phamie Gow on the internet – people remember it.
After school, I went to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow James McAvoy was in the same year as me and I remember him being very friendly. I was so young and naive, and I set off into this big new world. I had a huge desire to express myself and communicate through music, and I took every opportunity to perform. I think nowadays there is a lot of emphasis on being famous, but for me it was never like that. I was so shy and my harpand piano were my way of communicating with the world.
I won one of the first awards for the Danny Kyle Open Stage at Celtic Connections. I didn’t even know it was a competition – I just wanted to play. That is what really kick-started my career. Shortly after that, I moved to Edinburgh. I was 21 and didn’t know a single person there, but I’ve always sought challenges. By then I’d played in Italy, Spain and France, and had released two albums. It was a whirlwind.
Being a musician and composer, I am hypersensitive to sound. In towns and cities it can be a nightmare – it’s actually painful sometimes. I remember one time I came back from tour and my mother gave me a big bouquet of roses.
A few days went by and in the middle of the night I heard a strange sound. I sat up in bed and looked around my room, trying to identify the noise. After a few moments I realised it was the roses dying that had awoken me. They say a composer’s ear is more developed than others’.I find inspiration for music in lots of places. I have often sat in my childhood bedroom in Westruther listening to the irregular song of the blackbird and created a melody from that in my head. A melody can come to me in the middle of the night, or it can stem from a concept or an idea.
I can read a poem or see a painting and build a song from that. My second album, Lammermuir, was inspired by the Borders. It came from the history of the land and the pull I feel to this part of the world. Spottiswoode, the home of the 19th-century poet and songsmith Lady John Scott, is very close to where I grew up.
When my parents fi rst moved to the area, they’d climb over the estate walls and explore the wild and overgrown grounds. Since then, it has been bought and done up. The current owner of one of the houses on the estate gave me a necklace she found while digging up the garden. It could have belonged to Lady John Scott.
I value my freedom more than anything. I am such a free spirit and so creatively minded. I know what I want, so to have someone holding me back or to be tied to a contract that doesn’t work for me is my idea of hell. A few years ago I turned down an offer from a big manager in New York. After six months of negotiating the contract with lawyers, I declined. It just didn’t feel right.
I can do most things myself and create my own team of people to work with me. I always thought I needed a manager, an agent or a man to feel complete, but I now know I can do it myself. That is very liberating – it opens doors into the world. The universe has everything there for us. If you have a dream you can make it a reality.
I have a passion for Buddhism and spirituality but I don’t like to label it. My intention is to be a rich and healthy being. The French philosopher and priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, ‘We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience,’ and I feel that I live by that.
Life is about being open and well. I am a very open being and I am very sensitive to smell, sight, sound, and my sixth sense – intuition. I think we all have it, particularly women, and if you work on it you can heighten and nurture it.One of the best moments of my career so far was performing for the Dalai Lama when he came to Scotland in 2004. He presented me with a white prayer shawl in front of 3,000 people. I wasn’t expecting it at all. I was on a high for a month afterwards, it was such a great honour.
There have been other highlights too: Philip Glass invited me to perform at the Carnegie Hall, I have collaborated with Ray Davies of The Kinks and I have performed in front of 20,000 people in China. It has truly been a wonderful journey.
I have been performing since I was twelve years old and I don’t get nervous – the stage is where I feel most at ease because I know my purpose on this planet is to share and com muni cate through music, and to connect with people without using words. I know it is my mission and I feel at home there. I’d be more nervous talking to someone alone off stage.
I have lived in Manhattan, Montpellier and Barcelona, but when I come back to the Borders it is as if none of that ever happened. It is a time capsule. I’ve always returned periodically. When I lived in New York I found it hard to come back, kind of unsettling. This place has always been here for me, but for now I am out in the world. I know my home in Westruther will always be a safe and protective place for me. Wherever I go in the world, I feel very blessed to have come from here – it has nourished me and enriched my life.
(This feature was originally published in 2016)