Su-a Lee

A Chat With...Su-a Lee

This week, we are chatting with the cellist, Su-a Lee, whose much acclaimed debut album, Dialogues, was released last year and brings together the classical and folk traditions.

Quick bio

Instrument(s): Cello and musical saw
Best known as: a cellist
Your band(s) or collaborations that we should know about: Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Mr McFall’s Chamber, Hidden Orchestra, Duncan Chisholm, Jenna Reid, Julie Fowlis, Karine Polwart, Grainne Brady, Bruce MacGregor, Hamish Napier and many more…
Sub-genre: Classical, folk, tango, prog rock
Number of years on the folk scene: 26 years on folk scene, 30 years on classical scene.
Greatest achievement or claim to fame: Last year, I finally managed to release my debut solo album! I have also recorded musical saw for Eric Clapton and performed with Jack Bruce (of Cream) and Peter Erskine (of Weather Report). Peter Erskine also wrote a duo for me and marimba! 

What are you currently working on, and what’s in the pipeline for the coming year?

I have recently been performing with Pekka Kuusisto, Sam Amidon and Allan Clayton in a series of three different programmes with Scottish Chamber Orchestra and also as a small chamber group of seven players. We mix up contemporary classical music with American folk tunes.

My musical life is perhaps unlike a lot of folk musicians who would generally work on an album and then tour it for the next wee while. For me, every week brings me a different project, (different ensembles, repertoire and genres) and usually never gets repeated!

If someone is reading this who hasn’t listened to any of your music before, where should they start?

They should probably start with my debut solo album (released in Dec 2022). It is called Dialogues and is a series of 15 duos with many of my long-term collaborators and friends over the decades. It brings the cello voice to the fore and celebrates the many wonderful musicians I have worked with over the years. Too many names to list, so check it out on Bandcamp here!

What’s on your playlist at the moment, and why does it appeal to you?

Currently I’m listening to the latest release from Duncan Chisholm called Black Cuillin. It is extremely emotive and feels so epic…just like the actual Cuillin mountains on the Isle of Skye. Incidentally, I have climbed all the Cuillins and they are indeed epic!

  • Which folk albums, in your opinion, should everyone listen to at least once, and why?

Gosh, there are SO many to recommend, I just wouldn’t know where to start… so I’ll start with the latest album of Hamish Napier The Woods. It is the third album of a pentalogy (set of 5) of new music composed as tributes to the stories and heritage of his native Scottish Highlands (Strathspey and the Cairngorms). Hamish is also my husband!

  • Hamish Napier

I can’t help but also mention another couple of new releases, as they are both sublime: 

  • Jenna Reid and Harris Playfair
  • Karine Polwart and Dave Milligan 

Where are you most ‘at one’ with your instrument?

If I’m honest, I’m ‘at one’ with the cello pretty much anytime I’m playing, but it is in performance where I often feel most connected to the music I’m performing. 

Please tell us about your practice regime, or how you keep developing as an instrumentalist.

I’m not much of a “practiser” for the sake of practice. I think of it more as ‘preparation’ for different projects. But I’m also a pretty good sight-reader, so I often get away with murder!

What’s the most nerve-wracking thing you’ve done (musically), and what did you learn from it?

There are countless times that have been nerve-wracking for me…literally hundreds, if not thousands! But I guess the reason for this is that I embrace new challenges all the time, and what I’ve learned from that, is that without being out of your comfort zone there is no chance of growth.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a musician?

Be brave. Slow down the tricky stuff. Look after your body.

What’s your dream band line-up (dead or alive)?

Karine Polwart and Dave Milligan!

To satisfy the instrument/equipment geeks amongst us, please tell us a little about the gear you use to make music.

  • My cello was made especially for me by Stefan von Baehr in 2015.

  • I also play my old cello strung up with all gut strings, when required. It is an old Italian cello from 1747.

  • I sometimes play an electric cello made especially for me by Starfish around 1999.

  • I use a DPA mic for the cello. For around 20 years I used an Accusound mic, which I still have.

  • I have around 4 different bows for different repertoire…including a recent purchase of a carbon fibre Coda Diamond GX bow, which I needed for a chamber opera at the Royal Opera House, where I had to use many extended bow techniques.

  • I play a Stradivarius musical saw by Sandvik.

Further listening

Su-a Lee, Dialogues

Pekka Kuusisto

Sam Amidon

Black Cuillin, Duncan Chisholm

Hamish Napier, The Woods

An earlier performance by Jenna Reid and Harris Playfair

Karine Polwart and Dave Milligan, The Parting Glass from their recent album.

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