IT has been quite a year for Elephant Sessions, the recipients of last year’s Belhaven Bursary Award for innovation in traditional music. Always one of the hardest-working bands on the Scottish folk scene, the award has allowed the group to further cement their fanbase at home - and reach out to new fans across the globe. It has also allowed them the time to write and record their third album, What Makes You, which is released on May 10.

Continuing on from where 2017’s All We Have Is Now, What Makes You is a beautifully realised continuation of the band’s constantly developing sound. Combining traditional melodies with more funk and dance music beats, the album sees Elephant Sessions lay further claim to being the most exciting young band on the scene.

Being able to capture the raw energy of an Elephant Sessions gig is difficult but with What Makes You the band appears to have harnessed that energy and the result is a record of driving intensity that can transport you to the sweaty confines of a festival marquee in seconds. It is quite an achievement.

As fiddler Euan Smillie explains, the Belhaven Bursary Award has been key to the band’s rise over the past year.

“We actually just got back yesterday from North Carolina via New York and Dublin,” says Smillie. “The initial tour that took us out to the US was part of the Belhaven Bursary. So the first part was New York Tartan Week where we played some gigs just on the edge of Times Square which was quality. We carried on out to Australia for a festival called Blues Fest, then we worked our way back over to the States and we’re headed off to Shetland tomorrow for The Shetland Folk Festival.

“The bursary was huge for us,” says Smillie. “It was a big help for covering touring costs. We travel with a crew of seven now so it can be very difficult to get on the road. It helped get us to places we wouldn’t have been able to go before. This trip in particular, to the US and Australia, helped provide a buffer by covering most of the travelling costs, and it’s allowed us to get to the next level. It has put us in a great position for the coming year. It is going to have a lasting effect for us.”

HOWEVER, it is not just the financial help provided by the bursary that has aided Elephant Sessions in continuing their upward trajectory – they are very much the architects of their own success. From their initial offering, The Elusive Highland Beauty, they have been one of the most distinctive-sounding folk bands around. And one of the hardest working, with a touring schedule that would make many older bands wince.

But it is their ability to create music that makes you want to dance that is the real heart of Elephant Sessions’s success – and something the band were clearly looking to continue when it came to album number three.

“It was quite a conscious decision,” says Smillie. “The first album was much more acoustic and folky but the second album was a progression with it being a little bit more electronic, a little bit more dancey. And with the third album we’ve kind of taken that again to the next level so that we’re aiming for a pretty dance-heavy, funk-heavy record. We’re basically aiming for a bigger sound.”

The reason behind that desire for a bigger sound comes partly as a result of the band’s success as festival headliners – and from their ability to be able to break free of the folk genre to the extent that they are often playing festivals where they are the only folk act on the bill.

“We’re playing a lot of festivals now that aren’t just folk festivals,” says Smillie. “We’re crossing over and competing against rock bands and a lot of electronic acts at these festivals so we have to compete with that sound-wise.

“And it’s also the music we’ve grown up with. We all grew up playing traditional music but listening to dance music and to rock and to funk so we’re bringing a lot of these influences in and it’s brought the music to where it is now.

“I mean, we’re a folk group and the melodies are always going to be rooted in traditional music, but we’re just wanting to introduce little flavours of dance music or whatever. Just things people might be more used to listening to on the radio.”

PLAYING these festivals alongside contemporaries from other genres has allowed Elephant Sessions to win over new fans who may have never otherwise considered listening to folk music.

“It’s something we’ve kind of been working on for a while – encouraging people who might not necessarily be folk music fans to give us a chance,” says Smillie. “And a lot of the time the best way to do that is at festivals where you have an audience that is generally receptive to hearing a variety of music.

“People can simply be walking past a marquee and hear us and think, ‘wow, I’ve never heard anything like that before,’ and come in and enjoy it. Before you know it, they can be following you on social media and buying your music.

“We find Australia has been really great for that for us. The festival we just played, Blues Fest, is, as you’d imagine, a predominantly blues festival, so we could easily have been out of place. But with festivals like this where you have pretty serious music fans they tend to be willing to give things a go. So we’ve found that to be really beneficial."

“That’s the second year we’ve been out and now we’ve got ourselves a really good fanbase, so when we go out to tour – hopefully at the end of this year – we’ll have people who wouldn’t class themselves as folk music fans but they’ll be buying tickets for our gigs. It’s really supportive.”

AND while Australia has undoubtedly been good for Elephant Sessions, they are more than a little excited about returning this year to the mother of all festivals, at a place somewhat nearer home – Glastonbury.

“We’re back playing the Avalon stage and that is going to be banging,” says Smillie. “I can’t wait. It’s pretty much perfect for us – an open-minded audience who are up for dancing.”

Like many young traditional musicians, Smillie began his education on the fiddle through the Feis movement, with Feis Rois. But unlike many, he had taken his first steps at learning the violin in the deep south of America.

“I’m from the Black Isle but I actually started playing violin in Louisiana where I lived from about age seven to nine. I hated it! It just didn’t do much for me. And then when we moved back home my mum said that if I took up another instrument she’d get us a dog, so I took up the fiddle with Feis Rois. And we got a dog!

“After that I studied under Anna-Wendy Stevenson at Benbecula as part of the degree course at the University of the Highlands and Islands. Seth [Tinsley], Alasdair [Taylor] and Mark [Bruce] all studied in Newcastle where they met and formed the band but Greg [Barry] and I went to the Hebrides.

“Anna-Wendy was a massive influence for me and was full of encouragement in the early days of the band. A lot of lecturers wouldn’t have been so supportive of me missing lectures to go and rehearse in Newcastle but she was brilliant,” adds Smillie.

Her encouragement certainly seems to have paid off as Elephant Sessions continue to delight and surprise with each new release, gathering fans from across the genres on their way.

From Times Square to Australia to Glastonbury, Smillie has been on quite a journey with Elephant Sessions. And it all comes down to his childhood desire for a family dog …