Friday, September 23, 2005

The Voyage continues with Johnny Duhan

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2005

Songwriter Johnny Duhan continues to chart his course, navigating his way even further into our hearts, with his latest album, ‘The Voyage’. A familiar title from a familiar and much loved song, this, his seventh album is a collection of old and new songs, that travels to the heart of marriage and family life, encompassing the aspirations and struggles of several generations of the one strain. Like all Johnny’s work, these songs are highly personal explorations on themes of birth, marriage, commitment and the tension, reconciliation and joy that happens within the family circle. “The first group of songs I wrote many, many years ago” remembers Johnny, “was called ‘Just Another Town’ and that was about community, the city where I grew up, the street where I grew up, the family I grew up among and the people that affected me most growing up. All my work since then except the album ‘Don Quixote’ which is about my travels with the rock band and the people I met along the way, is related in some way or another to family and this album is very related too. All the songs are about family and family relationships, the ups and downs, the struggles of everyday life for a family.”

Though now living in Galway, Johnny originally hailed from Limerick. He first came to public attention as the lead man with the blues based rock band ‘Granny’s Intentions’ in the 1960s. He chucked the heady rock n’ roll lifestyle for virtual seclusion and found in himself the passion which has since guided his star, song writing. His songs have been sung all over the world and have been recorded by many great artists. Johnny himself is the supreme interpreter of his own material which with each new round of words and melody become more and more poetic, full of imagery, graceful and sensitive, and always highly personal. ‘In our Father’s Name,’ a song with a very memorable melody is Johnny’s personal favourite

‘In the long shadow

of our family tree

that darkened once

the heart in me

I found good reason

to believe

in our frail seed.’

“I met a guy at a gig one time who told me that the song ‘The Voyage’ meant very little to him because he had no time for his family” says Johnny. “In fact he told me he hated his brothers and sisters and he hadn’t been home in years. There’s a lot of fractured families out there like that. I wrote ‘In our Father’s Name’ for them and for all divided people.”

The title track of this new album ‘The Voyage’ is already well known to us. “A lot of people think it’s Christy’s song” says Johnny, “I actually recorded it a long time ago on an album called ‘Family Album’ which in many ways is the only album of mine I was never really satisfied with. I recorded it for another company and since I parted with them I’ve worked on my own and I don’t have to compromise at all. When the rights to the album reverted to me I decided I couldn’t re-release it without getting rid of the dud songs. I went to work on it so there’s about half of the old songs and half new. I believe the five new songs are the real thing – inspired by real events and real people.”

‘The Voyage’ is Johnny’s best known song, popular all over the world particularly for weddings and anniversaries and Johnny has a constant stream of emails and letters from people requesting the words of the song or the sheet music or telling their own story about it. The Irish Tenors also recorded it and sold one and half million copies of the album it was on in America alone. Christy Moore however, admitted in his song book ‘One Voice’ that he had some reservations about recording it at first. “In a way I understand that” says Johnny. “Soon after I released the song on ‘Family Album’ my Dublin booking agent phoned me and told me he was having difficulty getting promo spots on TV because most of the people in RTE thought the family was a dead institution. I don’t think this was true. Deep down, most of us love our families, but it had become a taboo subject to sing about. In a way it was a radical thing I did turning this notion on its head.”

Despite Johnny’s reservations, ‘Family Album’ was one of his most successful collections, with its songs being covered by Dolores Keane, Mary Black, Francy Conway and of course Christy. ‘Trying to get the Balance Right’ was recorded by Mary Black and again it’s a song about relationships. “I struggled with this one for a long time” says Johnny, “then I remembered a circus I went to when I was a kid, watching the high wire act and I kind of compare that to that of the struggle of two people trying to stay together without falling overboard.”

Like most songwriters, Johnny sends his songs to singers he thinks they might suit. One of his favourite singers is Dolores Keane who sang his song ‘After the Dream’ for the film ‘Reefer and the Model’ and ‘The Room’, one of Johnny’s most melodic songs, which she recorded some years ago. “For me she would be up there with the great singers like Billy Holiday and Ray Charles,” says Johnny. “There’s no other Irish singer like her.”

Many of the songs on ‘The Voyage’ relate to children. “They inhabit the whole album in a variety of ways,” Johnny explains. “They’re the ‘crew’ that keep the ship afloat, though they can be mutinous at times, and occasionally even make us walk the plank.” Johnny’s own children are now having children of their own and ‘Aoibheann and Alanna’ is a song celebrating the birth of twins born to his son. “On the morning they were born” Johnny remembers, “our place was full of magpies, and I saw three magpies in different spots, three and three, three for a girl and double. The melody came to me first and I wrote a little piece around it, then a little later the actual song came. It’s a pretty song and they are two pretty girls.” The pretty girls’ father, Johnny’s son was the inspiration for the song ‘When you Appeared’ when he was born himself, and it explores the apprehension of bringing new life into a sometimes violent world. Birth is touched on again in the song ‘Woken Gently’. “This one comes from a very old memory,” says Johnny. “I was born in a house with two rooms up and two rooms down and there was a lot of us so I ended up sharing a bedroom with my parents and I remember I had this hazy recollection of my mother giving birth in the room and I waking up in the middle of the night to it, so I tried to capture a bit of that in this song.”

Another song was inspired by his son, “‘Brian’s song’ incorporates a shanty my son composed on my shoulders when he was five or six on the way to a beach near our home.” Possibly the most beautiful song on the album ‘Cornerstone’ is dedicated to his wife and reaffirms eloquently and emotionally his commitment to their marriage and their love.

Inspiration is crucially important to Johnny. “You need as much patience as skill in the making of a song” he says. “I often think that real songs write me rather than I them. Deep down my work is a quest to understand the experience of my life – my upbringing, the town and people I grew up among, the girls I’ve fallen for, the family that nurtured me and the family I helped form.”

“The words of my songs are more than fifty per cent,” he adds. “ I love melody as well but I spend an awful lot of time trying to write poetry and then converting it into songs. I wouldn’t claim that the songs are poetry but at their best they would be.”

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Hell or High Water – the determination of Andrew Murray

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2005

‘If it's for you it won’t pass you’ says singer Andrew Murray philosophically, about his musical talent and the opportunities that lie ahead for him following the release of his first album. Having recorded previously with the well known traditional band DeDannan, singer Mary Staunton and box player Dave Munnelly, Andrew has at last succumbed to the wishes of friends and admirers and recorded a solo album of his own. ‘Hell or High Water’ might sound a bit like it was a desperate struggle, but the reference is really to the sea which on many occasions gave Andrew and his fellow islanders a rough crossing to their beloved island of Inishbofin. “That and the fact that I was determined when I put my mind down to it to get it done and to do it the way I wanted to and not have anyone tell me what I should be doing” says Andrew. “So, when the title came to mind I stuck with it.”

Growing up in the tight knit island community surrounded by the sea and so much music naturally had its influence. “Inishbofin is a very special place without a doubt” says Andrew. “There’s a large percentage of native Inishbofin people who sing and play music, and for a place with a couple of hundred people, that’s quite phenomenal. The island is renowned amongst the musical fraternity as a place where egos don’t live long. You just go and play and do your thing but don’t expect anyone to be bowing down shining your shoes for you because it won’t happen!”

For Andrew, whose home now is in Co. Wicklow, it was the most natural thing in the world to start playing music growing up on Inishbofin. “It was easy to fall in with it, we all played music as kids” he remembers. “Our big day was St. Stephen’s Day, going around with the wren. All our instruments would be dusted off and we’d give it wellie for the day and make a few bob.”

Andrew’s family ran the Doonmore Hotel on the island and it was in the bar that Andrew heard most of his music. “I worked in the bar as a kid and spent a lot of time listening to the older musicians. Once the summer season was over, that was the entertainment, there wasn’t any TV in the bar, so you played music and sang and everybody took a turn doing something. I remember one night when fourteen people picked up the box and played it. There was maybe forty people in the bar and fourteen different individuals were able to pick up the accordion and play. Then there was ten or twelve singers as well. It was as natural for us to sing and play as to go to sea fishing. Its still like that today.”

Andrew was about 19 when he sang first in public, “The first thing I did in public was probably a Rolling Stones’ song or a Doors’ song or something like that” he says laughing at the memory. Arty McGlynn was one of the first musicians he performed with. “He had heard me sing out on ‘bofin and he invited me to sing a few songs with himself and Nollaig at the Clifden Arts Festival. That was probably the first time I got up on stage with anyone in that line of music. Ever since then Arty has been a great friend.”

Arty is one of a relatively small cast of musicians who feature on Andrew’s album ‘Hell or High Water’. He accompanies on ‘I wish my Love was a Red Red Rose’, a song Andrew’s been singing for years. The other musicians are in essence the band who travel with Andrew when he performs. ‘Hell or High Water’ was recorded in Gavin Ralston’s studio in Wicklow and Gavin plays guitars on the album. Jeff Woods who plays piano is probably better known in the world of popular music for his work with the band Picturehouse. Joe Chibi plays double bass and Des Lacey plays drums and percussion. The renowned composer and arranger Fiachra Trench arranged the string section featured on some tracks.

Another friend for years, Tim O’Brien from Nashville came over and played mandolin, fiddle and did vocal backing on the song ‘Green grows the Laurel’. “We tried to keep it simple and not overdo the instrumentation,” explains Andrew about the recording. “It’s a vocal album of twelve songs. I wanted to keep the voice and the songs to the front. I just got tired listening to albums of singers where there is so much happening it’s taking away from the person’s voice. Personally, I didn’t like that so I tried to keep away from it myself.”

In this, his first solo album, Andrew also wanted it to reflect in as far as possible the material he has been performing over the years which is fairly diverse. ‘Castle Garden is a traditional song, the melody of which is reminiscent of another song Andrew is very fond of ‘The Lakes of Ponchartrain’. Like many traditional songs, ‘Castle Garden’ has many versions and this one Andrew heard originally sung by Len Graham. ‘Black Muddy River’ is a song composed by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead – an unusual choice you might think but again Andrew was inspired to try this one having heard it sung by the great Norma Waterson. Thom Moore sent a number of new songs to Andrew when he was recording and ‘Little Miss Kelly’ is one of those. “Its up tempo and lively” says Andrew, “Its light hearted and I just liked the bit of humour in it.” The last song on the album is Ewan McColl’s ‘The Father’s Song’ “I remember when I heard it first” says Andrew, “I couldn’t shake it. It’s a fabulous song – you have to listen carefully to the lyrics.”

Most people will remember Andrew for his time spent with DeDannan around 1997. The songs he sang at that time were traditional and traditionally styled songs, and while Andrew has always been drawn to traditional and folk music, his interests are much broader than just that. “I have a particularly deep voice, and I’ve found that singing blues songs seems to work well. I’m particularly drawn to folk in a broader sense, American writers, Irish writers, English folk singers as well as Scottish folk singers – just the whole thing really” he says. “It depends on the song. It doesn’t really matter to me where it comes from or what genre it originated as, if I get a song I like the sound of, I just take it in and do what I can with it myself.”

It’s not surprising to hear that Luke Kelly is one of Andrew’s heroes. “His was the first voice that made me sit up” remembers Andrew. “I was about 17 at the time, into all sorts of things and music wasn’t high on my agenda. I remember quite clearly being at home in the bar early one evening and I stuck on a tape of Luke Kelly. I remember thinking, ‘That’s something, that’s really out of the ordinary’. To this day I feel Luke Kelly had something special, something coming from deeper inside.”

“I’ve always felt the singer is only a conduit for the song to get through to the listener, and the more true you are, then the better it comes through. The song itself is a carrier of other emotional and deeper things going on between the melody and the lyrics. The singer is really just a carrier of that, you pass it on to the ears of the listeners. You are the messenger. That’s what I try to do, to be as honest as I can with myself, not allow myself to get in the way of the song and pass it on the best I can.”

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Saturday, August 27, 2005

Within a mile of Kilty...

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2005

In north Co. Leitrim there is a small village of some 150 people. Like many of the small townlands and places in Ireland, it has derived fame from its famous musical sons and daughters. But Kiltyclogher boasts something more than one or two distinguished musicians. It happens to have produced in the small area around it over the last eighty years a group of fiddlers whose music and reputation deserves a wider audience than heretofore afforded it. ‘Within a Mile of Kilty’ is the title of a recently released new album that documents and links the music of six distinguished fiddle player from this small region. Three of the Lennon family, Ben, his brother Charlie and son Maurice feature on the album as well as Séamus Quinn, Brian Rooney and the late John Gordon, who perhaps is the one least known outside of the area. John who passed away in 2002, never recorded commercially in his lifetime and this prompted David Lennon, Ben’s son to try and preserve John’s legacy by gathering together from various sources any recordings of his that were available. The result was ‘The Humours of Glendart’ an album that was released two years ago. Buoyed by the successful completion of that project, David decided to continue what he started by widening the idea to encompass the other local musicians, using Kiltyclogher itself as a locus for an album which became ‘Within a Mile of Kilty’. “My mind started working on the nucleus of fiddle players that had come from the area” he says. “Both John Gordon and my father Ben, were born in the twenties, and from the twenties through to the sixties six fiddle players had been born who were of a very high standard and unique in that they all played very different styles. The concept was to bring together those six musicians onto one CD so that the music actually sounded like it was connected and it does, because at the root of it, they are all from the same place, so the well that they drew from is very much the same well.”

Kiltyclogher is very northerly, situated right on the border with Fermanagh and the style of music there was influenced by the areas around it. “It would have a Fermanagh style” explains Charlie Lennon, “which is kind of measured sweet music with good timing and then a Leitrim influence that would be coming from the old people there.”

“It takes very little” continues David, “to shift from a style, an approach that was more northern to one that was more southern and the magnetic power of Sligo is very strong in fiddle music. John Gordon grew up, as my father did, listening to 78s of Michael Coleman, James Morrison, Paddy Killoran and Paddy Sweeney, to all that music coming out of America and it was a big influence on all their music up through the forties and fifties.” Yet it was the local music that was more important in those days, as Charlie Lennon remembers. “My father would talk about local fiddlers, local musicians and he wouldn’t ever listen seriously to Coleman. He preferred the plainer music that he was used to, the music he played himself. We had a gramophone and a few records. They were scarce enough. Each house would have a different record so you’d go around from one to the other and listen but it was also important to recognise the local people.”

Growing up in Kiltyclogher, Charlie and his eldest brother Ben were very close and naturally Ben was his greatest influence. Music was a social activity, going around to other houses, arriving unannounced and receiving great welcome. “There were a lot of people who played the fiddle” recalls Charlie, “or who were interested in the fiddle or music in general. The fiddle was the dominant instrument. It was all individual players and the fiddle would be handed around from one to the other, each one would have a contribution to make, like storytelling. We passed it along. People didn’t necessarily bring a fiddle. Some people would bring a bow under their coat hanging on an inside button.”

“There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing to South West Fermanagh” explains Ben Lennon, “and that part of north Leitrim and Fermanagh had a great tradition as well for songs. My father played fiddle and my mother played piano. She could read music and had a great ear. I have some great memories of John Gordon who used to come into our house. My mother would play the piano for John and that might go on for two hours. There were very few sessions in music as I recall. The fiddle used be handed around the kitchen, like the pipe. The man of the house would light the pipe, take a few puffs, give it a wipe and hand it on to the next fellow. It was the same with the fiddle.”

“This album brings back a lot of memories” continues Ben. “On the front cover there’s a lovely shot of Kiltyclogher in the early 1900s. You can see the horses and carts on the wide street. That’s where we grew up, myself and Charlie. John Gordon was born in Fermanagh just across the border within a mile or mile and a half of Kiltyclogher. Séamus Quinn’s father and grandfather came from within the same sort of distance. Brian Rooney was from a townland about two miles south.”

John Quinn, Séamus Quinn’s grandfather was a regular visitor to the Lennon household and had a strong influence on Ben, Charlie and John Gordon’s music. He was regarded by many as being the most outstanding fiddle player of his time, a tribute indeed extended to John Gordon in later years. Séamus Quinn grew up in Derrygonnelly, no length from Kiltyclogher either and has always retained a strong tie to the region, and indeed to the Lennons, playing regularly with Ben.

Brian Rooney, respectfully nicknamed ‘The Godfather’ and with an album of that title, has spent most of his life since leaving Leitrim in London where his strong playing has earned him a reputation second to none. Fr. Séamus Quinn has described his ability very well. ‘Just once or twice in a generation” he wrote in the sleeve notes to Brian’s second album, “someone arrives who can communicate with us in a more profound way than the rest. Brian Rooney is one of these”.

The two selections of music from Brian with Charlie Lennon on piano were recorded recently. “He’s very inventive” says Charlie, “and plays some beautiful music. I had left Kilty before he started playing but he comes home in August usually and we’d meet him then. I remember meeting him in London as well. He has influenced a lot of the London players like John Carty.”

Maurice Lennon, Ben’s son has carved a singular reputation for himself in contemporary traditional music both as a performer and composer. A founder member of Stockton’s Wing, Maurice plays viola on his two solo tracks on this album. His recent work includes the musical tribute ‘Brian Boru, the High King of Tara’.

“What drove me to do this is the quality of the music” says David Lennon by way of explaining his passion for this project. He doesn’t play but has a keen ear and while he collects recorded music the essence for him is the music played, not the format it comes on. “Every area has a musician that people talk about in revered tones” he continues. “John Gordon is one of those players. I wanted to make sure he wouldn’t become one of these mythical figures, that people would actually hear what he was playing and I thought it was nice to put it in the context of the other musicians. It gives some context to my father’s playing, to Charlie’s, to Maurice’s, Séamus’s and Brian's, because you know they influenced each other to some degree.”

The secrets of Kilty are no longer hidden. As Ben Lennon joked ‘It’s out in the open now’, and this album is a fitting historical document of its rich storehouse of music and the spirit and virtuosity of its famous musical sons.

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Saturday, June 18, 2005

Sliabh Luachra State of Mind

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2005

The dancing and listening music of Sliabh Luachra, hearty and wholesome, bounces off Paudie O’Connor’s CD ‘Different State’. Indeed it is a different place and a different state of mind. Slides and polkas dominate the horizon and the music of an older generation, many now gone, are recalled. “The repertoire of different versions of tunes I play” says Paudie O’Connor, “is purely down to the fact that I was fortunate enough to have played with an older generation of musicians. Whatever I play myself, or the interest I have in it, I believe it’s all attributable to the likes of Johnny O’Leary, Jimmy Doyle and their generation of musicians.” Paudie’s experience is enviable in that he spent so much time since first taking up the accordion at the age of seven, in the company of older musicians, absorbing their vast knowledge and love for the local music of his home place in and around Ballyhar in Co. Kerry. “Ballyhar is the next parish over from Scartaglen where my father Patsy came from, and my mother was from the neighbouring parish of Currow. After they got married they moved to Ballyhar,” explains Paudie. “All my mother’s family played accordion so when I was seven or eight I was bought an accordion and sent off to music classes.” His first teacher was Pádraig Moynihan in the National School and later he was tutored by Anne McAuliffe.

His interest in the local music grew from being asked to play for polka sets at an early age. At school if there was a set to be played, he was the one called upon to do so and that opportunity built his confidence. “The pub laws were different in those days too” says Paudie, “and in fairness to my mother and father, they were great for bringing us to music sessions and getting us to listen to musicians. Every Thursday night Jimmy Doyle used to play in Moynihan's bar in Kilcummin, it was a great session and there was very good set dancing. There was another session in the Shoemaker’s Bar in Castleisland on Tuesdays and again we’d be brought there. John Brosnan played there, as did Denis McMahon and John Regan, local musicians. You’d hear a lot of music naturally rather that getting the force fed stuff you get through classes. As well as that you saw a social side to the music from a very young age. 95% of the music I play, I learnt in pubs as a kid, especially the more interesting tunes, the ones you mightn’t hear too often. You don’t learn that stuff on CDs, you pick it up on the way by meeting decent people. Now that opportunity is going to be hard to find for young people.”

Paudie did the Fleadh Ceoil scene until he was about fifteen but got sick of it. “When I was playing in Fleadhs, I found myself changing my style of playing just to suit competition. I didn’t really see why I had to play in a Tipperary, or an east Galway or whatever style just to suit competition. If I played Kerry music most of the people adjudicating wouldn’t be interested in it. Now I love all the other music but I couldn’t see why me from Kerry would have to play music from another part of the country. I think it has had a big impact on the local music down here in so far as most younger musicians these days can’t play a lot of their own local music, the pressure is on them to play non-local music if they want to compete in competition. It demeans and downgrades the local music in their minds. I think it has definitely led to the music around Kerry and Cork not developing as it should over the last 15 to 20 years.”

“Local music is about playing the melody and about being as rhythmical and pleasing to a dancer as possible, it’s not about impressing your ability on the dancers, its about playing good music for the dancers to dance to.”

Paudie studied Economics and later did a post grad in Computing at the University of Limerick. For six years he absorbed the myriad of styles of the musicians he met there from all over the country. He then moved to Dublin where he now lives, and onto another thriving music scene. “I play with all the Dublin crew of musicians, Paul O’Shaughnessy, Harry Bradley, John McEvoy and Aoife.” Aoife is Aoife O’Keefe from Tralee and a fiddle player. At the time of writing (mid June) Paudie and Aoife were in the throes of preparing for their wedding. During the summer of 2003 Aoife and Paudie featured in the RTE series of concerts ‘The Late Session at Liberty Hall’. Peter Browne who was producing that show suggested to Paudie that he record a CD because of the likely interest in his repertoire of tunes. “That was basically what kick started me into doing the recording, people had often told me that what I played was different to what others were playing.” Pat Aherne, who produced ‘Different State’ for Paudie was also whispering in his ear about recording and Paudie began to round up a selection of tunes representative of what he normally plays. “I had never really sat in a studio before” continues Paudie. “Pat got me to go to his house, he has a mini studio there and he told me to play what I thought I might put on the album. I went away on holidays with the recording and listened to it, and when I came home we both decided that adding instrumentation or a lot of backing wouldn’t really contribute a whole pile. It was really solo playing and adding a lot of instruments wouldn’t really add to the music itself.” The result is a very wholesome and direct melodic album with touches here and there from Paul de Grae on guitar, Aoife and Paudie’s sister Noeleen O’Connor on fiddles and Joe Sullivan from Gneeveguilla on flute, with whom Paudie has been playing regularly for years. His repertoire of tunes and versions of tunes is gleaned from all those musicians with whom he has spent many hours over the years.

The late Johnny O’Leary was one strong influence, a man with a remarkable memory and a remarkable repertoire. “I often heard him play three different versions of the same tune one after the other that he heard from three different people. Then he’d have a story about each of the individuals involved. He knew them all so well and he probably had the best memory of any man ever. I believe he remembered tunes by occasions and people, tunes would come into his head if you reminded him of a story. He was an invaluable link to the past and a terrible loss.”

John Brosnan, the box player Paudie met through the session in The Shoemaker’s bar, was another major influence. “I think he introduced a new style of playing to the local region” says Paudie, “He has that lovely crisp, melodic, very rhythmically strong style unlike any other B/C player I had heard around the area. People who play either style, talk about how different they are and it’s just different notes. Regardless of what style you play, you try to emulate a certain sound or create a certain sound. I play B/C, most players who have that lighter sound I have usually play C#/D. The first guy I heard getting that sound was John Brosnan. It fascinated me. After my father died John came visiting and brought me a tape of John Joe Kimmel. As I listened, the penny dropped, John was influenced by those early 1910/1920 recordings and his style of ornamentation was that crisp execution of ornamentation that was associated with that era rather than the post 1950s B/C ornamentation. I had my own style already but I took aspects of John’s playing and I started listening myself then to P.J. Conlon, Joe Derrane and all that sort of music. It probably all adds to making the sound a bit different.”

Paudie plays music almost fulltime now, in Kerry and Dublin mostly and at festivals around the country. His favourite weekend of the year is predictably the Pádraig O’Keefe festival and he launched his CD earlier his year at another Kerry festival, The Gathering in Killarney. Looking to the future, Paudie wants to learn more Kerry music and to spend as much time as he can with older musicians. “I’d love to see other younger musicians recording albums in a similar vein with regard to repertoire” he says, “I think everyone has a duty to record a CD and make a contribution to the music. I think if you’re going to make a contribution, everyone has it in them to bring something unique of what they do themselves from their local area. Everyone has learnt a few tunes from an old man down the road, I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t and they all have their own little twist. It would be great if everyone could bring something like that to the party.”

‘Different State’ from Paudie O’Connor is on Push Button Records PBCD1975.

email:, phone +353 87 2207203

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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

What the world’s been waiting for…Tunes!

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2005

Being one of the three great pillars of traditional music; song and dance being the other two, it is only fitting that four pillars of traditional musicianship should come together and record an album simply called ‘Tunes’. Sharon Shannon, Frankie Gavin, Mike McGoldrick and Jim Murray are the four individuals of incomparable ability and style behind ‘Tunes’. Just released, it is a wide ranging take on traditional music from the ancient Irish tradition to traditional Asturian melodies, Scottish tunes, American old timey tunes and newly composed music from each of the artists themselves. The melodic nature of the album is what hits the listener first coupled with the ease with which this foursome blend in instrumentation and style - Jim Murray’s deft guitar, Mike McGoldrick’s bubbling flute and whistles, Sharon’s joyful and exuberant accordion and Frankie’s energetic fiddle.

Catching up with this busy quartet was a task in itself with Sharon and Jim touring in Scotland, and Frankie Gavin heading to London to do a show with Ronnie Wood. Mike, unfortunately was a bit too far away on tour in Australia with Capercaillie. It gives you an idea of how amazing it was that they were able to get together in the first place to plan and complete this project.

“It never was an idea to start a new fancy band” says Sharon Shannon, “because we’re all really busy doing our own thing. We just thought it would be a good idea to do a nice album of the music we really enjoyed playing together.”

“It’s a new departure” adds Frankie Gavin, whose appetite for new musical associations and projects is insatiable. “It’s an interesting combination, it works well and it’s pretty tight. We’ve had a very good response so far.” The four living legends of Irish traditional music would have known one another before this but rarely if ever would have played together formally. “I did have a few sessions with Mike but that was few and far between, I did a good few sessions with Sharon” he continues, “but rarely any gigs. We all adapt to one another’s playing very well and to make it work in a band, you really have to give and take and hear each other’s style.”

“Jim plays with me all the time” says Sharon, “and we’ve had loads of sessions with Mike over the years at various festivals around Europe and Brittany, everywhere! In the last year I’ve played a lot with Frankie at sessions in Galway, The Crane, Tigh Cóilí’s and in The Cottage. I was a huge fan of those early DeDannan albums growing up and playing with Frankie now is great, his music is so fiery and he’s good company and fun to be with.”

‘Tunes’ was recorded over sessions in August, December and January last. “The mix of the four of us was great” says Jim Murray. “We did stuff together that maybe none of us would have done on our own. It was like a mixture of the different influences and what different people wanted to do.” Jim arranged all the backing on the recording, putting down the guitars and arranging the bass lines and percussion. Tony Molloy on bass, John Joe Kelly on bodhrán and James Mackintosh on percussion came in to add their parts and also appeared at their Celtic Connections debut gig.

Mike McGoldrick, one of the most energetic and creative instrumentalists today, was certainly an inspiration to all the musicians during this project. “He’s a great musician” says Frankie, “he can play everything very well.” Sharon adds to that, “He has a really great understanding of the music and he has such a brilliant attitude, very fresh. Every time we meet he’s mad to play tunes.” Jim Murray appreciated Mike’s broad musical tastes. “Mike is a great man for the groove and I’d be into that myself. I really enjoyed doing Fred Morrison’s tune ‘The Lochaber Badger’, I’m into funk music and I got a chance with tunes like that to do what I’d like to do with it”

Jim Murray is often compared with Steve Cooney and it is often assumed that he learnt his music from him. While Steve certainly did influence him, they never engaged in formal lessons. Jim, a native of Macroom, actually started playing accordion as a child, moving onto the guitar under the influence of his science teacher in school. He played piano in his Dad’s band before forming his own band ‘The Living Tradition’. “The turning point for me was seeing Steve Cooney playing” he says. “I had never seen anyone accompany Irish music with a guitar like that before and it was a massive inspiration for me. Talking to Steve he did give me great ideas. I was playing steel stringed guitar at the time and he did influence me to try the nylon.” Frankie Gavin describes Jim as having “a beautiful style, his own style, people might compare him but I think he’s a unique creature and lovely guy to work with.”

While on the outside, some of us might think these kind of projects just happen between musicians of this calibre, there’s a lot of work involved as well. Frankie gives credit to Mike, Sharon and Jim for doing most of that. “I have to say Sharon, Mike and Jim did most of the work for the album. I contributed a few tunes here and there, and we all contributed compositions. It’s nice to incorporate fresh material, it’s a nice kind of mixture and there’s a good flow to it. It’s very different to anything else that’s out there.”

The process of selecting the music for the album took some time, “We had a few rehearsals in my house in Galway” explains Sharon, “and every tune that came into our heads, even if it had been recorded a hundred times before, we recorded them on our own little walkmans and wrote them all down. I’d say we had 150 tunes altogether. Then I grouped them into jigs, reels, hornpipes and unusual tunes and then we narrowed them down to our favourite ones. Then it was another big job to group them into sets.”

The resulting selection is a happy melodic mix of old and new incorporating newly composed tunes from each of the musicians as well. The opening set includes one of Frankie’s compositions, ‘The Cappataggle Shuffle’. “When I first heard the name Cappataggle, it was Patsy Broderick who mentioned it, I thought it was such a quirky name. I said that if ever I write a tune I’m going to call it The Cappataggle Shuffle, so it’s in there.”

Sharon’s two tunes have titles that yield up funny stories. ‘Mickey Joe Mike’s’ is named after Mike McGoldrick who got nicknamed Mickey Joe Mike after a visit to the local pub when taking a breather from the recording work (catch the live gig to hear the full story) “The Diddeley-i-Pod” is another tune with a quirky name, about which Sharon says, “well I got an iPod but I haven’t a clue how to work it!”

Jim Murray’s ‘Summer’s Coming’ was written with the four musicians and the recording in mind. “There’s lots of spaces,” explains Jim, “it’s not like a straight tune, a jig, there are pauses and the idea was it could be filled up. I think it gave everyone room to do their stuff.”

Mike’s ‘Road to Corrandulla’ is obviously a tribute to his west of Ireland home and ‘The Bass Rock’ is a beautiful slow tune played on whistle. Several of the tunes on the album were played in Bflat, giving a very mellow tone to those sets. Sharon got a B flat accordion from the accordion maker Michael Searson, Mike plays a big Bb flute which sounds beautiful too and during the recording they tuned down Frankie’s fiddle. The first two tracks on the album and Donald Shaw’s tune ‘Calum’s Road’ are some of the tunes in Bflat which add another dimension to the recording and is part of the reason the album sounds so fresh. In good session style the final tune on the album is – can you guess? - ‘The Bucks of Oranmore’.

The ‘Tunes’ quartet have already received enthusiastic reviews for their live performance at the Celtic Connections festival in Scotland in January this year. They have an Irish tour lined up for May and will be appearing at some prestigious gigs in England, including a double bill with the Gypsy Kings and a visit to Glastonbury. High heels to wellies and shocking good music along the way. They might have no intention of forming or being a ‘band’ as such but a world tour would be the only decent thing for this bunch to do, the music and the overall vibe is just too good to miss – c’mon guys…

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