Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Seán Keane - Gold

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2006

‘And I got some gold inside me too’ sings Seán Keane truthfully and appropriately on the single and title track of his new album. It’s a line from ‘You Got Gold’, a song penned by John Prine, a regular visitor and part time inhabitant of Co. Galway and one of those great artists we have the privilege of being exposed to in a relaxed way here in the west of Ireland. Another is the fine producer and musician Jim Rooney whose status no more than John’s is incomparable. Both men are good friends of Seán Keane's and have significant input on his new album ‘You Got Gold’. John Prine has two compositions on the album and Jim Rooney co produced and plays some guitar on it. As a result the album has a lovely gentle country swing and as you peruse the album notes you see several other American writers’ names too.

Dubbed ‘the voice of Ireland’ some years ago, Seán Keane’s reputation has continued to grow and his voice manages to tame difficult and sometimes unwieldy songs to which he brings his own style and sensitivity. He has never imitated and he has never copied, he does it his own way and that is perhaps the secret of his success. His liking for songs and music from all kinds of sources often means it is hard for him to select the right material for an album. He often finds himself faced with a dilemma between something old and traditional or a new contemporary and sometimes country style song – because he performs both with equal ease and finesse. With his seventh solo album about to be released, Seán is already thinking about the next one and his thoughts are on all the Irish and traditional material he couldn’t include on this one. This title ‘You Got Gold’ is also apt because every one of the eleven songs here are like nuggets and many of these songs come from the American goldmines of song. Some would say that the country feel of this album is Seán’s true calling in terms of material, but he also touches gospel, blues and bluegrass, strong story songs and emotional ballads. “They’re a bunch of songs I’ve been collecting since the last album (Valley of the Heart)” says Seán. “It’s a more contemporary, more country album, there’s not a lot of Irish stuff on it. When this album was coming together there were a few Irish songs I had wanted to record, to get them down; but they just didn’t fit, it’s a different album. So that’s my next project now, to do some traditional and Irish stuff as well, because I have a bunch of material now that I want to do.”

The album cover features a portrait painted by the artist Vincent Crotty who originally comes from Kanturk in Co. Cork and who now lives in Boston. During a run of Christmas shows Seán did in Boston last year, Vincent approached him and asked him to sit for a portrait, which he did – and this is the result. It’s not the first time Seán has been painted but it’s the first to make an album cover.

Seán started his solo career in 1994 – a short eleven years ago, and in that time he has produced seven solo albums and a ‘best of’ collection, ‘Portrait’. His album before last, ‘Seánsongs’, was a double album which served his two main spheres of musical interest – one CD featured traditional songs and tunes (a real treat since we hadn’t any recorded tunes from Seán since his Shaskeen days), and the other was of the more contemporary and experimental Seán-style songs. “I packed in a lot into that album” Seán comments. Talking to him now at the turn of the New Year, you get the feeling that every album should be a Seánsongs and I ask him does he have loads of material? “Oh God no!” he says, “It is constantly a problem.” Like most singers, Seán receives tapes from writers who hope he will cover their songs. “It doesn’t come that easy” he says. “You have material so that’s great, but you still have to go back searching. Sometimes there can be a bit of a stand off between myself and the song. an ‘Am I going to go to you or are you going to come to me?’ type of thing. You might have to drop a song for a while, and the next time you start to sing it, you think ‘Why didn’t I do it before now?’ It goes into the melting pot in the head and then it comes out later. I often start to think of songs and music when I’m doing something else.”

One of the most powerful songs on the album came back to Seán when the controversy arose recently about the Rosport Five – the men from the small village in the north west corner of Mayo who went to jail because of their objection to a high pressure gas pipeline being put through their land. ‘The Winning Side’ is a Robbie O’Connell song written about a completely different incident but very appropriate to this situation. The chorus goes

‘Ah! but justice is a fickle thing,

One law for the common man another for the king….

…it’s all justified when you’re on the winning side’

“I have that song for about eight years” says Seán. “One of the reasons I recorded it was the Mayo lads who went to jail. It reminded me of the song again. It’s that kind of song about struggle, so I thought it would be one to do. It’s very relevant in regards to those lads.

Like many artists, Seán feels the emotion of a song and it’s very important that it be just right in every way. “I’d drop a song for one word” he says, “or an ugly line, unless I could change it. I find it hard to explain, but when you get the words of a song written down, it has a different perspective entirely.” Is interpreting a song a craft in itself? “It is” he agrees, “but if the song is saying the way you feel or you’re thinking then it’s not so difficult. Then you have the melody and everything else to contend with after that.”

Of the songs, Mary Greene’s ‘Even Heaven has to Cry’ stands out on the album. It is a powerfully slow and emotional song, beautifully balanced. “Mary and Noel (Shine) sent me a cassette full of songs” says Seán, “and they’re all great songs, they are both writing really well”

‘My Darling Home Town’ is another John Prine song co-written with Roger Cook. A dreamier song than the title track, you find yourself swaying and singing along to it. ‘The sweeter the Kiss’ is a lively lilting Roger Cook-Pat McLaughlin song. Blues singer Eric Bibb’s composition ‘Shingle by Shingle’ is an interesting choice for Seán, the song has a bluesy bluegrass-y feel to it. “I came across Eric in Australia” says Seán. “I played with him during the Blue Mountains Festival on the East Coast and then I went to see him in Perth and he was just excellent, stunning. I picked up his CDs and heard this song.”

Of the song ‘Troublesome Waters’ Seán says, “It’s a kind of gospel song, it’s written in that kind of vein, but I’ve just given it my own treatment as opposed to going head to head on gospel with it.”

Several friends join in the music and accompaniment on ‘You Got Gold’ and some of these are people who join the band during Seán’s tours depending on the needs of the venue or the particular performance. Drummer Liam Bradley and bass player Damien Evans are regular guests; Rod McVey has added keyboards and Paul Moore, bass. Guitarist Arty McGlynn, another regular is also here. Arty produced Seán's early albums and has played on all of them. Rick Epping’s harmonica beautifully colours several of the tracks and Máirtín O'Connor's accordion flitters and arpeggios through another few. Taking centre stage on ‘You Got Gold’ and adding glorious gentle harmonies are Seán’s regular band John McLoughlin who plays guitar and Seán Regan who plays fiddle and mandola. “They have been with me for over two years now” says Seán, “we have a nice sound going together.”

From a performance point of view, Seán has focussed on Europe in the last few years and he intends making bigger inroads in America this coming year. He had a lovely sojourn in Austria before Christmas and is looking forward to performing at the North American Folk Alliance in Texas in February. March and April are set up with some 23 or so dates in Ireland (details available on his website mentioned below).

“I love going to Austria” says Seán when I ask him about favourite places to play. “That is apart from the home gigs. I still enjoy going around Ireland. It’s a bit of craic when you go up on stage, especially after a tour in Europe where you’re having one type of craic and then you come home and it’s lovely.”

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