Monday, October 20, 2008

Pictures in Time – Matt and Orlaith Keane

All text (c) Ita Kelly 2008

Matt Keane is a curious mixture of devilment and determination, quick witted and humorous both on and off stage but also earnest about his work and music. “I’m desperately serious at the back of the whole lot” he says, “It’s determination rather than intent, when I put something into my head, nothing really moves it.”

‘Every picture tells a story’ he says in the sleeve notes to his new album ‘Pictures in Time’, and this, his second release in less than two years is aptly named. ‘Any collection of songs” he continues, “is a snapshot of that period in your life, although you don’t realise it until you look back”
Matt is one of the renowned Keane family from Caherlistrane in Co. Galway and like his siblings has been singing all his life. “It was a very natural thing” he says. “We didn’t learn music at all, we absorbed it.” Although singing all his life like the rest of his family, his early forays were in musicals and operas, performing in over 25 productions with Tuam’s Marian Choral Society and the Headford Musical Society. His first role in 1979 was as Detlef in ‘The Student Prince.’ “That gave me the confidence to go out in front of any stage” he says.
His first recording experience was in 1984 on ‘Muintir Catháin’, an album by Gael Linn which featured the whole family, Teresa, Pat Christina, Matt, Dolores, Noel and Seán, as well as his parents Bridie and Matt snr and his aunts Rita and Sarah.
More recently he recorded ‘Echoes of the Valley’ with Kevin Coyne, with whom he has performed in pubs and sessions for over fifteen years. Then in 2002 he recorded again, this time with his brothers Seán, Pat and Noel as ‘Citizens Keane’ and they performed a series of sell out concerts around the country.

Matt is a curious mixture of devilment and determination, quick witted and humorous both on and off stage but also earnest about his work and music “I’m desperately serious at the back of the whole lot” he says, “It’s determination rather than intent, when I put something into my head, nothing really moves it.”

Recording his own album was always a dream and in 2006 he began the process in earnest, putting down a song here and there, culminating in the release of ‘Out in the Fields’ in January 2007. A perfectly produced package, its acoustic ballads and folk songs were greeted with enormous enthusiasm and Matt has been performing to full houses at his concerts ever since.

Matt himself has five children and naturally being Keanes, they all sing as well. His second daughter Orlaith sang on Matt’s first album, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘The Moon and St. Christopher’. On ‘Pictures in Time’ she sings almost half of the tracks. Gaining confidence and enjoying performing since the earlier effort, Orlaith demonstrates her ability and massive potential. Matt recalls “They all would sing a song at parties and occasions like that but when Orlaith would sing, everyone would be quiet. She has something special as well as being able to sing. Lots of people can sing. I think it’s more than that. Its being able to pick a song that she’s able to do and make a good job of it.”

Like their Dad, Orlaith and her sisters Eimear and Eilish, gave their first performance on stage with the Marion Choral Society. “I was Mr. Snow in ‘Carousel’” says Matt, “and they were my children. They sang and walked around the stage with me.” After that it was sessions at home, choirs and groups in school and whenever the opportunity arose to sing.
For Orlaith herself recording has been quite a new experience. “I don’t think I would have ever thought about it” she says. “Daddy said one day, ‘For the craic why don’t you go in and do a song and see how it turns out’. It wasn’t really decided, it just happened. A lot of people wouldn’t get the opportunity to do it, so it’s brilliant.”
“Scary!” was how she described her daunting first stage appearance at the Town Hall Theatre, Galway last year. Now she looks forward to the concerts. “I love it" she says, “and there’s more stuff I’d love to do.”

Her interests and influences in music are quite diverse. Crystal Gayle was a great favourite of herself and her sisters growing up, now she enjoys some of the American country singers like Alison Krauss and Tricia Yearwood. Of the Irish divas, her favourite is probably Maura O’ Connell, but she also likes Mary Black, and of course her aunt Dolores Keane has always been a strong influence.

On ‘Pictures in Time’ Orlaith showcases a variety of songs in style and tempo. The gentle country rhythm, of “I Wish it would Rain” gives way to the more up tempo beat of Alison Krauss’ ‘The Lucky One’ and ‘Candlelight and Wine’, Richard Thompson’s ‘Farewell Farewell” and Eric Bogle’s ‘Leaving the Land’ are thoughtful and plaintive, while Tricia Yearwood’s ‘Hearts in Armour’ is full of emotion and feeling.
On stage Matt and Orlaith share just one song – the Dick Gaughan classic ‘Both Sides the Tweed’ and their harmonising is definitely something they will do more of in future, given the right material.

Matt’s songs come from a variety of sources as well. ‘Somebody Special’ written by his good friend Don Stiffe has already become a favourite with his audiences. He covers two John Prine songs; the swinging ballad ‘Souvenirs’ and ‘Hello in There’, a song he chose because of its personal meaning to him going to visiting his mother now living in a nursing home. He takes the local ballad ‘The Lovely Green Woodlands of Ower’, and having researched its origins dedicates his new treatment of it to local man John Joe Garvey, who sang it as his party piece for years.
“If I try to analyse myself with a song, I would say it has to be melodic and tell a story” says Matt. “I’m drawn to songs and sometimes I don’t know why I’m drawn to them. I’m drawn to writers who can paint a picture for me with words.”
Sometimes songs are personal, and sometimes they are full of emotion, it’s important for Matt to feel the songs and as he sings he brings that understanding out. Orlaith displays that same forthright and honest quality in her singing as well; it’s a family trait.

Before going into studio, Matt always works out the initial arrangement for the songs himself. The three main musicians in his band multi instrumentalist Seán Regan, keyboard player Peter Gannon and guitarist Pat Coyne then take over. Matt refers to them as ‘the three divine persons’ because together they are at the core of the recording and performance. At the live gigs, the band also includes fiddle and drums.

At the moment Matt manages all the organisation around his concerts and promotions. He enjoys it but it is hard work and the future plan is to have someone else doing the management, publicity and organisation. He and Orlaith would also like to travel further afield, throughout Ireland and to Europe and America.

“We’re filling a niche that nobody is filling around here” says Matt. “It’s toe in the water for us at the moment. Our music needs a platform. It’s hard to get the people to travel but it’s easy for us to travel to them, and that’s our plan, to develop it and get people to hear it.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Sean Keane's 'The Irish Scattering'

All text (c) Ita Kelly 2008

‘The Irish Scattering’ is a remarkable new DVD and CD from singer and multi-instrumentalist Seán Keane. It’s fifteen years since Seán embarked on his solo career and for his eighth album release he has turned his attention to the theme of emigration tracking the progress of the Irish nation on its travels around the world. ‘The Irish Scattering’ was recorded live over two nights at concerts performed in ‘The Black Box’ Theatre Galway in March of this year. A strong cast, some 24 musicians, dancers and singers joined Seán on stage to perform a diverse range of music and song, charting the various eras in emigration and the events that sparked that movement.

The project is one that could have surfaced at any time during Seán’s career. It developed out of an interest in the stories behind the songs. Seán who has been singing all his life, grew up listening to these stories and in turn he has told them to his own audiences. ‘The Irish Scattering’ pieces the stories together to present a tableau of Irish history. Since the days when Ireland was known as the Island of Saints and Scholars, Irish people have moved abroad for one reason or another.

While ‘The Irish Scattering’ is a two and a half hour long show on DVD, Seán acknowledges that it could be twice or three times that long were all the possible songs and stories included. “I think its going to be more of a life long project than just the project it is” he says. “It’s only the tip of the iceberg compared to what could be done”.

Since starting this project, Seán has been digging deeper into the background to the songs, and researching the stories. “Like Mother Jones” he says, “the great union leader in America about whom ‘She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain’ was written. She spent all her life working on behalf of the miners, organising, marching to get their rights.” Mother Jones is just one example of the influence that Irish people have had all over the world and her story is one of many fascinating stories that are told in a book that Sean’s wife Virginia has written on the subject. In fact her research was one of the reasons this project came about. Almost nearing completion, they hope it will be published in about a year’s time. The extensive sleeve notes that accompany ‘The Irish Scattering’ are a great read and give a sample of what is to come in the book. They comprehensively chart the travels of Irish people over the last 1500 years, explaining the significance of all the songs, stories and tunes.

History, economics and our rich culture have shaped that Irish influence and the Irish psyche – some 70 million people world wide are aware they have an Irish ancestor. That’s a considerable influence considering at its peak Ireland’s population was 8 million and at its lowest ebb some 2.5 million.

Seán himself was one of those people who when young left home and travelled to England in search of adventure. “Going to England was like going to Galway” he laughs. “You were never regarded as an emigrant when you went to England, I think that’s because it was always and ever going on.” He worked on the building sites and at night played with the group Shegui, the first band he toured with. “That time in London you could go to a session seven nights a week if you wanted to” he remembers. “It was a great time to be there, work was plentiful, the atmosphere was good. There was great opportunity to play in London; it was just buzzing with music at the time.”

Sadly those good times came to an end and when the tide began to change Seán returned home. Unfortunately that wasn’t possible for many others who were destined to stay there and while many thrived, many fell into poverty. ‘The Irish Scattering’ is the story of emigration the world over, good times and hard times. Irish people settled in parts of the United States, Canada, the West Indies and Australia, and behind each country are the reasons why, the stories of those first pioneers.

“We tried to represent the different periods and hopefully we have done that reasonably successfully” says Seán. The DVD opens with the sound of ancient horns, the instruments of pre history we are told in the sleeve notes. Then by way of introduction Seán sings a few verses of ‘The Dear Little Isle’. This is followed by Máirtín O’Connor playing his composition ‘Saints and Scholars’. From then on the show takes shape around the songs interspersed with stories, starkly told by Máirtín Jamsie Ó Flathartha, and with music and dance. Creative lighting and a backdrop of projected images and sequences add to the visual impact.

‘Farethee well Enniskillen’, an Ulster Scots song is one that Seán dedicates to all the soldiers that left Ireland down through history. Each song receives it’s own delicate treatment and arrangement in the hands of the expert musicians on stage. ‘Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore’ describes the gruelling experience of travel for emigrants on land and sea. ‘Far Away in Australia’ is a well known modern song on emigration to Australia, and ‘Van Diemen’s land’ recalls all those who were deported for petty crimes to the southern hemisphere. In recent times many more have voluntarily emigrated there.

The bleakest time in Irish history was during the famine years. ‘Grosse Ile’ recalls this terrible time when thousands arrived at the small island that served as the screening point for immigrants to Canada. Many of them were hungry, diseased or dying and thousands are buried there and in the nearby cities of Toronto and Montreal.

‘Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears’ is a more hopeful story about 15 year old Annie Moore the first person to pass through the screening centre in Ellis Island New York in 1892. Times were a little better then and those who left Ireland, supported those at home, subsidised the travel of other family members and became strong citizens of their new homelands.

Today, while Irish people still travel abroad to live, work and settle down, the tables are reversed in many ways and Ireland welcomes immigrants to her shores. ‘The Crossing’ is a song of hope written by Johnny Clegg who lived all his life in South Africa. It has verses in English and chorus in Zulu and Seán enlisted the help of some immigrants to Ireland in recording it. “I did it for the Ireland of today” he explains, “which has changed and we have people from all over the globe coming to live and work in Ireland. They are going through some of the things in their own countries that the Irish people were going through here.”

‘The Shipyards and Gdansk’ is a new song from Irish man James Goram who sent it to Seán when he became aware of ‘The Scattering’ project. “It’s about a Polish man here in Ireland” explains Seán, “reminiscing about going home to Gdansk where his father used to work in the shipyards. I liked the song and the sentiment and so I recorded it as an extra track.”
The Cunningham family provide high stepping dancing in the show, another great expression of our Irish-ness, and Spanish dancer Fatima Alverez Fernandez reminds us of the strong historical connection we have with Spain.

Lifting the spirits, as music and dance always did for the emigrant, when there wasn’t an instrument around, people lilted or dyddled tunes. Seán Regan, has devised his own style of mouth music called ‘clicking’ and with Seán Keane lilting along they perform a set of tunes in this most unique way, a joy to watch.

The concert progresses through some twenty eight tracks to the finale ‘Home Away from Home’ followed by a rousing set of reels involving everybody on stage.

Seán is touring ‘The Irish Scattering’ with a full supporting cast of musicians, dancers and singers in October and will be visiting Belfast, Enniscorthy, Dublin, Limerick and Galway.

“It’s only a tangent compared to how deep you could go” says Seán. “I think its going to be an ongoing project and it’s something I’d like to do again very soon.”

Concert venues in October

• October 18- Whitla Hall, Belfast
• October 19- Riverside, Enniscorthy.
• Oct 23- Helix, Dublin
• Oct 24- Helix, Dublin
• Oct 25- UCL, Limerick
• Oct 30- Town Hall, Galway
• Oct 31- Town Hall, Galway
• Nov 1- Town Hall, Galway

Check out all Sean Keane's albums available at the .tradnet store on Amazon

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Fergal Scahill's "A Dusty Bridge"

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2008

Fergal Scahill is well known as a bodhrán and guitar player but on his new album ‘The Dusty Bridge’ he focuses on his first instrumental love, the fiddle. Often described as the most expressive instrument, it is also often referred to as the most difficult. “It certainly is the most difficult” Fergal says. “With every other instrument, piano, accordion, banjo, guitar – when you hit a note, that’s the way it sounds whereas when you drag a bow across the strings, that’s not the way a fiddle can sound – and it takes a long time to get the dragging of the bow across the strings to sound nice. It can sound several different ways. To get it to sound like a fiddle should, you have to get the pressure of the bow just right, and get the tuning on the left hand.”

Fergal is well past the stage of worrying about tuning and getting the sound right. In 2002 at the tender age of twenty he won the coveted senior All Ireland title – the pinnacle in a long list of achievements and one of which he is rightly proud and happy. The funny thing is that Fergal, given his way when he was a child would have stayed playing bodhrán. He only mastered the fiddle because he ‘had’ to.
“I remember in Milltown,” he relates, “I wanted to bring the bodhrán to the sessions when I was eight or nine. I was good at it and I played it well. I didn’t have to be thinking of the tunes – but no, I was given the fiddle going in and if I played the ten tunes I knew then I was given the bodhrán for the last half hour and without that, I would never have played the fiddle.”

Fergal is the youngest in a very musical family from Corofin, Co. Galway. He was born into a household where music was part of life, his father Pat (sadly no longer with us) and oldest brother Adrian started Comhaltas in Corofin and conducted sessions in their house. This was the environment that shaped Fergal’s music. He was fascinated by the bodhrán and was beating rhythms with his knuckle on a book before the age of three. On a trip to a Fleadh Ceoil his parents bought him his first bodhrán and that was his main instrument for a number of years. Alongside the very fertile musical home influence, Fergal also benefited from a series of excellent teachers starting in National School with his first teacher Teresa Conway, and moving onto lessons with Bernie Geraghty, herself a wonderful fiddle player and multi-instrumentalist. Later in Secondary school he came under the influence of Mairead Berril another excellent musician and teacher. At the age of five he began performing on stage with the traditional theatre group Siamsa led by another influential person, Cepta Byrne. What started as a once a week performance turned into five nights a week during the summer months and all the Scahills were involved. “I was put into bed at four in the afternoon so I’d be able to stay awake for the show” Fergal remembers. There’s a really cute picture of Fergal taken during those Siamsa years on the sleeve of ‘The Dusty Bridge’. He always sported a tweed cap and in those days had quite a serious face. “We were traditional Irish musicians we were meant to be serious!” he jokes.

Fergal’s main instrument in the show was the bodhrán, but one April he got a phone call from Cepta to tell him hat he would be playing guitar for the summer. His brother Adrian, who was the main accompanist in the show was leaving to go to college and Fergal was to become the new accompanist. He laughs about it now, there was no choice, just knuckle down and do it.
Sometimes that’s the best way and Fergal relishes the opportunity to do something new. Recently he spent a month on tour with Dave Munnelly and his band in America. Dave’s music has a huge jazz swing influence and Fergal, who plays DADGAD tuning on the guitar had to invent the jazz chords required to accompany Dave’s music. He thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the challenge of expanding his skills.

Although Fergal has featured on many recordings, most notably his 2002 recording with Paul Moran ‘Off to a Flying Start’, he had wanted to record his own album for a long time. The opportunity arose when a friend of his, Conal Early from Dublin who had just set up a studio of his own suggested to Fergal that he record with him. They worked out a deal and between Fergal’s house and Conal’s house recorded it in a day and a half. “I had Ryan Molloy for about six hours” says Fergal. “We sat down the two of us and recorded twelve tracks live in the front room – it’s the only way I would record anything.” Ryan is a stunning musician from Pomeroy in Co. Tyrone and Fergal classes him as the best piano player in the country. “No one comes within a mile of him” says Fergal. “He’s got such a different way of looking at the accompaniment. A lot of his influence comes from La Bottine Souriante, their piano player and brass section and the way they approach it. He’s a fantastic fiddle player as well.”

“It’s a good representation of me now. It’s live; it’s exactly what I wanted to do. There’s very little post production. I played guitar, obviously I didn’t do that live. I wanted to keep it as live and real as possible. I wanted it to be fun; I didn’t want it to be too serious. I’m not trying to be anything in it – I didn’t sit down and say ‘This is the way I want my album to sound’”
The tunes are mostly well known tunes – “I pick tunes that I like playing” says Fergal, “Whether or not they’ve been recorded a hundred times didn’t really matter. ‘Jenny’s Welcome to Charlie’ is a tune that has been played and played and played but I love that tune. I had recorded it and didn’t know what I was going to do with it. Then it popped into my head to get Paul Moran to come and dance on it. It’s lovely to hear him doing the few steps.”

Fergal doesn’t have a permanent musical partner and plays with a number of different musicians. He has done a lot of work with Fergal O Murchú’s ‘Ragus’ and ‘Celtic Legends’ based in France. He’s much in demand as an accompanist but the fiddle and his self confessed need to be at the driving force in the music he plays means he prefers to steer clear of commitments in that direction. He loves travelling and loves meeting people and hopes to do as much work as he can with this album starting with an Irish tour in the autumn.

Fergal’s music reflects his personality; it’s full of innovation, enthusiasm and fun. It is intense, fiery and frenetic and at the same time playful. He chose ‘Port na bPucaí’ as the last piece on his album, packing it full of emotion and passion. Jigs, reels hornpipes and barndances make up the rest of the tunes with compositions from Máirtín O’Connor, Charlie Lennon, Josephine Keegan, Paddy Fahey and one tune of his own ‘The Dusty Bridge’ after which he named the album. It’s a very honest recording full of swing and virtuosity – a stunning debut!

Click here to buy Fergal Scahill's "A Dusty Bridge" from .tradnet e-store on Amazon.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Lúnasa’s amazing Story So Far

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2008

‘The Story So Far’ is a collection from the vast repertoire of the prolific band Lúnasa. Re-visited and re-mixed, it comes as a timely milestone, marking the whirlwind journey the band has travelled over the last eleven years recording and performing the most innovative, energetic and driving instrumental traditional music. This album, the band’s seventh, is a cross section of their output since those heady days in 1997 when their first live recording appeared. They have no intention of letting the pace slip. “I never thought I’d be here ten years later” laughs Seán Smyth as he talks about the first tour to Australia as ‘Lúnasa’ before they had decided on a name and before there was such a thing as a band photo!

The liner notes of ‘The Story So Far’ are extensive, a volume in itself, charting the band’s history in detail to date along with lots of photographs.

Things happened very quickly for Lúnasa and they were signed early to the American label Green Linnet which gave them access to the American market. They got stuck into playing there and received an immediate response from audiences.

“I remember before being signed with Green Linnet the excitement there was out there about the band. Playing in New York City and just seeing the queues down the street for Lúnasa. It was very exciting. Then we were approached and then signed and it took off from there and it didn’t stop. It snowballed and it was a very good experience for the band.”

Their love affair with America has never ended and each year Lúnasa tour there a number of times. They have expanded their horizons too and have made music in the farthest corners of the earth. “Lúnasa is as well known in Osaka and Melbourne, as in Madrid, Italy or Brittany” adds Seán. “It’s exciting and it’s great to get the response. We were in Japan last year and we went to a session afterwards and there you had about thirty musicians, all Japanese, playing Lúnasa sets of tunes. We meet people all over the world who play music because of picking up a Lúnasa record.”

The fans and followers of Lúnasa are the most important and indeed influential aspect of the bands life. Seán Smyth cites the interaction and communication with the audience at their live performances as the biggest connection he experiences.

The tunes and sets of tunes Lúnasa perform are all tried and tested on their audience before they are recorded or included in the set. “The audience are never wrong” says Seán. “If it works as a piece of music and if the band is working and it’s coming across with the energy and the focus, the audience will get it. They don’t have to be told. And we’ve always gone with pieces of music we’ve tried out in front of the audience. If they work, they work. If nobody understands it except yourself it’s no good. If the people get it, they get it and you work on that.”

It’s like running any good business really. It’s all about keeping the customer satisfied. In the case of music, the audience is the customer. Music is certainly a pleasure to be shared and the care and attention Lúnasa bring to their brand of music shines through in their careful arrangements and meticulous performances.

The Lúnasa sound has often been compared to The Bothy Band and that’s no accident. “When I was involved in putting the band together” explains Seán, “it was definitely a vision of mine to follow that route. I had learnt a lot of my music from pipers like Paddy Keenan and I had learnt a lot from Matt Molloy’s flute playing. It was very much flute and piping music I had grown up on, so it was fiddle, flute and pipes that I had dreamed of.”

Seán’s dream materialised when he was touring as ‘Seán Smyth and Friends’ in 1996 with Donagh Hennessey and Trevor Hutchinson. He had also been playing with John McSherry who with Mike McGoldrick was in the earliest line-up of the band.

Seán and Trevor are still at the core of the group, Kevin Crawford joined the band for its first tour, and Cillian Vallely joined them in 1999. Paul Meehan is the newest addition having joined when Donagh Hennessey left the band just three years ago.

The energy and rhythm of Lúnasa’s music is what sets the band apart. “Momentum was a huge thing in Lúnasa” says Seán. “It was definitely a driving thing. It just seemed to be like a whirlwind when we started and to me that was the high, being part of that.” Lúnasa’s music is totally instrumental and that’s another defining aspect. “It hadn’t to be explained to anyone in the band what Lúnasa was about” says Seán, “and what the band understand and is recognised for is this, we don’t have a singer in the band. We understand what the music is about and it was a common goal we all worked towards. That is the cohesiveness we have. We were all focussed on the project, where the music brought us and what we had to do to make a concert work. The more we figured that out, the better we got at it.”

‘The Story So Far’ features tracks from all six of the band’s albums featuring all the musicians’ contributions. Trevor did the work resurrecting the old material and putting it together in a shape that would work as an album. There’s an even spread from each of the albums, sixteen tracks in all, two of which are newly recorded versions (‘Morning Nightcap’ and ‘Aibreann’). “This is a tribute to the fans and the people who have been part of the Lúnasa team through the years” says Seán. “All the people who have been good to us, encouraging us. It’s a thank you in a way to everyone who introduced me to music and who introduced the band to the territories and worked so hard for the band. When people see Lúnasa, they have no idea about the hard work that goes on day by day behind the scenes to get the band on stage and have it perform the way it does.”

A well oiled machine, Lúnasa continue on their way, sure they’re only starting!

Click here to buy Lúnasa's album "The Story So Far" from .tradnet e-store on Amazon.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Mary McPartlan's 'Petticoat Loose'

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2008

‘Petticoat Loose’ the eagerly awaited second album from Mary McPartlan has just been released, every bit as interesting as her first recording ‘The Holland Handkerchief’. Mary McPartlan emerged three years ago as a lady of incomparable ability and talent leaving critics and audiences wondering where she had been all along. Settling into her own voice and material, Mary has spent a long time working on this latest collection, working with the same fervour and energy she has spent all her life injecting into other peoples music, theatre and television projects and her studies which since the last recording have earned her an MA in Drama and Theatre Studies. Mary is not one to sit still and not one to embark on any old scheme. Each phase in her life she now sees as having been a pathway towards her current work and her current calling, that of a singer, an interpreter and a researcher too. With the aid of a Deis award from the Arts Council, Mary was able to spend time researching material and collaborating with others, the result of which is a new body of work comprising six new pieces of music. She unearthed two songs in the Irish language from her native village of Drumkeerin in Co. Leitrim and these were set to music by Brendan O’Regan. Three songs were written by the playwright Vincent Woods and set to music by Máirtín O’Connor and a new song by Padraig O’hAoláin was translated by Tim Dennehy.

This recording sees Mary moving into a new space and bringing a strong team of artists with her. “My ability is to be able to nurture and get people to collaborate with each other, to see that and make it work for the creation of new material, and that’s the essence of it. Bringing incredible people with you allowing them to create new pieces of work that you can be part of, that’s what this CD was.”

“'Petticoat Loose' is not about me” says Mary. “It’s about Vincent Woods, it’s about Máirtín O’Connor, it’s about Seamie O’Dowd, it’s about Brendan O’ Regan; it’s about musicians like Frankie Gavin and Cathal Hayden, it’s about Garry O Briain’s great ability to write for Contempo. It’s also my collaborations with all of them, it’s a myriad of things and I see it as a project as much as a CD.”

All the artists and people who worked with Mary on this project are people she has known for a long time. “Now that is the key to this CD” she continues. “It’s the people I know all my life, people that I love, people that I respect and how joyous and timely that I was able to bring them all together in the one space to create all kinds of different things together.”

Mary was reared in Drumkeerin in Co. Leitrim, the oldest in a family of six.

“The music of Leitrim for me growing up was traditional music of course” she remembers, “but because my mother always played Radio Luxembourg, we got a good diet of country music and rock and roll as well. We had our ears open from day one. My father loved music and he loved the songs. He would make us sing when we didn’t want to sing growing up, when people would come into the house.”

The singing is something that has always been with Mary and only in the last four years has it become her main occupation. The new album gets its title from an old story about a witch who was called Petticoat Loose’. Mary first heard the story told by her friend Anne O’ Connor. Apparently Petticoat Loose got her name because her petticoat was known to fall down when she was in the throes of dancing having drank her fill of alcohol. She was a wild woman by all accounts and Mary thought her name would make a great title for an album. The well known playwright Vincent Woods took the story and researched it and came up with the song words.

Vincent grew up in Tarmon, the next village to Drumkeerin. He and Mary have been friends all their lives, so much so that she refers to him as part of her family, like another brother. He composed two other songs for Mary, ‘Sanctuary’ the opening track and ‘Kiss the Moon’. Máirtín O’Connor composed the music for all three. Staying firmly on home ground, Mary sings two songs in the Irish language which were noted in an MA thesis by a man called Stiofán Ó Céilleachair. Proinn Duignan a neighbour from Drumkeerin introduced Mary to this material, remnants of what was left in terms of the Irish language in and around Drumkeerin. The songs go back to the 1800s when Irish was spoken in the area. Brendan O’Regan composed the music for ‘Síos Faoi Braoch Loch Aileann’ and ‘Caoine Sheáin Mhic Searraigh’.

Mary set her sights on another great Irish song, this time a newly composed one by Padraig Ó hAoláin called ‘Cúmha’. She heard Pádraig singing the song one night in Hughes’ in Spiddal and was really taken by it. Some time later she asked him would he mind if she had it translated into English. The decision to get Tim Dennehy to translate the song was a very good one and resulted in lyrics which capture the essence of the song to perfection. “Tim was able to get to the heart of the song” says Mary, “and Pádraig was delighted with the translation.”

Mary managed to include some fine traditional songs into the mix as well, the unaccompanied ‘Generous Lover’ and ‘Barbara Allen’ with rich harmonious backing vocals, and the final ‘Lowlands’. Mary was taught the old Romanian folk song ‘Lumé, Lumé’ by Contempo, the string quartet in residence in NUIG with whom she has collaborated before.

Another interesting song on the album which shows Mary’s diverse tastes and indeed her ability is Leonard Cohen’s song ‘The Sisters of Mercy’. Long time collaborator Seamie O’Dowd who was musical director and producer for the project, built a musical interpretation for the song around Mary’s singing yielding a most original version. “He makes everything with his own stamp” remarks Mary about Seamie. “He’s a genius really.”

No newcomer to the music scene, Mary has performed extensively since the release of ‘The Holland Handkerchief’ and intends to tour ‘Petticoat Loose’ to the four ends of the world over the next three years.

As someone who always has an ear open for music, she finds herself now drawn to music from other ethnic traditions. “The big influence coming at me now is African music” she says. “I really feel that I want to experiment with ancient traditional Irish music and African music and that’s where I’m going next”

Mary celebrated ‘Petticoat Loose’ and gave her first concert to friends at a party in Galway shortly before Christmas where Frankie Gavin “said all the lovely enlightened words to launch the evening.” The following night she shared the songs with her neighbours in Drumkeerin.

‘Petticoat Loose’ will be officially launched in Dublin at a concert with many of the musicians who feature on the album on February 21st next.

Click here to buy Mary McPartlan's 'Petticoat Loose' from the .tradnet e-store at Amazon.

Monday, January 21, 2008

"Are we there yet?", asks Cora Smyth

‘Are We There Yet’ the new album from Cora Smyth and her husband Sean Horsman is a true marriage of styles. Cora composed the melodies which have evolved through Sean’s arrangements and production into beautiful landscapes of sound. Like all truly original work it is hard to describe, and impossible to compare. The musical arrangements and instrumentation surrounding the tunes are an integral part of the sound, an extension of the melodies and as Cora herself says, “It’s a project, not just about my tunes but a co-creation.”

Hammond organ, trumpet, keyboards and a glorious retention of a rich bass presence in the production create a colourful exotic and textured music. There are flavours of soul, jazz and Dixieland, but the melodies are undeniably traditional and Cora’s fiddle playing is as near perfect as you could ask for. It is passionate, sweet, singing and sonorous.

The youngest of the Smyth family, Cora grew up in Straide Co. Mayo where their parents TJ and Nancy nurtured their love of music from an early age. TJ was the local teacher and taught all the young Smyths the whistle at first and then the fiddle, the instrument he loved best himself. Their mother took them to classical lessons too so their musical education was well rounded. Medicine was the great vocational calling and Cora followed her older brother Sean and sister Breda to UCG to study. While the others have kept up their involvement with medicine alongside their busy musical careers, Cora followed her heart into music at a very early stage. “I was in Mullingar working as an intern when I got the call to do Eurovision” she says.

Many will remember Cora’s fiddle solo during the Eurovision of ’96 when she was part of the band that accompanied Eimear Quinn, the winning Irish entry that year. The framed photo in Cora’s sitting room in her home in Galway is a reminder of where it all started. That work lead on to Cora being invited to work in the Michael Flatley’s ‘Lord of the Dance’ show which was having its first run in London. “That was meant to be for six weeks” Cora remembers, “and they’re still out there and they will be, there are three different shows on the road.” Cora went on to spend ten years working on the various shows Michael produced. ‘Lord of the Dance’ ‘Feet of Flames’ and most recently ‘Celtic Tiger’. She loved the work and loved the travelling and enjoyed the experience of crowds from a few thousand to the massive stadium gigs where they played to 80, 000 people.

It was while on the road that Cora met her husband Sean Horsman. He was working on sound with the show but is also a musician. Since they met, they’ve been toying with and working on the tunes Cora has composed herself. “There’s a lot of free time on the road” says Cora. “In between gigs, waiting backstage between shows, we would often just sit down and start playing and we started to work at the tunes and putting the ideas down, putting them together. We always said we’d put it together for an album but we hadn’t gone at it as such. We had loads of stuff, bits recorded in bedrooms and venues and all sorts of places. That was the start of it and then last year I came off the road. I really had travelled enough.”

Sean Horsman grew up in a village outside Burnley in Lancashire called Cliviger. He studied marine biology in College and went on to do a Creative Arts degree. He is a guitarist and has always been involved in music, playing with several bands in the Sheffield and Manchester areas and working with bands and festivals as a sound engineer. He worked for several years with Michael Flatley’s shows. Sean recorded and produced this album. Most of the work was done in their home in Galway where Sean has converted a small bedroom into a studio which also houses his vast and varied record collection. As Cora and I chat, Sean is in Liverpool working on a big concert at the opening of the city’s year as European capital of Culture. “He wasn’t ever involved in the traditional music scene” Cora explains, “but he was involved in the music scene around Manchester. He has such an eclectic taste of such a broad spectrum. He loves the Beatles, the Flaming Lips, to all the different ethnic music. He does a lot of work with classical orchestras as well. He absolutely loves music.”

Cora and Sean got married last year in the idyllic setting of Dubrovnik in Croatia. “It’s beautiful” says Cora, “surrounded by islands, a bit like Dingle but with the guarantee of blue skies.” Having spent a relaxing week there with their families, they travelled to Cuba on honeymoon and naturally spent their time visiting music haunts and absorbing the rich musical environment there.

‘Are we there yet’ is very much a collaborative project and Cora is quick to reiterate this. Whilst she may have come up with the original tunes and melodies, it is through working with Sean that they have developed into the musical pieces we hear on the album. “I don’t see that he produced it” says Cora, “I see that he co-created it because to be honest the sounds have ignited the tracks for me and made them sound exciting.” Of the forty six minutes of music on the album forty of it is new composition. “There is one set of traditional tunes and one other tune that Frankie Gavin composed that we use, but all the rest of it is ours” explains Cora.

“I would never have done it only for Sean’s input; I would never have had the confidence. Coming from the traditional background you have such great tunes out there and you’re so used to playing mighty great rocking tunes in sessions, you feel ‘I might as well keep these ones to myself’”

When I ask Cora about her influences and her tastes now, she goes back to the music she listened to at home when learning the fiddle. The old DeDanann records, Michael Coleman, Brendan McGlinchey. Frankie Gavin would be her number one. Her favourite musicians to play with are fiddlers and her favourite fiddler is her brother Sean. “”When the two of us play together I can definitely lock into him. I love it and we don’t really get a chance to play much together. We turn a tune upside down and we’ll knock a few rounds out of it too.” Cora loves the old standard traditional tunes and enjoys playing them over four, five or even six rounds when in company with like minded musicians. “In sessions people go from one tune to the next to the next tune so quickly and that kind of frustrated me just when you’d be getting into it properly” One of the things she enjoyed most about working with Michael Flatley was the live set they performed on stage with him during their shows when Michael would take up the flute and they would play a set of resounding traditional tunes. “That always brought the house down” she says.

Cora and Sean played two shows during Galway Arts festival last year showcasing their music together. The reaction they received which was overwhelming, prompted them to continue with the project and complete the album. They are now embarking on a tour of Ireland playing some of the finest venues in the country, but it’s not just a music concert that’s involved here, it is a show with several elements to it. Sean has put together a lighting design and a series of visual images, projections and animations which run alongside the music and weave in and out during the performance. It promises to be quite different to the usual ‘music gig’ offering a complete sensory experience. The band is mostly those who played on the album. Jim Higgins, Damien Evans, Sean Og Graham and Andy Kinslow a friend of Sean’s from Manchester. Their first gig is at the Celtic Connections festival on February 2nd then onto the Town Hall Theatre Galway on Feb 16th, Glór in Ennis on the 19th, Siamsa Tíre, Tralee on the 20th, Backstage, Longford on the 21st and Dunmaise, Portlaoise on the 22nd. This is energetic and exciting traditional music at its best, retaining the reverence the tradition deserves but adding the textures of the world musical spectrum that ultimately is everyone’s influence.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Tommy Fleming’s Journey Home

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2008

Tommy Fleming is assured and confident. Why wouldn’t he be when his last live album and DVD ‘Voice of Hope’ sold a quarter of a million copies in Ireland alone! He works a phenomenal 190 nights a year and still manages to be enthusiastic and relaxed. ‘A Journey Home’ is his latest project. I call it a project because it’s not just an album, and it’s not just a show, it’s a completely themed experience which Tommy along with his wife Tina and musical director David Hayes planned meticulously and executed perfectly. “We spent months planning it” says Tommy. “We did a week of rehearsals, then we went to Killarney and we did a day there getting things right and getting the crew set up. Then we went for it!”

“A great venue” he says about the INEC in Killarney. “It can seat two thousand and it’s got everything there for a show. The Kerry people are brilliant. They’re a great audience. We fill the INEC twice each year.”

It was filled to capacity last March when thirty five musicians took to the stage to back Tommy singing his way through a top class selection of songs from the Irish repertoire. “It goes from old right up to new” says Tommy, “crossing lines like ‘The Sally Gardens’, ‘Carrickfergus’, Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh right up to U2”. The difference with this recording is the orchestration, arrangement and Tommy’s unique powerful delivery. The opening salvo on Timpani is every bit as grandiose as a Hollywood soundtrack, exactly the effect Tommy wanted to achieve. “I want people to feel what I feel when a show starts,” he says. It’s exhilarating, it’s exciting, it’s nervous energy pumping up the tension and letting forth. The up-tempo pace of the opening ‘Carrickfergus’ sweeps you along on its tide of grandeur. ‘Raglan Road’ beats to the same drum. What Tommy and David have managed to create is a whole new way of looking at and listening to tried and tested standards of the Irish tradition.

Although not Tommy’s first DVD, it is the first time he has taken complete control of the production. He set up his own production company a year ago called ‘tf productions’ and now operates everything through it.

‘A Journey Home’ is Tommy’s eighth album release. He’s been building a strong career for fifteen years and is now a household name. A native of Aclare in south county Sligo, Tommy is the youngest of six children. Their home was a musical one, renowned for music sessions. Singing all his life, he got a serious break when invited by Phil Coulter to guest on his tour of the USA in 1993. He toured with Phil again in 1996, and spent three years with traditional band DeDannan performing all over the world. Everything was rosy for Tommy as he embarked on a solo career in 1998 and released his first solo album. Then he met with a cruel fate. A car accident, which he was lucky to survive, left his neck broken and he had to endure months of convalescence until he was able to return to performance. “It’s nine years since my own accident” he relates. “It’s been a long road; it’s been a hard road. Those three years after the accident were a very hard time for me.” He avoided talking about his own experience for a while afterwards but now has lent his voice to the current road safety campaign. He admits to having been a ‘bit of a lunatic’ in a car when he was younger. “I was lucky” he says, “but ten or fifteen more weren’t so lucky. They’re still in rehab or on breathing apparatus. It’s time to sit up and listen. A car isn’t a toy for going out in the middle of the road at night doing doughnuts. You have to have responsibility, to be in charge of it. Who will be next? It could be you, or the fellow beside you or the girl in the back.” Tommy hopes his pleas for more care and caution on the roads will be heard as loudly as his music in the coming months.

His concert tour of Ireland in January and February will see him take a fifteen strong backline of musicians on the road. “It’s a big show to put on the road and it’s a big sound” he says. “It’s great craic too, there’s a great buzz because everyone knows everyone for years. We all muck in, it’s all for one and one for all.” Tommy oozes optimism and his enthusiasm is infectious. “I have to look at life as the glass half full” he muses. “There’s no such thing as problems that can’t be solved and there’s no such word as ‘I can’t’”. In terms of projects and ideas, there’s always something new to think about.” I have one project finished and I could wake up in the middle of the night and have another idea. When I did ‘Voice of Hope’ everyone said I was mental, because I was going to lose everything. I thought ‘No one ever staged anything in the Basilica before. It can’t lose!’ We sold a quarter of a million albums in Ireland alone. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it on television. I’m so proud of it.”

Tommy’s voice is in great shape at the moment. Is he hitting his peak? “I haven’t touched it yet” he replies. “There’s a pile more I have to do. Please God, I’ll still be around to do it. I’m only thirty six, if I’m at my peak at thirty six what am I going to do for the next thirty six? I never look at somebody as being at their peak. You keep bringing out different ideas and if they work, they work. If they don’t then you go back to the drawing board.”

When not doing the bigger shows, Tommy enjoys doing an acoustic tour with just David on keyboard and Ewan Cowley on guitar. “We play to about three hundred people and it’s a very personal show”

He looks after himself, doesn’t smoke anymore and rarely drinks. “If I have two nights off in a row then I might go for a pint” he says. On tour in America where they usually use a sleeper bus travelling between gigs, Tommy is the first to crash out for the night after a gig. “I have the iPod earphones in, I put on a piece of classical music and I’m gone” he relates. He listens to a wide range of music from Frank Sinatra to Barbara Streisand, James Blunt to movie sound tracks. “It depends on what I feel like or what I want to be inspired by” he says.

‘Quietly huge’ was how a newspaper described Tommy recently. I’m not so sure how quiet his reputation is, he’s easily one of the leading male artists in the country. ‘A Journey Home’ takes Tommy on a tour of Ireland in January and February and then to the USA in March. It’s not surprising to hear that Tommy already has ideas for the next ‘project’ and for the one after that – but we’ll have to wait a small while before all is revealed.

Tommy’s website is ‘A Journey Home’ is released on Universal Records.

Click here to buy Tommy Fleming's "Journey Home" from the .tradnet store on Amazon.