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.