Inside the Songs: Iarla Ó Lionáird’s Irish Journey
Iarla Ó Lionáird has a preternatural ability to change the way we hear traditional music. Heir to the rich and ancient tradition of Irish sean-nos singing (unaccompanied ballads in the Irish language), he’s turned this insider musical art form (often performed in pubs with closed eyes and near-trance like energy) into the arena shows of his former band Afro-Celtic Sound System. He’s didn’t do this by changing the tradition, but by moving even deeper into the tradition than you’d think possible. With Afro-Celt and with his earlier solo albums, he used sparse electronics, strings, and minimalist arrangements to create soundscapes to support the songs. He created a modern context for an ancient sound. This isn’t something easy to do, and it took a lifetime of mastery for him to manipulate sound this deftly without losing site of the transcendent core of the music.Talking about why he turned down early offers to record before joining Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records, Ó Lionáird says “They wanted to treat it as folk music. But sean nos is darker, more passionate and ancient than that. It has never been about strutting your stuff. You stand there and hold it. It’s all about empathy.”
Now, Iarla Ó Lionáird has a new album out, Foxlight, and it’s a beautiful new round of songs, surprisingly most from his own pen. Not many artists are writing new sean nos songs these days, but it seems to come naturally to Ó Lionáird. So much so that the listener would be hard pressed to tell the new songs from the traditional songs on the album. Curious to know more about the inspiration behind the songs, we asked Iarla to participate in one of Hearth Music’s Inside the Songs features. Here’s what he had to say about three songs on the album.
Inside the Songs with Irish Singer Iarla Ó Lionáird
“I suppose this song started as a waking dream that I had about my own family. During the making of the album this was the first time in my life where I was surrounded by my own children, my wife, the household hubub as it were of daily family life. And I think all of this mayhem and all that beautiful chaos infiltrated and fed into the creative process of making the record at every level. This dream had at its core a somewhat dis-embodied and yet stark realization, and a sense of responsibility for all the lives that I had created with my wife and their independent trajectory. It was suffused with a sort of speculative energy pervading the writing and by that I mean this song as I was writing it explored this idea of the realization on my part that the future really belonged to them and that I would have to be not just satisfied with that but in fact understand that this was quite simply the order of things and the way things should be.
The song lyric itself describes a quasi-dreamlike situation of my then very young children dancing around the bedroom in the morning as I was sleeping and me somehow slowing everything down and looking at them as creatures connected to me but also as independent and beautiful entities unto themselves. At the end of it all what this song is really about is acceptance. It’s about taking every day and every moment as it comes and being thankful for what we have.”
“This is an ancient song composed by the blind harper Turlough O’Carolan (1670–1738). O’Carolan is famed for his harp music but is much less appreciated for the many songs he composed during his life. He composed this song in praise of Eleanor Plunkett of Robertstown in the County of Meath who was the only survivor of her family following a fire in which their home was destroyed. I came across this song many years ago whilst preparing for a concert with quite a few harp players and it is extremely well known as part of their ancient repertoire. These harpists were unaware of its provenance as a song and so I commenced a period of research, uncovering quite a few verses and working on them editorially to see if I could make them fit well with the melody. I felt from the beginning that the composer had perhaps performed this song in a semi-spoken manner thus the lyric did not always fit perfectly with the meter of the melody And what a beautiful melody it is.
Still throughout my several years of preparing this song for the recording I decided to strip back much of its harpish mannerisms and articulations. I love the version we settled on for the album. I believe it has an open expansive quality that retains the core value of O’Carolans tremendous melodic sense as well as the touching sentiment with which the composer addresses the lady in question, having, as he says, nothing to offer her but his music. There is a particular delight also in recovering this song from the past and giving it voice for the first time in centuries. Special thanks is deserved her by composer Jon Hopkins for playing piano so beautifully on the recording.”
“Inevitably we are lucky if we grow up in a house which has music song and dance. I was doubly lucky in that I grew up also in a region of West of Ireland where singing, traditional singing was endemic. My mother’s family were well-known as singers but particularly her aunt Elizabeth Cronin who was recorded in the 1950s by among others Alan Lomax and Jean Ritchie for the Smithsonian Folkways Collection. So in that sense singing was in the blood and I learned many’s the song for my own mother as a young boy. The Goat Song is one such song. This is a comic and light song and it describes humorously how a person is trying to milk two yellow goats into a hat but that the hat alas has several holes in it thus leaking the milk all over the place.
Initially I was unsure about including this song on the record thinking perhaps that it was a little too trite but my producer Leo Abrahams prevailed upon me, as he often did when I was in doubt, and good sense made me reconsider that it had its charms and more than deserved its place. It also pleased me greatly to have recorded this song for my mother knowing that she would enjoy it so much and that it would rekindle memories of the past for both of us. In all of these recordings for my album Foxlight I am incredibly indebted to Leo for all of his patience, extraordinary skill and enormous dedication to the project.”
Special thanks to Iarla Ó Lionáird for agreeing to talk about the songs. Check out this video about the making of Foxlight:
This post originally appeared on the Hearth Music Blog. Check out our website and roam through our blog to discover your next favorite artist! We’re dedicated to presenting today’s best Roots/Americana/World musicians.