'Everything is in there.'

'Everything is in there.'

Iarla Ó Lionáird latest album, Foxlight, is a departure from the singer's previous records. In this interview, he talks to Paul O'Connor about forgetting an obsession with technique, losing musical boundaries, singing sean-nós without ornamentation and writing songs in English.

Iarla Ó Lionáird photographed by Feargal Ward in Woodstock Gardens, Inistioge, Co Kilkenny.

Foxlight is Iarla Ó Lionáird’s fourth solo record, his first in six years. Distributed by Real World (he’s the only Irish artist they have ever signed), the songs on it cover a lot of ground, from pop (more than on previous records) to electronica (less than previous), from sean-nós (less than previous) to new classical (touches). It is his first record since his debut in 1997 not to involve him in production, and also his first to be comprised of mostly his own compositions. The album includes nine of his own compositions, one of which is his first recorded song fully in English (‘Glistening Fields’); another is a lyric based on a sixteenth-century poem (‘Seven Suns’); and another is a sung version of a poem by his friend, local Cúil Aodha poet, Domhnall Ó Liatháin (‘Imeacht’); there is also a version of ‘Tá Dhá Ghabhairín Bhuí Agam’ that stems from his work on the animated series Anam an Amhráin; a version of ‘Fainne Geal an Lae’ that Steve Cooney has revived from the Goodman Collection; and a version of ‘Eleanor Plunkett’.

To many, Ó Lionáird is an important custodian of the sean-nós singing tradition. The clarity, range and richness of his voice and of his Irish, and maybe even his presentation, have made him for many the ideal representative of traditional Irish singing to ensure its future and its international appeal, while still maintaining a sense of rootedness. And yet, that plan has been upset from early on when Ó Lionáird started to see himself more as an individual artist in the emergent world music scene and signed with Real World Records.

More fundamentally, it is Ó Lionáird’s voice, and the craftsmanship in his use of it, that has appealed. From his family, Peadar Ó Riada, RTÉ producers, Shaun Davey, Tony MacMahon and Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin in the early days to Peter Gabriel and composers Gavin Bryars and Donnacha Dennehy more recently, Ó Lionáird has inspired and delivered in a vast range of musical contexts down the years.

Ó Lionáird has never been content with just representing something for other people or fulfilling others’ artistic visions. Foxlight, launched last autumn, is the outcome of one period in that ongoing exploration of his own art, a period emphasising the singing and the songwriting, a period of simpler musical forms, of embracing pop songs and appealing to a wider audience. 

The interview

Paul O’Connor: I sense there is some confusion out there about this record. How has the reaction been so far?
Iarla Ó Lionáird: I think the people who like me in traditional music are surprised at how polished a production it is. The people who don’t like me are probably saying it is even worse than my previous stuff, too accessible — a step too far. But it is finding its audience gradually, as all my records do.

POC: There’s a definite shift in this record, in terms of production but also in terms of the singing. Vocal technique doesn’t seem as important to you on this album.
IOL: You’re right. For this record I wasn’t interested in technique at all. When you’re younger and learning the craft of sean-nós there’s a lot of technique you have to become conversant in — the language of the singing, the ornament, the breath, etc. But with this record, because of most of it was written and contemporary, I just said, ‘Turn on the mic and if it feels right, it’s right.’ Like most people who make records do. That’s all there is to them: if it feels right, it’s right. 

POC: And yet your work with Donnacha Dennehy and the Crash Ensemble on Grá agus Bás was an important landmark since your last album Invisible Fields and I would imagine it required a lot of technique.
IOL: The process of making Grá agus Bás was a long, detailed process, difficult to do, as most good things are, but very very enriching for me. I’m proud of it.

Donnacha required of me a skill set that I had thanks to my upbringing and my cultural background, but he also needed someone who could step outside that, be free-thinking, socially and technically, so that I could sing something different from sean-nós if needs be.

I don’t find making records of my own as challenging because I simply sing from the heart. When I make my own records they’re very personal to me — my way of saying this is me now. But when I make records with other people I’m kind of helping them as well. In Grá agus Bás I supplied a large amount of the emotional solution for that song. That’s what was required of me. I enjoyed that fitting in and would love to do more records in new classical music.

The boundaries don’t have to be rigid. With someone like Donnacha, and the cultural space he has inflated inside Dublin, you realise the people in that world are far closer to what everyone else is doing than their predecessors. They understand people like me. It’s brilliant. Younger musicians, like Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh don’t get hung up on labels. Even though they might be into older forms, they don’t see the impenetrable boundaries that the rest of us were brought up to feel should be there. To many, and indeed to myself, I guess I’m pretty much a boundary free zone now.

POC: I felt some of the songs are actually quite coverable, unusually for your work.
IOL: Melodies are much stronger [on Foxlight] than on the last album. There’s a shift away from the microscopic level of production, the level of detail that was on Invisible Fields. Leo [Abrahams, the producer] and I agreed there were so many elements on that record that there was less time to focus on the actual thing that you are singing about, or on the melody that you are empowering your lyric with, because you’re very taken up with the context and there are only so many hours in the day when you are in the studio. The balance on this record is different.

POC: Abrahams is obviously a very important element in that. How did it come about that you handed over production to him?
IOL: I was playing with Steve Jones and Steve said to me that I really ought to meet this guy Leo. Leo joined us for the live shows for Invisible Fields and he was using the guitar and playing through the laptop. It’s so sensitive. I love electric guitar for the same reason Leo loves it. I’m kind of mystified by it. It’s the superior human interface for making sounds, compared to keyboards which are pretty awful at that; they don’t present the music with the same physical feel — they’re not as tactile. While [keyboards] are very well endowed chromatically, they are limited in terms of expression. Real-time processing sounds really dead and unremarkable with a piano, whereas the electric guitar hooks up well with all the latest technology.

Leo was just wonderful. He had this lightness of touch that was very impressive. Gavin Bryars heard him at one of our rehearsals and wrote to me immediately after to ask if he could get Leo to work on Anail De. It was so beautiful what Leo did with the electric guitar on that; it was incredible how he fitted in and yet transformed the piece. And around that time I decided to ask him to produce.

In terms of the finished product, it’s quite a light touch, delicate. It is far more stripped down, and provides a lot more space for the voice.

POC: There’s a different quality to the singing on this record at times, isn’t there?
IOL: Yes. The voice is quite dry on this record. It is quite close. One of the things I was trying to do on this record was to find new ways of singing, just to see if I could sing differently, and I’m pleased that I did because you don’t want to be cycling the same bike the same way every day; it gets very boring.

POC: There is a sense of privateness about the lyrics and that’s understandable considering you wrote so many of them. And yet, there is a considerable shift away from personal history in this one, would you agree? There is less about your family and so on, less baggage, as it were. It feels lighter.
IOL: Leo wanted to make a record with me that was more accessible. I find it very hard to give in to that idea cause it makes you do things that you might not want to do as an artist. We did agree that we would try to make a record that for example you wouldn’t care whether you were listening to something in Irish. It wouldn’t bother you. But I wanted to make sure that wouldn’t stop me from singing fully and completely in Irish, that I wouldn’t be trying to hide behind it. Whatever way we delivered it, it had to feel natural and not cause people to go into translation mode.

POC: How about ‘Glistening Fields’ being in English? It’s sometimes quite odd to hear you singing in English.
IOL: It’s definitely an issue for me — a Thing. I take a bit of convincing to do it at all. We were afraid that it would overshadow or unbalance the album, but I don’t think it does.

‘Glistening Fields’ was actually written in response to the gloom at the beginning of the recession. It masquerades as a love song but it’s not. It’s about people trying to stay together and not get too depressed as a result of what people have done to this country, the unforgivable things.

POC: I had the sense in ‘Imeacht’ that the Irish language itself becomes a kind of accompaniment, the language being so much part of you physically, in the make-up of your mouth, as it were, and in this ‘song’ it seems to be put right out in front.
IOL: This song is very special to me. First, the lyric was written by a dear friend of mine, Domhnall Ó Liathain, who has since died. Second, the lyric is very meaningful because it talks about, in Ó Liathain’s imagistic mode, all the things I remember as a child growing up, the rituals of rural life and customs and their interweaving with mind, with dream, with living in that society in Cuil Aodha: whether it’s on the bog, on the side of the hill, in their white shirts, the sweat of their work, and inside in the pub drinking and singing and creating together. He laments the erosion over time of these modes of living. Third, I did it in one take. I didn’t have a clue what I was about to do. I just had the lyric. I’d never worked on it before. Leo was on the other side of the glass and I just sang it once and the amazing thing is I nearly cried at that line, ‘Comhghreann, comhchomhrá, comhdhéanamh reanna….’ It brought me back to the beautiful experiences of singing as a young man with all the old people I know, who are all gone now.

We did nothing with it afterwards. The take had all that authorial inevitibility, so we agreed that we wouldn’t do it again. When it was being mixed the engineer de-essed it [removed the sibilance from the vocal] to the point that, when I heard it, I got quite upset myself. I didn’t mind there being a bit of cleaning up on other tracks, but I insisted that this one be left as it is. Everything is in there.

This is me going back into Cuil Aodha without using sean-nós. There’s only one or two ornaments.

POC: I felt ‘Seven Suns’ has a great modern pop song feel to it, in structure and melody, despite the fact that it’s very old in terms of the lyric.
IOL: Yes, 1530s. I like the fact that it’s so old. I found it when I was researching stuff for Gavin Bryars. We did another version together that is completely different. I love Gabriel Rosenstock’s translation [supplied in the sleeve notes], it’s so now.

POC: It has the feel of a prayer.
IOL: I think it’s more of a meditation than a prayer — a celebration of the every day. It’s a very private ecstasy. There is transcendence to be experienced in music. We all get it. I am not a religious person, I’m a non-believer, but when I sang this I felt a lot of the feelings I felt as a kid in the church. I felt that kind of heightened, that almost silly super-power sense you get in religious feeling. There’s no doubt but that I did give in to it a little when I was singing it for the record. It took me by surprise that there was a place in my mind that still belonged to religion and that could be flushed out by singing a song like this.

POC: I notice that ‘Eleanor Plunkett’ is sung without sean-nós ornamentation.
IOL: I had been singing it live for two or three years with the ornamentation and I realised it always felt overburdened. Whereas it already has a fabulous melody, a very pop melody — it’s a pop song, with a very short intro, and then it almost goes to chorus level within eight bars or so [sings through the transition]. That’s most unusual in a traditional song, so called, and it gets to the point very sharply. I was working all summer on this a couple of years ago and kept saying, ‘I can’t get it, I can’t get it.’ And then one day, with everything taken out, I realised it sounded so convincing; as a clean, pure pop song, I realised I’d got it.

We have to remember that it’s written for the harp and the harp of that time would not have been played so ornamented. O’Carolan was a baroque composer and it’s written in an entirely different sensibility despite the fact that it is Gaelic in the extreme. In order to sing the song I had to edit some of O’Carolan’s words, and in fact, it is possible that he half spoke some of them in order to fit them in. I didn’t change any words, I just took out lines that I didn’t think were needed, maintaining the message.

The editorial effort there continues with the music: to leave in only what is required, and take out everything else. I felt it benefited from allowing the melody to escape from the bonds of ornamentation and to be set free in a pure melodic line, and I think that when you hear it like that you just get it.

The very good sean-nós singers are fairly careful about how they deploy ornamentation: it’s used when they are singing on their own as a self-accompanying as well as a self-entertaining method. It makes it more interesting when you’re listening to only one voice, particularly as the ornaments are varied from verse to verse.

People I listen to in traditional music preceded the terminology of tradition and sean-nós and they were noteworthy because they were iconoclastic. Even the better sean-nós singers were quite different from what people imagine sean-nós singers sound like. The three or four that I would say are brilliant are not like what you would hear today. They were quite inventive, similar to say, Tommy Potts on the fiddle, quite outside what has become the accepted field. They wanted to amuse themselves, which is what all art stems from.

Published on 17 February 2012

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