'Irish history... [is] so apt for what's happening now': An Interview with Lauren Kinsella

Lauren Kinsella

'Irish history... [is] so apt for what's happening now': An Interview with Lauren Kinsella

Ahead of the premiere of 'Famished' with poet Cherry Smyth and composer Ed Bennett, singer and composer Lauren Kinsella speaks to The Journal of Music about improvisation, contemporary social crises and the stage as a space for conversations.

Lauren Kinsella has a multi-faceted musical existence as an improviser and composer, working with bands like Snowpoet and Roamer, and taking part in cross-arts projects like Onur Türkmen’s Sailing to Byzantium or the children’s theatre show Monster Music Improv

From Dublin, she began singing aged 11, beginning her technical training with Haydn, Britten and choral music like Rutter, but her first taste of improvising was actually years earlier at dance classes, where the teacher would put on a tape and allow ten or fifteen minutes for everyone to dance freely by themselves.

I just remember feeling a sense of ease and curiosity and excitement, and I suppose belief in it. All of those qualities I still think about now.

Beginning her formal jazz training at Newpark Music Centre in Dublin before moving on to do a Master’s degree at the Royal Academy of Music in London, Kinsella also spent time abroad, visiting India, Hungary and Sweden, experimenting with different types of music with players from all over the world.

I’m really interested in being able to work with different artists in all mediums through improvisation, but also through written music and concepts: working through themes and narratives and form, how you can really deconstruct things and reconstruct them. 

Some of the players I met then I’m still playing with now, and I’m still talking to about the evolution of where we are as artists and what we want to say in our work and what we’re striving for, what the difficulties are. It’s nice to come through your life and have this continuing dialogue with artists that you met at the beginning of your own investigation, and then ten or fifteen years later to still be having conversations with them. 

Conversation is the key to Kinsella’s performance and composition practice, whether that is dialogue with other musicians, the two-way relationship between improvisation and composition, or communicating with the audience. The stage to her is a ‘special place’ which allows those conversations to be explored:

It’s a really important space because it’s a connection for you and the musicians with the audience, a connection with the art, with the message in the art. It’s a way to express what needs to be expressed now. All of that can take place through improvisation and composition, finding the connection between that which is written and spontaneous, happening on stage in front of people. 

Collective lament
Famished is a project of Northern Irish poet Cherry Smyth, featuring music by Kinsella and composer Ed Bennett, also from Northern Ireland. Inspired by the current migrant crisis, it is based on Smyth’s 90-page poem of the same name exploring the Irish Famine, imperialism and migration through the ‘power of collective lament’. 

Kinsella and Bennett will be providing a sonic backdrop to Smyth’s poetry – ‘painting, colouring-in or framing her narrative’. She first worked with Smyth on a project with band Roamer (with musicians Simon Jermyn, Matt Jacobson and Matt Halpin), in which all members composed works using her poetry.

It has been an extremely informative process for me in a lot of ways – personally learning more about Irish history in that time and looking into the largest migration crisis of the nineteenth century, so apt for what’s happening now. It’s a really special poem because there’s so much information in there, there’s so much beauty, pain, searching, facts, lists. 

Famished will be premiered at a half-day symposium on the ‘legacies of trauma’ at London’s Stephen Lawrence Gallery in February. It will have two more performances in London, and will come to Ireland in May for performances at Smock Alley as part of the Dublin Literary Festival, followed by Cork, Limerick, Derry, Portstewart and Belfast.

That all three performers of Famished are from Ireland and Northern Ireland originally and now are based in Britain (London for Kinsella and Smyth, Birmingham for Bennett), and that the tour begins in London and ends in Belfast, adds a layer of interest to this project for Kinsella, as every gig will bring together new audience members. Each one is an opportunity for more conversation. 

The tragedy of loss and what happens with people in power, imperialism, all of these subjects we are dealing with now in contemporary life, were happening then. Through art, through poetry and music, we have a chance to engage as artists and audience members, to work together and talk. Through her work, [Smyth] is creating this, she’s giving people a space to grieve, to question, to feel. That’s why art is so essential and life-changing. 

The first performance of Famished takes place on Thursday 7 February at London’s Stephen Lawrence Gallery. The tour will then visit the London Irish Centre (7 March), Café OTO (25 March), Smock Alley Dublin (25 May), Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre (28 May), Bere Island (29 May), Limerick City Arts Gallery (30 May), Playhouse Theatre Derry (13 June), Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart (14 June), and Crescent Arts Centre Belfast (16 June). 

For further information, visit www.laurenkinsella.com

Published on 5 February 2019

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