‘There’s music everywhere’: An Interview with Josephine Marsh
Josephine Marsh was nineteen when she started writing tunes. Before that, there was no particular impetus, although she does recall a local accordion player calling to her family house and playing his own compositions.
He played two tunes for me that he wrote and I thought they were lovely, really nicely put together, simple tunes as well. The simple ones are often the ones that will stay.
On Marsh’s debut solo CD from 1996, she included a number of her own tunes, notably ‘Phyllis’s Birthday’, named after her mother. The reel has since become widely played in traditional music and has been recorded over twenty times, by musicians such as flute-player Liam Kelly of Dervish and the groups Cherish the Ladies and Líadan.
For Marsh, who is now established as a popular tune composer, ‘the most positive feedback you can get is if somebody records it.’ She often hears her tunes at sessions, but it isn’t important to her whether or not people realise who the composer is. ‘People might not necessarily know that it’s mine, and I don’t care. I’m just delighted to hear people playing my tunes.’
‘Phyllis’s Birthday’ is one of the pieces that Marsh will be performing on the Music Network tour that begins this week with harper Laoise Kelly, fiddle-player Tara Breen and singer Nell Ní Chróinín. The promoter has also commissioned Marsh to write two more pieces specifically for the quartet on the twelve-date tour. The fact there is a harper among the four meant she was keen to write a planxty, a form particularly associated with the instrument. The result is ‘Spideog’ – Irish for a robin – which is inspired by the memory of her son, also named Robin.
I always wanted to write something for him… and this July this little robin flew into the house three times in the one week, and it wasn’t an adult robin… I thought that’s definitely a sign.
The planxty will be paired with a slip-jig titled ‘The Coffee House’, which was sparked after hearing the writer Michael Harding in a public talk; he compared the Gala petrol station coffee bars of today to ‘the old coffee houses of yore where people met to discuss the news of the day, politics, business and other such matters.’
Book of tunes
Marsh is best known as an accordionist but plays and teaches several instruments, including fiddle, concertina, whistle, mandolin, guitar and banjo. Her father taught her some tunes on the accordion as a child, but she is essentially self-taught. She currently works as a full-time musician and teacher. Born in London to Irish parents from Meath and Clare, she moved to Ireland when she was four. She now lives near Miltown Malbay in the village of Coore, which is where the late composer Junior Crehan was also from.
Up until last year, Marsh had composed approximately sixty tunes, but she recently received Arts Council funding which allowed her to concentrate more on composing. In the past year or so she has written fifty more tunes and is planning to publish her own collection in 2020.
Being a multi-instrumentalist is key to her approach to composing.
Sometimes I’d pick up the mandolin, and obviously it would be different to the accordion… a different sequence of notes would come out because of the strings and the way it’s tuned… it’s the same for the whistle. … Playing at home… something would pop out… I’m more an intuitive composer rather than a methodical one.
Her latest album, Music in the Frame, released last year, contains a number of new compositions including memorable tunes such as ‘The Smashing Reel’ and a planxty titled ‘Anne Fox’ written for the daughter of some good friends. It is her first solo recording since her debut. She is also well known, however, for her 2001 recording I Can Hear You Smiling with the Josephine Marsh Band which featured driving sets with Declan Corey on mandolin, Paul O’Driscoll on bass and Tommy Carew on guitar and tunes such as ‘The Jigermyster’.
As part of this upcoming tour, Marsh, Kelly, Breen and Ní Chróinín will play a number of Marsh’s tunes, but also draw song and tunes from their own repertoire. Laoise Kelly is well known as a central figure in the modern revival of the Irish harp. Her most recent album is with the piper Tiarnán O Duinnchinn. She also founded and runs the Achill International Harp festival, which takes place this October. Tara Breen from Clare was a member of Dónal Lunny’s group Ciorras and has regularly performed around the world with the Chieftains. Nell Ní Chróinín from the Cork Gaeltacht of Muscraí is the youngest ever winner of the premier sean-nós singing competition Corn Uí Riada at Oireachtas na Gaeilge. She is now a member of the group Danú.
The four have never performed as a group together so they have been sharing ideas in recent months and working on arrangements. Marsh will likely play on other instruments as well as accordion. Composition, however, continues to be key to her music. ‘I can be inspired by a laugh that someone has… or a sound. You’d hear notes everywhere really. There’s music everywhere.’
The Music Network tour by Josephine Marsh, Tara Breen, Laoise Kelly and Nell Ní Chróinín begins on Wednesday 11 September at the Sugar Club in Dublin and then visits Glór Ennis (12th), Ionad Cultúrtha, Baile Mhúirne (13th), National Opera House, Wexford (14th), St Peter’s Church of Ireland, Portlaoise (15th), St John’s Theatre & Arts Centre, Listowel (17th), Belltable, Limerick (18th), Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire (19th), St Marylebone Parish Church, London (20th), Regional Cultural Centre, Letterkenny (21st), Hawk’s Well Theatre, Sligo (22nd), and Station House Theatre, Clifden (23rd). For more, visit www.musicnetwork.ie.
This preview is supported by Music Network.