FOXLIGHT PROFILE | Irish Times by Siobhan Long
SIOBHÁN LONG The Irish Times. January 12 2012
Iarla Ó Lionáird would prefer not be categorised, and his new album follows an ambitious arc that challenges musical identity. But there’s no doubt he is one of our most distinctive voices
DISTINCTIVE VOICES are always a welcome arrival, regardless of the orbits they choose, and Iarla Ó Lionáird’s is one that ventures far beyond the boundaries of any one genre: a defiantly unclassifiable sound.
He’s a child of traditional music, born and bred in Cúil Aodha, in the belly of the Cork Gaeltacht, with Seán Ó Riada a neighbour and indisputable early influence. His grand aunt, the traditional singer Bess Cronin, had forged a reputation for rich interpretation before him, paving the way for the young Ó Lionáird to still audiences with his plaintive, textured voice at Mass, and later, in parlours, front rooms, snugs, town halls and concert halls.
The mood of Ó Lionáird’s third solo album, Foxlight, is one of buoyant lightness, with shards of darkness slicing through it. His last album, Invisible Fields , was released in 2005. Lengthy gestation, resulting in the release of work that is fully realised, is a hallmark of Ó Lionáird’s recorded output. Living outside Inistiogue in Kilkenny, he’s sanguine about the ways in which life inevitably influences his music, his singing and his writing in ways which he might not have bargained on before. Ó Lionáird has three children, so it’s unsurprising that fatherhood has impinged on his perspective, and this is palpable in his songwriting.
“Really, my kids are the future. I’m not,” Ó Lionáird muses, having come to an understanding with himself about the relationship between art and mortality. “I’m living my present in service to their future, in a way. Despite the fact that you go through life doing your own thing, and it all appears to be about yourself, when you have kids, it isn’t like that any more. You have a lot less time to think about yourself. And so, [his song] Daybreak is about the fact that it’s all about them.
“And that they will be there, and I won’t, but that’s okay. The thought that you wouldn’t be there any more could be very upsetting to a person, but I found the solution in thinking about them. The equation had a solution and it didn’t trouble me any more. Once I acquiesced to the notion that ‘is sibh a bheidh ann’ [‘that you will remain’], that’s cool, you know. So fatherhood has had an immersive effect on my preoccupations as I write, as it would do with anyone, I’m sure. I’m no different.”
Foxlight follows an ambitious arc through traditional songs such as Fáinne Geal An Lae and The Goat Song , with a beautiful reading of O’Carolan’s Eleanor Plunkett, and a kaleidoscopic range of original material, written by Ó Lionáird. His producer, Leo Abrahams, brings cool, clean lines to the arrangements, having worked previously with Brian Eno, David Byrne, Gavin Bryars and Nick Cave, among others.
It’s a collection that refuses to be corralled, weaving the mood music of the title track with the transcendence of Lámh Le Lámh and the mournful resignation of Stay. Abrahams’ influence can be characterised as “the light at the end of each phrase”, he says.
Although Ó Lionáird has never rejected his sean-nós roots, he has long vacated the space where “traditional singer” might have defined him. For him, making music is less about playing to the strictures of any musical genre than it is about stretching his abilities as a singer and a songwriter with something to say.
“The idea of writing songs was something I always wanted to do,” he says, “but I inherited this identity as an interpreter of old songs, and it seemed that it wasn’t really encouraged to mix those two identities. In media terms, I’m always seeing that binary: ‘Iarla Ó Lionáird’ and ‘sean-nós singer’. It disappoints me a little that there isn’t sufficient oxygen in the media to fully explore the complex identities of artists. When I set out to do an album, I aim to create things that didn’t exist before, from nothing. Even with Foxlight, I didn’t record the traditional songs until the end, because I was synthesising what I was doing. Everything is new, everything is different, everything is generative of the things that come after, and linked to the thing that went before.”
The truth is, it’s the individual sonic qualities of Iarla Ó Lionáird’s voice that define him. That voice, with all its midnight depth and soaring breadth, transcends anything that might box or classify him as one thing or another.
“I came to the conclusion a few years ago that what really is my identity is the sound I make rather than any notion of me being a culture bearer,” he says, with a certain relief at the simplicity of the supposition. “Whatever I got in Cúil Aodha, I’ve carried with me, and I’ve married that with a deep need to explore my own musical voice, paint using my own colours. There’s no way back from that really.”
Such clarity is at the heart of Ó Lionáird’s collaborations with The Gloaming (Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett), whose debut tour last summer attracted record audiences and rave reviews in equal measure. The band will reunite early this year in New York, with a March concert mooted for Dublin and, after that, an album is promised. Through these disparate activities, Ó Lionáird hopes that “the plasma of the band can be contained and maintained”. Alongside that, he’s also currently revving up to record a new album with fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, and another with Steve Cooney. Ó Lionáird’s previous work with the Afro Celts signposted a way which was never going to be predictable.
Foxlight is shot through with light that ricochets in many directions. From the childlike innocence of The Goat Song to the luminous Daybreak, with its plangent vocals from Norwegian chanter Sara Marielle Gaup, the shapes Ó Lionáird’s voice makes are suggestive rather than directive, conjuring subtle moods that float to the surface almost imperceptibly.
“Emotion is a thought process,” he offers, explaining his approach to this latest studio outing. “It’s vastly more powerful than any other form of thinking, and any other form of experience. What’s great about making records is that you have the privilege of exploring that form of thinking: thinking using emotion. In Foxlight, I wanted to do that, and how I do it is through the sound of my voice.”
Foxlight has its fair share of shade, too. Ó Lionáird has never shirked the shadows. Much of what distinguishes his music is in how he’s put a finger on life’s more obscured experiences: the light and shadow of birth, the ageing experience and the anticipation of death. Ultimately, Iarla Ó Lionáird sees his latest foray into the studio as just another step in a circuitous journey, whose destination remains unknown.
“One thing I’ve learned is that there is no possible end,” he says. “Your relationship to your own sound is like the rotation of the Earth. It goes on. It can’t stop. You just have to be awake to it. When I started out as a singer, I wasn’t. I was only awake to the experience and the ecstasy of singing out, whereas there are many other ecstasies: the ecstasy of singing, to be quietly in the presence of what you want to say. Thankfully, with Leo Abrahams’s stewardship, I was given the time to really find all the narratives of the sound that my voice can possibly make.”
iomas | intuition - Iarla Ó Lionáird with the RTE Concert Orchestra.
The voice of experience: sean nós made new for Iarla Ó Lionáird
An eclectic range of composers have collaborated with the traditional singer with the ‘severe’ voice
Iarla Ó Lionáird: ‘I’m beginning to understand that the goal really is to create experiences for the listener and for myself.’ Photograph: Feargal Ward
Remoulding songs from our sean nós tradition is a bold move, and not one to be taken lightly, unless the adventurer has a suit of armour to protect himself from the slings and arrows of those on intimate terms with the music.
Iarla Ó Lionáird has chosen to do just that in his latest project, Iomas – Intuition. It is time, he figures, to revisit some of the sean nós songs that have formed the backbone of his repertoire, by bringing them to the attention of a group of contemporary composers to whom he has given carte blanche to make them their own. David Lang, Nico Muhly, Dan Trueman and Niall Vallely are among the composers and arrangers charged with this task.
Anyone familiar with the sound of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle – through the playing of Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, for example – will be aware that that billowing, high, lonesome sound envelops a tune like no other. Trueman, a US composer and arranger, first introduced the Hardanger fiddle to Irish music through his friendship with Ó Raghallaigh. At Ó Lionáird’s request, Trueman has created arrangements for three sean nós songs, including Siúl a Rún.
“The songs themselves are so beautiful that, quite frankly, at the outset I was concerned about doing more harm than good,” Trueman says. “I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t lessening the song. This project has allowed me to get to know Iarla’s voice in real detail, and try to deal with it musically on my own terms.”
Trueman has set aside the ornamentations of the Hardanger, concentrating instead on creating a sonic landscape for a concert orchestra that will coalesce with Ó Lionáird’s cavernous voice. The pair plan to collaborate again in the future.
“Most of Iarla’s songs are not in clear metres,” Trueman says, “so one of the challenges is to find a way to play with him without changing him so that he’d have to square everything up and make it less natural, less of the breath and of the word. To me, the Hardanger fiddle, with its very flexible sense of time, felt like a natural place from which to approach Iarla’s music.”
There’s a serendipity underscoring many of the pairings that Ó Lionáird has curated for this concert. He has sought out Donnacha Dennehy of Crash Ensemble, whose 2011 Grá agus Bás drew its inspiration from Ó Lionáird’s voice and from the sean nós song Aisling Gheal. Dennehy has arranged Aisling Gheal for this performance. He describes working with Ó Lionáird as “the truest collaboration of my life so far”.
“It simply reaches some very emotional place inside me,” Dennehy says of sean nós singing. “It probes deeply, and to some extent that is unexplainable. However, it is also pregnant with possibility for me as a composer. It intersects with my own musical language in a very fruitful and meaningful way. In a technical sense, I was inspired by how, harmonically, it related to lots of ideas I had about the way the harmonic series operates in my music. The words are also beautifully resonant. I wish that my Irish was better, but this tradition has spurred me on to learning more, often with the benign encouragement of Iarla.”
‘A duvet of harmony’
Nico Muhly is a contemporary classical composer and arranger whose resumé includes working with Björk, Antony and the Johnsons, Crash Ensemble, New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Glen Hansard. His approach to arranging two songs at Ó Lionáird’s suggestion (one of which is Eleanor Plunkett) was revealing in its simplicity, particularly since this is Muhly’s first time working with the Irish language.
“I always feel like making an arrangement is more like being asked to dress somebody,” Muhly says. “You don’t want to call attention to yourself; you want to make the person look great and have the clothes disappear, in a sense. My approach for these two songs was very, very simple: follow the chords and leave a sort of halo behind. Iarla’s voice is so severe in its expression; I wanted to make a duvet of harmony for him to rest in.”
Ó Lionáird is sanguine about these collaborations. “What I’ve been hearing is what I had hoped to hear,” he says, reflecting on the works in progress, “which is unique responses to the music, with tremendous personal insights from each of the composers. You know, more and more, I’m beginning to understand that the goal really is to create experiences for the listener and for myself. That’s what this is all about.
Ghost Trio : The Grand Social, Dublin ****
The Irish Times : Siobhán Long
“Drone city” is how Iarla Ó Lionáird describes the antics of Ghost Trio, and he isn’t far off. Pipes, Hardanger fiddle and harmonium coalesce to shape an atmospheric set that speaks more of the space and time inherent in traditional music than it does the momentum. And what a welcome alternative take this is.
So much of Irish traditional music’s reputation is built on its dance music, its fervour and pace, that it’s easy to forget the riches that underpin its goltraí and suantraí (sad and hushabye tunes). Ó Lionáird’s cavern-deep voice effortlessly draws us in to these recesses, and shows us how lush the growth is down there.
Although he pleads extreme nervousness on this opening date of their first Music Network tour together, Ó Lionáird slides his voice along the bow lines of Cleek Schrey’s 10-string Hardanger fiddle with the warmth and agility of an athlete long practised in stretching to his own outer limits.
The trio luxuriate in the funereal pacing of the first half, basking in the intimacy of Abha An t-Oileán , and the beauty of Nora Críonna . Schrey’s old-time tunes are a delight: Cluck Old Hen and Advance No More (Was Hanged) showcasing a musician utterly at one with his instrument and his music, and yet equally at ease with ours.
Bess Cronin and Peadar Ó Riada magically colour Ó Lionáird’s songbook, and the languid evening draws to a close. This is a fine reminder of what atmosphere lurks within and without our tunes and songs.
The Gloaming Union Chapel 19th June 2013 : UK premiere by Irish music's latest supergroup surpasses all expectations. * * * * *
The Arts Desk : Peter Quinn
Hot Press like Foxlight
Irish Times praise Foxlight (Real World Records)
Press for Donnacha Dennehy: Gra agus Bas (Nonesuch) with Iarla O’Lionaird
“At its centre is a darkly mesmerising vocal contribution from Iarla Ó Lionáird, who confirms his standing as the most articulate exponent of sean nós of his generation.”
5 Star Review Songlines UK
“As listeners to this recording will hear from the very first bar, the [O’Lionaird’s] voice itself is astonishing. At times it has a Bjorling-like sweetness; at other it seems ready to cross the line from lyrical singing to a kind of raw, despairing outcry. How many singers are there who could put across the work's devastating conclusion as he does here?”
The Bangkok Post
“The result was the remarkable 2007 Grá agus Bás (Love and Death), in which the voice of sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird was the starting point not only for the vocal lines of Dennehy's work, but for the textures that support and envelop them. It's a piece of startling freshness, with Ó Lionáird's voice at the centre of a seething web of instrumental lines that seems to commute freely between utterly different musical worlds without any trace of dislocation.”
5 Star Review The Guardian
“If this recording has anything in common with the crossover genre of “Celtic music,” it might be its potential to delight a large audience. And if it’s cultural tourism, it’s on a very high level.”
The Washington Post
“`Grá agus Bás - Irish sean-nós (old style) vocal music with its keen, ornate flourishes meets classical neo-minimalism in composer Donnacha Dennehy's "Grá agus Bás" (Love and Death). Over its 24-minute length, the voice of Iarla Ó Lionáird (Afro Celt Sound System) is enveloped by the electronic and chamber sounds of Dennehy's Crash Ensemble. Result: a swirling, pulsing timbral odyssey, both ancient and novel in feel.”
“haunting and utterly bracing title work, sung in Gaelic by vocalist Iarla Ó Lionáird, whose initial honey-sweet murmurs rise through anxiety and morph irrevocably into churning, roaring terror.”
Top 25 Releases of The Year So Far, NPR.
Iarla O'Lioniard - Press Quotes
"Genius is the operative word here" Time Out
"One of the most dramatic voices in contemporary music" The Guardian
"O'Lionaird's real triumph is his voice: as soft as a feather bed and as searingly sharp as a blade when the mood calls" The Irish Times
"His voice will astound you. It soars - and it's as profound, simple and beautiful as wild horses... Genius is the operative word here. Traditionalists will be spellbound, newcomers will be intrigued and wanna-bes will change careers. Count yourself lucky to hear an artist like this once in your lifetime" Time Out New York
"...quite otherworldly beauty" Time Out
"Indominatable spirit and internal beauty.. soul singing in the truest sense" Songlines
"The finest sean nos singer to be found anywhere in these islands today" Hot Press
"A refreshing and quite captivating take on Sean Nos, one of the most ancient of Ireland's musical traditions" Rolling Stone
"Solitary and mournful yet capable of flights of beauty" The Guardian
"You won't forget the voice. A quiet storm" Mojo
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