Damien O’Kane’s remarkable new album, Areas Of High Traffic, has made quite an impression. Its blend of tradition and innovation delivered by a band as tight as a fiddler’s bow came like a breath of fresh air. Damien will soon be hitting the road for a series of album launch gigs, so it seemed an appropriate time to put a few questions to him about his approach to this album and gain a few insights into the recording process.
When I sat down to review the album I realised it’s been five years since Summer Hill. After all that time it’s an album that I still play regularly and it still moves me. I wondered if that album seems a long way away to Damien.
It seems a long, long way away but so much has happened in my life since releasing Summer Hill in 2010, it has whizzed by. It was a huge step for me at the time, recording my first solo, vocal album, but the feedback from it was incredible. I didn’t intend to wait 5 years to release another but that’s what happened and I’ve had a total blast in between times getting married, having babies, touring, recording and Co-Producing with my wonderful wife Kate Rusby, sessioning with lots of great people and touring with my own band throughout the globe. Perspectives on life have changed somewhat and I feel really lucky. This is illuminated in my new album which is packed with my musical and personal influences throughout my time on this planet – I’ve finally been able to express it all through my music on AREAS OF HIGH TRAFFIC.
So, the five year gap has certainly been productive, in lots of ways. In terms of music output, Damien’s banjo / guitar project with David Kosky, The Mystery Inch was quite a contrast to Summer Hill and his work with Kate Rusby. It was a four year project, with a very trad sound. Areas Of High Traffic takes a completely different approach, was it just as long in the making?
I’m not sure I’ve (or Dave for that matter) ever told many people this but the main reason The Mystery Inch took so long to create was because David Kosky and I were just in no rush to make it. It started off as a drunken plan to record sets of tunes we play at sessions together and progressed into a more ‘serious’ album the more we recorded. Serious in the sense that we made sure we didn’t fart or swear whilst playing. David and I (and of course Joe Rusby who was engineering it) would spend a day one weekend at it, then we wouldn’t be back in the studio for another 5/6 months as we just got busy. That’s how it happened and I think better for it.
AREAS OF HIGH TRAFFIC was a different approach in sound as you say but it took a lot less time to make as I had a clear vision of what I wanted it to be and sound like. All the boys in the band (Steven Iveson – electric guitar, Cormac Byrne – kit and percussion and Anthony Davis – keys, pads, synths, pianos and bass) are so busy doing other things and the best way to record was in blocks of time. They had no idea they’d be making music that sounded so different to what I’d done before but it just seemed natural to everyone! We had the whole album recorded in 20 days and that includes rehearsals. The 3 boys recorded live to me doing guides in the control room, and it worked great because I feel the album really benefits from that raw energy you get from playing live. All in all, we recorded the album in 4 blocks of time but those 4 time periods were over a 14 month period. It was a great experience as I’d never recorded like this before, I definitely would again.
While not wanting to appear as if I’m nagging, Damien did let slip in a previous Folk Radio UK interview that he was hoping to set to work on a Mystery Inch Part 2, so I had to check whether this is still in the pipeline. Luckily there’s some very good news in that respect, and Damien’s habit of providing us with exclusive news snippets revealed even more.
The Mystery Inch Part 2 is definitely in the pipeline and this one will come in the shape of 2 banjos and 1 guitar. I haven’t uttered this to anyone yet but no harm in telling you that, very excitingly, David and I are working on an album with none other than banjo god, Ron Block (Alison Krauss and Union Station). I’ve always absolutely loved the sound of Tenor Banjo and 5-string banjo together. We all spoke last year and even recorded a track whilst Ron was in the UK. Recording of this will commence in late March and early April 2016 and both Dave and I are so excited there could be accidents! It may very well turn out that this album morphs into something other than The Mystery Inch Part 2 but the second part will definitely come at some point.
Now that’s something to look forward to! That duet with Ron Block on Areas Of High Traffic was in The Blacksmith, and it helped set the tone for the album early on. Most of the songs on the album are traditional and many were sourced from the book by Hugh Shields (song collector) “Shamrock, Rose and Thistle: Folk Singing in North Derry”. Damien refers to the book a few times in the album sleeve notes, so it’s clearly a resource he feels very much attached to. I wondered whether it was a collection he grew up with or if it was something he encountered later in life.
This ‘bible’ for me is a collection I discovered when I was sourcing repertoire for 2010’s Summer Hill. From the outset of searching for material for this album I was put in contact with a great collector and a huge resource of repertoire from the North of Ireland, Jackie Devenney, also a Coleraine man. This in itself was a huge shock to me as traditional music is/was just not played or celebrated in Coleraine very much at all, not in my time anyway. I’m proud to say my family were one of the first families to play traditional music in some of the pubs in Coleraine for decades, that we know of. Jackie’s collections however, were proof that it has always been there! And “Shamrock, Rose and Thistle:Folk Singing in North Derry” had songs with familiar place names, songs about roads I played on as a youth (Listen to Hugh Shields’ sound recordings here). It gives me great pride to take these homeland songs out of the page and give them new life. The imagery captured for me from these songs is of home and my identity as an Irishman. Being able to express this through my music is just incredible.
Being a bit of an information junkie, it’s easy to get distracted when researching for a review. The major distraction with Areas Of High Traffic, apart from the awesome music, was that title. I trawled through every lyric, every scrap of history I could find on every song on the album, and a fair amount on Damien’s music previously trying to find an explanation, any hint at what inspired the name. Eventually I had to give up and admit defeat. I was keen for an explanation from the man himself.
At Christmas last year, Kate and I had flu. So bad that on Christmas morning we were smiling at our daughters opening their presses, both of us lying on the floor, not an ounce of energy and the sweat blinding us. We remedied it on Christmas day with a few sherries. Everyone knows that feeling when you have the flu, where it’s uncomfortable even putting a jumper on as it irritates your skin. Kate said to me, “It’s always on those areas of high traffic that your skin hurts…” i.e. your waist, neck, arms and thighs where you pull your clothes on and off. Instantly I thought, what a great name for my album as the music is quite busy, then its slow, it’s quite industrial sounding and there’s lots of noises in among the ‘traffic.’ I also thought the sentiment was ridiculously hilarious which got me through another day of the flu!
An inspired decision for the album title, then! Which led me to ask whether anything else had a direct influence on the music itself. Does Damien listen to other music while he’s working on an album or writing?
To be honest no. The numerous musical influences were already firmly embedded in my brain. I wanted to make an album where I felt totally free to just do what I want, not feel that there’s any rules, which perhaps I’ve been guilty of in the past. This is not to be disrespectful though. There’s so many different musical styles and tastes in the band and we all have our forte in different places too, I think it is totally fine to draw on all of these. All the boys in the band know what I’ve done before musically and although they weren’t expecting to be so free to ‘let rip’ so to speak, it has worked really well and it was easy. Everyone knew the boundaries pretty quick, the fact that there weren’t any really! Of course I brought all the material and had very defined charts of how I wanted the songs to be chordly. It was always my vision, and that’s why I asked these particular boys (Cormac, Steven and Anthony) to be with me, to have a band sound and that sound to be lots of soundscapes, pleasing effects and a more ‘modern’ sonic palette throughout. I wanted to bring my music to a different place and going back to the question; that was made possible through the music I’ve listened to throughout my life.
Damien moved to England from Coleraine almost 15 years ago. The music scene in England has changed dramatically in that time. Has that shaped his approach more than he thought it would?
When I moved to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in 2001 to study the Folk and Traditional Music Degree I had no aspirations to go on and be a professional musician. In short, I was in a boring job at home, I was drinking too much and I needed to change something. In fact, there was a period of about 2 years before I left where I hardly played any music at all. Music has always been a huge part of my life and it was the most obvious thing to turn to.
I think the music scene in England has taught me a great deal. It has shaped my approach in that it is here I began my professional career and it is here I have learned the best way to try and progress. I’ve had the great privilege and pleasure of playing with some fantastic musicians and singers along the way including Kate Rusby, Flook, Michael McGoldrick, Cathal Hayden, Shona Kipling, Dick Gaughan and too many to mention, who have all taught me something new along the way. England has a very vibrant traditional music scene and 100’s of festivals, a lot of which I’ve been lucky enough to play at. They are very proud of their music and song and so they should be. Opportunities and gigs are definitely more a plenty in England and in that sense, this country has played a large part in letting me hone who I am musically today. As an Irishman, I would love to be performing more in Ireland and hopefully that will come. There’s no question – you can’t beat playing to a home crowd.
It’s easy to see how strongly Damien feels about his music; the sense of purpose, the sense of pride and the strong emotional attachment to the traditional repertoire. Although a contemporary song, Don’t Let Me Come Home a Stranger comes straight from that tradition and Damien’s recording is an amazing, passionate performance. The sentiment is from the viewpoint of being away and thinking of returning home. I’m guessing England is now home?
Well thank you very much for your kind words. I loved recording that song, it is a very emotional one to sing.
England is home. Yorkshire is home home. But Coleraine will always be home home home. Ireland and England have some of the best landscapes and scenery on the planet. I’m proud to call both my home. Most of my influences are firmly rooted from my Irish upbringing and background though. That will never change.
In terms of moving forward with those traditions, on Areas of High Traffic it’s clear Damien’s enthralled with the idea of taking these traditional songs and presenting them in an entirely new way. Bringing on board Cormac Byrne, Steven Iveson and Anthony Davis has clearly been well worth while. Were they part of the plan from day one or did the idea of a core band evolve?
They were all part of the plan from day one. As I uttered before in one of the other questions, I really wanted a band sound and I knew what they could all bring to the album. They are seriously, seriously talented boys and I enjoyed every single minute in the studio with them. I loved the idea of working with the same people on everything which is not what I did on Summer Hill. There were a lot of guests on Summer Hill as opposed to a core sound but I don’t regret that. That was a totally different vision and a different time.
Steven Iveson is a long time friend and a fellow Coleraine man. He is talented beyond belief and one of the most versatile musicians and electric guitarists I’ve ever come across. He has a lot of experience in jazz, rock and blues (and more currently in trad music) and I really feel that his performances on the album are unique (non-bias!). He is a top fella and you really can’t ask for much more! Cormac Byrne is someone who I have played with quite a lot in the past in various guises. But not in this capacity. He is another eclectic musician and is into anything that has a beat. After the bands debut performance this year at Underneath The Stars Festival (run by Joe Rusby and Pure Records), Cormacs father said to him, in his broad Co. Waterford accent, “Jaysus son, ye have more drums than U2.” But he plays every drum, every beat and every bang and crash with total precision. He is a fantastic drummer/percussionist and again, a top fella. Last but not least, Anthony Davis is another musician I’d worked with on many occasions over the years. He is the producer of an Irish music and dance show that tours the world every year, so trying to pin him down was somewhat of a challenge! But so worth it. He has this ability to play exactly what I want to hear every time. And his keys, synths, pads, organs and pianos on the album are just sublime. So, so talented and once again, a top fella. I am proud to call all these boys my good friends and how lucky am I to have them. It’s so important to get on with the people you play with, especially in a band.
That’s how the album comes across, as a band album; not just in the tightness of the sound, but in the sense that it’s a package that’s ready to go on the road. Is that what the November dates will bring?
Absolutely. It is ready to get on the road and we’re all pretty excited about doing so.
People will inevitably talk about boundaries being pushed, about how far this album moves away from folk music. This is a normal, understandable reaction from a folk music audience. The banjo is not a rock instrument. Are we all maybe coming from the wrong angle here? The album is rooted in folk – the raw material is traditional. Could it be argued that you’re pushing the boundaries of rock by bringing folk material to such a carefully crafted rock/jazz fusion?
I absolutely love this theory. I really, really like this sentiment so I’m going to say yes, though what will David Grohl have to say! I’d like to think of it more like pushing the boundaries of both ;-) It was totally my intention to push the boundaries, I don’t think any music should have rules, as long as you are respectful. I love the fact that at the epicentre of almost every track, is a traditional song and singer but the treatment of the tracks is somewhat diverse, altered, boundary pushing. Music is changing all the time, the entire music industry has changed dramatically even over the past 5 years! I’ve achieved what I set out to achieve. Some people will like it and some people won’t but that’s to be said of everything. I couldn’t be happier with the outcome.
Judging from reaction to the album so far, that view is shared by Damien’s fans. It’s certainly an album that Damien, his band and Pure Records can justifiably be very, very proud of. Anyone lucky enough to be going to one of the three launch gigs can look forward to enjoying something rather special.
Interview by: Neil McFadyen
Album Launch Gigs:
11 Nov 2015 Manchester, Chorlton Irish Club, Carousel Sessions
12 Nov 2015 London, The Forge (Camden)
14 Nov 2015 Belfast, Duncairn Arts Centre
27 Nov 2015 Birmingham Tradfest