For anyone who enjoys an imaginative blend of contemporary and traditional music; beautifully constructed airs, jigs and reels; love songs and ballads in both Gaelic and English; something rather special is on the horizon. On 29th January Irish singer, composer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Nuala Kennedy will release her 4th solo album, Behave the Bravest, and it’s set to be her most impressive solo album yet.
Nuala is originally from Dundalk in County Louth and is now based in Edinburgh. In addition to playing flute and whistle, Nuala is a composer, song writer and singer. She’s recorded and toured extensively as a session musician and as part of The Alt with John Doyle and Eamon O’Leary, and Oirialla with Gerry O’Connor (fiddle), Breton guitarist Gilles Le Bigot, and accordionist Martin Quinn.
Behave the Bravest is an all-encompassing piece of work that draws on Nuala’s significant experience as a writer, performer and collaborator; just as much as it draws on her deeply rooted love of Irish music. And it’s among those Irish roots that the album opens, as Nuala’s whistle introduces Lovely Armoy.
This is a glowing example of Irish traditional song at its best. An emigration song where Eamon O’Leary’s bouzouki accompanies Nuala’s crystal clear voice while Johnny Connolly’s button accordion sings quietly in the background, and it’s all topped off with harmonies from Eamon that match Nuala’s voice perfectly. Lovely Armoy is the first of three songs on the album that were recorded in Santa Monica, California.
Nuala took the imaginative step of recording Behave the Bravest while touring with her band last year. At studios in Sydney Australia, Los Angeles California and in her adopted city of Edinburgh she and her band, along with guest musicians, laid down the tracks that would later be expertly mixed by Paul Savage in Glasgow.
From the same Californian session, the Scottish Waulking song Mo Bhuachaill Dubh Dhonn (My Brown-Haired Boy) sees Nuala’s voice take on more smoky tones for its Irish Gaelic translation. The gently skipping melody, sourced from Tobar an Dualchais, is a fine prelude for the jig Young Tom Ennis. In Fair Annie of the Loch Royanne the more minimal accompaniment and subtle, atmospheric percussion from Mathias Kunzli, allows the story and Nuala’s vocal to shine through, building in drama as the tale unfolds.
The UK sessions offer, among other delights, more contemporary approaches to the traditional songs. The ballad The Lion’s Den opens like a gentle string quartet, but tension builds as the story unfolds, the strings take on a military aspect with a more authoritative pace. The dark drama of Joe Philips’ bowed bass leads perfectly to the tense slow reel The Burning House. A line from the The Lion’s Den also provides Nuala with her album title:
He who shall behave the bravest will be the governor of my heart.
The other Gaelic song on the album, Úrchnoc Chéin Mhic Cáinte (The Fair Hill of Killen), floats on a haunting fiddle from Shona Mooney, with the gentle, lilting power of Nuala’s voice delivering a passionate Ulster love song. Still more innovation is in evidence when we reach Death And The Lady. Making use of Shirley Collins’ contemporary melody for this old English ballad, Nuala’s arrangement gives the song a positive vibe that seems at odds with the subject matter, with its driving guitar and folk-rock flute, until you discover she was inspired by Terry Pratchett’s characterisation of Death.
There’s no shortage of material for the dancers among Nuala’s audience. A wonderful selection of tune sets add further depth to the album. The reels Glen Where The Deer Is/The Ivy Leaf/Dublin Lasses are driven along by Michael Bryan’s guitar, light percussion and a gorgeous, deep bodhrán from Donald Hay. All this in support of Nuala’s enchanting whistle playing – every bit as clear, welcoming and expressive as her voice. Le Funambule (The Tightrope Walker) is a beguiling Bourree Nuala learned from fellow Oirialla member, the outstanding Breton guitarist Gilles Le Bigot. The rich texture of Nuala’s flute is beautifully offset by a hint of the dusk in deep, luxurious bowed strings. Utterly, utterly delightful.
The European influences continue in the album’s closing tune set, perfectly suited to Nuala’s lively, light as air, touch on the flute. An Irish Jig, The Broken Lantern (from Nuala’s kitchen cupboard!) is bookended by a brace of impeccably matched Asturian dances: Muñeira de Paula includes Shona’s gently soaring fiddle and Barralín, learned from Borders fiddler Lori Watson, takes everything up a notch and closes the album with a smile.
As always with Nuala Kennedy, the album delights on a number of levels. She is as natural and gifted a flute player as you could hope to hear, her vocal performances are precise and charming, and her careful selection and arrangement of tune sets and songs results in an album that always has a surprise around the corner.
On Behave the Bravest, Nuala Kennedy stays true to her roots, but also shows her mastery at adapting and finding a fresh angle from which to present her music. The combination of her exceptional vocal, instrumental and production skills; a core band and guests who provide the perfect pace and backing; and a studio team with impeccable technical ability have come together to create an album that is both sincere and accomplished. Not only that – it’s a damn fine listen!
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Behave the Bravest is released on 29th January via Under the Arch Records
Pre-order signed copies via Nuala’s website here: www.nualakennedy.com/store/
Upcoming UK Tour Dates
January 27th 8pm
Nuala Kennedy Band with Himmerland
Eastgate Theatre, Peebles
Info and Tickets
January 28th 8pm
Nuala Kennedy Band with Himmerland
Celtic Connections Festival
Strathclyde Suite, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall,
Info and Tickets
Photo Credit: Louis Decarlo