This month we reviewed the superb new album from our Featured Artist of the Month – Éilís Kennedy. Westward (read the review here) is a collection of traditional and contemporary songs that display the kind of elegance and grace that can only come from Ireland, especially when the songs feature a voice as pure and soothing as Éilís’. We’re especially pleased that Éilís has found time to discuss Westward in more detail, how the album compares to her previous solo albums, and to share her thoughts on another musical project with close ties to home and family.
Together with her regular collaborator from Santa Cruz, guitarist William Coulter, Éilís arranged a selection of songs in both Gaelic and English that spanned the traditional repertoires of England, Scotland and Ireland. She has also collected songs in both languages, and from both sides of the Atlantic, from friends, family and musical influences; and framed them all in beautiful guitar, fiddle, cello and harp arrangements.
Two noticeably disparate songs stand out on Westward, though. Highway Mack takes a contemporary look at the age-old topic of life on the road, but The Flannel Red harks right back to ancient balladry. Both were written by Éilís – the first time she’s recorded her own songs. We thought it must feel good to have her own songs on an album…
“It’s a new feeling, yes, although I have written verses as add-ons to songs over the years to songs I sing regularly.
“With Highway Mack it was the sense of the character that motivated me – so many drifters seem invisible but he was up close and real and visible, in such a stark contrast to his surrounds in dress and demeanour that he was completely memorable to me, I simply wondered about his story.”
With The Flannel Red, did you set out to write a traditional ballad, or did the song emerge that way through the story?
“The Flannel Red was a story – a history, a series of events – which I was aware of since childhood. I saw my great grandmother’s face in an old black and white photo in our house every day and never really thought about how she was widowed or how she lived until I read about these events and connected them to that story. The importance of the Great Blaskets and its people and heritage has been a backdrop to our lives for years. I have wanted to write a song telling the Flannel Red story for years too! It’s only recently that I made time to put it together, and I guess the ballad form is familiar to me as a singer. It has a universality that makes it perhaps easier to tell a story like this. I felt it would resonate better with a steady rhythm and a chorus, as ballads do, to help one follow the story. My own great grandfather’s life and its context in the end of the 1800’s became very real to me as I began to put the song together. It is a story of a tragedy, of loss, and of the supernatural. All these things were part of life in the fishing communities of Ireland, as they were elsewhere. My memories of being out in the harbour on my father’s boat in the summer are in there too, and the realisation that his love of the sea truly ran in his veins.”
Westward represents quite a step forward from Éilís’ previous solo albums. Time To Sail and One Sweet Kiss featured well-known traditional and contemporary songs. On Westward, however, in addition to including two of her own songs, Éilís opted for less well-known pieces, especially with the traditional choices. We asked if she felt more scope was available, in terms of freedom with the arrangement, with these songs.
“It’s important to me to try to find less well-known choices, yes. It’s a challenge! I was very open to songs coming my way rather than searching endlessly and, in fairness, I omitted a fair few too, but the absolute freedom of recording and being free to do so on my own terms is probably the biggest reason I had scope in the arrangement. Being amongst friends in that context, especially with their talents and openness and musical generosity, makes these choices very simple.
“I loved when a simple notion I would have about, say, accordion on The Flannel Red, or playful harp on AN Túll would come to fruition – and that was with very definite players in mind (Damien Mullane and Jesse Autumn, in those cases)
“Pé in Eirinn Í was definitely chosen because William Coulter was very fond of it and we had worked together on an orchestral version. It’s a difficult song in some ways, (but I wanted to push myself a bit!) and I love to sing a song that my grandmother would have taught, from the very book she used. I feel very connected to her that way. Shelley Phillips, with her huge store of Scottish music and her inspirational teaching in Community Music School, suggested Will You go to the Indies and, though I have been an avid Robert Burns fan I had not heard it before.
“Overall I had no huge plan initially; I simply wanted to put together roughly 45 minutes of songs that would be like a selection box at Christmas, with the hope the weird marzipan ones would not be left long after the decorations come down.”
Those contributors Éilís spoke of gave the songs a wealth of colour and texture. Guitarist William Coulter and cellist Barry Phillips, though, have been important features of all three of albums. Did they both have a major part to play in defining the album’s approach?
“Yes, definitely, as well as Shelley Phillips. I had wanted to record with them again after a long interval, and I knew that we work well together. They really are outstanding musicians whose instincts are always bang on when it comes to the songs. Its no surprise that both Barry Phillips and William (Bill) Coulter are experienced recording engineers in their own right, and we have toured and travelled and laughed and sung together in the past. When you, as a singer, have a relationship with the musicians – there is no tension and lack of confidence there, and the process is pure joy.”
A project Éilís was involved in that we didn’t have space to mention in the review of Westward, was Béal Tuinne. It was a view of life in her home village of Baile An Mhuraigh, and had great personal significance for Éilís. We were keen to find out more.
“Béal Tuinne is a suite of songs based on poetry written by my father (Caoimhín Ó Cinnéide) and set to music by the composer Shaun Davey. The title refers to a little fishing boat my father had and means The Mouth of the Wave.
“Shaun was introduced to these poems while living in West Kerry, and, despite having no Gaelic, he was struck by the variety and imagery of these poems when they were translated for him. His music perfectly captured the spirit of each poem and led to a collaboration between Shaun, myself, Seamus Begley, Rita Connolly, Jim Murray, Lawrence Courtney and Dáithí O Sé which was the subject of a TV documentary and recorded as a live concert in a CD of the same name Béal Tuinne – Live At St. James’ Church.
“The songs are wonderful and uplifting; some are stories about events in the locality and others are about characters. Briotánách Óg ó l’Orient tells of the heroic rescue by local men of a young shipwrecked Breton sailor. Fearaibh na bhFeoibh describes the lengths some local fishermen went to in the depths of the famine to land a catch which fed their neighbours for days. Carraig Aonair is a haunting song about the events associated with the Fastnet Rock and the mystery of the Lusitania. Dán Lae Breithe is a birthday ode to my sisters Neasa and Dairena. My father was an affable, well read, larger-than-life character whose ability to tell a story and sing a song was amazing. He loved people, he loved the sea and he was an inspirational and unconventional teacher; naturally, being part of this project as a singer and flute player with some of the most gifted musicians in Ireland was like bringing him to life and the most joyful musical experience of my life. A privilege, really.”
It’s been a privilege to write about Westward, and to be able to explore the writing, arranging, recording process in such detail. At home, in Baile An Mhuraigh, Dingle; Éilís and her husband John Benny run the local pub, John Benny’s. Its weekly music sessions have afforded Éilís some truly wonderful musical collaborators. The special atmosphere that can only be achieved in live sessions has been a deep source of inspiration and, in addition to the regular Folk Concerts in St James’ Church, Dingle, would surely be the best place to enjoy Éilís’ enchanting voice and that rich tapestry of song.
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