Growing up on the western edge of County Kerry’s Dingle Peninsula; for singer/songwriter Éilís Kennedy the poetry, songs and music of Gaeldom were, and remain, a constant influence. Those influences extend even further for her new album, Westward, as Éilís is joined by friends from Atlantic and Pacific coastlines on an album that sees her expand her outlook and her own musical skills. In addition to her musical partnership with Pauline Scanlon, as Lumiere, Éilís has also released two very well received solo albums – Time to Sail in 2001 and One Sweet Kiss in 2005. Both albums offered an enchanting mix of traditional and contemporary Gaelic and English song, and made the most of the musical contacts Éilís and her husband John have nurtured as proprietors of John Benny’s pub in Dingle – renowned for the quality of its music sessions.
Éilís opens Westward by evoking the warm atmosphere of those sessions with the gentle familiarity of Bill Caddick‘s John o’ Dreams, a song perfectly suited to her soft, lilting voice. In both her previous albums, Éilís collaborated, very successfully, with Santa Cruz guitarist William Coulter. William’s Grammy-Award winning fingerstyle guitar provides Westward with a constant companion to Éilís’ vocal, and the equally familiar sound of cellist Barry Phillips, who also joined William on Éilís’ previous albums, adds a somnambulant richness.
This convivial opening, featuring a much-loved song and trusted collaborators, should prove a welcome introduction to the album; both for those already familiar with Éilís Kennedy’s work, and those of us enjoying her music for the first time. Thanks to her connections both in Ireland and in California, however, Éilís enjoys a choice of musical alliances that’s as wide as her repertoire. There’s a fine story behind Elk River Dam, written by Éilís’ friend Rachel Anne Goodman. The song has a soft, easy flow, where the mix of old-time Americana and Irish trad in John Weed‘s fiddle helps the song itself come across as an old friend with a story to tell…
My Great Grandfather first came into this land
With plough and fiddle, He built a life by hand
This shouldn’t be taken as an indication, however, that Éilís is happy to dwell in familiar territory. Her sense of adventure has also taken her on a journey East, across the Irish Sea, to take on Robert Burns‘ plea, Will Ye Go To The Indies, My Mary? With Scottish fiddler Marie Fielding providing light harmonies, the harp of multi-instrumentalist Shelley Phillips provides an equally light contrast to the rich sound of another Santa Cruz cellist – Aria DiSalvio, who also regularly plays as part of a trio with William Coulter and John Weed. Proving that this is an album for lovers of song, Éilís stays in Scotland, with Marie on fiddle and Santa Cruz harpist Jesse Autumn, for Donald Ross‘ Cailín Mo Rúnsa (Dearest my own One). It soon becomes clear that Éilís’ vocal is as soft and assured in Gaelic as it is in English.
There’s also Gaelic song that brings Éilís far closer to home. Pé In Éirinn Í (Whoe’er she be) was handed down to Éilís from her grandmother, and namesake. Canadian Edwin Huizinga‘s life-long classical violin training, coupled with Aria DiSalvio‘s cello provide the perfect soft air to open a song whose exacting and wide-ranging vocal melody Éilís seems to take on effortlessly. Éilís learned the gently skipping polka, AN Túll, from her mother, Edna. It features renowned Sligo fiddler Kevin Burke, sharing the layers of vocal melody driven gently along by Martin Brunsden on bass, and Jesse Autumn‘s harp – which adds some delightful harmonies to close.
Gordon Bok‘s The Hills of Isle Au Haut calls back across the Atlantic and shows Éilís’ ability with more modern, as well as traditional song, and that ability is extended further in Westward than any of Éilís’ work to date, as the album features, for the first time, two of her own songs. Éilís wrote Highway Mack after encountering a drifter while exploring California’s Pacific Coast. Adam Hendy‘s bouzouki and John Weed‘s fiddle conspire to add a light dance behind the poetic lyric…
Each mile, each town
Your burden down, another day
True vagabond, your secret shame
Hides your virtue and your grace
There’s no dance, however, in Éilís’ other song for the album – The Flannel Red. Here is a track that exemplifies the grasp Éilís has of traditional forms, her skill as a song writer and story teller, and the compelling results of those skills combined with her enchanting voice. Éilís’ song expertly tells the story of her great grandfather’s untimely end at sea….
In bright days of early spring
The wild abundant shoals
Entice him out onto the deep
Drive hunger from the door
It was her lot to sew and pray
For many’s the long, long hour
But joy to hear him gently lift
The latch upon the door
Beyond the light accordion from Damien Mullane (a regular contributor to the sessions at John Benny’s), Aria di Salvio and Edwin Huizinga provide strings that evoke a heavy, storm-filled horizon, in an extended ballad that reaches into the very heart of the fear and superstition that governed the lives of those sustaining a life on the edge of the ocean. The maritime theme and gentle hark-back to elder ballads is retained in The Saucy Sailor; merry, despite the soft, mournful tone of Shelley Phillips‘ Cor Anglais. Where Shelly’s Cor Anglais really comes into its own, though, is as the album closes with a gentle melancholy tribute to departed friends, Going Home. The warmth of Dvořák‘s haunting melody seems to match perfectly the album’s sleepy opening – with its familiarity and the same invitingly rich guitar and cello combination.
The decision to record Westward both in California and in Dingle has helped produce an album where the sound ranges as wide as its source material. Éilís’ previous solo albums offered memorable renditions of familiar songs, but Westward makes even more of her skills as a vocalist and arranger, by seeking out a less well-known repertoire and, just as rewarding, including two of her own songs. As Éilís and her husband John have already proven time and again with their sessions in Dingle, it’s often the connections that help make outstanding music even better. Westward features the finest songs from all over the British Isles and from across the Atlantic, as well as two very fine songs from Éilís Kennedy‘s own pen. The connections Éilís enjoys with her collaborators have helped her share those songs in a memorable and truly enjoyable setting. It is an exceptional album from one of Ireland’s finest voices.
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Photo Credit: Fiona Morgan