After a great, crowd pleaser of a set at the FolkEast festival, Damien and his three band members had to pack all their gear into none too large a car and make a dash for an overnight ferry to Ireland. But, being the gent that he is, he sacrificed his role in the packing to have a few words.
Now, before we launch into the interview, since the FolkEast festival, Damien has shared some great news with us – he is due to release his new album which will be called Avenging & Bright in November, and he will tour the album in February 2018.
The other news, which we’ve hinted at in the photograph above – in July/August 2018 Damien is going to tour the UK with the US Bluegrass musician Ron Block (Alison Krauss Band). Now if that’s not great news, I don’t know what is. Now rewind, backstage at FolkEast with the man himself…
You mentioned on stage that there’s a new album in the works?
Yes, there is. We made a bit of a start on the album a couple of months ago, me and the boys, but with work commitments, we haven’t been able to get back to it. But we’re hoping to be in the studio in September. Hopefully finishing the album, we’re planning to have it done by mid-October (to be released in November). It’s worked out quite well because we all have different work commitments we thought the best way to do it would be to meet up. I mean, that’s how we did the last album, we met up for blocks of time, but it was really only 4 or 5 days, whereas this time we’ve all pretty much left September near enough free so we can just be in the studio.
I was looking at your tour programme, you’re only doing a handful of gigs now, and then the next big commitment is touring with Kate (Rusby). So the gap between those two is when the album is going to come to fruition?
Yes, because I produce Kate’s albums now as well, a lot of the first six months of this year were spent doing Kate’s new Christmas album. That’s finished now, just in time for Christmas, but we were in the studio February/March time doing Christmas stuff. Quite weird.
If we can return to the album for a moment, what’s the nature of the material you’re putting in?
I’ve only done two solo albums, two Damien O’Kane albums, so to speak, and they’ve been heavily influenced by where I come from. Where I was brought up, my family, my surroundings when I was growing up. But, because I’ve been living in England so long, when I made the first album, Summer Hill, it was great. I just hadn’t been aware that there was so much repertoire in the north of Ireland. In the Ulster region, in particular, where I’m from. There’s a great man called Jackie Devenney who lives in Coleraine, my Mum knew him and got in contact. Years and years ago, he used to run folk gigs in Coleraine which was nearly unheard of. Folk music wouldn’t be that well received in Coleraine for reasons we’ll not go in to. But Jackie even contacted Joe Burke to come and play in a pub in Coleraine. Over the years Jackie had collected loads of books, loads of recordings of Northern Irish singers, he just had a room in his house that had a wealth of repertoire. And, for me, that’s where it all started really.
So, I recorded Summer Hill, and it had lots of Northern Irish songs. I love finding the old trady songs and putting my own twist on them. And then again with Areas of High Traffic, I delved back into that repertoire. Well, to be honest there’s only been two or three books that I’ve ended up using, one of them being Shamrock Rose and Thistle: Folk Songs of North Derry, a book compiled by Hugh Shields, I’ve got a lot of songs out of that and then there’s the Songs of the People book, from Sam Henry, which I also got a lot of songs from. This new album, there’s not so much of the Northern Ireland slant, but there’s definitely going to be a few Northern Ireland songs in it. There’s a great wealth of songs in England as well, so, I’ve been picking songs from Northern Ireland and a couple of great songs from England. And again, for me, it’s all about how you bring in different colours to the song and different treatments to a song. Areas of High Traffic was definitely a lot more modern sounding than my first album, and that’s the kind of route that I’m really enjoying taking at the minute, giving these songs different colours.
That reminds me, the solid body guitar you were playing, it is just an electric tenor, is it? I couldn’t be entirely sure because of the effects you were using on it.
It’s something I brought into my music a couple of years ago now; I just want to be a rock n roll star really. Apparently, Nic Jones said that once, ‘I just want to be a rock n roll star’. Again, it’s a different thing, brings a different flavour to the songs. Using the effects and stuff, it’s colouring the song in a way that brings out your personality in the song. And that’s what I’ve always done, on nearly every album. Areas of High Traffic was definitely the furthest I’ve pushed the boundaries. But even before, I’ve always had one or two in there that were like, ‘Oh, what’s that?’. The new album will be of that ilk. The boys in the band are just fantastic musicians they all listen to all different kinds of music. They’ve all got their fortes, their main thing is Irish trad, but they’re all also into all different kinds of things.
When they got going on some of the breaks in the songs tonight, you could tell they were bringing in all sorts of influences, especially Anthony Davies on keys.
They’re all just wonderful musicians, and they’re great friends as well which for me is really important when you’re making music. There’s nothing worse than trying to work with someone you don’t get on with; you don’t get on with musically even. We all know what each other’s strengths and weaknesses are too.
Do you still do any work with Cormac Byrne?
Cormac still does some stuff with us; he toured the Areas of High Traffic album with me. Again, it’s a work commitment thing, Cormac tours with Seth and obviously, that’s his main thing, plus he has various other percussion bands. Anton, the keyboard player, he’s an incredibly busy man as well. He works for an organisation called Irish Celtic which is based in France. He’s very difficult to get free as well. It’s quite difficult sometimes trying to make it all work logistically. Sometimes you come and do gigs like this which is a one-off, not part of a tour; it’s important to just keep playing with the boys.
One of the things I love about where my music’s going now is that I don’t need to tell everybody exactly what to do. There’s no point in getting great musicians if you’re not going to let them do what they do. So, that’s how it worked on Areas of High Traffic. Obviously, I’d go in with the songs and chords and little riffy things, and it would just mould from there. I’ll definitely be doing more work with Cormac but at the minute, logistically…
And that’s where we had to leave it, the car was packed, and Belfast was waiting.
We’ll be bringing you more on Damien soon.
Keep up with Damien here: http://damienokane.co.uk