Mike McGoldrick releases ARC, his new solo album, next month. It’s his fifth in 22 years, a run that started with Morning Rory – Rory being the R in ARC – in 1996. What you see is what you get with Mike – down to earth, modest and just getting on with the job so he can earn a living. On a short visit back home to Manchester in between multiple commitments at the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow earlier in the year I talked to him, while my teenage, flute-playing, daughter entertained his 10-year-old daughter Cora – the C in ARC, about the new album, how he fits it all in and the importance he attaches to encouraging the next generation of players.
I enquired first about the eight-year gap since Mike’s last album Aurora – with the first four solo albums being delivered in just fourteen years.
“I didn’t realise it had been eight years. It’s been that long because of I’ve been busy with various other projects. I made a record with the band Usher’s Island, with Andy Irvine, Dónal Lunny, Paddy Glackin and John Doyle. That took two years to get off the ground, first of all rehearsing, coming up with the material and the logistics of getting everyone in the same place. And then a project with John Doyle and John McCusker to record our first studio album The Wishing Tree which was just released – that was more about working up some material on the road when we were touring and then trying to find the time to record the album. I was very happy with the way both Usher’s Island and The Wishing Tree came out. I worked on Declan O’Rourke’s album Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine and we toured that in December. I’m always delighted to be playing on anything Donald Shaw does – with Capercaillie, playing on the BBC series Hebrides – Islands on the Edge soundtrack and on Julie Fowlis’s alterum last year. I’ve also played with Mark Knopfler’s band on lengthy tours through that whole period. When you’re working with all these different people you don’t have time to do your own thing but then, as the years are going on, it’s in the back of your mind that you need at some stage to get back in the studio and make a new record. I’ll write tunes and put them aside, building up the ideas, and then, in time, when I think I’ve got enough, and when I’ve got some free time, I get around to recording.
Mike’s last three albums – Aurora (2010); Wired (2005); Fused (2000) – have honed a vibrant mix of enthralling tunes, some with a big, funky jazz-influenced sound, often with a tabla or marimba in the rhythm mix alongside the bodhran, and others with a simpler, more traditional sound. I asked Mike what he was aiming for with ARC, whether that’s different from previous albums and how the new album came about?
“I’m really pleased with the sound on the new album. I’ve always had the same musicians in mind because I really liked the way they played on my previous albums. So that was the first thing I was going for – that it’s not going to sound completely different to the albums I’ve done before. Then it’s down to writing the material, pursuing ideas inspired by trips to the West of Ireland with my son Aidan [as you will have guessed, Aidan being the A in ARC] and to Cape Breton with Doyle and McCusker, by world musicians I have worked with, by the nineteenth century history of Irish immigrants in Manchester and by family and close friends. A lot of ideas for the album were written at home in Manchester in my studio down the road – I can play a bit of guitar, bodhran and other different instruments. So I did the pre-production and played around with a few ideas until I’d got five or six tunes I was happy with. Then I had some time in Dublin with Tony Byrne [guitar player with Julie Fowlis] and played the ideas to him and Tony added lots of new ideas. Then I booked studio time in Glasgow with Donald Shaw – we had a rehearsal the day before and went in with just Donald and Tony and we just played live what we’d worked out in the rehearsal and that’s the basis of the record – we did seven of the tracks in one day”.
“I don’t think I need to do anything very different from before because I’ve had 18 years of creating a sound behind the tunes I play which is rhythm, bass, percussion. Some of them are big sounds – with brass and underlining jazz or jazz funk because I’ve always liked that sound – and some of them are smaller sounds. If they are my own tunes I feel I can do what I like with them but with traditional tunes, I stick to the tunes as they were, to how they should be played. With Angel Meadow and the Trip to Nova Scotia set, there’s a cinematic feel – I find it nice on the ears and if I find it nice, well I’m making a record for me really. There’s nobody behind me saying you need to make it sound like this or you need to do that.
I’ve heard musicians say that recording or performing with Mike is one of their favourite gigs. I asked him about who else plays on the album and what they add to the end result.
“Some have been on board all the way through since 1996 – Ed Boyd on guitar, Manus Lunny on bouzouki and Donald Shaw on keyboards and production. Others since Fused 18 years ago – Ewen Vernal on bass, Neil Yates on trumpet and James Mackintosh on drums and percussion. Then there are some new faces – I haven’t recorded with Tony Byrne before. Alyn Cosker I worked with on a project, together with Neil Yates, at Celtic Connections in 2014 called Undivided, with Neil doing brass arrangements of some of my compositions with a big 21-piece jazz band and I was really blown away by his drumming. When Alyn is drumming on the album, James is playing more percussion, along with Signy Jakobsdotter who’s another amazing percussionist – so they just share the role between them. With Neil Yates doing the brass – I just leave him to do what he thinks in his own time and then he sends it to me and it always works. Donald Shaw is just a brilliant musician to work with and an incredible producer. When we play the material through in the studio he’ll say, ‘that’s really good but if you do this and if you play that and I’ll write a string arrangement later’. Later he’ll send me an idea and sometimes I’ll say yay and sometimes I’ll say nay – it depends whether if it’s too far removed what I can hear but the majority of the time he comes up with brilliant ideas”.
“The only vocal on the album is a live track from Celtic Connections in 2012 with the great Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara. I put that on because it was a special concert – we met her that afternoon and we’d never played together before. We only had less than a couple of hours rehearsal with her and the band and then we did a half hour show together. I heard the recording of it and wondered if we could use it on the record and she agreed. I thought it was something that I’d like people to hear because these kinds of collaborations happen now and again, especially at Celtic Connections – it was a one-off gig and our music works really well behind her”.
Back in 1997, Mike put together an album called In Safe Hands to show how good the traditional Irish music was that was being played by young musicians in Manchester at the time. In recent months he has arranged a ‘Manchester meets Ennis’ performance for teenage players at the Ennis Trad Festival and had a dozen or so young players participating in ‘Amid the Mirk over The Irk’, a Klezmer-Irish fusion imagining a coming together of musicians from the two immigrant communities in the nineteenth century. I asked him about his continued championing of future generations of Irish traditional music players.
“In Safe Hands had Ed Boyd, Dezi Donnelly, Colin Farrell, Grace Kelly, John Joe Kelly, Andrew Dinan, Angela Durcan – probably everyone who was then involved in traditional music in Manchester at the time under the age of 25. Encouraging younger players is probably the most important thing to do. I just keep thinking back to when I was 15 years of age and my parents loved the music and they gave me that opportunity by taking me to classes and ceilidhs, which wasn’t easy because they didn’t have a car, so we went by bus, summer and winter. They are the best memories I’ve got of childhood. Peter Carberry [an accordion and banjo player who lived in Manchester for a long period and a founder member of Toss the Feathers] was a man that was a huge influence on my music. He’d say come up and join us for a few tunes in the Clarence pub in Rusholme on Sunday. You’d play two or three sets of tunes and you’d remember it all week and you couldn’t wait for next the Sunday and hope he asked you to come and play another tune. And then before I knew it I got the opportunity to join a band at such a young age – I was only in my mid-teens when Toss the Feathers was formed.
“It’s important to give these kids the opportunity to play and to see them smiling and happy playing together, having a conversation in music. Being involved in music people can bring so much enjoyment to kids from deprived areas. You can go from Manchester to Ennis, from Ennis to New York – you can travel anywhere with music and you meet people who become friends for life. Music has that connection with friendship – like last night, after not playing together for 18 years, I filled in for Kevin Crawford at a Lunasa gig – you just catch up from where you left off. There are 20 to 30 kids playing in Manchester and you can tell that they put in the hours of practice because you can see them improving in the space of just a year, performing at Ennis, at the Klezmer-Irish fusion. Obviously, they are really enjoying it and a lot of credit has to go to the brilliant teacher they have in Angela Durcan. If I wasn’t so busy I’d be more involved and do a lot more teaching because I really enjoy it”.
Mike is not only involved in quite a few different bands, he is also very in demand as a contributor to other people’s albums – his name pops up all the time when you read the list of players. I asked him how, with all those demands, he balances his time.
“I don’t really have to prioritise. As a working musician, and I think I can speak on behalf of most of my friends who play, it really is feast or famine. With having to provide for a family, I take whatever comes in. It’s been like that for the last twenty years and I can’t see it changing. I’m just blessed that I enjoy playing music and it’s been good to me. I’m very fortunate because I’ve been all over the world with music. I don’t have to turn work down very often. I’m involved in three or four different projects and in a way, it’s very simple to say we’ll book this month off for this project and that month for another project and then managers and agents will work around those dates. The other people I work with are probably just as busy as I am. They are all in a number of different projects and like me, they teach, make their own records, do studio work, play festivals, they are producers, studio engineers – we all have plenty of strings to our bow and that’s how we make a living.
“I do play on a lot of other people’s records – I don’t keep track but there is a list in my head. I really appreciate it when they send you the CD and say thanks for playing on it and you listen to it and it’s something to be proud of. I’m grateful because there are so many musicians available out there – even the younger generation ask – like last year the Sam Kelly lads asked, ‘Mike will you play on a track to two’. I’m always honoured to be asked to play on anybody’s record. I don’t look down and think I’m too good to play on anything. It’s work and I just do it”.
ARC is released April 6th on Vertical Records https://www.verticalrecords.co.uk/product/arc/
Toss The Feathers play at the Carousel Sessions, Chorlton Irish Club, Manchester on Saturday 31st March http://www.chorltonirishclub.co.uk/event-2830732
Amid the Mirk over The Irk – Klezmer-Irish Fusion at the Carousel Sessions, Chorlton Irish Club, Manchester on Saturday 21st April http://www.chorltonirishclub.co.uk/event-2843704
The Michael McGoldrick Band will present a live performance of ARC as part of the Big Whistle Festival at the Bury Met on Saturday 12th May
Photo coutesy of Mike McGoldrick. Photo Credit: Gaelle