Ciara O’Neill – Arrow
Self Released – 9 July 2018
In this little part of the world known by most as Northern Ireland, there has always been something in the water. Most of us live, eat, sleep and breathe music. The huge variety of music from these shores cannot be exaggerated and neither can its quality. Even in the world of folk the diversity is massive. Ciaran Lavery’s so very tasteful ‘folk pop’ to Ben Glover‘s Trans-Atlantic tinged folk; Malojian’s psych-folk to Beoga‘s Shearan fused folk. Not only do we have it all here, but we can match any other region for quality and originality.
OK, but where are all the women you may ask?
I must admit that it has been a little barren on that front for a while. We have experienced many great singers and songwriters, Juliet Turner, Mary & Frances Black (their father was from Rathlin Island, so yes we can claim them as our own!), Roisin White. Cara Dillon is still a force to be reckoned with, but even she is almost 25 years in the business. So where, if any, are the fresh wave of female singers and songwriters coming through?
Well, there actually is a revelation on the ground. There are new names putting out incredible material that if you don’t know, you have to start checking out, Brigid O’Neill, Amanda St. John, Edelle McMahon, Mandy Bingham, Isobel Anderson to name a few. All of these female artists share something in common. They have all been produced and mentored by an incredible young talent working from Milbank Studios (an ageing farmhouse that would easily remind you of ‘The Big Pink’), Michael Mormecha.
Michael seems to have an uncanny knack of bringing out the best in performers that grace his studio. It, therefore, makes me very optimistic for what I’m about to listen to. For it was he who was entrusted with Arrow, the 2nd album from certainly one of the North’s finest, Ciara O’Neill.
It’s just over two years since Ciara released her debut album, ‘The Ebony Trail’ to much-deserved acclaim. Since then she has been busy, sharing the stage with well-renowned folk including Grammy nominees Jim Lauderdale and Iain Archer, playing this year’s Folk Alliance and jetting back and forth between Belfast and Nashville, conspiring with the likes of Grammy winners, Don Henry and Max T. Barnes.
The title track ‘Arrow’ opens proceedings.
Give yourself to the arrow, Give yourself to the spark
Give yourself to peace and love and things that break your heart
Give yourself to the earth, Give yourself to the sun
Give yourself to everything that makes you want to run
Because my arrow seems to point away from home.
This song is almost an epilogue for the album. It feels like a mantra that Ciara perhaps has to bear in mind constantly as she continues to step out into the unknown. A friend of mine has always said, ‘if something scares you, do it.’ It would seem that Ciara suffers from the same affliction, never allowing herself to be too comfortable in her surroundings to allow complacency to set in.
‘Hurtin”, I recognise as it was released as a precursor to the album last month, along with an eerily beautiful video created by Ciara herself which premiered here on Folk Radio. The song itself is also beautiful. It stands on its own two feet but could easily be the title track of some new gothic thriller set in the midwest. The production is simple but very effective, yet always focusing on Ciara’s voice and her nimble picking of the nylon string guitar.
When an album starts off so well, I could almost be tempted to leave it at that. Surely it can’t get much better? Thankfully it is a passing notion. ‘Storm’s Comin” is absolutely exquisite. Everything oozes character. Ciara, calm and focused at the helm, with a solid but cheeky baritone guitar to her left and sultry, mischievous collection of strings to her right.
Only when track number four ‘Do You Know’ opens with a gentle piano, do I realise the tension endured in the first three songs.
Hello, no one can make it alone…
Perhaps it is tension that Ciara herself has endured in the wilderness before being able to relax into the team she has built around her. And what a team it must be. The house band alone are able to be so musical whilst showing the utmost respect to the singer and her song.
‘Equal and Opposite’ is a wonderful title, yet a simple concept that would quickly falter in the wrong hands. Somehow Ciara never runs out of ideas. It is such a gift by both the writer and producer that they can pull the likes of me, the eternal cynic, right into a song and without a struggle.
‘Everything’ is the Ciara of the beginning of the album. Questioning herself. I am positive it will be only a stumble on Arrow’s journey.
One day soon you will know your place in the world.
One day soon you will know just how much you’re worth…
Ciara is bringing us on a journey, offering testimony of what it took to find her place in this world. How she was able to package it so beautifully is beyond me.
I have a feeling that ‘Two Hearts’ may be the track that I will play people if I want to draw them into this album. It’s got the perfect hooks and refrains to make any punter want to hear more, reeling them in before showering them in the darkness of the rest of the album. I use ‘darkness’ in the lightest possible term though, as this album can be enjoyed on many different levels, such is the complexity in its misleading simplicity.
‘Favourite Mistake’ is a brief but lovely lapse into the brightness for Ciara. The lights dim once again for ‘Dreamer’. Such a wonderful groove and arrangement, the song just washes over you.
The last song of the album is ‘The Depths’. We learn that Mormecha and O’Neill have a lot of tricks still up their sleeves. The song keeps completely in character with the rest of the album, yet we hear influences from Massive Attack to Ane Brun. It is a fantastic finish to a wonderful album, and I am so ready to go straight back to track one and relive the journey.
I am this far in, and I don’t think I have mentioned Ciara O’Neill’s voice yet. It constantly sits so perfectly in the song, that it can easily be taken for granted. Its temperament remains stoic and calm. If it were more dramatic and emotional, it wouldn’t work. Instead, it’s honesty and vulnerability portrays a truthful testimony to Ciara as an artist.
Ciara’s tone of voice would easily lend her to comparisons with Lisa Hannigan, but to be honest, I find Ciara so much more interesting. Her lyrics and passion, albeit slightly more understated, would be on a par with Martha Wainwright or Ane Brun.
It also bears an incredibly subtle intensity. As purposefully tasteful the production surrounding her is, it would take a bomb going off to break its charm.
Arrow is an album of maturity, self-realisation and integrity. It is the album Ciara O’Neill had to make and without any ulterior motive or compromise. Most of all though, it is so musical! Ciara and her songs carry everything with such conviction, it makes her almost transparent.
Arrow can be pre-ordered directly from Ciara here: https://ciaraoneillmusic.com/shop-2/
Photo Credit: Carrie Davenport