Following the release of Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh‘s second commercial solo recording, Ar Uair Bhig an Lae: Small Hours, SOTI caught up with Muireann via Skype at her home in West Kerry.
What is the first song you learned?
I’ve been singing since I was a child. I suppose one of the first songs I probably learned is the same song that my little girl has now learned this year. She’s only 1 1/2 [years old]. It’s Éiníní, which is a lullaby. My mom used to sing it for me, and now I sing it for Sadhbh, and she started singing along. I was just thinking the other day that probably that was my first song, too, as it was probably the first song I heard. It’s just a song about little birds going to sleep.
What’s the most recent song that you have learned?
Probably one of the songs off my new album, in the sense that I would have been very familiar with them all, bar one or two, but that there were quite a few that I didn’t perform regularly, so I needed to sit down and really learn them for the album and for my concerts since I released it.
What’s your method for learning new songs?
Oh, very old fashioned, just repeat, repeat, repeat. Just rote learning. I like to read the words and see them, and I can kind of later on see them in my head. What is really important is just to try and remember the story. I think that really, really helps with the lyrics. If you can keep focused on the story and what’s happening as well, you can generally get by okay, too, because you’ll be concentrating on it in a different way, rather than as a performance.
Some singers say they don’t like to listen to other singers too much when learning a song because they are afraid they’ll end up sounding like the other singer. Do you agree?
No. I wouldn’t be like that at all. Especially for this album. There was one singer in particular called Seán de hÓra who was a big sean-nós singer from this area who died in the 90s, I think. I was very keen too learn more about his style and they way I did that was I found an archival recording of one of his song, and I sat down for a couple of months really and went through it with a fine-toothed comb. I just wanted to get a better understand of everything, from what he was doing and try to figure out why he was doing it – why he took a breath there, why he rolled there, his vocal nuances, linguistic things – all that really fascinates me and I get quite nerdy about it. When I’m doing my own thing with a song, then I suppose I like to pay homage to those I would have learned them from, but obviously you don’t want to sound exactly like someone else, so I put my own stamp on things. But especially with regards to sean-nós, I think it’s so important to learn that song inside out and try to understand what the singer that you got the song from was with it before you go on and do your own thing with it because it can change too much then. And a lot of these songs are precious, and for me, part of it is about preserving them as well as taking them on as new songs for myself. So there’s a duality there that you have to be careful with regards to respecting them and treating them well, so I would spend a long time listening to other singers.
The new CD The Small Hours you recorded right there in the town where you live. Did recording so close to home change your approach at all?
It changed everything. I moved home West Kerry at the beginning of the summer . It’s not a town at all. It’s a tiny little parish on the most westerly tip of Europe, and it’s looking out on the Blasket Islands, and I was given the use of a house to record in. I had usually recorded in a residential studio, which is very state-of-the-art, up in the middle of the country, used by a lot of different types of artists, rock and pop and every sort of thing. But I just wanted to reconnect with home and with the well where I had gotten all of these songs from and the beginning where I started to sing and where I had learned my music. So it was important for me to do this new album from home and to try and, I supposed, get that energy flowing again. To reconnect with the whole feel of the place. I just think that the music and the landscape here, and the people and the language, it’s all connected. It’s made a huge difference to be home again, musically speaking.
The arrangements on this CD seem a lot more pared down in comparison to Daybreak: Fainne an Lae. Was that a conscious choice or was that just a byproduct of the location and the musicians you had?
I think it’s probably a slightly more mature look on things, you know. I just didn’t see the need for it. A lot of these songs can stand for themselves. Of course they can. There’s a magical quality to the harp, and it also lends a nobleness to some of those big songs that would have been considered the classical music of Ireland at one point. So I felt like there was a kind of consistency there. And the other musicians I used are very good friends of old that know have a great sensitivity with songs. And I supposed that I’m just starting to be more comfortable with the whole “less is more” idea.
A lot of these song are more challenging for me, and I was kind of opening myself up a little bit more as a singer. I don’t know. I guess I’m not trying to be anything or create any particular sound anymore, I’m just trying to do the songs justice as much as I can. It’s a different focus, I suppose.
Why is it so important for you to be representing the music of your region [of Ireland]?
I think when you’re singing in the English language that’s often not as much of a big deal. And when I sing in English, I really don’t mind what songs I sing. We have great traditional English song from all over the country that I feel reasonably happy to take on and give a go at. But with regards the sean-nós, because there are certainly three, if not four or five, very distinctive styles of singing, it’s a whole other genre. Most especially the Connemara style in comparison to the Munster style. Broadly speaking, I ‘d be a Munster style singer. But once you get up to Connermara, it gets very different. And then up in Donegal they have a close link with Scotland and Scottish music. If I feel like I’ve mastered everything down here in Munster, maybe I’ll move on, but I can’t see that happening any time soon. So it’s trying to not bite off more than I can chew and be a Jack-of-all-trades and master of none. I’m just trying to focus on what we have here. There’s a great wealth around me here. So it would be remiss of my not to partake in it while it’s here and learn what I can from it.
You’re also involved with the Online Academy of Irish Music. How did that come about?
Good pals of mine set it up, Kirsten Allstaff and Mathew Curley. They’d been talking about it for quite a while, and I just thought it was a fantastic idea. I really do love teaching. I don’t do it regularly anymore, but there is a great sense of fulfillment from it. And one of the privileges I suppose I feel I have now is that I have been lucky enough to travel and pass on some of the music from here to people from other places, and this is just another new way of doing that. I just think it’s a fantastic way to help people connect more with traditional music if they’re trying to learn it. It’s not the easiest sometime, especially if it’s a special instrument or type of singing. There’s not people everywhere in the world who would be down the road from you to give you lessons. I think it’s great and more fare play to them, more power to them. It seems to be doing very well.
Do you think they’ll have you do a section for Irish singing?
Yes. They’ve asked me, and it’s on the cards. I just have to find the time. I feel like that would take me longer than the English language ones because I would need to get really in depths regards the lyrics and translating lyrics for people and all that kind of stuff. I have to think about how I would go about it, and I would have to have some time set aside for it, and right now I have a little 20 month old and my own gigs and stuff, so I just don’t the time. But hopefully it will happen.
I imagine that’s a little narrower of an audience, especially regarding people with experience in the Irish language.
It’s hard to know, really. I suppose it would be an experiment. What I did suggest to them was that it would be good idea to set up three Irish song course, or maybe an Irish song course divided in three where the students would get a taste of the three main styles of traditional Irish language singing. There’s a lot to be considered about how we’d put it together.
Do you have any role models in the traditional singing world?
Oh yeah. Loads! The singers from around here that gave me songs and taught to sing when I was growing up and who are still here singing away and are very inspirational and would have influenced me greatly. And then I would have had people I would have listened to on tapes when I was a child. Obviously there are the greats like the likes of Dolores Keane and Paul Brady and all that kind of singing as well. And then when I started traveling with Danú about ten years ago, I was really lucky to meet a lot of different singers from other countries and other genres. So all of that would have had an influence as well. So I feel very fortunate that I’ve gotten to know a lot of singers and heard lot of different voices and styles, and I’m sure all that goes in, whether you want it to or not. But definitely when it comes down to it, I suppose the people here at home, they would have been massively influential when I was starting off as a singer, and still are.
You seem to have a pretty nice partnership with Scottish singer Julie Fowlis. Are there other singers or musicians that you’d like to work with?
There’s an awful lot of musicians out there that I’d love to work with, but I’m really happy with the people I’m working with at the moment. It’s very exciting for me to be singing with Michael Rooney, who I’ve admired for many, many hears as a harper, and I think he has a particular sensitivity to the songs. Likewise my good friend Gerry O’Beirne, my main accompanist, he’s a guitarist, and he’s on the album there. He has moved to the Dingle Peninsula, so he’s just down the road from me, which is just fantastic. We have great musical evenings here in my house and in his own place. And Dingle is just full of musicians at the moment. The Lumiere girls are here, we’ve got James Begley, Damien Mullane, Donogh Hennessy, just so many musicians, so it’s a great town for music. I actually can’t keep up with it all.
What’s in store for 2013?
I have a tour in March with Danú in the States. I have a lovely concert coming up in a couple of weeks as part of the Temple Bar Tradfest in Christ Church Cathedral, which is going to be a beautiful venue, with Karan Casey, John Spillane, Lumiere, and Donogh Hennessy, and the At First Light lads, so it’ll be a great gig. Then I’m going to be playing in Dingle a lot in the summer. That’s my plan. I’m going to try and stay as local as I can in the summer. A lot of music and concerts and folk concerts in Dingle during the summer. I tour a lot in the winter, so it’s really great to stay home in the summer and still be working! I feel very fortunate. There’s not very much work anywhere in Ireland, but it’s here for musicians, which is great. And then we’ll be back out to the States again in November.
From what I gather from online you’ve at least taped a program with Julie Fowlis that will be airing at some point.
That’s right! I forgot about that. We filmed it in October/November , and it’s hopefully going to be broadcast on BBC Alba and over here in Ireland on TG4 in the Spring. That was a great project. It was a collaboration between myself and Julie. I brought over to Scotland a gang of musicians that I thought would be interesting to work with and who would interact well with the Scottish musicians Julie picked, and we just had a ball!
The Small Hours is now available from iTunes, CDbaby, Claddagh Records, Celtic Note, Custy’s in Ennis and other selected shops. Also from www.muireann.ie
The Leaving of Limerick can be found on The Small Hours.