11 Questions with Niamh Parsons

If you’ve been reading since my first blog post, you’ll know my profound respect and admiration for Niamh Parsons. I was overjoyed when she agreed to be the first singer interviewed for SOTI.  She spoke to me via Skype from the garden of her home in Dublin on the eve of her debut with the new band Sí Van.

DW: What is the first song you remember learning?

NP: You know, it’s so far back. I must have two or three. My dad was a great singer. He taught us a lot. It was “Oh be kind to our web-footed friends. For this duck may be somebody’s mother. He lives all his life in a swap, where the weather’s very damp. Oh you may not this think is the end… but it is.”  I think that’s the first song I remember learning.

DW: What is the most recent song that you’ve learned?

NP: That’s hard because I’ve learned a few songs recently for a new band we’re launching tomorrow night, actually. You see it takes me ages to learn a song. It can take anything up to two years to learn a song. “Sweet Daffodil Mulligan” is the most recent song that I learned that I can sing on the stage. So I have various different levels of learning a song. I learn a song for myself, and then I learn a song for sessions, and then I learn a song for the singer’s club, and then I learn a song for the stage, so there’s all these levels.

DW: What is different between those levels?

NP: For the stage, it has to be something that is inside me so well that I know I’m not going to ever forget it. For the singer’s club, I have to know it fairly well, but if I forget a world or if I stumble on the song, I can either get help or, in the singer’s club I go to, they have the patience to let me remember or think about it. So I could lose rhythm or I could lose time or I could forget a word. And we’ve got a few people who kind of know a lot of songs, so they could help me out. For a session, it doesn’t matter if you forget [a song], you’re in a session. You’re just singing a song and go, “Ah! Can’t remember it. Nah. I must go back to the drawing board on that one.” That’s what I mean. It’s a different level. So when I bring [a song] out to the stage, I know it really inside out. So you can’t give me a song on Monday and expect me to sing it on stage on a Friday. You can give me a song on a Monday, and I will sing it two months or four months or a year’s time.

DW: How do you get something inside of you so that it is ready for the stage?

NP: I learn the words. And then I have to picture every single step of the song. So if it’s a long, long song, it will take me longer. “Sweet Daffodil Mulligan” only has three verses and three choruses, so it’s really quite easy, and I learned it quite quickly.  I sit down and I write out the words in my own handwriting, which is most important. And if I’m learning it from a singer – say I’m learning a song from John Lyons – I listen to John Lyons in my ears, and I’ll sing along with him, but I’ll tape myself while singing along with him.  And as soon as I’ve got the words vaguely right, I’ll discard the source. And then I will learn it from myself. So it’s a secret that I teach a lot of students. Many, many years ago I was a big fan of – I still am – of June Tabor, but I got to the stage with June Tabor that I actually had to stop listening to her. And I stopped listening to her for ten years, because everything she came out with I wanted to sing. And the way she sang was the way I would think about singing. So I had to completely discard her from about, I’d say, 1990 to 2000 I stopped listen to June Tabor. I’ve caught up obviously. I’m still a fan, but I’ve also now discovered my own voice at this stage.

DW: What’s the first thing you’d tell to someone who comes to you who wants to learn to sing traditional music? 

NP: Don’t worry. Relax. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a trained voice if you want to sing traditional Irish [songs], if you just start to sing in your own natural voice. I try to get people not to copy other people. Try to find your own voice, but doing what I mentioned earlier, listening to the source and then taping yourself and learning from yourself. And the main piece of advice is to listen to yourself singing.

DW: What do you make of the title that is sometimes associated with you “The First Lady of Irish Music”?

NP: Is it? I’m very honored. Very, very honored really. I just sing my songs. I’m not very well-known. I’m living in Ireland which is quite difficult because all of my work is outside Ireland. Which means I have to travel. I need agents. So, “the First Lady” is quite an honor really. I would think Dolores Keane is the First Lady of traditional song, however she’s not doing a lot at the moment. I’m kind of a bit stunned at that comment. I haven’t seen that one.

DW: How do you see the current state of traditional singing, particularly in the Irish tradition?

NP: I think it’s on the rise. Now there are two ways to look this, you see. There is the tradition that we have in Ireland of the regular singers, the singer’s clubs we go to and the canon of songs that are sung there. And then there is what is being recorded and put out by the big record companies, or even the small record companies, or what is getting out and about, which I worry about because I lot of it is a very same-y. I don’t find there’s a huge amount of big singers coming up as regards as being recorded. It seems to be going back over the same old, same old, or taking old airs and writing new words to it.  For me, a traditional song is like a stone in a river. It has molded into a thing that’s beyond just a song that somebody  has written recently. And there are very few new songs that sound like that. And I feel an awful lot of the singers today are actually just taking old airs and putting new words to it. Or there’s an awful lot of “I” and “me” in the newer songs, if you know what I mean. I might wrong and maybe I’m just not up to date. Although I’m on facebook and I’m on YouTube, and I see what is trending, as they say in Twitter.

DW: So you think the tradition is alive primarily in the singing clubs then?

NP: Yeah. At ground level, very definitely, it’s very much there. Although, you know, I go to the Góilín singer’s club on a Friday night. It’s  not on during the summer, so we really miss it, but it’s on all year from September to June. And most of the people that go there are older people. Lately there’s been a few younger people starting their own singing sessions, so that’s good. It’s definitely there at the ground level, but I don’t know if it’s there at the recording level yet. So when they talk about “Lady of Singing” or whatever, it’s because there’s not many of us out there doing what we do.

DW: The singing sessions haven’t caught on very well in the United States. I would imagine that’s because most people haven’t grown up hearing the songs, and they don’t have as much to sing.

NP: That’s true. And one of the things that has been changing over the last, say 20 years, even in Ireland is the fact that are singing sessions, and then there sessions where people play, and oh they’ll listen to one song or maybe two. And that really bothers me, because when I was growing up, when I was singing, it used to be you’d have a set of tunes, another a set of tunes, then you’d have a song. Then a set of tunes, a set of tunes, another song. So you’d have five, six, or ten songs maybe in a session. Whereas now you might have one or two.

DW: For many of the traditional airs, I would think that a good instrumentalist needs to be informed where they came from…

NP: You think? I absolutely agree with you, but it’s not being taught. Yes. That is exactly what it is supposed to be. I think there are so many musicians that are only thinking of the music and that never think of the song. And another thing that bothers me is that, if a singer is singing in a session, all the instruments what to just play along the air. And sometimes it’s quite a simple air, and you’ve got accordion  fiddle, flute all playing what the singer is actually singing. And that bothers me a lot, so I always choose my keys carefully.

DW: Last question. What do you think is the greatest misconception about traditional song?

NP: Sean-nós. A lot of people have a lot of ideas of what it means, but what it means is old style singing in the Irish language – particularly Connemara, Kerry, Waterford, Galway, and any other place I might have forgotten. The sean-nós style is a particular style, but it’s definitely not in the English language. And I think that’s a misconception. People feel it’s something different. People think I sing in the sean-nós style and I don’t, because I don’t speak Irish.  True sean-nós singers only have seven or eight songs, and that’s all they do. That’s all they sing. That’s all they’ll ever sing because these songs are the songs they’ve always known and always sung. It’s a surreal and incredible experience listening to a real sean-nós singer. Whereas I would consider myself as a singer of traditional songs, in a traditional style, rather than sean-nós. I can sing a modern song, but I’ll always manage put in a few twiddly bits so that it ends up sounding like a traditional song.