• Ritual in music

    I joined Anúna in the early '90's, coming direct from Architecture. When my brother Michael formed the group [An Úaithne] in 1988 it consisted of trained singers. That is his background as it is with all of the classical choirs in the country and in most of the world. I had no interest in being in a choir. I had drawn up my thesis and many of my architectural projects with the two original tapes that Michael had made with his music on it. It was wonderful. Whatever the band was that made this sound, that was the one I wanted to be in!

    When I decided to sing these songs that I had been listening to for years, I was standing beside people who genuinely believed that they were the focus of the music. Early on it made huge sense to me that they were in fact, completely incidental to the music. Trumpety, nasal, unmusical and plain ugly, would describe many of those early voices. I was simply struggling to stay in tune all of the time.

    So I sang on the eponymous first Anúna album. It was wonderful. Honest with great integrity, using speculative singing techniques and basically incredibly original. When I arrived in the group I had never envisioned further than merely singing in the back line, not too loudly in case I would make a mistake. In reality what happened was entirely different.

    Apart from arrangements [The Lass of Glenshee, Siúil a Rúin, Buachaill ón Éirne and the original Fisher King] on the early albums I really didn't have interest in writing anything. I was however intensely interested in the implications of movement and visuals. So I have decided to put some of my ideas down here. Feel free to comment.

    All of the early work I did with Anúna was meticulously drawn out and intentional. The group gigged regularly in Trinity College in Dublin which had a central nave. We tried new techniques and ideas. In the early days the excitement around Anúna was intense. The group were actually learning the music and moving while singing. While that was innovative in itself, what made it hugely relevant was the sense of modern ritual.

    I attended a church service in the village of Tanworth last year and was stunned to see the choristers and Paul Cudby the vicar involved in moving, fluid, ritualistic vignettes. It was like watching Anúna in Trinity in 2003. They were calm and full of integrity. At the end everyone assembled in a semi-circle at the back of the church and discussed the service. There were only four people in the congregation.
    It reminded me of those early days when I would try to see how the space could be utilized to give the music it’s deserved gravitas.
    Most of the early performances were in small churches. I had these wonderful songs, very old ecclesiastical spaces and carte blanche to do something innovative.
    I can’t say that there wasn’t resistance. At the beginning the singers simply said “no we can’t move”. Then we went into the phase of “wow this works! Let’s try this and this no matter how meaningless it is”. We did a couple of gigs with Noirín Ní Riain in the early 90’s. I was amazed at how she just did things in performance because they felt right. Things which should have looked absurd simply didn’t.

    Then I created a philosophy behind the reason why Anúna moved.
    Primarily we had the pilgrimage template. Movement as ritual did not have to be based on any historical precedent.  It was not a case of “trying things”. Movement could only have relevance if it was intended. The layout of early Christian Churches was fairly standard and was as good a place to start as any. I can’t remember the first time we moved into a theatre to do a gig. All I know is that I simply saw it as a sacred space and transposed the same ideas on to it. In the Albert Hall in London in 1999 I knew that it wasn’t just a whim to put women singing in the audience, it was essential. I remember a production meeting where the staff laughed out loud when I suggested it. We did it and it worked.

    Drama was also a reason for movement. An architectural friend of mine mentioned after one of the performances that he could smell the singers as they walked past him. That blew me away! All these possibilities opened up. Coming from a design background makes you very aware of the importance of intention. You do things and they have an effect. That may vary from individual to individual. What is important is that intention.
    I have an anecdote which sums drama up perfectly.
    As my staging was becoming more adventurous I decided to do something completely different. It was in Trinity College and we had a large group of singers. I started the performance with 9 singers on the altar and they did 5 songs. Then the main doors opened at the back and the rest of the group entered in procession and we finished the piece spread out the length of the nave. I thought it was amazing. The singers didn’t. The ones outside the door felt that they had been an afterthought. What had been clearly a dramatic gesture had passed over everyone’s head. It was the first time I genuinely had to deal with egos. They didn’t care that they were involved in something important. All they cared about was that their parents didn’t see them until the 6th song.
    In my philosophy, drama when coupled with intention and planning, has integrity. A singer in a costume is simply that. A singer with belief in what they are doing becomes something different. Opera singers play a role. Choral singers don’t.  If you dress them up and stick a candle in their hands they are the same as they were when they walked in the door. If the audience sees someone pretending to be someone they are not, the illusion is ruined. When the singer understands the relevance of their presence on that stage then it is no longer illusion. When the audience knows more about what you are supposed to be than you do, then you shouldn’t be on that stage.
    There are countless stories of incredible scenarios that I have been faced with over the years. My underlying certainty is that when I am involved with any gig, my sole aim is to honour the music and to reinforce the importance of the performance.  I have struggled with this for many years. Communicating these ideas is not necessary for me but many feel that I should. If you tell someone that they are representing an angel they start to act. They are not actors. If they trust you and your vision you get something special. Unfortunately many singers have to struggle past their own egos. That’s great if you’re an incredibly gifted singer. One of my favourite lines in poker is that if you are looking around the table for the fish then it’s you. If you’re a singer reading this and smugly knowing that I’m not talking about you then think again.

    There is much more to this and there’s a blog below that outlines a 2013 performance in Finland in great detail. Over the years I have derived incredible satisfaction in watching the singers and the audience facilitate each other in realising my ideas. They were created at a time when there was no Celtic music and before the global Irish cultural renaissance. They were derived from much study and reflection and born as a reaction to my brother’s music. They are relevant.

  • Roney

    I'm back in Roney Beach in Co.Wexford again after nearly 2 years. It was here that I did most of my recordings last time. This was pretty miraculous mainly because I came down for a week in October 2012 with all of my equipment except for the microphone. I've been working off iPhone recordings since then.
    The house has been given to me by a great and very generous friend. It's a very simple process. I do everything on an iPad mini [this is like an ad for Apple], using an Apogee mic and nothing else. It's a simple editing process. Reverb or no reverb? It's really quick and efficient and when you're recording on the hoof it's much faster than any other process I've ever worked on.

    The house is settled at the end of a beautiful private development right on Roney Beach. It's incredibly quiet except for the wind and the rain. Last week we all thought that it was Summer, as the Irish tend to do. However we were soon put in our place. Today it rained. The sun came out for just long enough that everyone believed it had cleared up, then poured more misery on us.

    So here I am on what is effectively phase one. This could take quite a while. the next phase is the bit where I am happy with the structure and I record to play to others. Not sure about the final phase yet. I'm sorely tempted to get one of those tiny Norwegian cabins in July and bring an engineer to record the whole lot in the wildness of that wonderful country. If not then a much more controlled environment.
    Here in the wildness where I can hear the sea getting bigger and bigger outside it's comforting to know that I'm not alone. Now if I can figure out a way to stop the letterbox constantly rattling and scaring the bejesus out of me I'll be set...

  • Tyrone Guthrie Center 4

    Last time I was in the Tyrone Guthrie Center I was asked by Mary to post a blog about the place.
    If you want to know what it actually is then check the website and it will explain a little bit about its purpose and history. In this case all I can do is throw down a few thoughts about my own personal experiences.
    I've been going there for 20 years. I generally only stay for a couple of days which is not the norm. Most of the residents go for extended periods to complete particular projects. I go when I can get a cancellation and am usually all over the place. For instance I was there last month to put structure on the opening section of the new album and ended up with one completely new song. Typical.
    The main reason I go down is to walk in the clean Monaghan air. Doesn't matter what season, it's always beautiful there. They have the most bizarre weather. It rains always. Last month I went straight out for a walk and was soaked within five minutes. I love it. I was brought up in the country. I used to know the names of every tree, most of the plants and all of the birds. It's like remembering a song or a language you were once proficient in. I live in the centre of Dublin city. It's a great place but I wasn't meant to stay here this long. Annamakerrig lake and grounds cleanses me completely and fills me with hope. Everything becomes clearer, even the chaos of my work process and ethic gets thrown into sharp relief. Then the sun comes out. On the last morning I was there in February, I went for a walk around the lake and took some photos with my phone. The photos aren't enhanced in any way other than the standard iPhone 4s HDR and Panoramic functions. In other words this is pretty much what it looks like. One beautiful sunny morning in Monaghan.

  • Monsters

    The Irish landscape was formed primarily by glaciers. The area around Monaghan is drumlin country. Low bumps in the landscape more often than not with small lakes between them. It's a strange place to drive through because you can never make out what's ahead of you for more than a few hundred meters. It's also very old. The little hills are deposits left as the huge glaciers rolled across South Ulster during the Ice Age. You never really get a sense of this until you walk these odd little roads.
    At the end of September I travelled with a friend down one of them as the engorged early Autumn was trying to figure out why it was still Summer. We heard a knocking sound in the forest to our right. Then we heard it again but this time far away and to the left and immediately right and then left in the distance. There was a short pause and it started again. Louder and much more disturbing it, was directly in front of us then right, softer to the left, and into the distance again. Then it stopped. It felt like the prelude to something. We left quickly.
    I had considered climbing the fence and walking into the trees but it really didn't feel like a good idea. Two months later neither of us have the slightest idea what it was. Woodpeckers? The knocking wasn't a call and answer. It was seamlessly followed by the next set no matter how far away they were from each other. The ground settling? It was damp but the regularity and precision was shall we say, unnatural.
    I've enclosed a few photos taken at almost the same time as the knocking we experienced. Maybe it was a natural phenomenon. Looking into the trees on that strangely ripe and almost madly fertile afternoon, I remembered that there were monsters here once.

  • Songwriting

    Finally a blog on songwriting. Unfortunately if you are a songwriter this will be next to useless to you.
    McCartney wrote the lyrics first. Lennon wrote them after he'd developed the melody.
    The way the process works is that when you find the words in the melody you either do a stream of consciousness thing (which is great fun), or you use notes that you have collected on various bits of paper and in notebooks. Many of my friends who write songs do it this way. I don't.
    I never take notes. Nor do I plunder the ether for hippy-babble "simple silly secrets running rings around a no-show, she is solitary out of line, she's naked but she isn't mine". Yes I actually wrote those lyrics.

    At this stage of the songwriting process I have around ninety minutes of skeletons. The fleshing out of these pieces is a delight and it's hard to keep away from them. However my Architectural teeth are firmly grasped onto a concept and will stick to it. So to give you some idea of the process, I've outlined the production of one piece of the puzzle below.

    I was wintering on the beaches of Kerry in 2012 (it was March), courtesy of a good friend whose house was at my disposal. I was walking around 20 kilometers a day along some of the most desolate shores in Europe. I'm posting a few photos to give you an idea of what I was doing and where I was working.
    After 3 days of lung-bursting deep breaths and occasional bouts of euphoria I began to notice that the further I got away from the house and the small mostly holiday settlement, the more unsettled I became. After a week alone I did one heroic walk of 16km and ended up completely out of sight of the headland I'd come from. I saw this unusual figure in the distance travelling rapidly towards me. Closer and closer it came and I realised that it was moving in an extremely unnatural way, completely static where it met the sand and yet frantic and intense at the top. Something I'd ignore usually. However when you are alone in the middle of nowhere and have seen Whistle and I will come to you many times, you don't stand around waiting to see the thing in the distance getting closer. So I started to walk quickly back the way I came and then began to trot and dammit if the figure wasn't closing on me. I checked myself and just gave up. What could it be other than my imagination fuelled by too much health and fresh air? It was a guy running with a pram at full belt. "Howareye!" he shouted as he passed me by, zipping around a corner I'd missed on the way down. I followed him straight into a golf club. The desolation lifted and I remembered where I was. Kerry in the Spring.
    I started walking back to the house. It began to get darker and I picked up the pace, arriving at the final beach just as the sun went down. The tide had come in and I had to cut back to the road for the final few hundred meters. It was covered in sand which blew into my eyes. Then the song came.
    I'd been playing a bizarre riff over and over for a week. It was intoxicating. I sang nonsense words over it with different melodies and it still stayed interesting. In my experience that is the sign of a good song. There were no lyrics. They would either come or they wouldn't. On the sandy road they came in waves. They filled the melody up until they spilled out. I couldn't find one of the words, the title. I rang a friend and shouted "HEADTHEVAR!!" repeatedly down the phone. "WHAT DOES THAT SOUND LIKE, WHAT WORD?" The signal was terrible which didn't do much for my credibility. I hung up as the dusk began to settle in and the lights all over the peninsula came into focus. The word "Heavenward" came. The song was written. The production of this song was the turning point in my songwriting. I'd had a similar though profoundly sad experience when Elisabeth Sladen passed away the year before almost to the day. "Sweet Sarah Jane" came in one go on the back of a riff I'd worked on for 5 years.

    What I have learned is that the process must be filled with joy no matter what the subject matter is. I returned to Kerry this year for ten days and nothing came. I consolidated what I had already written and completed a couple of pieces and walked an awful lot. Finally I spent a week in the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at the end of September and realised that the album was ready. I can put no finites on the songwriting process. For me it's about riffs. The melody follows and then the lyrics. For me the lyrics sit somewhere in the song waiting to be found. They can't be forced because they are already there.

    Enjoy Fahamore beach. Somewhere out there might be another song.

  • The Anúna Summer School June 2013

    Below are the opening words for the Anúna Summer School which I delivered yesterday. Looking at them now they're a bit flowery and I did fill in what appeared to be glaring gaps with ill-advised ad-libs and some equally ill-advised shorts. It's a brief description of my methods and thinking when designing shows, not hugely detailed but I spent a couple of hours writing it so I felt it needed to be inflicted on you (dear reader...).

    "In March this year 26 years after Anúna was formed, I took a group of young singers to the Nordic countries. We did three concerts in three very different venues.
    In Oslo it was the flag hall of the medieval Askerhus fortress overlooking Oslo Fjord, a large room with an invited audience. The focus in the room was a compact raised stage.In Stockholm it was Sofia Kyrkan which was a more traditional church but with a huge area in front of the altar and seating almost “in the round”.The final venue was Temppeliaukion Kirkko in Helsinki. A highly unusual space with radiating aisles a nave that unfortunately we couldn't pair with the altar. In other words the natural and intended axis was usable but not relevant in terms of where the choir were processing from and there they would eventually end up [you can see the grey steps on the left hand side of the altar which was our performance area - a gift to all chiropractors]. Oslo was simple because the restriction of space and the size of the audience made the performance easy to work out. This was a secular venue so we played down the spiritual elements in terms of restricting movement in the space and concentrating on the sonic elements. 

    Sofia Kyrkan [built.1906] in Stockholm is a working Lutheran church and it’s design pertained directly to the method of worship. Because of the area in front of the altar I concentrated on movement, treating this space as the heart of the church, almost surrounded by the audience. The focal point shifted from the edges to the middle and culminated in a procession to the center. It was simply a device to draw the “congregation” into the performance, which in itself was a direct reaction to the space and nothing else.

    Temppeliaukion Kirkko [built.1969] in Helsinki was a completely different issue altogether. The building was designed with intention and as a result every piece of potential ritual and movement was focused on one place: the altar.
 Over many years I have had to tackle spaces as difficult as this and when the natural axis of the building is disrupted [ie. we are performing in the wrong place] we improvise, constantly using what are perceived problems and turning them into advantages. In this case we opened with the Quis est Deus as a reaction to the restrictions. Our "angels" congregated at the altar and our lead vocal asked the audience “And where is God? Of whom is God and where does he live?”. 
In Architecture we used to use a process whereby our initial concept [usually a plan or section] would be sketched on butter paper and then flipped over so we were looking at it in reverse. There was probably a technical reason for this that escapes me. Since then when faced with concept on any artistic project, I always flip it over to see what results. 
So when it came to this particular performance of Quis est Deus this is what I did. We had to create a single moment of importance, a single event that would define who and what we were.

    I decided that we were being hopelessly defeated on the processional ritual front. So I simply asked the lead soprano to show her hands to the audience on the final solo. A four-hour rehearsal before a two hour gig is draining but it was necessary to capture the significance of this so we did it over and over again and each time I told her to show her hands repeatedly. I didn’t know whether she was doing it right. In fact I wasn’t even sure that she knew that she was showing Christ’s wounds. We weren’t re-enacting any known practice that I know of. All I know is that when she knew she was doing it right, everyone else in the room did too. We were there in that moment creating our own ritual for that particular space and it became important because it was important to us. To me the irony of a woman showing Christ's wounds is significent for many reasons that I won't go into here but there were over thirty ambassadors in the audience. Also fully one third of these young singers were from Northern Ireland, significant in that we had been there at the end of the troubles and now we were here with our tiny country beleaguered by banks and politics and corruption, representing our whole island to the world on our national week.
 Were they asking who she was and what she was representing? Hopefully they were. Was she enacting something that they were supposed to understand? No idea. 
Did they see what was actually happening in front of them?

    A tall young woman in a black dress was showing them her hands and nothing more. 
I knew it and yet the hairs rose up on the back of my neck when she did it. It was a moment that I wanted to go on and on and on. I don’t know whether the audience did. I can’t speak for the singers. All I know was that in that moment we were doing it right.

    [as I turned over the wrong page I stuck this bit into the middle of the speech above and I'm pretty sure that the audience didn't notice. Well hopefully they didn't]

    Human beings have been building processional monuments since they could pick up a rock. In Ireland there is a building called Newgrange, a vast passage tomb. At the solstice the sun shines through it’s main passage. It is ancient and magical, 1000 years older than Stonehenge and 600 years older than the pyramids in Giza. I studied it in college and I remember our lecturer (archaeologist Leo Swan now sadly passed away) telling us the story of the white quartz on it’s walls. When they restored it they assumed that it was stuck to the sides of the structure but Leo contended that in fact the quartz had been on the ground around it. When they picked up apparently fallen rocks  around the sides, there was no quartz under them. This is documented as fact but it was his next theory that moved me deeply. He said that he believed that the quartz had been placed around the building to represent the heavens. 
What ancient man had done as an expression of wonder, modern man had interpreted as something else. So they picked the stones up and stuck them to the walls. I have no idea whether this is true or not but of all the things I heard in college, this was the one that stuck with me. It was serendipidity that lead me to Michael’s [the brother's] music while I was drawing up my projects all night and wearing his tape out with all the funny calligraphy on the sides. Michael was picking up the quartz and putting it down again. He didn’t pretend to understand what this ancient music and text was about. Nor did he impose his own interpretation of what it might have been. He simply wondered. When I listened to it so did I.
    Over the years Anúna has undergone many changes. Singers have come and gone. Sometimes we have lost track of where we were going. Mostly the train slightly derailed but always found the tracks at the last moment and it's still running. So here we begin a week of work. You [the school participants] will learn things about your own voices. You will exchange and absorb ideas and you will sing. You may even learn what all true singers know; that you start with the song. It isn’t open to interpretation. It doesn’t have an ego or life or value. It sits and waits for your voice and the voices of those around you. It is your voice that gives it meaning."

    I've stuck a few pics in to illustrate some of the points but they weren't part of the speech. I can't acknowledge the photographers as they're nicked off the web and I'll take them down if there's an issue. I took the one of Sofia. Anyone else have a comment? Please avoid the expressions "up myself" and the word "pretentious" when commenting.

  • Tyrone Guthrie Center 3

    Yet again apologies for the length of time between this and my last blog. No profundity this time. Just some updates.

    I'm currently in Annamakerrig at the Tyrone Guthrie Center again. Having been forced to do new material for the first time in nearly a decade by my friends at the National Concert Hall [see previous blog] last year, I've finally thrown myself into finishing the album.

    The process is much longer than I had anticipated. There are dozens of songs in the form of multiple versions. For instance I've just re-worked "Soon to be Forgotten" which actually appears on an album in a different form, and now the words, structure and melody are altered. The same goes for most of the new pieces. There have been various incarnations of each but none seemed to work properly because initially my aim was to do a full concept album. I wanted to tie the album into an entire performable piece as well as a full length video. I've decided to stick to this but keeping hold of the concept while the songs atempt to break off into different directions is proving very difficult.

    Once the recordings are complete I have a couple of friends to play them for and the possibility of new pieces to link into them. It's all very complex to explain but incredibly clear in my head.
    The next stage is probably a Fundit campaign. My friend Julie Feeney did it and raised a staggering €23,000 to record, master and manufacture her last album. I don't need anything close to that but I would like to offer friends and fans the opportunity to take part in the production of the new work. If I decide to go this way I'll post stuff up on Facebook and on the Anúna networks. The great thing about it is that you get your name on the album somewhere. It might sound silly but mine is on Julie's and it felt great to be part of something artistic that I had helped realise in my own way.

    It's only wonderful to have made this much progress in 2013 and I'm really happy with most of what's done already [and I haven't even touched the ones I played in the NCH last year]. One more day here and I'll be ready for the next phase - vocals and a few honest words with some very important people.

    ...and the sun came out for four hours today. You couldn't ask for more really.

  • Cityscapes at The National Concert Hall October 19th 2012

    I guess that I am forced to write a blog to explain myself. The concert on the 19th will refer directly to the new works I'm putting on the album. At the moment it's not heavily structured and a lot of what I'm doing is very experimental.

    So this project is an attempt to tie pieces of music together in a single theme, less along the lines of Miles and Bitches Brew and more Spinal Tap Jazz Odyssey [no there won't be a puppet show beforehand].

    In all seriousness I'm trying to create vignettes of various aspects of my life in the past and the present. Much of the best times were spent living in London in the 80's and many of the images I'm working on come from that time - my first foray away from home. Dublin is also a great place to live in and features heavily with a few references to the the USA. Currently I'm working on a nine minute opening piece.
    There will of course be some of the older songs as well as favourites of mine.

    So please come along. You can buy tickets [only a tenner] on the National Concert Hall website. Here is a direct link. However you will also be able to get them there on the day - though it'll be risky considering the massive audiences I normally get.

  • The Nick Drake Gathering, Tanworth-in-Arden July 20th to 22nd 2012.

    The Gathering is a collection of people who come from all over the world to honour the memory of the great Nick Drake and to remember his songs. Mainly comprised of amateurs the festival runs over two nights. The first is in the Parish Hall and they usually manage to stuff 150+ people into this wonderful and very atmospheric little space. Every performer is allowed two songs. One of them must be a Nick Drake song and the other should be one that relates to him on a personal level or to his music. It's the same format for the second day. The Gathering has grown in popularity so much that where in the past the same performers would do both concerts, now they have barely enough slots to cover the demand. There were singers from the USA, Holland, Australia, Norway and Italy this year.
    It's hard to judge an occasion like this. On the one hand the vast majority are amateurs. Some of the performances might leave a lot to be desired technically but the heart and soul of most of the individual acts are poured into around six minutes of doubt, practice and respect. At times you can feel the audience willing someone on who is literally terrified. This format is the hardest that you can possibly do. Two songs, off, next act. No warm-up. No time to get used to the position of the mic.
    On the other hand some professionals turn up and it's strange to talk to them afterwards. It's different for them. When an influence affects the very core of the skill that enables you to make a living, the words breathed in every line of Nick's song are invariably "thanks brother".
    In my case I'm a fan not a disciple. I doubt that he has had the slightest effect on the way I write music. My first encounter with him was when a reviewer from the Hotpress said that I was influenced by both Nick and Tír na nÓg [neither of whom I had ever even heard of]. If they'd said The Jam and The Stranglers then I would never have ended up here this week. No matter, I purchased everything he ever composed and I love the guy. The strangeness of his desire for the recognition of his music and the ultimate despair when he felt that he had failed to succeed points at a truly flawed individual. Yet I think that this is the main reason for the love people have for his music. He was a messed-up genius who left us far too early.

    So what did I learn for myself? I've been to his grave in 2010 and was blown away by the experience. This year it was different. I went to the grave once and played Waterfall on the 'ole iPhone, all very 21st century. Then I simply asked him for help to finish the damned thing. As Kev Yale wryly put it "did a desiccated hand rise from the earth with a middle finger outstretched?" If it did would I have taken it literally and assumed that my effort would hurtle to number one? Nick was cremated and his ashes scattered so that would have been pretty awesome. Nothing happened. I left the graveside feeling a lot better simply having read the words on the stone he sleeps beneath.

    "Now we rise and we are everywhere".

    The indomitable Orv. Dragged his ass half way around the world to be there. No one is worthy of his spirit, not even Nick himself.Kev and the vintage cars outside the Bell. Another stalwart of the Gathering. A great friend and one of the wisest [and funniest] men I've ever met.

    Umberslade. The giant estate that settles around the tiny village. Granted to the Archer family in the 1200's, it reeks of Nick's music. Nick's grave. Go and visit. Pop in to Ash in the Bell. Great food, great people, great stories and you might get the chance to create a bit of a legend yourself.

    Another wonderful weekend of an English summer.

  • Casa la Vigna

    I have just finished recording and writing with Ian King in Italy. It's hard to describe the beauty of the place he lives in. It's perched on the side of mountain covered in olive groves overlooking Pisa. The odd time we'd stand on his deck and pretend to be able to see the leaning tower. He has lizards, geckos [distinguishable by their propensity to scare the bejesus out of you every time you open an external door], massively carniverous daddy-long-legs, scorpions [unfortunately I didn't encounter one which was very disappointing] and snakes. There was of course the issue of the lethal flies that like my pale interesting flesh and I had to rediscover the wonder of the antihistamine.
    Ian's beloved Barnsley F.C towel with the local church in the background - coincidence? Below is the first night of homesickness where we consoled ourselves with a nice glass of wine and some pasta at the nearby Collective. Ian shows his pigeon Italian off to the locals who genuinely believe that he is an actual pigeon.
    That would be the fauna covered. Ian pointed out where the wild boar dig up the roads, gardens and pretty much everywhere else on long walks up the hills. We spotted the frst fireflies on the way home from the local Trattoria and spent a bit of time googling butterflies and discussing the various flowers festooned all over this beautiful place.
    I think that we would have finished the entire album if we'd had 2 more days and hadn't been recording in wildly different ways. He's very methodical and clear in the way he organises his ideas. I'm the complete opposite. It took us three days to record the first song and then they just tumbled out. First off we are putting 4 original pieces at least on the album, which will be called Newbliss after the place we started this project. I don't really want to go into too much detail about the other arrangements and songs yet.

    The original concept of the album was to link songs that meant a lot to us from our respective traditions. Initially this was supposed to be the old "lets see how we link Flamenco to Appalacian clog dancing" technique. However Ian produced an arrangement of Cruel Mother, which comes in various guises and links The Brothers Grimm to Scottish and English folklore. The basic idea was that a woman kills her two children and then sings to them. It's much darker and deeper than that but it has a reference to a long knife in it which niggled away at me for a full day until I remembered where I had heard something similar. There's a very well known Irish folk song called "The River Saile [salach being the Irish word for dirty, probably the Poddle river in Dublin]" that tells of a woman who kills her child with a knife "long and sharp" - made famous by The Dubliners. We did a bit of research and found that it referred to James Francis Childs' Murder Ballads. It was a sort of eureka moment. Here was the link that we needed. That single line linked a song that we had picked arbitrarily, to both traditions. It mightn't seem much but I always view occourances like this as serendipitous and they usually auger well for further links.
    So we picked 5 songs to work on and record and in the main we achieved what we set out to do. It's going to take a bit of time to get the recordings sorted out as there is a lot of travel involved over the next couple of months for both of us but we're aiming for the end of August as a realistic goal for us both.

    Other than that there isn't much to say. What a beautiful place! The Italians are a friendly and very funny bunch and if you squint and look directly into the sun you can just see the blob that is the tower. Actually no, now that he's thinking about it it's probably that blob over there...

  • Tyrone Guthrie Center 2

    Just getting around to posting the blog below. I spent days in the center in the last week of May and haven't had a chance to draw a breath since.

    In true pessimistic Irish fashion I packed my heavy walking boots and a huge overcoat and headed north to the Tyron Guthrie Center to spend 8 days preparing for the recording session in Italy with Ian King at the beginning of June. The sun didn't stop shining for the entire stay. I am now of the opinion that the fate for the Irish is to be forever inconvencienced by the weather.

    The purpose of the visit is to produce a number of simple arrangements of traditional songs and I have picked a couple from my past that have particular relevance for me. I've also been messing around with a very contemporary version of Moore's Last Rose of Summer. There have been some extremely early mornings and I found a frog in my sitting room last night at around 4am. When I asked the staff why there was a frog in my house they asked me completely straight faced whether I had found the other frog.

    I have also been doing a load of very early morning filming and some of the results are breathtakingly beautiful. Ireland really is a lovely place.

    Mostly I have been recording in the Dance Studio which has a huge acoustic but is isolated from the rest of the house and is truly a beautiful place to work. I've decided to submit an almost entirely instrumental version of Nil s'en la, The Last Rose and a new version of Buachaill on Eirne to the melting pot of the album. We've already settled on a souped up slightly mad version of Fionnghuala and a couple of my own tracks still to be decided. looking forward to Italy big time. Apart from the exotic idea of recording in a working vineyard it's going to be great to see Ian again.

    I'll leave you with dusk in the Tyrone Guthrie Center. You can't see the swallows darting around or hear the owls but they're there.

  • Summer and after

    Apologies for the lack of blogging.

    The album is coming along nicely. I now have 18 songs which I am paring down to their absolute basics. I'm unsure whether to make this a purely acoustic album or to incorporate strings (courtesy of the brother). Methinks the latter is the best option. Songs about death, love and nature are tough to make decisions on. No gimmicks on this one. It's going to be truthful, honest and more than faintly bizarre. I have a song called Epic that I wrote watching a film, two pieces about a waterfall tied together by the simple tuning of the guitar, one about an extremely moving and hilarious wake I attended, another that attempts to capture 5 years in London on a Saturday morning, a piece which is ridiculously complex that I wrote on the beach in Fahamore in West Kerry called Heavenward and the unrecorded Soon to be forgotten, The Cherry Tree and Fragments. Over a decade of songs that should have been recorded and released years ago. Guess I wasn't ready.

    Ian King and myself are going to do the unthinkable and record an entire album at the beginning of June in a single session. He has moved from East Finchley in London to a Tuscan farmhouse. Life has changed for him immeasurably and we are hoping to tap into it.

    I'm also launching my friend Derek O'Gorman's new album in June. Heading off to the South of France to perform and add new ideas to the mix. He's a gifted songwriter and has chosen this wonderful country as his temporary home. Looks like it's going to be a very busy summer.

    Can't wait.

  • Tyrone Guthrie Center 1

    Back from the Tyrone Guthrie Center for a few days now. I've enclosed some photos of the cottage I was staying in on the grounds. Most of the organising of the songs took place with the stove blazing beside me. I have no idea what's wrong with the weather this year. I'm a snowman by nature and I can't find anywhere cold to work! Having a blazing fire is only wonderful when there is a contrast between inside and outside and I was wandering around the house in a tee-shirt.

    I'm recording in the Dance Studio which has a huge acoustic [completely unsuitable for final recordings but who cares?]. The object it to produce the whole album in it's roughest form as a single concept, moving on to a finer chop with added ideas - at this juncture I may take some advice from certain people if I feel it's needed. Final stage is to go into the studio. Ideally that would be a week for all guitars and vocals, maybe away in the bogs somewhere or even in Scandinavia where there might be some bloody snow!!

    Not a lot more to say at this stage. I'm throwing formally great ideas out the window daily. When I get back from Annaghmakerrig next time I should pretty much know what the final structure will be. Somewhere at the back of my mind I can hear the finished work. I had a dream a couple of nights ago in which I was sitting listening to the whole album with my friends and family, the whole thing! It was over an hour long and one track flowed into another. Clear as crystal!!! Don't remember any of it.
    One thing I'm sure of is that when this is finished I'm cleaning house. This is going to be the last time I look at these songs. Anything after this will be a new beginning. I think I deserve it.

    When I was recording in the very late early hours of the morning alone in the middle of a field in Monaghan, I heard tapping at the window several times. Every time I tried to locate the source I failed. I never heard it at any other time except after 3am. Normally I see ghosts everywhere and find it unsettling, but this time I felt that whatever visitor I was receiving at the extreme end of the night was benign and that the tapping was to tell me to get on with it.

    A final lovely thing was discovering a little drawer under the table in the cottage I was working in. Someone had left it there years ago and it had been read and put back by each new resident, something like "Hello! I was here trying to pluck words out of thin air and I understand how hard it is" It really helped.

  • What's going on in February?

    Well quite a lot as it happens. I'm on the way to The Tyrone Guthrie Center soon to finish the final compilation files [looks like 24 viable songs, some over 7 minutes long....don't ask!] for the new album. I must say that after waiting so long to finish this I'm annoyed at myself that it wasn't done sooner. It's difficult to go back and re-energize work that you didn't bother to finish. The upside is that now I'm forced to see the songs as part of a much bigger and significant concept, well significant to me that is.

    Having lived in the center of Dublin for over a decade puts you in a position of being knowledgeable whether you like it or not. The economic situation is playing havoc with the middle-classes. They don't know what to do with themselves or what to plan for. They have produced a generation of serial university students, too many of whom can't read, spell or show any interest in anything other than the culture of "gimme it now,  I want it on 4 separate devices and I want to share it with a virtual community of people who are too damned lazy to pick up the phone!" The rich are still rich and the poor never heard the Celtic Tiger roar anyway. You can't borrow money to streamline your business or develop your product but the banks will give you money to do up your bathroom. It's a very uncertain time in Dublin and the natural optimism of the people here [immigrants and Dubs] is taking a hammering from a government who are out of touch with the people and completely in thrall to Europe.
    There's an enterprising artist in Smithfield living in a brand new empty office space made out of bricks of shredded money - around €1.4 billion. He gave me a brick of €50,000 little bits wrapped in cellophane "for the mantelpiece!".

    The city is very old and you get the sense that no matter how many drunken kids populate it at the weekends or how many homeless and drug addicts litter the tourist areas, there's a wise old lady who comes out on a Sunday morning ignoring the detritus and wanders her green spaces and the Georgian squares. It's a beautiful place despite the “craic” messing it up. Not an Irish word by the way, rather an Englishism based on “cracking up” or “to crack a smile”…the words to Danny Boy were written by an English Barrister…St. Patrick was actually born in the North of England. All available on Wiki!

    The concept of the new album is based on the city and how it lives and breathes despite us and our ridiculous worries. It further contrasts and acknowledges my own desire to celebrate the pastoral part of my life, probably because I was brought up in the countryside. I would like to use the word juxtaposes here but my Architectural background won’t allow it. Many of my former colleagues in college used it to justify all sorts of nonsense. One very prominent contemporary of mine famously used it to cover the fact that he had no storage facilities in his restaurant and several of his doors didn’t lead to anything, except for the one that merrily allowed you to walk through and plummet to your death. He got an A.

    So in a roundabout way that sort of vaguely explains where I’m going with these recordings. Or possibly not.

    Other news is that the project with Ian has had to go on hold for the moment. He’s moving to Italy in a few months and as soon as he’s settled we’ll start looking at it again.

    That’s it for now. I’ll probably have something less long-winded to say about my progress next week.

    Or possibly not.

  • London and the National Concert Hall

I'm on the way over to my beloved London to play, record and plan with Ian King tomorrow [actually today would be more accurate]. This has been a lengthy and in many ways frustrating process for both of us. The two albums are still on the cards and it looks like we have a state-of-the-art recording studio in Eastbourne to create the magic [ha ha ha!]. This reminds me that I have to go and see Beachy Head mainly due to the propensity of the locals for chucking themselves off the edge. Guess I'm lucky. When my love affairs go bad I write a miserable song that makes me look like the hero. 

    So the main issue is completing lyrics that have some relevance to us both. Might seem simple but to be blunt, writing lyrics has become a hackneyed and dishonest occupation. In the 50's and 60's teams of songwriters were employed to put their words in other people's mouths. Nothing has really changed. Writers produce audience friendly pap and we lend them to our lives in the hope that they'll improve us in some meaningful way. Ian and myself are banging our heads against bits of random furniture, desperately trying to find structure in all of our experiences. You spend a day looking at bits of paper and the eureka moment comes, only to be scuppered the next morning when you look at the unadulterated muck that you've written. I wrote the entire lyric for Fallen Angel on a bicycle in 10 minutes. Probably should have ended up in ditch. Self-indulgent doesn't begin to describe the smugness of hitting the nail on the head as a 46A bus tries to drive you into the waiting area of the police station in Donnybrook.
 So this whole process with Ian is either going to kill us or save us. Either way it's great to still be doing this. Ian works his ass off in a day job and squeezes his creativity into structured bursts. I'm lazy as sin. What binds us together is the desire to get the job done. We won't be posting snippets of progress or updates on songs. When the two albums are finished they'll be released and criticized on the basis that they're ongoing commentary of our lives as we are living them right now. A lot has happened and is happening to us, as it is to everyone else. I just hope that we manage to be honest and truthful.

    That said I had a great experience on November the 8th. I got to open for Madeleine Peyroux in the esteemed National Concert Hall in Dublin in front of around 700 people, the vast majority of whom had no idea who I was. Madeleine did. She knew my stuff and was incredibly charming. I have to say that in all of the years of performing with Anúna it was wonderful to open for a real star and to have her audience accept and enjoy my songs. 

    So off to London. I'll post some thoughts after the weekend. Ian has lost his phone so I see myself standing in the rain outside East Finchley tube station tomorrow composing another world-changing ballad and planning ways of making him pay. Guess I'll write him into a song with a badly trimmed beard and a limp....that is unless he does it to me first.