The first album by enchanting young Irish vocalist Pauline Scanlon, 2004’s Red Colour Sun, introduced the world to a singer with a disarmingly pure tone, ravishing interpretive abilities, and a wide-ranging set of influences that had already coalesced into a mature, unique sound. Available August 15 on Compass Records, Hush is a powerful, impressive step forward. Throughout Hush, Scanlon further explores elements outside of her native Irish tradition, while simultaneously reaffirming her roots in that tradition and illuminating the vast influence Irish music has had on other genres. Scanlon’s musical partner, former Lúnasa guitarist Donogh Hennesy, ingeniously shapes the instrumental landscape, bridging formidable musical gaps with endless facility and grace. “This album,” Scanlon says, “is as much his as it is mine.”
Pauline Scanlon’s deep roots in traditional music inform every note she sings — in the masterful sense of drama with which she unfurls ballads and the aching tenderness she brings to songs of loss and regret. Born into a family of singers and musicians in Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland, Scanlon was discovered at an early age by broadcaster, writer, singer, and musicologist Tony Small. Mentoring the young singer, Small shared with her his own broad repertoire of traditional tunes, and organized her first concert when she was just thirteen. Not long afterward, Scanlon left Ireland, spending her teenage years traveling through Europe and Australia. On the road, she performed with local musicians at every stop, discovering new traditions and, equally important, new ways in which her own musical heritage could interact with other forms. She also couldn’t help but be influenced by the sound of modern popular music around her — the visceral yet ambient grooves of Massive Attack, the confessional intimacy of Tori Amos.
Returning to Ireland and settling in Galway, Scanlon was soon introduced to maverick accordionist, fiddler, and bandleader Sharon Shannon. Shannon was taken with Scanlon’s singing upon hearing her in a local pub session, and eventually invited Scanlon to join her band the Woodchoppers as a guest vocalist. Performing with Shannon in the UK, Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, Norway, Japan, Finland, and Australia proved to be the ultimate training-ground for Scanlon, who drew inspiration from Shannon’s renowned willingness to expand the boundaries of traditional Irish music.
In Galway, Scanlon also met then-Lúnasa guitarist Donogh Hennessey, who helped to bring her musical vision into focus, contributing greatly to Red Colour Sun as a musician and songwriter. Produced by drummer John Reynolds (Sinead O’Connor, the Indigo Girls, Hothouse Flowers), the album placed Scanlon’s voice in a variety of settings, ranging from purely traditional to more eclectic, contemporary surroundings. Original songs, co-written by Scanlon and Hennessey, were joined by intense traditional material and illuminating interpretations of songs by Americans such as Willie Nelson, Peggy Seeger, and Don McLean.
Recorded at Compass Sound Studio in Nashville and unlike the shifting track-by-track bands that marked Red Colour Sun, Hush was made by a remarkable core band consisting of musicians from America, Ireland, and England, whose backgrounds range from bluegrass to jazz to country music. The rhythm section of Hennessey’s guitar, the supple bass of Danny Thompson (Pentangle, Richard Thompson Band), and ace Nashville session drummer Kenny Malone (here playing a mix of standard trap set, percussion, and deconstructed drum kits) are capable of delivering rollicking uptempo backdrops and stark, slowly-unfolding ballads with equal precision. Fiddler Stuart Duncan, one of the most recorded musicians in the bluegrass and country universe, is a fascinating addition to the studio band. Not an Irish fiddler by trade, Duncan still has a deep understanding of the haunting modal qualities that define the genre. To that understanding he brings a bluegrass-born rhythmic drive and intensity.
The opening “Wearin’ the Britches” confidently introduces this volatile fusion of traditions and musicians, with Thompso’s jazz bass vamps and Dunca’s grassy double-stops elevating Scanlon’s soaring vocal and pushing her to levels of immediacy not heard on Red Colour Sun. Again differentiating it from the previous project, Hush’s repertoire is rooted in Scanlon and Hennessey’s arrangements of traditional songs. While most of the traditional material hails from Ireland, Hush also featuring a pair of ballads, “Rain and Snow” and “The Demon Lover,” that figure strongly in both the Appalachian and Irish canons. “The Demon Lover” is a particularly powerful performance, with Scanlon’s crystalline tones answered by the rugged vocals and banjo of special guest Darrell Scott.
While the supporting cast of Hush is indeed illustrious, their contributions never overshadow Scanlon’s gifts. Still not yet thirty, she holds her own with this heavyweight ensemble, and reveals a new level of depth and passion to her singing. She gives more of herself to each performance, bravely displaying a vulnerability and sensitivity that makes even the oldest traditional ballad immediately relevant. Hush is a rare album from a rare talent: rooted yet adventurous, timeless yet contemporary, inviting yet sweetly heartbreaking.