Article written by Helene Dunbar and reprinted from Irish Music Magazine, March 2010.
Music festivals can sometimes create strange bedfellows. An appreciative crowd, a gathering of talented artists, a pint or two, and a whole lot of music – there’s nothing like it to get the creative juices flowing.
Such was the case at Denmark’s Tønder Festival when Grada (Nicola Joyce – vocals, bodhran; Gerry Paul – guitar, banjo, vocals; Andrew Laking – double bass, vocals, guitar; David Doocey – fiddle, concertina, whistle; Stephen Doherty – flute, whistle, melodeon, piano, bodhran) – who has now been around long enough not to be considered a “phenom” but an established force to be reckoned with on the international Irish music scene – converged with Tim O’Brien – bluegrass/Americana singer-songwriter/producer best known to Irish music fans for his 1999 project “The Crossing.” “Everybody – maybe 5 or 6 groups - play on stage in a period of 3 hours,” O’Brien explains. “They come on one at a time and play a couple of songs and then everybody comes back to play altogether. After that it goes on into the wee hours. We played on stage and we kept playing afterwards and they finally kicked us out because they were taking the tent down."
The Tønder meeting solidified a number of conversations that had been going on for a while between Paul and O’Brien. And all in all it took them over a year to make it into the studio. The resulting album “Native Angle” is part Americana, a tad Bluegrass, and all of the expertly played Irish music that Grada has been known for.
“There have always been similarities and connections between Scottish, Irish, and American folk music due to the continual migratory flow back and forth across the Atlantic,” says Laking. “And we’ve always felt a connection with Americana music, which has strong historical links to Ireland. This connection has been fueled by the many tours we have made throughout the USA in the last five years. During this time, we’ve been fortunate to have listened to, met and played with a number of great American artists, which has had a big influence on us.”
Grada has always been one of the more successful bands when it has come to integrating their various influences. Jazz, swing, and pop filtered through the Grada cloth often make an appearance on their CDs but Natural Angle probably has one of the more cohesive sets.
It’s easy to credit O’Brien as the album’s producer for that but he demurs. “They had their stuff well-figured out.” And, he laughs, “they actually picked one of my songs which was very flattering.” The biggest influence that O’Brien probably had was in the way that the album was recorded. “The thing that they had never done, which is surprising to me, is that they’d never recorded everything all at once. They’d recorded in pieces because of the way studios are. And people use a lot of home studios and they build a track from backing tracks and work the things together. It can be very pristine that way but it lacks the kind of spontaneity. You can hear people reacting when you play it all at once.” That method allows Grada’s musical exuberance and the chemistry that has made them a fan-favorite to shine through on the CD.
That method is also reflected in the album’s title. “The title comes out of our desire to record something that comes naturally to us. In contrast to our previous efforts, we spent a lot less time thinking about how we were going to put the album together, and instead concentrated on getting a good vibe going in the studio and letting the music develop as freely as possible,” says Laking.
While the band was free to let things develop, O’Brien was making sure that the album stayed cohesive. “I wanted to make sure that this album was more American and Traditional Irish…to keep it focused. It’s what they do live and a nice section of tunes. As a producer, I’m mostly there to keep people from losing perspective on their performance.”
Grada had additional help in the studio as well. “From our point of view,” he continues
“the guest performances have a special significance. John Garnder’s drumming is class throughout, understated yet ever present. This is possibly best highlighted on the song ‘Pretty Polly’. Tim O’Brien’s backing vocals are a constant high point (often literally!), along with his numerous instrumental contributions, as is Alison Brown’s banjo cameo on the closing track ‘Salthill Bugalu.’”
When asked if they were worried about whether their fans would think that they were veering too far away from the music that first put them into the public eye Laking says “We played most of the new album material at gigs for 12 months leading up to the recording and the reaction was positive. This feedback in part helped us decide which tracks and what direction we were going to take on ‘Natural Angle’. At this point in time, we’re enjoying delving further into Americana music styles, so it’s likely that this influence will show up again in future.”
For a band made up of artists from Ireland (Joyce, Doherty and Doocey ) and New Zealand (Laking and Paul) Grada’s interest in Americana might seem odd but Laking thinks of it more as a natural progression of their individual interests. “I listened to a lot of North American folk music growing up in New Zealand, mainly groups like The Band, The Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Neil Young, etc, although not so much Bluegrass and old time. I think Gerry and Nic had always been into Americana music, although this interest certainly increased when we started touring around the States and being exposed to it more directly.”
“David and Stephen have been more heavily immersed in Irish traditional music, although there’s a surprising amount of country music in Ireland, especially in the more rural parts, and they seem to know all the classic songs and artists. All of us enjoy good music in any genre, especially acoustic, folk driven styles, so I guess it’s natural that we were eventually drawn to the North American folk music scene, which is an incredibly rich one.”
And speaking of Stephen….the multiple All-Ireland winning flute and melodeon player is the newest member of the band, replacing Alan Doherty. Hailing from the same small town of Foxford in County Mayo as Doocey “He has a similar playing style to Alan, although he offers a few different possibilities with his abilities on the accordion and bodhrán,” explains Laking. “As with any transition, the group’s sound will never be completely the same, so it’s more a matter of focusing on the strengths that a new band member brings to the group. We’ve always been about developing our sound in new ways, and lineup changes, planned or otherwise, are ultimately one way of bringing this about. Fortunately, this new incarnation has worked out really well.
“Both the new kids are amazing,” say O’Brien of Doherty and Doocey who replaced Colin Farrell in 2008. “It’s interesting; they’re excellent master tune players – this generation. When they play songs, a lot of times Irish players aren’t up on that. But those guys did a really great job on the songs. It’s funny how that’s segregated – you hear a song at a pub session and everyone is quiet but then they go back to playing and everyone else goes back to talking. Through all of their transitions, Grada is a different band. They have so many other features – they’ve come a long way.”
Karan Casey and John Doyle: The Exiles Return
Written by Helene Dunbar and republished from Irish Music Magazine (March 2010)
When I spoke to John Doyle and Karan Casey in the studio as they were recording their much-anticipated album “Exiles Return”, their first a duo, there was much talk about the themes that held the songs together. The album had been a goal since 2005 when the old Solas bandmates joined with current Solas members to record their 10th Anniversary project “Decade”.
Given their demanding individual touring and recording schedules songs were chosen mostly through emails between the two and multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell who joined them on the project and he was the first to point out the initial leaning towards songs about coming to, or leaving, America. .“I think that probably for myself and John – with John having moved to America and me having moved from America and going home (to County Cork), I think it kind of rings true that that would come out.” said Casey at the time.
Only after finalizing the album did both of the artists realize that their initial thoughts weren’t really on the mark. “They’re not really all about exile,” admits Casey. “I think the title points people in the wrong direction and I knew this would come up when we were choosing the name. Actually a lot of them are love songs, and caught up in that is a theme of abandonment.” Doyle agrees that the songs are about “loss and longing. But then again,” he wryly laughs “all Irish songs have longing in them; longing for home, longing for someone.”
Both agree that the songs came out of a very selective vetting process. “A lot of it had to do with how John found it on the guitar and arrangement-wise how they would fit together,” says Casey. “And I suppose, at this stage, we’re both quite fussy and we’d like the songs to suite all elements of our tastes: to be strong lyrically – for an emotional challenge for the singer; to have a nice melody and to be open enough to have a hook or an arrangement for them. So they have to suit a lot of criteria.”
One of those criteria involved the emotional weight of the songs. “I’ve definitely always been an emotional singer,” admits Casey, “and the burden of that is really something that’s only dawned on me over the past year or two. I suppose I’ve always done it so I always took it a little bit for granted but I’m probably more emotionally aware at this stage in my life. I’m mindful as to how that is for me on a personal level and how that is for the audience. It’s quite challenging to deal with a lot of the issues in our history and the songs are a vehicle for that."
“I’m definitely in that state and taking up the challenge of that and I think that John is too. Maybe all folk singers are – maybe that’s the reason why we exist. I’m looking for a reason when being asked about this album – why we’d choose songs with such loneliness because there IS loneliness about this album. A lot of that loss and abandonment – maybe that’s the way we must feel at the core.”
Given the gravity of the subject matter, the album is surprisingly upbeat in places. “There’s some old English songs with a certain kind of melody to them,” agrees Doyle. “The Irish songs - and I suppose that’s why we chose them – some of them are a little bit different and grab you when you hear them first. I think that’s because of the harmonies, you don’t normally get that in Irish songs with two voices and I love that.
“There is though, admits Doyle, a deliberateness to the arrangements. “I love really, really sad songs but just because they’re sad doesn’t mean that you have to play them that way. Then again, there are a lot of them that we DID play that way like ‘The Bay of Biscay’ which is quite sad: a man is lost at sea and comes back as a ghost because of his longing for this woman.
”While this might seem like a lot of different masters to serve, the two had the advantage of their almost intuitive musical connection. “There is a core understanding between myself and John”, says Casey. “When I sing, he very much gets it – he almost can tell what I’m going to do. It’s almost freaky because he almost has a telepathic view of where I’m going to go and he always manages to catch me musically. So it is incredibly reassuring to be back in that environment.” “I always find it easy to play with Karan,” Doyle echoes. “I pick up the guitar and it falls into place very naturally but I think that’s always been the case since we first played.” One thing that HAS changed is that, for better or worse, they each have more solo experience under their belts. “It was a bit hard for me,” admits Casey “because I’ve done five solo albums and I’ve been pretty much the boss. It was fine but I had to switch into a more collaborative mode. Dirk really helped on that front. He is incredibly diplomatic and good at bringing people together. And John and I are both quite stroppy, you know. And we both have strong ideas which I think is what helps to create a bit of a buzz. I think though we do agree fundamentally on good songs and that’s where we really gel.
”For a glimpse into the way that the two work as collaborators, you only need to ask them about the lengthy discussions they had that revolved around the inclusion of a parrot into the song ‘False Lover John’. The album’s opening track ‘The False Lady’ is, explains Doyle “the story of a woman and a man who meet in the road and the woman says ‘will you come home with me’ and the man says ‘no ‘cause I have a far better lover than you at home’ and so she kills him. And then the parrot comes in which is the woman’s conscious or the man’s supernatural being.” Which was all fine and good except that basically the same thing happens on “False Lover John. “It’s a fantastic song,” Doyle says of ‘False Lover John’ but the bird comes in again and it was like ‘do we really need the parrot in the one because we’re on verse 23 now?’ So you have these arguments like ‘is it playable?’ You have to take all the verses of the parrot out because they tell a story….so that’s where the complication arises.”
“We talked for two hours of paid studio time of whether we should put in the parrot or not,” says Casey with a laugh. “We’re both very nerdy.” But in a more serious vein, “It’s quite a stripped-back, very exposed album so we both have to be confident in what we’re doing to allow ourselves that amount of exposure. It’s really about coming to your maturity and allowing that part of yourself to be that exposed. It’s pretty vulnerable on many levels.
”Along with the release of “Exiles Return” and a few weeks of 2010 touring that the duo hope to do, both Doyle and Casey have their musical hands full. In addition to an album release with fiddler Liz Carroll, Doyle has been working as musical director and guitarist of Joan Baez’s latest tour. “She’s steeped in the English tradition so it’s no real difference there,” explains Doyle of Baez. “But going back to the Irish tunes you get worn out.” He laughs, “I have to warm up a little bit because usually I spend so much time playing fast tunes but with Joanie, I don’t.”
Casey is both branching out and slowing down. “I’m doing these songwriting sessions with Graham Henderson – he’s an amazing piano player and I’m very slowly, in the gestation period of writing songs with him.” At the same time, she’s realized her need to take things at a more leisurely pace. “I’m trying to give myself a lot more time; trying to slow down a bit. I’m really enforcing that notion of taking more time off. To channel all of that hurt takes quite an amount of energy and I think you need to be able to go off and reflect in order to come back to it. I also think I’ve done an awful lot – I’ve done 10 albums in 13 years and had 2 children. Women always think they can kind of do everything. Or certainly try to have everything and I don’t think we can. I think we need a bit of help and a bit of downtime. On another level it’s great that we have all of the opportunities but I’m definitely on a trip now of trying to relax a bit more.”
Alison Brown has announced tour dates for Spring 2010. To see her full tour schedule, click here.