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.”