Great songs are the backbone of our tradition. Songs that have survived centuries of upheaval, resonating as much today as when they were first written. The past two years have left their mark on all of us, but for some musicians they have heralded a creative surge that is a boon for listeners eager for a fresh perspective on familiar sounds.
Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh is a singer from West Kerry who has a long track record of producing finely tuned albums, as well as a successful career in television and radio broadcasting. She has toured the world as a member of Danú, and her repertoire of songs is as wide as it is deep.
This month she releases Róisín Reimagined, a richly textured collection of songs by sean nós, mostly from Munster, with the Irish Chamber Orchestra, produced by Dónal O’Connor. Six composers were commissioned to arrange our most iconic songs for Nic Amhlaoibh, including Linda Buckley, Sam Perkin and Cormac McCarthy. It’s a gargantuan undertaking that has resulted in a balm of a collection emerging from the pandemic.
“At the start, it was born out of confinement and having had to stop everything I had done until then,” explains Nic Amhlaoibh. “It felt like a time to try something new. It was about looking to the future rather than wallowing in the misery of lockdown, and having something hopeful to look forward to. Initially, we were talking about working with a string quartet and a piano, but of course [producer] Donal O’Connor has a tendency to take ideas and expand on them, a million times over. The idea of working with six fantastic contemporary Irish arrangers was really exciting because it was a chance to bring some new colors, and what they added to the songs only opened it up even more.
Donal O’Connor is something of a renaissance man: violin player, television producer, presenter and co-founder of Táin Media. He was the driving force behind this epic project.
“We imagined it in July 2020,” he says. “The idea was to bring the great songs of Sean Nós, particularly those of Munster, into a contemporary realm with orchestrations from a younger generation of Irish arrangers. And it went from there. »
O’Connor knew Nic Amhlaoibh was ready for such a tall order.
“I just wanted to see if we could pull together a body of work and think about what songs could handle arrangements of such magnitude,” he says. “I always thought Muireann had a voice that could handle such arrangements. She has incredible ability, strength and tenderness. She has the full range. Sometimes a singer can be overwhelmed by this bigger sound, but I knew her voice could handle it.
Composer and arranger Cormac McCarthy was invited to address the iconic Sliabh Geal gCua. A musician with a great jazz sensibility, he has earned a reputation as an artist as comfortable in jazz as in traditional Irish circles, and he knows how to bring the best of both into his compositional work. He is also a lecturer at the Cork School of Music, where he was aptly described by one of his students as ‘gender fluid’.
“Beethoven took folksongs and arranged them but notated them as compositions, and throughout the history of classical music this has been done”
“I always go to the lyrics first and figure out what the song is about,” says McCarthy, echoing piper Seamus Ennis’ oft-noted advice. “Sliabh Geal gCua talks about landscape and paints a picture, so he allowed himself to be quite broad in his color. The lyrics definitely inform the arrangements, there’s no doubt about that.
McCarthy regards his role as part of a long line of composers who have embraced the rich folk traditions that surround them.
“People make this distinction between an arranger and a composer, but there’s very little difference between what I would have done in Sliabh Geal gCua and my other songwriting projects,” he says. “Beethoven took folksongs and arranged them, but notated them as compositions, and throughout the history of classical music this has been done. A composer will take folk tunes and create a larger work or manipulate it in such a way that it will be considered a composition. And I think that’s basically what happened here.
For Nic Amhlaoibh, Róisín Reimagined allowed her to press the reset button on many songs she had been singing for years, including Slán le Máigh and, of course, Róisín Dubh.
“It was like I knew them again,” she says. “There are always new things to learn and enjoy every time you sing a song, but even more so when working with an orchestra, composers and soloists. It was like meeting the song for the first time, so there were elements that I was comfortable with and elements that were really difficult, which is what I wanted. I’m really interested in pushing myself vocally and artistically, and not producing similar work every time. I think at this point in my life and in my career, I’m really lucky to know some really talented people, and having access to this incredible quality of talent has elevated the whole project.
O’Connor was acutely aware of the pitfalls of fusing traditional Irish songs with orchestral arrangements. He was determined not to let the slightest hint of tweeness or cheesiness enter the fray. But Nic Amhlaoibh’s ability to inhabit a song was at the heart of this visionary collaboration.
“Muireann sang Róisín Dubh on Sean O’Rourke’s show during the lockdown when the country was traumatized and the world was in a state of paralysis,” says O’Connor. “The silence of that, live on Radio 1, really touched people. And the reaction from listeners really touched us. It was one of the accelerators in thinking about what songs we should take. Some of those songs are a testament to the trauma that Gaelic Ireland went through, the feeling of siege that our culture went through. But these songs survived all of that and now exist in a contemporary space with contemporary musicians: it’s an amazing thing. They are the great art of their time.
Róisín Reimagined is now available, muireann.ie