Live music feels more precious than ever, and the chance to play an extensive Irish tour this spring has set the pulses racing of four musicians who have been invited by Music Network to form an impromptu quartet for the occasion.
Oisín Mac Diarmada is the founder of Téada and a meticulous, soulful fiddle player. Mirella Murray is an All Ireland winning accordionist and an engine of the band Cherish the Ladies. Noriana Kennedy is a singer-songwriter with The Whileaways, and the trio are joined by guitarist and producer Donogh Hennessy, a former member of Lúnasa.
Ironically, most traditional bands travel abroad to make a living. Touring Ireland is a challenge economically, so this 11-date tour is something they are already savouring, having had the luxury of three days of rehearsals to rev their engines.
“I think the last few years definitely highlighted the importance of live music,” says Mac Diarmada in his customary genteel manner, “and I think people are very supportive of live music right now. Meeting other musicians and meeting people at gigs have been such an integral aspect of traditional music. We probably always appreciated that, because that’s how traditional music survives, and no better example than in the passing of Seamus Begley and the outpouring of emotion from all the people he touched through his lifetime in music and song. That’s one of the reasons we all play music or sing or dance but we don’t often get the chance to tour in Ireland, and that’s something that we treasure.”
[ Séamus Begley obituary: Accordion player and singer with a rare talent and a passion for living ]
Some of the members of this newly minted quartet who, like a shooting star, plan to shine for the duration of the tour before they sunder and return to their own bands and other music projects, have played together in sessions or tours, but those connections go back many years. The joy of connecting and reconnecting is palpable in their conversation. Sparks fly between them in a way that suggests this is a match wisely made.
“It’s like the honeymoon period when you first join a band,” says Kennedy, smiling. “When you start playing music, you feel like you can just take it anywhere. It’s that joyful process of starting from zero and having that space and time. It’s a very privileged thing to be able to justify the time to start anew. It’s been really exciting for us all and we’ve really enjoyed it.”
Collaboration, arrangement and the planning of sets that balances tunes with songs and stories is grist to these musicians’ collective mill, all of them long schooled in band dynamics. Still, the alchemy that has formed as this new constellation took shape was key to their musical choices. Some of their tentative plans sketched out before their rehearsals didn’t mirror reality. Mac Diarmada and Noriana sent lots of tunes and songs, but once they all met up, that all changed.
“We wanted to pick tunes and songs that we all really liked and really connected with,” says Noriana, content to have jettisoned some of her own suggestions through their collaborative process “and not just ones that one of us felt strongly about. You can think that a song is going to work, but it’s only if you see and hear how the others respond to it in rehearsal that you can really see if it’s right for this particular group.”
Oisín Mac Diarmada relished the rehearsals for a similar reason. “For myself, it’s about bringing everybody’s journeys together,” he says. “This process has allowed us to open out the lens and hear what other members of the group have been doing. It was beautiful to sit and hear the tunes that the others brought, and to be reminded of tunes that some of us have played many years ago. And Donagh’s the man who can bring all of that together in both the songs and the tunes.”
Donogh Hennessy is a musician with long experience of writing, arranging and producing music from his studio in Dingle.
“I think what’s interesting is that we all come from a band mentality so we’re all interested in arranging the music,” says Hennessy. “We all think similarly. Not everybody does in the trad world, but we all think a lot about the arrangements.”
He’s also been commissioned by Music Network to compose two tunes for this tour: an opportunity he embraced with open arms.
“For me, writing new tunes has been great,” he says. “I hadn’t written new tunes for quite a few years because I hadn’t anyone to play them. I used to write them when I was in Lúnasa, because I had that outlet and I could play and arrange them for the band, so this opportunity has been very inspiring for me.”
The extraordinary energy and excitement generated by four musicians coming together for the first time is palpable, but between them, they have more than enough experience to know that they’ve got to let the music dictate their odyssey.
“I don’t think that anyone expects us to be Westlife overnight either – that we’re this fully formed band,” says Kennedy, laughing. There’ll hopefully be a chance to pair off together too, for certain songs or tunes. I think that’s going to be a beautiful aspect of this tour, too, because people will be able to hear some of those songs and tunes in a way they’ve never heard them before.”
[ ‘We want women on the stage’: How TradFest is tackling inequality in Irish music ]
Listening to some rehearsal recordings, this writer finds it impossible not to shimmy across the kitchen in time with the finely wrought arrangements, as Hennessy’s guitar anchors the delicate swing of Mac Diarmada’s fiddle and Murray’s fluid and agile piano accordion. Kennedy’s vocals lure an American old timey mood from the band, full of layered textures that promise to lodge deep within an audience’s subconscious for later savouring.
“I’m always thrilled to play new tunes,” says Murray. “For me this is something so fresh and exciting. I really love the chance to explore so many avenues with these musicians.”
For Kennedy, the creative development that this tour is providing is invaluable.
“We’re institutionalised in our own bands,” she says with a hearty laugh. “This is such a lovely, unexpected diversion: to think about songs and material that may have lain on the shelf for a long time. It just opens up so many ideas. Once you settle into a band, dynamics develop and certain people fall into certain roles, but this collaboration is pushing me into doing different things that I may not have been comfortable with in the band. It really is so good for you to do that.”
Mac Diarmada is sanguine about the inevitable ups and downs of any artist’s career trajectory, which is all the more reason to be so animated by this novel collaboration.
“Something I often think about is how to sustain an artist’s career over a lifetime, because at every stage on that journey, it’s hard to sustain a career in the arts. But I think that this is something that everyone should have the opportunity to do every 10 years or so because there are great funding opportunities now in traditional music, and because it’s very organic. It’s not up to the artist to devise a project for themselves, but it brings people together who you may not know very well. It takes you different directions. It challenges you, and no better way of learning than doing it on the job.”
A spring gathering is even more welcome, given the natural lull that tends to follow the festive season.
“January is usually a quiet month for musicians,” says Mac Diarmada. “There’s often a slow start to the year. If you were ever to think of pulling out of being a full-time musician, January would be up there as a time to go for the parachute. But the longer you’re in it, the more you learn to trust that things generally pick up later. We’re a small country, and we’re blessed with so many amazing artists here, and great venues too. The level of funding has really improved too, because we can’t just rely on a live audience to support that whole ecosystem. It’s never easy and you can never take it for granted. That’s why, as musicians we must keep working, and Music Network are producing a new combination of people who might excite audiences to come out and hear traditional music played in new and exciting formations.”
Music Network tour runs from February 8th-20th, musicnetwork.ie