In another life, Alison O’Donnell may have been a household name. We could have been meeting in an upmarket restaurant that she had been chauffeured to, or perhaps in a glitzy dressingroom backstage at a gig (the kind that attracts both hipsters who are still discovering her music and their parents, her original fans). Today, we’ll have to settle for coffee in a quiet corner of a busy hotel bar in Dublin, its patrons oblivious to the fact that one of Ireland’s most prolific folk musicians is in their midst.
O'Donnell has several theories for why her music is not as celebrated or well-known as it should be in Ireland, but none of them are laced with bitterness. "I think a bit of it might have been the fact that I was away for 28 years," she says, shrugging. "I remember Donal Lunny said to me once 'Andy Irvine should be more famous, but he's not because he spent so much time away – they forget about you here.' There's an element of truth in that, I think.
The Dalkey-born singer has enjoyed a heightened level of attention thanks to her second solo album
“It’s not for want of fame, or anything, it’s a want to be recognised for one’s work. If I had stayed here, I might have ended up as a judge or something on one of these [reality] TV shows,” she adds with a chuckle. “But there wouldn’t have been as much creation or performance involved. It wouldn’t have been as... fun.”
It's difficult to see how O'Donnell's eclectic back catalogue could be trussed up as "commercial". In recent weeks, the Dalkey-born singer has enjoyed a heightened level of attention thanks to her second solo album Climb Sheer the Fields of Peace, which she released last month at the age of 64. Her musical journey began more than five decades ago when at the age of 11, she formed a band called Mellow Candle with two schoolfriends, Clodagh Simonds and Maria White.
“It was unusual for two girls at the time, and nobody else was really doing the music we were doing at the time. I think we realised quite quickly that we were going to be able to produce something, when we were older, that was quite different. We just had a feeling, and we were very single-minded about it in school.”
What began as a childhood band became more serious when they released their first single on Simon Napier-Bell's SNB label in 1968. White eventually fell away and the line-up solidified as a five-piece, releasing an album, Swaddling Songs in 1972. It has since become a rare collector's item and cult classic, but can be streamed in full on YouTube.
In those days, everything was quite cut and dry; you either drank alcohol, or you smoked dope
By now under the wardship of Thin Lizzy's manager Ted Carroll, the band played on line-ups with the likes of Genesis, Donovan and Georgie Fame, but struggled to find a foothold for their proggy, experimental folk sound. "Ted tried his best to take us to the next level, but we were really before our time, I think," nods O'Donnell. "He couldn't get us into the rockier venues that Thin Lizzy were doing and we were okay in some of the folk venues – but when we got a drummer, some of them thought we were too rocky.
“We were really falling between two stools, and in those days, everything was quite cut and dry; you either drank alcohol, or you smoked dope. It was very rigid in pre-conceived ideas about where you fitted in, and how you fitted in – particularly when it came to music. And we didn’t really fit in.”
Cast adrift and struggling to get gigs, Mellow Candle split acrimoniously – "skint and completely crushed" – in 1973. O'Donnell moved to South Africa with her husband at the time (and the band's guitarist) Dave Williams, and embarked on her international musical odyssey that would span almost three decades, forming bands and collaborating with countless jazz, folk, rock and blues musicians.
“I’m a team player,” she says of her collaborative nature. “I just like working with people who are doing different things. I’ve been part of a jazz duo, I’ve been in rock bands, I’ve done stuff with an operatic voice... it’s just really exciting. I once did a gig with [English doom metal band] Cathedral, and I got up on stage with them in The Academy a few years ago. That was really something else, it was deafening – but it was great fun.”
After a move to London in the mid-1980s, music fell by the wayside as she worked a public sector job and raised her daughter but she returned to it full-time when she moved back to her home city in the late 1990s, although claims that she found it initially difficult to regain her footing. “I’d been away in other places doing stuff, but people didn’t know that,” she nods. “I just bounced on in, this much older woman: not easy.”
There is one song about her elderly mother's dementia, another refers to the torrid political state of the world
Happily, O'Donnell eventually found her people, striking up a particularly robust relationship with United Bible Studies, an expansive and prolific experimental collective that she has been a core member of since 2008. It was also that group's de facto leader Dave Colohan who encouraged her solo work – and although her debut Hey Hey Hippy Witch was released in 2009, it is the new, home-recorded one that is striking a chord with a wider audience, thanks to its offbeat sensibility and her remarkable voice leading to comparisons with Kate Bush (which she is amused by, attributing the comparison solely to the fact that she is singing in a higher key this time around).
The album deals with darkness and sorrow – there is one song about her elderly mother’s dementia, another refers to the torrid political state of the world – but it is lightened by themes of nature inspired by her childhood beside the sea in Dalkey.
‘Torrent of creativity’
The irony of the resurgence of interest in Mellow Candle in more recent years outside of Ireland and in places as far-flung as Japan is not lost on her, either – but with her former bandmate Clodagh Simonds currently making music under the Fovea Hex moniker and unwilling to return to the past, there is no hope of a reunion, despite the repeated calls for one over the years. The only way for this accidental cult hero, in that case, is onward – and there are already four more projects on the boil, including one that indulges her love of trad.
I just want to do stuff all the time, because I know a day will come when I can't
“The thing is, I’m very driven because I’m much older than everyone else,” she says. “Because I dropped out between 1985 and 1995 and did that whole ‘rat race in London’ stuff and raised my kid, there was a torrent of creativity that was pent up for 10 years, and it’s still coming out. I just want to do stuff all the time, because I know a day will come when I can’t; I have quite bad arthritis and maybe in five years, I might not be able to travel as much.
“I’d like to perform these songs live but I’m not sure how, yet. But I’m going to be 65 in October, but my voice is in the best nick of my life – so as long as that lasts and I can write and record at home, I can at least do that. I want to be able to do it forever. There are guys who are 35 who’ll be able to do it for another 40 years – I can’t,” she says smiling. “So I’ll do it until I drop – or I just can’t any more.”
Climb Sheer the Fields of Peace is out now on Mega Dodo Records