Luka Bloom has been lying low. He recorded one gig (in The Aloe Tree in Ennistymon) on March 20th, 2020, but the emotional toll it took to perform alone, without the company of an audience, led to a decision not to pursue any further online performances during Covid. Instead he has spent his time building a bond with his bespoke Lowden Spanish guitar, exploring some of the most iconic tunes of the tradition and writing new material too. In a career spanning 45 years, Out of the Blue is Luka Bloom’s first instrumental album.
“When lockdown happened, I found myself getting very uncomfortable with singing,” Bloom offers with his customary frankness, via video call from the room where he recorded the album. “I’d sing for an hour or two and then I’d get sad after it because I’d wonder: why am I bothering doing this? I don’t know when I’ll get to sing for anyone other than myself? Then Steve Cooney’s beautiful album [Ceol Ársa Cláirsí: Tunes of the Irish Harpers for Solo Guitar] got me through the first lockdown – tuning into his tones and his beautiful melodies and that ancient music, in his incredible inimitable way of presenting it to us. It was my album of 2020. So when that came out I found myself leaning into it, and I taught myself [a Carolan tune], Bridget Cruise. It really spoke to me. There was something about sitting here in the living room in the evening and learning Bridget Cruise, and then I taught myself Eleanor Plunkett.”
Out of the Blue is Bloom’s third album release in a year, after his Live at De Roma (in Antwerp) and Bittersweet Crimson, a delicate collection that effortlessly straddles intimacy and universality. This wasn’t part of any grand plan, unsurprisingly. Out of the Blue is that rare thing: an organic collection that emerged unbidden, and lured Bloom on an unexpected path.
“To be honest with you, it was completely effortless,” says Bloom with a smile. “Once I got past the really hard part, which was trying to interpret these iconic pieces of music by Iarla Ó Lionáird, Peadar Ó Riada, Martin Hayes, Cathal Hayden and Steve Cooney, I began to feel that there was a possibility that I could try and find my own way of writing something that reflects my own feelings about what we’re all going through.”
No slouch when it comes to pushing himself out of his comfort zone, Bloom boldly tackled Aisling Gheal, one of the most iconic pieces of the Irish tradition, and a song he first heard sung by a very young Ó Lionáird more than 40 years ago.
There’s a sense of space and of flow coursing through the veins of Out of the Blue that offers welcome respite
“I found it really healing for myself,” he says. “It was taking the edge off of my Covid confusion and I thought to myself, if I’m finding this healing or calming, is there not a possibility that someone else might? By August, I was beginning to write a few pieces. And around that time there were three funerals of people that I wasn’t able to attend because of Covid, and that first track, I hear you: it’s really simple, it’s really fragile and, subconsciously, for me it was like a bereavement track. Every time I play it, I find I am quite moved. Something about the sequence of the notes. I think I tapped into not just what I was feeling, but that tune seems to have tapped into what a lot of people were feeling.”
There’s a sense of space and of flow coursing through the veins of Out of the Blue that offers welcome respite.
“It was very important to me, learning music by such masters, that I didn’t try to step into the lane occupied by such masterful musicians. I have a sense of what I do on the guitar, and it’s not necessarily about technical proficiency. It’s about trying to identify a sequence of notes that articulates the way I’m feeling and then leaving it alone. Not embellishing it.”
Bloom’s preference for the subtlest of arrangements, through the contributions of Susan O’Neill, Jon O’Connell and Adam Shapiro, lets this album tell its own story. As Bloom wasn’t present for any of their contributions, he offered each musician a simple snapshot of what he was working to achieve.
“I told them that I want you to imagine when you’re playing that you’re not filling space,” Bloom recounts. “You’re creating more space.”
Long a fan of ECM records and of Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem, Jan Garbarek and a raft of Scandinavian jazz musicians, Bloom is no stranger to music that steers itself wide of the noise of daily life.
“It was really important to me because it’s all about reflection and it’s all about giving people the opportunity to take a breath, literally,” he says. “Even though we’re physically still confined to 5km, I think a lot of our minds are very busy. I think anything that someone can play that’s giving you permission to give your mind a break, that’s what I wanted to try and do.”
He credits the richness of the tone he’s struck on this album to his Lowden guitar.
“I’ve made a career for years banging a good sound out of a cheap guitar,” he says blithely, “but then I turned 60 a few years ago, and I said to myself, isn’t it time you got yourself a grown-up guitar? George Lowden told me all about different woods that give you different resonance in different parts of the sonic sphere. I was way out of my depth technically, but he made me this [nylon string Spanish] guitar and it’s the only guitar I’ve played for the last three years.”
At 65, Bloom still carries a lightness of being that belies his years on the road, ricocheting from mainland Europe to the US and Australia annually. The sudden halt to this allowed much time for reflection.
“Like a lot of people, I was really frightened, really vulnerable and really fragile,” he says. “I am used to seeing myself as weak and vulnerable in life but I began to see that all around me in everybody. I realised that we are all vulnerable now. But what I sensed was making things worse for me was clutching at this notion of returning to normality and holding on to the rescheduling of gigs. At some point I realised that the only way I was going to be able to make peace with what was happening was if I just completely surrendered this identity of being a touring musician. I made a decision to let it go. That included stopping singing at home. And that brought me peace.”
Bloom says he was addicted to the road and that this album wouldn’t have happened had it not been for lockdown.
'I really feel that I’ve managed to find a way to express emotions without uttering a word'
“It’s one of the most vulnerable years I’ve ever had in all my life,” he says. “So much uncertainty and letting it all go: that brings up a lot of emotion. I see a lot of sadness around. Nobody wants to be anxious, vulnerable, fragile, but if as a singer, painter, poet, you can lean in and sit with all that vulnerability, and be with that melancholy, that’s where the diamonds are.”
With nods to Ry Cooder (Texas Bay), and a doffing of his cap to so many traditional masters, past and present, Bloom has entered a new terrain.
“Without realising it, I feel that without there being a word present, that this is one of my most articulate records,” Bloom offers with a wry smile. “I really feel that I’ve managed to find a way to express emotions without uttering a word. And in a funny way, I think that the guitar’s been doing that for me ever since I was a child, but I didn’t realise the extent of it until I made this record.”