Moya Brennan: ‘I never claimed to be a traditional singer’
Clannad’s singer and harpist has won a Grammy and an Emmy, but being honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards is special
Moya Brennan: ‘I can’t express how much happiness music has brought into my life, and still does’
With a piano laden down with awards, including a Grammy and an Emmy, it’s tempting to imagine that Clannad’s singer and harpist, Moya Brennan, might take news of local laurels with a certain pinch of salt. But she sat up and took notice of the latest accolade to come her way – Brennan will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards.
“I was totally blown away,” Brennan enthuses, in her sitting room where her Emmy and Grammy awards shimmer in the late summer sunshine. “It’s beyond amazing. First of all, there is nothing like being recognised at home. Okay, so I have a Grammy and an Emmy award there on the piano, but being acknowledged at home – it’s overwhelming. Because, you know, the truth of it is that all I’ve done is enjoy myself. I can’t express how much happiness music has brought into my life, and still does.”
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Clannad, a family band founded by Brennan with her brothers Ciarán and Pól, and her uncles Noel and Pádraig Duggan. Back in 1970, she was a naive 18-year-old with no grand plan for worldwide domination. What fuelled her instead was a hearty appetite for songs and a particular love of harmonies, both born of an upbringing infused with music. All five members of Clannad had music coursing through their DNA.
“We got on stage,” she recounts, with a certain gleeful smile at the sheer innocence of it all, “not to form a band or to make lots of money. We just loved playing the music.”
From the modest but magnetic surrounds of her father Leo Brennan’s pub (who was a charismatic entertainer himself) in Gweedore to the Sydney Opera House and the Royal Albert Hall, Clannad gained traction with a momentum that would be the envy of many bands nowadays who have access to social media but lack the support that a recording contract used to offer in the good (and often bad) old days of the music business. An appearance on the 1973 National Song Contest, singing a song written by Mick Hanly, led to a record contract and an offer of their first German tour. From then on, German tours proved to be the band’s bread and butter: a gift that kept on giving through rich and lean years.
Brennan has never been a singer who readily sequestered herself in a box. She wasn't a sean nós singer. She wasn’t a contemporary singer. The band’s music defied categorisation. The secret to their sound lay in Clannad’s own history, as Brennan tells it.
We’d listen to my father playing in the parlour, and practising Everly Brothers, Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley
“When we were growing up,” she says, “there was no Comhaltas, so unless your father or mother or family were playing concertinas, box or whatever, you weren’t going to learn it properly because there was nobody there to teach. Sometimes this is why people get confused about Clannad. They say: ‘well, they’re not very traditional, are they?’
“We didn’t have a traditional background,” she continues. “We did get all the Gaelic songs from my mother’s parents. And I only learned English after I started school. So with that background, and speaking in Irish, we’d listen to my father playing in the parlour, and practising Everly Brothers, Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley – the fusion was there. All we did was use what was in our family. The double bass, percussion and guitar were there.”
And what of the harp, an instrument now thriving, but in the 1970s tethered to an image that was closer to a nunnery than a stage with amps turned up to 11?
“I was sent to boarding school to learn the harp,” Brennan explains, recalling the huge popularity of harpist Mary O’Hara at that time. “My father wanted me to learn the harp, and I hated it. This idea of ‘la, la, la’” – she sings in a high-pitched, wispy voice – “that’s all we knew then. It was only when I took the harp out in Leo’s pub, and I started using it in different riffs and different modes, not as a main instrument, but in those arrangements, I began to like it.”
A certain rock’n’roll sensibility permeated Clannad’s sound, and, in between the gruelling early touring schedules, they found themselves commissioned to write the theme for Harry’s Game, a seminal 1982 Yorkshire Television drama series set in Belfast in and around the Troubles. In today’s parlance, the song – all two minutes and 29 seconds of it – went viral, and the band’s profile skyrocketed.
Clannad - Theme from Harry's Game
“That was the turning point,” Brennan nods. From there it was limousine pick-ups for Top of the Pops and a whole heap of bright lights and big cities. Somehow, though, Brennan insists that they never lost sight of their roots, of what set them on a path to music in the first place.
“We loved what we were doing,” she recalls, “but at that time we couldn’t sing in the pubs in Ireland because there was a big ballad scene. Everyone wanted to sing along and we weren’t a sing-along band. So we wrote to about 100 boarding schools and we said if everybody paid 10 pence at the door, that was great money for us. We went from 2pm to 4pm to girls’ boarding schools. It was really funny. We’d pull up at the front door of the convent, and the nuns would come out and they’d tell us that they only had 30 people who’d put their names down to go. They thought we were a céilí band. But the boys had long hair, and the girls were hanging out the windows. By the time we had the gear up, the whole school was there. 4 strapping lads – and me, of course. That’s one of the ways we survived.”
Paid off in spades
That hard graft paid off in spades.
“We never wrote a song until Harry’s Game,” she says. “We put all our energy into arranging, not writing. So by the time Harry’s Game happened, we had a sound that was our own.”
And so Clannad began to compose their own material from their sixth album, Fuaim, onwards. From there, they enjoyed enormous success with the theme music from the TV series Robin of Sherwood, the single In a Lifetime where she duetted with Bono, and numerous film soundtracks including Braveheart and The Last of the Mohicans. But along the road, they also mined the songs of Donegal in the most organic way possible.
“We were song collecting with the older generations,” Brennan says, recalling the rambles they would take down highways and byways in pursuit of a song. “A lot of the people we met would tell us the story of the song first, then they’d give us the words, and the melody was the last thing they’d give us. Then the last thing they’d say was: now go and sing it your own way.”
Singing it their own way has been Clannad’s hallmark. Not parroting what they heard from others.
“I never claimed to be a traditional singer,” Brennan insists. “But anyone who liked the Gaelic songs we sang has gone deeper into the tradition and discovered traditional singers like Iarla Ó Lionáird, Nioclás Tóibín and people like that. They’ve gone to the source, and we didn’t do any harm to it. The culture itself has its own root. It’s like an oak tree and its roots go way, way down, but you can add so many branches. That’s how I see Irish culture: we don’t harm anything because the root is so strong. And you know, if it was kept the same way, it wouldn’t have the vibrancy it has today.”
When you travel, you realise that we have something very special here, for such a small country
Brennan’s travels and collaborations (with everyone from German DJs to Celtic operas and with her beloved friends in a choir in Donegal) have underscored one thing: how open she is to new ideas, and how deep the well is that she draws from.
“That’s the fun: be open to things. I like stretching the rubber band,” she says, impishly.
“And that’s Ireland, too, isn’t it?” she smiles. “When you travel, you realise that we have something very special here, for such a small country. The music, the culture are known all over the world, no matter where you go. It says a lot about us that we value these things that influenced us in the past.”
The 2019 RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards take place in Vicar St, Dublin, on October 24th. The full shortlist for the RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards is:
Best Traditional Folk Track
Bacach Shíol Andaí – Ye Vagabonds
The Factory Girl – Lisa O’Neill
The Foggy Dew – Ye Vagabonds
The Granemore Hare – Daoirí Farrell
Póirste Béil – Inni K
Best Original Folk Track
All Down the Day – Gerry O’Beirne
Áthas – The Gloaming
Blackbird – Lisa O’Neill
Down in the Glen – Karan Casey
The River Holds Its Breath – Colm Mac Con Iomaire
Rock the Machine – Lisa O’Neill
Best Emerging Folk Act
Best Folk Instrumentalist
Colm Mac Con Iomaire
Best Folk Singer
Best Folk Album
A Lifetime of Happiness – Daoirí Farrell
Heard a Long Gone Song – Lisa O’Neill
The Hare’s Lament – Ye Vagabonds
The River Holds its Breath – Colm Mac Con Iomaire
Pull the Right Rope – Junior Brother
The Gloaming 3 – The Gloaming
Best Folk Group