Ríoghnach Connolly and Stuart McCallum: Mancunian blues by way of Armagh

The Breath brings duo’s collective creativity to the Pepper Canister for St Patrick’s Festival

"I'm a bit of a nuisance when it comes to categorisation because I have five touring bands at the minute and they're all like chalk and cheese," says Ríoghnach Connolly – and she isn't kidding.

The garrulous Armagh city native (“it’s really a town, but they call it a city because of the two cathedrals squaring off against one another on those two hills”) talks like there’s no tomorrow and sings like all her yesterdays are crying out for the telling. She’s a hoot. She may be the 2019 BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year, but Ríoghnach (pronounced Riana) is as likely to be animated by the more esoteric noodlings of obscure jazz musicians or the finer points of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s vocal style as she is by the sublime lyrical legacy of Robbie Burns (one of her five tour bands is Band of Burns, who gather every January to celebrate the Scottish poet’s work).

But it's her collaboration with Stuart McCallum on The Breath that has resulted in the folk singer laurel making its way to her side table, and they're going to air their wholly original songbook in the Pepper Canister church in Dublin, as part of this year's St Patrick's Festival.

Connolly’s taste for musical companions is eclectic, and her voluble style is countered by McCallum’s quiet self-containment. This is a duo who complement one another in speech as well as in music. McCallum, a Mancunian with a background in jazz guitar with Cinematic Orchestra, makes no secret of just how different his solo gigs in his home town are from The Breath’s live performances.

Silence

“I’ve made my peace with silence,” he offers towards the end of our conversation, naming that often-avoided reality that solo performers regularly grapple with: what to do while the tuning is happening; blithely whittering away to keep the punters distracted, or simply focusing on what needs to happen to get to the next song. McCallum’s all in favour of the latter. Meanwhile, Connolly, in their gigs, has the audience in the palm of her hand from the get-go.

Traditional and folk music is in Connolly’s veins. Coming from a long line of singers on both sides of her family, and having learned the flute at the Armagh Pipers Club, she cut her performance teeth in Comhaltas and at Oireachtas and Slógagh before moving to Manchester at the age of 19.

“There’s a really vibrant session scene over here,” she says, on the phone from her home in Manchester, “with lots of strong women doing all the teaching. They welcomed me with open arms, but I didn’t want to spend my nights in pubs, and I spent a lot of time singing people into the ground. They love me at funerals over here.”

Deadpan wit courses through Connolly’s veins, as she describes the delight of the voyage of discovery she embarked on in this melting pot of musical multiculturalism.

"I just fell in with loads of jazzers," she declares blithely, "and really good blues fellas who were just about to cowp [Armagh slang for keeling over]. "The Caribbean scene here welcomed me with open arms. I worked in an African bar called The Famous Biddy Reilly's, run by Baptists from Zimbabwe. It still had fiddles on the walls but it was full of African music. There were these old-school church ladies who came in and sang on a Sunday. African gospel music is really beautiful. I love qawwali [Islamic devotional music from Pakistan] which to me is pure poetry. So through my Pakistani friends I got into Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abra Davine. They brought me to loads of recitals where you spend four or five hours listening to people sing their kind of sean nós, non-stop. It was amazing. You'd nearly have an out of body experience after that."

The common ground is what she relishes most about this coming together of songs and of singers.

“I think out of respect if you’re sitting with someone from another culture, you learn their style and about their oldest song, and then you do that swapsy thing where you give them one of your songs,” she muses. “And after that, then you have a good rant about colonialism! That’s just the way.”

Listening to Ríoghnach’s vocals and lyrics on the duo’s latest album, Let the cards fall, it’s as if she bears some kinship to that same kind of mesmerising style. Her hypnotic vocals wend their way through the songs with an ease born of singing since she was knee-high to a grasshopper. And stitched into those meandering soulful tales are colloquialisms that catch the listener unaware. This is a singer who can make “Hould your whisht” sound like the most romantic entreaty whispered between errant lovers.

Romanticism

At a time when our ballad tradition is enjoying a major resurgence, Connolly is quick to make a distinction between the political and the personal, not to mention the romanticism of our traditional and folk canon.

“I come from this place of romantic republicanism that wasn’t sectarian but was all about the music and the poetry. All the nice things, you know?” she says. “And then you learn all the ornamentation. I’ve always loved ornamentation. For me that was the frills on a nice outfit, and I sang all of those styles for years. But then when it came to The Breath, Stuart loved the simplicity of the melodic form, and that’s where I’ve come from, so we just let all the ornamentation and the style drop away, and tried to think of a song that didn’t come from anywhere.”

In an age of streaming, The Breath has an enviable deal with Real World Records that affords them the luxury of spending their own sweet time writing new material and recording it in the finest of studios.

“The writing process does came easy,” Connolly nods, with almost a hint of embarrassment. “You’ve got this opportunity to be heard, and to have your thoughts documented so you shouldn’t underestimate the privilege of that.”

Both of The Breath’s albums seem rooted, lyrically, in a strong sense of community. Songs of famine, emigration, slavery and loss; it’s what Connolly wickedly describes as their “syllabus of sorrow”, and as the eldest of nine, there’s no surprise at her preoccupations. Mancunian blues by way of Armagh?

“It’s natural for me that you keep that community close,” she says. “Taking my life out of the pub was really important. People started playing music in houses again. That’s where I grew up, with music around the kitchen table. The acoustics are better and you’ve got better access to the kettle and you’re not drinking all the time.”

In between kitchen sessions and live touring, romanticism finds herself as vocalist with The Afro Celt Sound System, with Honeyfeet and with Beware Soul Brother. Boredom is not on this woman’s radar, it seems. Nor is it on McCallum’s. Alongside a flourishing academic career, an almost-finished PhD in music performance and a slew of solo gigs in his home town, he has learned to take time to smell the roses when it comes to his creative projects.

“I think I can honestly say that with The Breath, the end is greater than the sum of its parts,” he offers. “Music as an art form offers that collective creativity and you can do that in real time, in the moment. It’s an amazing language I think.

“And whenever Ríoghnach and I work, it’s never difficult. We have a fundamental shared belief in being in the moment, and at the same time, being very prepared for that moment. She’s just thinking about this all of the time, thinking constantly about relationships, people, society and culture. So she makes it seem very easy, even when it’s not.”

ST PATRICK’S FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS

This year's St Patrick's Festival (Covid-19 permitting) is themed around Seoda: Treasures from Ireland. A five-day programme that ricochets across music, performance art, theatre, film literature and so much more. Last year's TG4 Traditional Singer of the Year, Thomas McCarthy is a Traveller singer whose songbook is a treasure trove, laden with songs inherited from his family and community and baked in a culture of oral history and storytelling. On Sunday afternoon (March 15th), Donal Dineen will be joining Dr Leon McCarthy and Sorcha McGrath for an afternoon titled "InnerEar: Guide to Listening", an exploration of the art and science of listening. Sunday night will see the festival hosting a world premiere of This Is How We Fly (featuring Appalachian dancer Nic Gareiss and Hardanger fiddle player Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and friends), joined by singer Iarla Ó Lionáird for an evening of adventure of both the vocal and untethered dance variety. On Monday, March 16th, Vicar Street will see Colm Mac Con Iomaire and his band collaborate with the ConTempo Quartet while over in the National Concert Hall, Lisa Hannigan and guests will premiere newly-composed songs from James Joyce's second book of poetry, Pomes Penyeach. And then there's the Dublin parade. . . stpatricksfestival.ie