The Gloaming features some of the great names of Irish music – and an American who cut his teeth as a 12-year-old music promoter. The result is an intriguing supergroup, writes SIOBHÁN LONG
‘THE ONLY style of music I’d like to be identified with is good music,” Thomas Bartlett insists. This Vermont keyboards player and producer is a man of many musical identities. Founder of Doveman (whose members include The National’s Bryce and Aaron Dessner), he has worked with, among others, Antony and The Johnsons, Martha Wainwright, David Byrne and Glen Hansard.
He’s one of the five members of a newly-minted outfit who call themselves The Gloaming, and this weekend he’s joining Martin Hayes on fiddle, Dennis Cahill on guitar, singer Iarla Ó Lionáird and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh on traditional and Hardanger fiddle for a seven-date tour. They plan to play lots of what Bartlett calls “good” music, which may, in all likelihood, fail to conform to any simple definitions of either traditional or contemporary music – but might just nestle somewhere on that spectrum where creativity trumps predictability – with chutzpah.
Bartlett is a musician who revels in the sparks that fly during collaboration. “I have an identity as a player,” he offers, “but since I work with many different musicians who are coming from such different places musically, I wouldn’t want to be too strong a flavour. My job should be to help make stronger what other people are doing, not necessarily to bring too many of my own ideas to it.”
The Gloaming is a reference to twilight, that nebulous part of the day just after sunset and before dark, and there’s a touch of the netherworld to the music the band has begun to create too. Born of a suggestion from singer Iarla Ó Lionáird to Martin that they “should do something together”, The Gloaming evolved gradually, as the pair developed some ideas about what kind of sound they might create. Thomas Bartlett sprang to Martin’s mind, as he had met him as an enterprising 12-year-old boy, when Bartlett booked and promoted a concert for Hayes and Cahill in Vermont.
“It was very unusual,” Martin says, “because we didn’t know that we were dealing with a kid, as we were in contact by e-mail. At that time I met Thomas, he was playing Irish music, and over the years I’ve followed his career and known that he’s really interested in the contemporary music world too.” Martin Hayes is enthusiastic about this latest musical coalition. “I felt we had a compatibility of people and ideas,” he offers. “We didn’t have any big master plan, but some form of aesthetic compatibility was there for sure.
“One thing I wanted to make sure was that this would not be a collaboration where we’d all just go on stage and do our own thing. This has to be its own thing: a collaboration between us all. And I think there’ll be enough in there to please many people and displease many people too.” Hayes is reluctant to box the music they’ve created, because it doesn’t fit neatly within any particular genre, and also because it’s a beast still in the making. “Sometimes I felt it sounded like the most traditional music I’d heard in a long time,” he discloses, “and then at others, it sounded like the most modern music I’ve ever heard. We have to trust one another but it’s as much about not being scared to try something that maybe nobody will like.
“It won’t be the end of our lives if it’s outright rejected, which it could be. Because you could live your life trying to get everything just exactly right, but nothing happens – in life or in music – unless you take chances.”
Stepping outside the comfort zone is an essential preoccupation of anyone who is serious about remaining artistically vital, Hayes believes. “You can choose to stay in a comfortable, unchallenged space,” he says. “I’ve seen that, and I never want to be there. I want to stay excited about music, and whenever I play, I want to be stretched to the maximum of my ability. Musicians can often feel defined by a particular thing, but the truth is that we all have multiple interests and multiple musical personalities.”
Thomas Bartlett may be the greatest unknown quantity in The Gloaming. His acquaintance with Irish music came about in a circuitous way. From an early age, Bartlett and his friend, folk singer Sam Amidon, embarked on a long-term courting of contra-dance music (any partnered folk dance in which couples dance in two facing lines). It included many Irish dance tunes. The first time he heard Hayes and Cahill live, he says it was “the most amazing music I’d ever experienced. I remember the first time hearing him was a shockingly physical experience,” Bartlett says. “The way Martin toys with the melody and brings out these nuances in it, I can remember my heart just started racing listening to it. I was listening to a lot of Keith Jarrett at the time and he struck me as being somewhat similar, in that they’re both capable of these incredible powers of concentration on the melodic aspect of the music, which enables them to reach this transcendent, thrilling place.” Listening to samples from The Gloaming’s recording session from earlier this year, what’s striking is the depth and breadth of their emotional expression. At times utterly avant garde, and at others deeply traditional, it seems that The Gloaming excel at twisting and turning tunes towards the light, while they stitch the subtlest patterns into their underbelly.
For his part, Iarla Ó Lionáird has long been a willing collaborator. Despite his sean nós roots, he has never been one to limit himself to that aspect of the tradition. In fact, his work with the Afro Celts, Gavin Bryars and The Crash Ensemble seems to reflect a primal need to find different ways to express himself. In truth, the road of the traditional singer can be a very lonely one, Ó Lionáird admits.
“It has the potential to be very isolating and very repetitious,” he says. “I have an impulse that drives me to work with different people in music. First of all, you have to be really in love with the phenomenon of making music, and part of that love is meeting the unknown, finding out what happens after you’ve sung one note: where is the next note? It’s as fundamental as that.”
Ó Lionáird welcomed the challenge of acting as midwife to new music, as The Gloaming have done with Song 44, which he adapted from an 18th-century poem by Aogán Ó Raghallaigh.
“Music is all about joy, and the collaborative tendencies that I have are really to do with seeking out that joy. It asks something of you that you didn’t know you had inside of you. My expectation for The Gloaming was very simply that I could create something that I hadn’t done before, to go somewhere I hadn’t gone before. I wanted this to be a little bit more essential, and that’s how it’s turned out.” Working with Thomas Bartlett was an invigorating experience, Iarla cheerfully admits.
“He reminded me of drivers in Sicily,” he cackles. “In Ireland, when you live as I do, remotely, you pull in to let other drivers by. In Sicily, they move you out of their way. I felt he was doing that to me in a musically intuitive and playful way. Although he couldn’t understand what I was singing, he had a unique capacity to understand where it could be taken, and he would set up places for me to possibly go, on the fly – which I found very unusual and very pleasing.”
The Gloaming are planning to record a CD after this tour, when they’ll have subjected their repertoire to the spit polish of live performance. Iarla Ó Lionáird believes they’ve got the raw material to draw a new audience to this music they’re making.
“Martin Hayes’s audience perceives his music as having value as an art form,” he notes. “His and Dennis Cahill’s is a singular achievement in the history of Irish traditional music. There’s no gimmickry strapped on. He doesn’t have to do anything other than really focus on his art, and he’s done that more successfully than any other living traditional musician. I think Thomas’s sonic vision coupled with our desire to ‘press on’ will hopefully result in more people being able to access this music. But I haven’t a clue really!”
The Gloaming begin a nationwide tour at the NCH on Saturday. See note.ie for dates and booking