Tradfest: Unique trio of Ailbhe Reddy, Sive and Loah light up the night
Three artists share bill on at Dublin's Pepper Cannister Church
Ailbhe Reddy says lyrics are the foundation of all her songs
In the spirit of widening its welcome beyond trad boundaries, this year’s Temple Bar Tradfest has a cannily programmed seven days and nights of music to lure punters and keep their appetites sated.
A trio of musicians share a bill on Wednesday night, each bringing their own unique sound to what they hope might be a new audience. Ailbhe Reddy, Loah and Sive are three women who’ve been busily forging their solo careers, with their own hands very firmly on their tillers. Singer/songwriters they may all be, but that’s just about where their common ground begins and ends, because their musical identities are cast on that hot forge called life experience.
Loah has already made her mark as what she terms an Art Soul singer, drawing on the diverse influences of her Irish and Sierra Leonean heritage. Her voice is a richly complex amalgam of European and West African influences, reflecting her eclectic musical experience growing up in Dublin.
“My influences are definitely West African, as opposed to just Sierra Leonean,” she offers, on a brief break from the recording studio. “West Africa is really rich culturally and musically. The blues has its roots in West Africa and much of that music is really accessible across the world. It’s a very active and innovative tradition. I guess that’s where my crossover with the Tradfest comes in, because like a lot of artists, I’m interested in folk music, but I’m trying to modernise it. I would say that Paul Brady and Oumou Sangare, the Malian folk singer have been equally influential on me.”
Loah’s mother exposed her to a widely eclectic range of music growing up. She learned the fiddle as a youngster, attended classes at Comhaltas and competed in feiseanna, and along the way, literally wore out Martin Hayes and Denis Cahill’s seminal album, The Lonesome Touch, so intense was her love of every bare-boned tune in it. She even cites Andy Irvine and Paul Brady’s self-titled album from 1976 as her favourite album of all time. Singing overtook her fiddle playing a long time ago though, and in recent years, she’s been working hard with voice coach, Judith Mok, to mine the depths of her voice to its fullest potential.
“I don’t really think of myself as a singer with a capital ‘S’ like Shirley Bassey or Oumou Sangare,” she says. “I think of myself as still learning. I think that my voice sounds a lot more European than West African, because English is my first language so I do have this weird hybrid voice. It’s soulful but it’s also quite clean, so it’s not unmistakably folk, or blues. But maybe that’s why I have the genre flexibility that I have: because my voice doesn’t land into an obvious category. I feel that I can be multilingual in my repertoire that I cover. I do a Thin Lizzy cover but I also do a Joni Mitchell cover, and I sing in Sherbro too.” [One of the many languages of Sierra Leone].
Kildare singer Sive draws on her own distinct mix of influences too, and balances her career in music with a professional life working in community music. As well as offering her some financial stability, Sive also values the different parts of herself that thrive in the different roles she pursues in life.
“That balance is what keeps me sane, in a way,” she offers with a tentativeness that echoes a gorgeous wistfulness in her music. “If you’re a songwriter, people assume that that’s what you really want to be doing and everything else is just to make a few bob until the other stuff starts going well! Whereas for me, I really enjoy having both. It keeps things in perspective, because being a solo artist, you’re focusing a lot on yourself, and so when I’m working on my community music, I really like focusing on other people and getting other people singing.”
Having played in bands since the age of 15, Sive has dipped her toes into everything from rock to folk and jazz, with the result that her reference points are many and diverse, from Pearl Jam and Nirvana to Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Björk.
“Nothing in life is isolated, I think. It’s all a big web of stuff that connects together,” she muses, reflecting on the threads that crisscross her creative self. “My tastes may have changed over the years, but I always love listening to Arvo Pärt’s choral music and early plainchant. Listening to voice and hearing what they can do. That’s really at the heart of it, for me.”
As for her songwriting approach, these days Sive is practicing the art of letting go, and allowing the work to speak for itself.
“The majority of my songs start out on the basis of personal observation,” she explains. “I have to rein myself in sometimes because I can veer towards the existential and I have to ask myself: does anybody know what I’m talking about? But on the other hand, it doesn’t really matter because people always take what they want from music anyway.
“In the ideal world, there’d be a logical or critical part of your brain that you could turn off while you’re writing music and then turn back on again, but it doesn’t work like that!” she continues, reflecting on the way her methods have evolved in recent years. “But I think I’m getting better at consciously noticing - without criticising myself too early in the process, so that I can keep going. After all there is no perfect anyway, most especially with the creative process.”
Ailbhe Reddy comes to Tradfest with more than two million streams on Spotify of her single Distrust, taken from her debut EP, Hollowed Out Sea. For her, words are the foundation of all of her songs, she says.
“I usually start off with an idea, and I’m more of a ‘lyrics first’ kind of writer,” Ailbhe explains. “The lyrics are the more important part for me anyway. Then I’ll pare back the lyrics to fit the structure of the song. But honestly, my favourite part is being in the studio. I prefer writing songs. That’s what it’s about for me. But like any job, you don’t necessarily love every part of what you do.”
Like Sive, Reddy has another string to her bow, having completed a degree in psychotherapy. The parallels between that and songwriting are clear, she believes. Both are founded on observations of the human condition.
“I’ve always been interested in what makes people tick,” she says, “which is also probably why I’ve always been interested in writing songs. I’d love to go back and do a masters in psychotherapy and work at it at some stage. Although the two things sound so totally different, for me they’re definitely linked.”
Reddy’s early material is marked by feelings of ennui and disconnection. But there’s an unexpected lightness that can come from experience.
“Songs I wrote when I was younger would have been pretty heavy,” she admits. “Now I feel my writing is coming from a base of a bit more understanding of the need to cut myself some slack!”
Ailbhe, Sive and Loah will perform in the Pepper Canister Church on January 23rd at 8pm. Tickets €15.99. tradfest.ie