Traditional music meets jazz as Damien McGeehan hits uncharted terrain

Donegal fiddle players’s new album Kin has a strong sense of people and of place

Damien McGeehan is now a member of Daniel O’Donnell’s band, but the touring schedule allows for very welcome and lengthy sojourns at home

Damien McGeehan is now a member of Daniel O’Donnell’s band, but the touring schedule allows for very welcome and lengthy sojourns at home

 

It’s been a while in the making, but Donegal fiddle player Damien McGeehan’s new solo album comes with a whole sheaf of surprises lurking beneath its bonnet.

Having forged a reputation as a formidable fiddle player on the groundbreaking debut from the fiddle trio, Fidil, and having mined the depths of his home county tradition with his solo debut album, The Tin Fiddle, McGeehan’s now venturing forth into uncharted terrain with his latest collection, Kin.

This is where traditional tunes meet jazz and a tincture of blues, with a side of rockabilly, just for fun.

“It’s been getting recorded for a few years at this stage,” Damien offers with a wry smile. “It’s not a pandemic project at all. The most challenging thing was trying to get everyone’s schedules to sync up, but we got there in the end.”

Some drone and percussion tracks from Liam Bradley were the only elements of this album recorded during the pandemic. Kin, unsurprisingly, is an album suffused with a strong sense of people and of place. It marks a milestone on a musical journey that’s taken this fiddle player to places he never imagined possible.

“With The Tin Fiddle, I wanted to focus on the tin fiddle alone,” McGeehan offers, reflecting back on his 2017 solo debut. “That was really specific. It focused on a really traditional sound, with no effects at all. I always think of how the band would sound when I’m arranging music: where everything has a particular space in the arrangement.

“I’ve always been thinking from a band perspective anyway so it was a natural progression for me to move from The Tin Fiddle to this album, even though it sounds like it’s not a progression at all.”

For this album, McGeehan has embraced songs for the first time, with his wife Shauna Mullin guesting on a number of pivotal tracks. Her voice is an earthy mix of Dolores Keane in her heyday, and June Tabor. It’s an intriguing combination: fiddle and voice, with some finely tempered arrangements, and a guest list that includes co-producer, Seán Óg Graham on guitar, ukulele, accordion and mellotron and Kieran Munnelly on flute and fiddle. Richard Thompson’s Strange affair and Tom Waits’ The Briar and the Rose find firm purchase in Mullin’s capable hands, alongside a rich panoply of diverse orchestrations.

“As far as the songs go, I work mainly as a session musician now and I back singers a lot,” McGeehan explains. “People send me their songs at home too, and I record fiddle on them. That’s been something I’ve been doing for years now. So it was a very natural progression for me.”

I developed interests in a lot of different musical genres over the years and through meeting a lot of different musicians as well, so I tried to tie that all together

Recording with his wife Shauna was another boon that came with this album recording.

“We were in UL [University of Limerick] at the same time,” he says, “and we learned so much – from all the sessions and gigs we went to while we were there! That was where I first came across Tom Waits, to be honest. Sure, everybody knows Tom Waits! And that song, The Briar and the Rose is one of our favourites. He writes songs that lend themselves to so many different interpretations. And that goes for Richard Thompson too. Shauna’s take on Strange Affair is definitely influenced by June Tabor’s version of that song.”

McGeehan’s Donegal roots are showing, and he’s very happy that they’re revealing so much about who he is and where he’s come from. McGeehan’s frame of reference stretches way beyond the traditional domain.

“I developed interests in a lot of different musical genres over the years,” he says, “and through meeting a lot of different musicians as well, so I tried to tie that all together. When I was growing up, my father was a huge influence on me. He was into a huge range of music, and that was a big influence on the music that I went in search of myself.”

The strong sense of home is palpable throughout Kin. The opening track, An chéad chathlán is a tune dedicated to his grandfather, Peadar, and a doffing of the cap to the place his grandfather called home, Finntown.

“Finntown was where my grandfather used to live,” McGeehan recounts. “We used to visit there when I was young, and there was this big, beautiful lake where we used to go fishing, and that place is imprinted so deeply in my memory”.

Doing an album is a big financial commitment, but the vision I had for this album, I really needed that funding from the Arts Council to make it happen

African rhythms permeate Kin too, with McGeehan’s love of New Orleans shimmering in the heat of some fine brass, recorded in Nashville, but with an unquestionable kinship to the technicolour sounds of Bourbon Street.

“Myself and Shauna went to New Orleans for a week,” he says, relishing the impact that brief sojourn had on him. “We checked into the hotel and the first thing we did was go into Preservation Hall where we heard a great jazz band, and it was just incredible.

“It’s a crazy place: it’s the vibe and the spirit of the place. I just felt it was so incredible: a typical jazz band playing the melody of the tune and then the clarinet player will take a solo and then during that, the trumpet player will begin to play off him, and then the trombone will do it, and by the end of the set, they were all playing full on and that was the sound I wanted to create on that track, Runnin’ on Bourbon.

“And it’s also in the later tune set The Girl and The Lass. That atmosphere takes you over. It’s like being at Glenties Fiddle week except it’s trombones and trumpets. It’s surreal. I didn’t want tight brass, but I wanted them to create that mayhem!”

McGeehan’s not a musician to box off his many influences. He has very fond memories of touring with the late Senegalese kora player, Solo Cissokho, and had set his sights on inviting Cissokho to contribute to the album, before hearing of his untimely passing.

“Solo Sissokho was a really magical being,” McGeehan says with a broad smile. “I wanted him to play on that track, but he passed away shortly beforehand. I was in touch with his nephew, Seku who is another great kora player and percussionist. Solo’s influence was massive on me: not just the music that he played, but his whole spirit, his soul, just what he brought to the music.”

McGeehan is now a member of Daniel O’Donnell’s band, but the touring schedule allows for very welcome and lengthy sojourns at home (even before the pandemic) where McGeehan has had the luxury of time to work on his solo projects. An Arts Council Deis award was key to this album’s release too though, he acknowledges.

“Doing an album is a big financial commitment, but the vision I had for this album, I really needed that funding from the Arts Council to make it happen,” Damien admits. “When you listen to the album, even the brass players: the costs add up really really quickly. And there’s great freedom artistically too, with the Deis award. It’s not like a record label giving you money: and saying they want X, Y and Z. I don’t think I could have made the album without it, to be honest.”

Kin is out now. Damienmcgeehan.com

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