Singing the light fantastic
THE ARTS:After listening to each other sing in John Benny’s bar in Dingle for years, Pauline Scanlon and Éilís Kennedy decided to ‘throw a few songs around’. The result is getting the works from the Sony machine, writes BRIAN O’CONNELL
IT’S LUNCHTIME IN John Benny’s bar on Strand Street in Dingle. Outside, steamy tourists caught in the downpour take shelter in doorways. Inside, bodies wearing yesterday’s clothes scan the racing pages or nervously eye bowls of vegetable soup. To chance it, or not to chance it – that is the question. Six nights a week, music is played in the bar, and it’s not your run-of-the-mill “come all ye” classics. Musicians such as Damien Mullane, Tommy O’Sullivan, Dessie Kelleher, Aoife Granville, Cillian Ó Briain, John Benny or Donogh Hennessy sustain themselves throughout the summer honing their craft there.
Dingle is in many ways the living embodiment of a cultural version of Ireland long since disappeared from other parts of the country. Music, song, tunes, stories, dancing and sessions all still take place here, stripped bare of pyrotechnics or glittering costumes.
Pauline Scanlon breezes in, delivers a smattering of Irish to the bar staff and pokes the froth on her cappuccino. She has been singing in this bar, owned by Éilís Kennedy and her husband, John, for several years. Before that there were other bars where, as an adolescent, she heard the west Kerry singing tradition brought to life.
She also heard Éilís, heard something authentic in her voice, and it resonated with her. Although she toured the world with Sharon Shannon and, later, as a solo, award-winning artist, she always came home to sing and hear singers. And often she would team up with Éilís – who pursued her own solo career – or simply pop in to listen to her take on songs.
With touring commitments easing, last year Pauline and Éilís decided to get together, throw a few songs around and see what came out of it. The result is Lumiere (a far more geographically loose name than the original, Dingle White Females), whose first album is a soothing and seductive selection of songs drawn from the Irish and American tradition, in which vocals are king and harmonies are easy and kindred. When executives at Sony heard them , they snapped the pair up. There have been video shoots in London. The media blitz is planned. Social networking sites have been set up. The pair might, to quote one music industry insider, “be about to do an Enya on it”.
Scanlon says of the beginnings of the musical pairing: “One summer we were back in Ventry drinking wine and we threw around loads of songs and started singing. As soon as we started, we got hooked on singing together. We realised we could sing in unison. We weren’t jarring against each other or pulling away. It happened almost instantly for us.”
Kennedy sees it the same way. “When I used to hear Pauline sing, it was always clear she had an extraordinary voice,” she says. “But it’s not just about having an extraordinary voice, it’s about presence as well. I love the idea of singing with someone else, but, strange as it may seem, it’s hard to find someone to sing with. We’re not tugging against each other.”
The pair also had a natural ease with the source material, an unfussy attitude to song selection and arrangement. Some of the songs chosen for the album, including The West’s Awake, sung with Damien Dempsey, were already well-established in the popular canon, others less so. Their approach, though, could be best described as unaffected.
“The songs are coming from a traditional place,” says Kennedy. “But we’re not afraid to change the tempos a little. We both love a good story, essentially.”
This is something Scanlon also feels strongly. “There’s this whole thing within the traditional recording and singing scene, with people selecting songs from an overly academic perspective,” she says. “There’s also a feeling that albums have to contain so many of the so-called ‘big songs’ or well-known ones. It’s really boring, to be honest. When you’re singing songs, it doesn’t matter where you come from. It’s about the act of singing and it is about songs that you like and feel a connection with. The rest of it is just bullshit really. You don’t have to feel under pressure to please a traditionalist or a progressive audience.”
They eventually narrowed down their list of songs, including the likes of Fair and Tender Ladies, The Poor Wayfaring Stranger, Spencer the Rover, Óró Mo Bháidínand Síle. Next they headed for London to record with renowned producer John Reynolds and musician Donogh Hennessy. When we speak, Reynolds is en route to Wembley to provide the soundscape for U2’s 360° tour, having already spent the day recording Dido in his home studio. What was it in the Dingle singers that made him sit up and take notice?
“I think it was possibly the way the two voices complement each other so much,” he says. “With Éilís, it’s very earthy and there is a lot of substance in her singing. Pauline is far more esoteric, almost on a higher plane. So the two are beautifully matched and my job was to give a platform to these amazing voices. I purposely dulled all the instruments. It helped that the way Donogh played guitar was so precise, it could almost be a harp. He doesn’t intrude and is a very soft, gentle player. Combined, the musical whole is stunning.”
Scanlon says of Hennessy’s accompaniment: “His was such a sensitive musical input. It’s very difficult to sing the way you want to sing unless you have someone who is as musically aware as he is.”
BACK IN DINGLE, Scanlon and Kennedy decided to take a trip to accordion player and singer Seamus Begley’s house, eight miles outside the town. Kennedy’s dad was a schoolteacher and taught Begley many songs in the nearby school, where both her grandparents also taught. On the Lumierealbum, Begley sings with the pair on Óró Mo Bháidín, the gentle sea melody.
“I think people are sick of hearing the Daniel O’Donnell-type songs about mothers’ hearts falling into the fire and four country roads,” says Begley. “What Pauline and Éilís recorded in London may be rooted in the west Kerry style, or in the Irish language, but it doesn’t matter. When a song is sung by a beautiful singer, it becomes universal and can be picked up by anyone, and I believe that’s what will happen with this.”
Begley has built a shebeen adjacent to the old family home, complete with beer taps, a fire stove and old Jim Reeves record sleeves on the walls. With him is local fisherman and singer Lawrence Courtney. They compare late-night anecdotes, reminisce about tours to Australia, and talk about a new song doing the rounds in the town, dealing with the recent De Dannan naming controversy and titled Frankie Goes to Holyhead. In Dingle, it seems, even the topical becomes traditional.
Lumiere’s eponymouse debut album will be released through Sony on Sept 11th. See lumieremusic.net for upcoming tour dates