'Beware of becoming your own tribute band." That's a lesson Dennis Cahill has learned through his years of collaborating with the Clare fiddler Martin Hayes. His spare, minimalist guitar accompaniment to Hayes's spectral melodies has won him many admirers, yet he is wary of the temptations an artist can yield to once a reputation has been forged. Cahill believes that dialling in a performance isn't an option.
Reflecting on his latest collaboration with The Gloaming, Cahill refuses to mystify a process he says is based on intuition. “I’ve really been enjoying it, because it takes me out of my comfort zone,” he says of the band that has generated waves well beyond the world of traditional music ever since the band made their live debut in the National Concert Hall in August 2012.
"It's actually really easy with [pianist and producer] Thomas Bartlett, because I really enjoy the way he plays. We feel our way around the music. It's pretty instinctive. You know, we don't sit around doing charts, practising until we get all the parts right, so there's a bit of adventure every time. That's what the mood is in the band. There's a kind of experiment happening every night."
Introducing the band
The Gloaming are a quintet with a difference. Four of the band's members are well-known to Irish and international audiences with an ear for traditional music. Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill have carved a distinct path with their pin-prick-precision fiddle and guitar, with Hayes's east Clare style drawing out the bare essence of tunes.
Singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, from Cúil Aodha in Co Cork, brings his richly coloured voice and a deep connection to our vast song store, not to mention a ravenous appetite for mining our poetry for stories.
In recent years, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh has introduced the Hardanger fiddle to Irish music, awakening new possibilities with its layered, orchestral textures.
The Gloaming's fifth member brings an unpredictability to the mix. Thomas Bartlett, born in Vermont, has already carved a reputation as a pianist, composer, arranger and producer. His CV includes a who's-who of contemporary innovators, from Antony and The Johnsons to Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Nico Muhly and The National. Bartlett's expansive piano lines bring a new dimension to music many traditional audiences will be familiar with, and is the spur to the composition of a slew of songs with Ó Lionáird.
Having spent so much time on production duties with other musicians, Bartlett is glad of the chance to perform live with The Gloaming.
“I really enjoy flexing my muscle again, playing live piano,” he says. “It feels like this incredible playground to wander around in. It’s also my 15-year-old fantasy. At that age, I was obsessed with Martin, but I was also obsessed with Keith Jarrett, so in a lot of ways, this is the ideal band I would have dreamed of when I was 15.”
When performing live, Bartlett and Dennis Cahill lob percussive shapes back and forth, the pair bookending the band with forensic attention to detail. It’s a relationship that draws something new from music that simply refuses to be boxed in. This isn’t traditional music. It’s not classical music. It’s contemporary music that insinuates itself deep within the subconscious.
A simple process
Cahill dispels any notion that The Gloaming must be honing and polishing their work endlessly before allowing it to see the light of day. It's much simpler than that.
“Everybody makes space for the other person,” he says. “There’s a great deal of listening that goes on. If you really watch the dynamic, everybody’s looking all of the time. None of us want to end up in something where we do the same thing night after night, where you’re so busy playing the part that you’re not really playing any more. Where your hands are doing it, but you’re not invested in it. Martin and I have always worked on the basis that you can’t replicate what you did the night before.”
For Bartlett, The Gloaming reaches parts that his other collaborations don’t.
“I feel torn when I’m playing with these guys, because part of me wants to sit back and listen to them play, and not get in the way,” he says. “There’s nothing I like more than sitting and watching Dennis and Martin do their thing. It just seems to me that the way Dennis plays is so subtle and controlled, that he and Martin almost become one instrument when they play. I guess what I’m after is a more expansive sound. Dennis is doing it sonically, getting so much out of his instrument, and I’m doing it harmonically from the other side [of the stage]: widening the scope just a little bit.”
Dynamic space and texture underpin the group. It’s a soundscape that can appear effortless, but is born of an awareness of being in the moment.
Ó Raghallaigh says he is “very aware of feel and colour and texture. Iarla describes it as audiography: painting with sound. Time is your canvas, and it is about colour and texture and feel. And when you add in to that the master of the emotional arc that is Martin, there’s something very powerful about that.”
Ó Raghallaigh says his Hardanger fiddle is his way into this cavernous space within The Gloaming. “The Hardanger for me is the first phenomenally beautiful instrument I’ve had,” he says. “It’s the first one that keeps continuing to teach me, all the time. It doesn’t limit me. Every time I play it, I learn something new. It’s got such a range, and it is an entirely complete and coherent world of sound that I continue to delve into and grow into. I think my entire identity as a musician is wrapped up with that instrument now.”
The beauty of imperfection is at the heart of their music too. They let the music evolve, tracing its path with a lightness that lets its breathe. This approach is diametrically opposed to the painterly way in which Ó Lionáird usually works on his solo projects, and he loves it all the more for that. Samhradh Samhradh, one of the songs on the Gloaming's self-titled debut album, epitomises this willingness to let the music, rather than the musicians, dictate the pace. Ó Lionáird believes the song is richer for its faults.
"We were happy with its level of imperfection," he says. "For years I've been talking to Martin and Dennis about the aesthetic of less. The Japanese call it a wabi-sabi approach, where you don't finish a thing completely, utterly. You leave some aspect of its character still containing the rough-hewn original object. With Samhradh Samhradh, we might have easily been tempted to do it again, but on balance it has a certain momentary charm that exceeds our ability to improve it."
Debut album imminent
For all the anticipation and excitement surrounding the imminent release of The Gloaming's debut album, each member of the band is unequivocal about the serendipity of what they do. There's no strategic plan, no world-conquering agenda. It's much more fun than that.
“We didn’t have a master plan,” laughs Ó Lionáird. “We didn’t set out to redefine Irish music. There is no plan other than to make music that satisfies me and makes me all tingly. I think it’s strangely nostalgic music, without being sentimental. Being on stage with people who call that out of me feels so sweet.”
Cahill is equally open about the band’s way of life. “You just gotta roll with it,” he says. “It’s not like we’re making Coca Cola or something, and we’re turning out the same formula. It changes all the time, and you simply get used to that fact. It’s not really about the instrumentation anyway. It’s about the people you play with. As Martin says, it’s not what they play, it’s who they are.”
The Gloaming is out on Real World Records on January 20. The Gloaming play the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on January 26, nch.ie