He wasn't quite born with a banjo on his knee, but Darren Maloney's dexterity with the four-stringed instrument has brought him acclaim - if not exactly fame. Siobhán Long meets the banjo man from Cavan
Who says multiple personalities are a sign of madness? Certainly not Darren Maloney: Cavan man, banjo maestro, occasional mandolin and bouzouki player and sometime-member of Steelhead McGinnity, Cúlfuar, Ephemera, The Butterfly Band and The Tim O'Connor Band.
Despite his disparate musical identities, Maloney is sufficiently wise to the nuances of the music industry to know that a lifetime of live performances does not a star make, nor a pocket line. No surprise then that he's christened his solo début who?, with an emphasis on a small "w", followed by a great big dirty question mark.
The banjo, Maloney's instrument of choice, might raise furrowed eyebrows among the musical cognoscente who equate four-string banjos with six-finger country. Images of Deliverance mutate into swampy scenes of straw-munching players repeating the same tired riff until the cows, literally come home.
Funny thing is, Maloney's timing might not be all that off. Ever since the cult success of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the burgeoning popularity of Alisons Krauss and Brown, bluegrass music in general, and the banjo in particular, have had their primary colours buffed and shone, with more magazine covers and radio airplay than Earl Scruggs could have imagined in his wildest dreams. Just as the long-abused accordion has been treated to a rehabilitation of Betty Ford-proportions, the banjo has basked in a particularly warm, de-tox glow in recent years.
Maloney laughs heartily in agreement at the public image difficulties of the much-maligned banjo.
"Even growing up, I had a poster on my bedroom wall of Kermit the Frog serenading Miss Piggy with a banjo," he says. "On The Simpsons too, it's a pure figure of fun. Then, when I was four years of age, I had an accident and lost the sight in one eye. So if we're talking about stereotypes here, I'm your half-blind banjo player!"
The PR assistance provided by Travis with their banjo-tinged single, Walking in the Sun, and Béla Fleck's guest appearance on Nelly Furtado's second album, Folklore, are not lost on Maloney. But local heroes have exerted a far more powerful influence on his playing.
"What started me on the banjo was hearing Cathal Hayden and Brian McGrath playing around Cavan when I was young. I was surrounded by great banjo players, with an abundance of tunes played in a great northern style. Then Gerry O'Connor's album From Time to Time came out, and I think every banjo player I know borrowed something from that."
Maloney characterises that distinct northern style as "fast, free music", bereft of the shackles that might have held other, more genteel instruments at bay. The banjo's abject refusal to conform to the normal rules of regional style was another attraction.
"There's just no regional style on a banjo at all. If you put a banjo into, for example, a Sligo or Donegal set of tunes, it takes on its own life-form. It's a very innovative instrument, and because it's relatively new to Irish traditional music, it lends itself to a wide range of styles and sounds," he says.
The banjo's latecomer status is licence enough to give Maloney a free hand when it comes to marrying traditional tunes with other genres, particularly jazz. Alison Browne's pre-eminence as a jazz/bluegrass musician adds further fuel to his fire, but role models such as Browne and Béla Fleck (both purveyors of the five-string, as opposed to the Irish four-string banjo) made a late entrance on Maloney's consciousness, long after he'd already charted his own journey from traditional to jazz styles.
"The experience of playing with a Manchester fiddle player called Colin Farrell, and a Waterford jazz guitarist by the name of Dylan Bible, and a piano player called Phil Collins, was hugely influential. They were all jazz graduates of Leeds College and their knowledge of jazz was just phenomenal. They were naming chords that I had never even heard of. They played a huge part in helping me to develop my own style."
who? contains no less than 15 original tunes from Maloney, reflecting an eclectic palette that stretches the boundaries of the instrument.
"It's all about the melody," he says. "It's not about being flashy, or trying to better another player. The name tends to come before the tune and the tune follows. For example, Kandy Girls came about when we were out in Sri Lanka and we saw an amazing dance troupe from the Kandyan tradition, with a big percussion behind them. I tried to replicate that effect when it came to that tune later."
With titles like Annaghmakerrig, Reel des Cinq Journelles and iNp karoNg (a particularly inebriated take on "No Parking"), Maloney's lost little time in assimilating life's rich tapestry into his homespun tunes. That's what's important for him as a musician: maintaining his own identity, one that's bolstered ably by the contributions of De Jimbe's Brian Fleming and Joe Brennan.
"The banjo's a rhythmic instrument, or a drum with some neck," Maloney cackles. "I wanted to keep full control on this, because I felt that would allow me to achieve what I wanted. Lots of albums are recorded with lots of guests, and that can lead to the original sound getting lost. I definitely knew I didn't want that to happen with who?"
who? is on Claddagh Records.