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Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh - Closer to Home

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Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh is a singer and flute player immersed in the vibrant traditions of the West Kerry area. After studying traditional music at UL, she joined Irish band Danú and performed all over the world with them for 13 years. Since leaving their ranks in 2015 after having two children, life has been somewhat different for Muireann, but it certainly has not been the end of her musical road. We met up with her to find out more about life after Danú.

“I had my girls in 2011 and 2013, and I left Danú in 2015,” she says. “At that stage I felt that I had given it all I could and in the end, with the children, I just had to call it. So I thought that might be the end of the music, and I went into a bit of a depression over it. But it wasn’t. I discovered this whole community in Co. Kerry that I hadn’t been around that much because I had always been away on tour. I reconnected with all these musicians at home, and got to know a lot of others, and I slowly found the confidence to try things on my own. I hadn’t done that for a long time and I was a bit fearful of trying anything, but very naturally, things started to happen and people starting phoning to ask if I would be interested in doing things. Some people said, ‘We heard you had retired.’ That made me laugh!”

Muireann now lives on the Dingle Peninsula between Ballyferriter and Ventry, looking over at Mount Brandon – a beautiful place to be. With two young daughters, aged three and six, she finds that her focus is now much closer to home. “I don’t go away on long tours anymore,” she says. “We have finally got a balance that I didn’t think was possible. I really love playing in Ireland and it is great to be doing it again. I’m busy doing all sorts of things, and I live in Dingle, so there is music there all the time, the scene is so vibrant. It’s a musical Mecca. You couldn’t throw a stone down there without hitting a musician. They are a great gang; we are all friends and we are all feeding off each other. And the singers that are around - people like Éilís Kennedy, Pauline Scanlon and Seamus Begley – it’s amazing.”

“So I am just working as much as I need to (imagine that!), and playing with my friends. We do lots in Dingle in different incarnations - I play a fair bit with Donogh Hennessy (on guitar) and Jeremy Spencer (on fiddle), or with Gerry O’Beirne, or Seamus Begley. I sing some songs with Pauline and Éilís sometimes. We all play together so there’s that interweaving. We’re actually going to do some stuff as a big group – a nine piece – for the Killarney Folk Festival, calling ourselves The Síbín Orchestra (the name was Seamus’ idea!). We will gather the shared tunebook and songbook we have and celebrate it on the stage. We are doing it anyway in everyday life.”

There are many factors that must contribute to the musical scene being so healthy in Dingle at the moment, and the fact that the music and song of the area, and the Irish language, are being taught in schools must surely be prominent among them. After a time away, Muireann moved back to Kerry in order to raise her children there. “I wanted them to have as close an upbringing to mine as possible, as it was magic,” Muireann explains. “And they are having that and more. They are so lucky and they don’t even know it, but they will someday. They are coming home from school now with songs that I would have learned when I was young. And all taught in Irish – total immersion. We have total immersion at home too because English is everywhere, and the only way Irish is going to be preserved is if we don’t speak English at all. There are many fine musicians who don’t have the language, but I feel it definitely helps – it informs the music and, for me, it is very important. I see the two things as intertwining – hand in hand. I learn about music through Irish and I learn about Irish through music. So I’m glad that the girls are picking up both naturally.”

Having found her feet again in the musical community of Kerry, and with the gigs coming in, Muireann feels that it is time to make another solo recording. This will be her third following Fainne An Lae / Daybreak in 2006 and Ar Uair Bhig An Lae / The Small Hours in 2012, and it is already well underway. When you leave the security of being in a big band with a big record label behind, you have to be a bit more creative in how you do things. As a result, Muireann has funded her next album with a successful Kickstarter campaign.

“Honestly, it wasn’t me,” she says. “I was sitting on my bum twiddling my thumbs and Pauline Scanlon and Dónal O’Connor said that I needed to make an album. I said, ‘I don’t have any money’ and ‘I don’t know what Kickstarter would be like’, but they talked me through the process and coached and supported me throughout. Thankfully it was successful because I was really nervous about it – it felt like I was putting the hand out until I understood that it was more like a pre-sale. People were so brilliant and, through the process, I got in touch with people who lived in the community that I hadn’t known before. So, in a way, the publicity created a new kind of community around the album – and now I have to do it! There’s no backing out.”

Muireann is recording the album in the studio of her friend and fellow Dingle based musician, Donogh Hennessy. “I am going in to the studio in the next few days, just to work on microphone sounds, which I have never had the luxury of doing before. I’m not that interested in a big production really; I just want to make a vocal album, with some tunes as well to reflect where I come from, but I want it to be really honest, simple and reflective of what I do. So I need to get the sound just right and hopefully the simplicity will come across.”

“I will feel more relaxed with Donogh. He is just down the road, so if I am going out to do my shopping I can phone him and say that I might call in to try a song. Anything I’ve done recently, I’ve done with Donogh – voice over work, bits and pieces for TV or radio, playing on someone’s album etc. - so I have worked a lot with him, I feel comfortable there, and he makes a good cup of coffee! And I want to take my time, which I have never been able to do in the past. I think you could hear the stress of rushing in my voice on previous albums. I want to try to do this differently.”

“Since the last album came out, so much has happened: I had two babies, I moved home to Kerry, I left the band. I feel like a different person, so when you feel like that, it is time to do something. As a singer, ideas and songs build up in your head, and when the right time comes, everything you need is all there.”

So are the songs all in place then? “Yes,” Muireann answers excitedly. “It’s mostly stuff that I have been singing for the past year and a half. I’m definitely going to do Archie Fisher’s The Final Trawl because I love it. There will be lots of sean nós songs, many of which I got from Seamus recently, and some songs with old Irish lyrics that have had new melodies added by Gerry O’Beirne – I do a lot with Gerry, he is a song-master. If you need an accompanist – he is magic. So it will be a mixture, as I always have done I suppose, of sean nós, English language trad and some newly composed songs, but not straying from the traditional genre too much on this album – just what I do.”

“Pauline Scanlon said that it is great to have something that, when someone asks ‘what do you do’, you can hand them the CD and say – ‘this!’ - an accurate representation of me. I had no tunes on the last album and I think maybe it was a lack of confidence, so I will have some tunes with my dad on it, and with the people that I play with regularly. I want the album to feel like one of the evenings we would have in John Benny’s pub at home.”

Talking of her dad and of evenings at sessions in Kerry brings us to talking about the old days and how it all started for Muireann. “Dad plays the fiddle,” she says, “and I started playing with him in sessions when I was about nine. I would go with him on a Friday (he still goes to that particular session) and I would be told to sit down, but there would be no chair for me, so I would have to sit on a coal bag with my whistle, trying out the tunes, and I would get a look if it was too loud or wrong or whatever. This is not a joke or a Dickens story. It was different back then – you were encouraged but not too encouraged. It was a lovely education though.”

In situations like that, you don’t just learn the tunes; you learn about the bigger picture. “Exactly. You learn the etiquette of the sessions, and you learn to respect who you got the tunes from. Also, you learn to relate to people who are not your contemporaries in school – all sorts of people, from all around the world, not just Irish people – being part of a session regularly is a complete life education. There is so much more there than just tunes, and more than you get from learning formally in classes, or from books. My kids are doing that now too. They come into the session and sing a few songs - they are a bit small to play the tunes yet. It’s a healthy thing – it’s not just all girls, or all boys, or all people of one age – it’s a whole education.”

Although Muireann is clearly at home with the traditional music and song of her local area, she is not afraid to try new things and recently she has been working with concertina player Pádraig Rynne on a totally different project. “Yes, I am doing stuff with Pádraig and having a mad laugh while we are at it, exploring some other types of music that are not Irish, but are in Irish, which fascinates me. I am mad about the language so I really want to explore its musical possibilities outside of singing the old songs, but I am nervous of fusion, so I have been doing this stuff with Pádraig under the name of Aeons. The plan is to do an Aeons album and a Muireann album - the two are quite separate, I don’t want people to get upset! You could call Aeons ambient, electronica, experimental – I like to explore the musicality of the language and try a different vocal genre that allows me a different sort of freedom, because when I sing trad, I try to be quite trad about it! So, to start afresh with something and to look at the language in a different way, in a contemporary future facing way is also exciting. It can’t always be about looking back, and about a certain time in history. So it’s just a new exploration.”

Muireann has been writing songs in Irish for the Aeons project, but doesn’t feel that writing in the traditional genre is something she wants to do at the moment. “Within the trad stuff, I am just doing what I am doing, and I feel really comfortable with it and I don’t want to mess with that. What I have, and the things I have learned, are really precious to me. I feel like I am in a certain place with my singing right now, where I am really enjoying it, and I don’t want to mess that up by writing a crap song.”

But she continues to learn other new skills, and recent years have seen Muireann develop her talents as a TV presenter as well as performer. Beginning with some work on the Geantraí series on TG4, she has continued this work, the most recent programmes being Port, a series aired on TG4 in Ireland and BBC Alba in Scotland dedicated to traditional Scottish and Irish music which she co-presents with Scottish Gaelic singer, Julie Fowlis. Muireann also has the privilege of co-presenting the TG4 Gradam Ceoil awards, a high profile ceremony which is watched religiously by most lovers of Irish traditional music each year.

“I love doing Port,” Muireann says. “It’s like my dream job. I am hanging out with my pals, and the programme makers ask us who we want to play with; who to invite to be on the show – it is perfect. It’s just trying to fit Julie and my schedules together that can be problematic. There are going to be more; we are in the process of organising them, and I am a bit excited because if it works out, it will be a little bit different this time. That’s all I can say for now.”

“It’s a huge honour to be there for the Gradam Ceoil awards and to be able to celebrate with people who are just utterly my heroes. And it is not a competition; it is more of a celebration and an honouring, which I think is very important. Sometimes these people go uncelebrated. We have enough competitions and I am not a massive fan of them, though I understand they have their place and mean a lot to a lot of people. But I would love for people to hang on to the other lovely things about our traditions that are important - though I know not everyone has the privilege to grow up surrounded by the things that I have. We need lessons and everything, but let’s not let that take precedence over the other stuff.”

The Gradams must be good exposure for Muireann, but she is very humble when talking about them. “I don’t feel like that evening is about me at all. I’m a facilitator. But what is helpful is that I know the people receiving the awards. I’ve already spoken to them, and I like to think that I try to help them feel more at ease. Sometimes people can be nervous, so I try to make them feel more comfortable, and to make them feel that we are all there for them – it is their night. I’m still learning about being a presenter. It’s a process, and live TV is a whole new thing – the Gradams were live both this year and last. I think this year went a bit better for me. I kind of had to say: ‘to hell with it’. I am a perfectionist but I am learning to let go of that – it makes life a bit easier.”

The awards celebrate the people who have been important players in the Irish traditional music scene over the years, and Muireann is very positive about the state of the traditional landscape at the moment. But how does she see the future? Is the next generation of musicians and singers appearing? “Yes, they are. I am a lot more worried about the language. But I do my best on that front, and hopefully other people will take over as well – the language has given us so much already. It will never die in terms of the music, but I want to try to help it survive as a spoken, living language. I can’t be neglectful of it; I was given it, and there is a responsibility that comes along with that – it is precious. But I’ve learned that it mustn’t take over your whole life. I’m one person and I can’t do it all. I was doing far more than what one person should be doing and it was too much. It’s strange, a lot of young mothers find the most enjoyable and fulfilling work comes at the same time as the children and you feel like you have to achieve it all and be perfect at everything, but you just can’t. And anyone who thinks they can is bound to have a fall. That’s what I’ve learned.”

It is clear that Muireann has thought hard about what is important to her, and what she can realistically achieve. That said, she manages to achieve rather a lot in her busy life – being a wife and mother, performing, teaching, writing, recording, presenting, and promoting Irish in various forms.

“I think my favourite thing about my work is meeting people and this lovely community of musicians that we have – I just love it so much – be it at home, or where there are people I have met and got to know. It’s a shared language that we have, so I am so grateful to still be a part of that. The people I am surrounded by, people like Seamus Begley, are so kind and generous with their music, and we are so wealthy because of them – not just Seamus, but all the people who have passed on a tradition that is living. I feel like we are in a golden age and I want to hang on to it and appreciate every minute of it.”

Muireann’s new album, which will be called Foxglove & Fuschia, is scheduled to be released towards the end of the year, after which she hopes to do a short tour in Ireland. Life after Danú has been good to her, and her refreshing, positive attitude to the music and its carriers is inspiring. So watch this space, because she hasn’t retired yet. Far from it.

by Fiona Heywood

Printed in Issue 120 of The Living Tradition magazine
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