Niamh Parsons needs no introduction to readers of this magazine. A singer with a voice to die for, it is unmistakable in its velvety rich, crystal clear and sensuously warm hues. It has been ten long years since her last recorded offering - too many years many may argue – but the wait is over as she has recently released her sixth studio album, Kind Providence, with long-time collaborator, guitarist Graham Dunne.
In the intervening years, both Niamh and Graham have been busy – learning, teaching, performing, researching and developing new skills – and now the time has come for them to focus once again on bringing their music to a wider audience; an audience that is eagerly waiting to hear more from this renowned duo.
We met with Niamh and Graham in their native Dublin to talk about the album, how it came about, and the long road that brought them here.
Niamh was born in Dublin of a Dublin father and a West Clare mother. All the Parsons’ were singers and her father, in particular, had a beautiful tenor voice. Many of her mother’s family sang as well, so singing has always been part of her life. From an early age she was exposed to songs and singers in the local folk club in Raheny, and this developed into a lifelong passion for collecting and singing, one that has stayed with her to this day.
Niamh was working for an insurance company when she began singing with a part-time band, Killera, with Gerry ‘banjo’ O’Connor and Máire Breatnach amongst others. By the time that incarnation of the band ended in 1989, she was already doing lots of her own gigs, had done some TV work, and had recorded an album of unaccompanied songs. Then she met and fell in love with a bass player from Belfast, Dee Moore. Initially she hadn’t planned on giving up the day job, but within the space of a year, Niamh and Dee got married, had a baby and released an album. It was a busy time. They formed a band, The Loose Connections, who were on the road together until 1998. At the same time, Niamh was also performing with well-known Irish group, Arcady, whom she also played with until 1998 when that particular line-up disbanded.
Niamh has always been seen as a primarily traditional singer, but in those Loose Connections days, there was a slightly different mix than we hear from her now. “Those albums jump from pure unaccompanied traditional singing to pop – and that was Dee’s side of things,” she tells us. “Basically, the Loosen Up album was me being a vehicle for Dee’s songs that he had written, although I did bring a few songs to the table. I was OK with that as I was in Arcady and getting my rocks off traditional-song-wise there.”
“When Dee and I split up it all changed. I made a parting shot kind of album in 1999, knowing that I needed to go back to the day job for financial reasons. But that album, Blackbirds And Thrushes, became a critical success. After that, the work started flooding in. But I had no band, and Gavin Ralston, the guitar player who had co-produced the album with me, had gone off to do other things. My friend, Graham Dunne, lived in Clare and I knew he was a good guitar player, so I phoned him up and asked if he would be interested in doing some gigs. At that stage I had three albums worth of recorded material, plus the Arcady album. Graham went away, put the work in and learned everything - I was quite blown away and knew that this would turn out to be something good; a sensitive guitar player who knew all my stuff.”
Since then, Niamh and Graham have cemented their performances as a duo, and this latest album is very much a joint venture. Graham is from Finglas in Dublin, but was living in Clare until very recently. He is now back in Dublin. He worked with Niamh on her In My Prime album in 2000, and all the albums since (Heart’s Desire in 2002, Live In Fylde in 2005 and The Old Simplicity in 2006). Apart from Loosely Connected in 1992, which was released on Greentrax, all the albums were on Green Linnet, a label that was THE label for Irish music in its day. Famously, The Old Simplicity was the last album to be released by Green Linnet before it folded.
“The record company only had time for me, and did not feel we were a duo,” says Niamh. “That’s one of the reasons why we are so pleased with the new album - it has Graham’s face on it, because we see ourselves as a pair.”
Niamh and Graham worked for a couple of years off the back of The Old Simplicity, but then, in 2008, the financial crisis that affected so many people hit and they found it difficult to continue working as before. Niamh explains: “Things were bad everywhere, so I concentrated a lot more on teaching and Graham went back to college and did a degree in music technology, performance and composition (and then a Masters). That empowered him to physically make a CD and so we weren’t reliant on other people anymore.”
This, in part, explains the 10 year gap between the last recording and this one. “It does,” says Graham. “We weren’t working so I went to college for six years. I wanted to learn how to record Niamh’s voice properly, as I had never been 100% satisfied with how I had recorded it before. So I spent a few years studying and in some ways trying to get away from music and get a life. But life has just thrown me back to music. I’m looking for a job at the minute so I can afford to be a professional musician again, and ideally a job using my music technology.”
Niamh and Graham are not alone in their efforts to survive financially as full-time musicians. Most acknowledge that you need to diversify and do other things to make it financially viable. Niamh agrees: “Yes, you do. Every musician will tell you that what happens in this day and age is that you have to be in several different bands. Just look at Gino Lupari, Alan Burke, David Munnelly and people like them - they are all in lots of bands with different line-ups. I didn’t want to play with just any musician. When Graham was away in college, I knew I couldn’t take him away to do lots of tours (though we did a few) so I had to do some different things. I was one of the featured singers with Eileen Ivers on her Beyond The Bog Road album. I did the Irish Sea Sessions and some trio work with Sí Van (with Mary Dillon and Tíona McSherry). I am also currently writing a book on the history of 40 traditional songs that I sing (with the help of an Arts Council bursary). But I was very aware that once this new CD came out, the work would start to come in, and it has.”
In the 10 years since their last album, the landscape has changed so much. “There are a lot more female singers out there now,” says Graham. Niamh agrees: “I was the third female singer in Ireland to make an album – Dolores Keane, Mary Black, and then me – even before Frances Black and before Maura O’Connell’s solo albums.”
The internet and other technological advancements have also changed things radically. “We had MySpace,” says Niamh. “But now Facebook is huge. And CD sales are different - Spotify, all those things – it’s just completely different, so we are really kind of starting again, though from a position of 30 years experience.”
Graham goes further. “Now you have to be able to do everything yourself – you have to be your own promoter, get your own gigs, make your own albums, all of that.”
Niamh’s previous albums have been nominated for and won several awards. Graham recorded and produced Kind Providence himself, and the weight of the responsibility of it was heavy on him at times, bearing in mind the quality of the output produced previously. “For a good few weeks I was almost paralysed by the whole idea of it,” he says. “Technically, we could have finished it last year, but there was that little hump of finishing it and letting it go that we just couldn’t do for a while.”
Graham recorded the vocals in the Masters Studio at the University of Limerick while he was doing his thesis there. “I had actually sold some nice microphones to help pay for my college course, so when I was there they had some nice mics sitting around doing nothing, so I thought I would use them, particularly for the vocals as I had had difficulty trying to get the sound that I was looking for previously. But I got it there with a two and a half grand microphone – Niamh’s voice just seems to demand expensive equipment! I did the rest of it at home after that. I recorded guitars and used some software synthesizers and different experimental things. I tried to find a way of incorporating the old music with my new found computer techniques, and tried to do it tastefully.”
Though Graham has used new technology to enhance the music on the album, it is still very much voice led, and Graham proves, again, that he is a sensitive accompanist. Not everyone can do that effectively, but Graham’s experiences over the years have taught him well. “Before I met Niamh, I was playing with Sean Tyrrell for a while. His rhythm was quirky but I had no difficulty playing with him. People used to ask me how I did it. I listened to the words and anticipated when the word was going to fall - and that’s when you play.”
Graham grew up without really hearing much Irish music, and came to the traditional scene later on. “I was into Metallica and Thin Lizzy,” he says. “But the thing that I did get from being a heavy metal guitar player was some sort of diligence with my fingers. Then, I decided that Thin Lizzy’s take on Irish music was really good, so the real thing must be even better. So I went in search of it and found the Paul Brady and Andy Irvine album, Arty McGlynn and Dick Gaughan. So I don’t have a traditional background as such, but I have been playing it now for about 25 years. I followed it all the way down to Co Clare and played for a long time there. I suppose I just follow my nose.”
Niamh’s previous albums show that she knows how to pick good solid songs. But with a 10 year gap since her last album, it must have been difficult to settle on the right selection for this recording – there must have been so many to choose from. “In the end,” she says, “they chose to get on there. We actually recorded 18 songs, but a lot of the decision was down to which songs Graham felt he could work with. There is one very new song on it, The Road To La Coruña, which is probably my favourite track at this stage. It is written by a Dublin man, Maurice McGrath, and he gave it to me in 2011. There is a song of Briege Murphy’s on there too, Lappin, which very much suits what I am about – anti-war, the past, history. There’s Harry O’Donovan’s Sweet Daffodil Mulligan. And everything else is traditional. I’ve been singing Willy O since 1983 when I first started singing in front of other people. So there is a good mixture of everything and it is a bit different musically.”
“The songs end up choosing me. I don’t write songs, but sometimes the things you want to say come out in a song you find, or you hear someone singing a song and it speaks to you. I really like new songs that sound old, with three or four verses, with everything concisely said – like Done With Bonaparte by Mark Knopfler, and The Briar And The Rose by Tom Waits. It takes me a long time to learn big songs. But I think the songs find me. I hear something by a particular person and I just get it, and for every song I sing, I want other people to get it. Many musicians over my 30 years have said to me: ‘I knew that song, but I never listened to it until you sang it.’ And that’s what it is about – job done.”
Niamh has always been all about the song, and sees herself as a carrier of the tradition, but having a voice to die for certainly helps in her quest. An experienced singing teacher, she was eager to impart a few words of wisdom to aspiring singers about how she looks after her voice.
“I know how to sing – I sing from way down here (pointing to her lower abdomen)! When I am singing I open up my voice and do a lot of breathing. I’ve not really warmed up until I get to song five, so I really need to sing a few songs before I go on stage. We don’t fly on the same day as a gig as a rule. Then, on the day of a gig I drink masses of water - warm water is good, and no ice, the cold is bad. Drink no, or very little, alcohol, and certainly none before a gig. I am very strict with myself, though I broke it once at Shetland and had shots for breakfast, but you know what Shetland is like! Coffee and tea are bad. Apples are good. And sing every day, it helps strengthen the muscles. But the bottom line is to know how to sing. So many people sing from their throat area, but that is just so wrong.”
“I’m teaching a lot. I do Skype lessons which can be arranged through my website. I have pupils from the age of 12 to 62. Some people want to sound Irish, but I am more interested in discovering who they are first. It’s not just singing – I help people to work on their breathing and I look at their repertoire and help them improve it. Four of my students recently ended up walking away with CD recordings. Sometimes they will send me what they have done and I point out some things they could fix, or give them some other ideas. It’s a mentoring thing, particularly for recording, and that’s also what I teach in Ceoltóir, the Irish Traditional Music Performance course at Ballyfermot College of Further Education. So lots of singers go through my hands.”
“I try to teach people the appreciation of traditional song; that these songs are old and precious and, up until the 20th century, they were never recorded – they were in books, and people sang them. So we need to have respect for the songs and their provenance. Sometimes it is hard to get people, particularly young people, to find the song among the music. You could play a very old Bridget Tunney song, something really old that we know is spectacularly beautiful, and some people will just turn off and see it as just an old lady singing. I think it’s because there is so much beauty out there, Celtic Women and all that, and it is all perfect and slick (pro-tooled to death!). But I want to teach people that you can appreciate the beauty of the song. There are singers out there who can’t sing in tune, but they can tell a story and you can feel it (though you might not want to listen to it in the car!).”
“The singers’ clubs are very important to me, like the Góilín. I go all the time, and I am also on the committee of the Howth Singing Circle. The singing sessions would be the hobby, but whether I am teaching it, singing on stage, or singing in the sessions, it is all the same to me – it’s all one. Though I sing differently in a session than I do on stage – I tone it down a bit and the drama queen isn’t quite as evident.”
We return to talking about the latest CD, Kind Providence (which apparently was going to be called Fortune’s Wheel up until the very last minute when the reality of the kindnesses shown to them by people involved in its production made Niamh and Graham realise that it was a more fitting title).
Everything on the album is played or sung by the pair, apart from a guest piano player on the last track, Carrickfergus, Elena Alekseeva from Russia, who was on Graham’s college course. “She is a fantastic classical pianist,” he says. “And she had never heard the song before, so the recording is slightly naive in a way, and not clichéd, which I think makes it nice. We have done Carrickfergus as an encore for about ten years so it was good to record it.”
“Because there was only me playing on the other tracks, I used different tricks to vary it as much as I could. It’s not just voice and guitar. And there are four unaccompanied tracks, which is unusual as Niamh only usually has had about two on each album in the past. And I have a go at playing The Monaghan Jig, where I take advantage of my new found skills – it is kind of a homage to Pink Floyd, just for fun. I wasn’t sure if it should go on at all, but Niamh loved it. So the album is a bit eclectic, which seems to be a signature of mine. (I did a homemade solo guitar album about 10 years ago, and it also has lots of different styles.) I used nylon strung guitars and the steel strung Taylor on this album about equally. There’s an electric one there too, though you might not recognise it as I have processed it to make the sound almost like a spectral synthesizer.”
“My first big project was for a friend of mine who is an incredible guitar player, Mark Anthony McGrath, from Kilkenny. He designed the blueprint for a 13 string guitar, with seven extra bass strings, so he could play baroque lute music. He had a guy in Cork build it for him and he also recorded that album in UL while I was doing my thesis. It was good experience for me to be involved in recording, mastering and finishing an album before we did ours.”
“Now I feel I could take on other recording projects, including those for other singers. I don’t have a studio as such, so it is hard to advertise, but I have a mobile setup so could go to people in their own homes or wherever they feel at home, and then do all the other work back in Dublin afterwards. Big studios can be very unnatural and stagnant; this might suit some people better. So, in a way our CD is kind of a calling card for what I can do as well.”
And, of course, Kind Providence is also a calling card for the duo, letting the world know that Niamh and Graham are still very much in the game and are available for gigs. They are happy with where they are at, but Niamh says she would love to go back to doing all the work she used to do. “I would love to tour in Scotland and England again, people love singing there. So we are just putting this out there to remind people we are still here, and we will see what happens with it. It’s an organic process, and it will come.”
With 30 years of experience behind her, and the reputation she has wrought over this time, I don’t doubt that the interest in Niamh and Graham over the next few years will be significant.
by Fiona Heywood
Published in Issue 114 of The Living Tradition, June 2016
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