An Irish Music Magazine article by Sean Laffey
Susan McKeown's new album Lowlands was released on the Green Linnet label in early October . She has been living in the US since 1990, yet she hasn't forgotten her Dublin roots. On the eve of her UK and Ireland tour, Susan talked songs and sources with Seán Laffey.
The big first question just had to be how did she manage to get a deal with Green Linnet. "Well Green Linnet had expressed interest in what I've been doing in the past, but most of my previous recordings were not the usual kind of material they deal with. I was impressed by the work they had done with Lúnasa and Kíla, and they had told me they would be interested if I were to make another traditional album, so I called them after I had begun Lowlands, and we took it from there. They told me I could have total creative control. I delivered a finished master and that's what they put out."
Susan's singing work in America has been a mix of her own compositions, some rock and a blend of Irish traditional songs. So with the Green Linnet project in mind I wondered how many of the songs on the album were already 'almost complete' by the time she entered the studio? "I suppose I have always been able to 'hear' an album, so to speak, when I start to record it, but the vision of it can change as tracks are put down. So Lowlands was almost complete in my head when I went in to record. I added only one entirely new idea near the end. I knew, for example, that I wanted Jamshied Sharifi to do arrangements on the songs Lord Baker and An Nighean Dubh, so apart from the kora, guitar and fiddle tracks, which I tracked before bringing them to him, I left the rest up to him. I wanted The Hare's Lament and To Fair London Town to be very traditional sounding. As for the rest of the songs, I wanted to keep things fairly simple, and I had these ideas for pairing certain instruments, such as the erhu and banjo in The Lowlands of Holland, pipes and cello in The Moorlough Shore and ambient guitar and low whistles for Johnny Coughlin. I had a list of songs for the album, which only changed by the addition of one song Slán agus Beannacht le Buaireamh an tSaoil."
Had she previously gigged the songs before recording them, did she have a weather gauge to forecast that a song would transfer from the live to the recorded setting? "I started performing practically all of these songs at gigs after I had recorded them, with the exception of Dark Horse on the Wind and The Snows they Melt the Soonest. In this case of those two songs, I think I captured them as well as I have done live. Slán agus Beannacht le Buaireamh an tSaoil came together really quickly in a very good way while I was wrapping up recording. I learned the song from a book but I hadn't yet figured out how to track it. A week before I was to mix I met Todd Schietroma at a recording session at a music house. He's a wonderful percussionist, and he was playing the cahones, which gave me the idea for how to begin the song. I had him come into the studio two days later to put down his tracks, and Éilís Egan put down hers that afternoon. The next day Samir Chatterjee came in to lay down the tablas, and the following Tuesday Des Moore put down the guitars. When Des left I put down the vocals, and the next day the mix began. Éilís and Aidan Brennan had told me about Des, and he and Éilís are currently in New York working in Riverdance, so it was fortunate for me that there were such great players in town, and available."
As for live work, Susan is certainly creatively employed. "I'm currently on tour with my band The Chanting House, so we've put songs from 'Lowlands' into the set along with my original songs. These musicians have been playing with me for years and are versatile multi-instrumentalists, and they're used to my going from rock songs to traditional songs in a set. We're playing at the Bottom Line in New York with a line-up of Jon Spurney - electric and acoustic guitars, piano, Lindsey Horner - stand-up bass, tin whistle, bass clarinet, Michelle Kinney - cello and accordion, Joe Trump - drums and percussion. The special guests are Cillian Vallely on whistles and Mamadou Diabate on kora who'll play on some of the songs from Lowlands. In October I leave for Ireland and the UK to tour opening for Sean Keane. I'll be accompanied by guitarist Aidan Brennan, and we'll do a more traditional set for that. The first gig I ever did in the UK was at Glastonbury in June so I'm looking forward to playing there again and getting to see Sean Keane live. Then in November I'll go on a 5-week tour all over the US with Aidan and Johhny Cunningham and we're developing a special set of new material for that tour, which is a special seasonal concert."
The new album was a big musical project with over twenty-five musicians guesting; it must have been a formidable task getting all of these people together. "The musicians on the album come from Ireland, England, the US, Iceland, Norway, Mali, India, China, but most of them live in New York. I choose musicians because of what they will bring of their own experience, in the context of an arrangement I have in mind. The Lowlands of Holland is a song that has always intrigued me lyrically, and when I heard the melody Norma Waterson had discovered, I wanted to record a version. But it had to take the listener somewhere else, because the song contains the wonderful lines 'Where the sugar cane is plentiful/and tea grows on every tree'. No one is quite sure what country is referred to here, but it's likely some old Dutch colony. Eamon O'Leary is a guitarist/banjo player from Dublin who's now living in New York, and I invited him to play banjo on the song. When I told him what I was going to do with the song he suggested trying a high string sound from the banjo and what he achieved was perfect for the song. Then I gave a CD of that to erhu (Chinese fiddle) player Wang Guowei and told him where I wanted him to play. When he came into the studio I asked him to start the song by playing a Chinese folk song, so that's how The Lowlands of Holland begins.
Johnny Coughlin is another song which haunted me and for that I got an opportunity to pair Irish guitarist Gerry Leonard, formerly of the group Hinterland, with Joanie Madden. Gerry played a beautiful acoustic guitar part and then laid down some beautiful ambient sounds and loops over which Joanie was able to play a couple of gorgeous low whistle lines. I wanted to have Lord Baker played on the kora because it's a storytelling instrument and was fortunate to find Mamadou Diabate, a brilliant young kora player who has been living in New York. I asked Aidan Brennan to play guitar on four of the songs because he's one of my favourite guitarists, a wonderful, inventive accompanist with a great style. To Fair London Town was recorded from Tom Lenihan by Tom Munnelly and I thought it was a killer song when I heard it. I love this type of song ever since I heard Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill singing When I was a Fair Maid in my teens. I asked Lúnasa to record it with me because I think they're a remarkable band, and I knew they would bring a very distinctive feel to the song. I had the riff in my head for Kevin Crawford to play at the beginning, and then he and Sean Smyth worked out some lovely harmonies in the studio while Donogh (Hennessy) and Trevor (Hutchinson) were putting down their tracks. Turns out Kevin's actually a distant relative of Tom Lenihan!"
Does she enjoy the experience of the recording studio? "Oh yes I love recording, particularly at the studio where I recorded most of 'Lowlands', Mission Sound in Brooklyn. I recorded my first album Bones with owner/engineer Oliver Straus in his first studio, and since then he has built a bigger studio and installed a Neve console which once belonged to George Martin. Oliver has a great collection of microphones, and gets great sounds from acoustic instruments. The studio has lots of natural light, which makes it very comfortable to sing in. When I'm recording original material I like to do unusual things and try effects like recording cellos backwards and putting distortion on vocals, but for traditional recordings I look for a true, clear sound, and never use effects or autotune programmes on my vocals. What you hear is how it sounded when I sang it."
After ten years in the States, has she settled for life in the Big Apple? "I love living in the East Village. I like to get up in the morning and go for a run by the East River; it's good for your voice, as well as everything else. And as for music, the sessions are great, and there's often wonderful musicians passing through town. But I'm looking forward to spending more time in Ireland in the future."
And we are happy she's decided to be a trans-Atlantic commuter.
CHECK OUT SEAN LAFFEY'S NEW WEB SITE:
www.iol.ie/~didly-didly or www.didlydidly.com
Latest published CD: Lowlands, Greenlinnet Records
Further infos/contact: Susans's homepage.
Photo Credit: Press Photos
Sean Laffey, author of this article, is the editor of the excellent monthly Irish Music Magazine, one of the best and most professional folk magazines around.
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