Seán Laffey talks to Sharon Shannon about her latest album Sacred Earth.
Sacred Earth is Sharon's tenth studio album; this one is released on the Celtic Collections label. In many ways it's another in a line of albums from the accordion player, upbeat and joyous, the very thing for a summer barbecue party. But there's more, because this album has more. It has a splash of World Music, a veteran singer and some stunning vocals from a rising star of County folk music in Australia.
The album was recorded in a bewildering number of studios; guest musicians were encountered on the road or specially selected to work on specific tracks.
The project built up slowly as Sharon expalins. "By the time we were playing in Australia on December 28th, 2016, it was almost finished. We just had a few tweaks and things to iron out in January. Then we took a few weeks on the cover design and it was ready for the big wide world this March."
Let us pause for a moment and consider an outline of what this album offers. There's Sharon (of course) with regular band members Jim Murray, Jack Maher, John Regan and Alan Connor. There's Finbar Furey (the veteran), Cara Robinson (the Australian connection), eight Shetland fiddlers, three African musicians and more. I wonder if this was a logistical nightmare to put together?
Sharon is bubbly. "I suppose we did take our time on the album. It felt like we recorded it in 10 different studios." (She laughs.) "We used studios in Clare, Wicklow, Dublin, Real World over in the UK and Chicago too." The "we" refers to her long-term manager and soundman John Dunford. Sharon is quick to thank him for all the work he put in on this album. "He's a brilliant sound engineer and we've been working together since my first album in 1991. In fact we met when I was making Fisherman's Blues with the Wateryboys."
Why Sacred Earth? "The album's title reflects my feelings for the environment. As you know I work with animal charities and I support the Missionvale project in South Africa. The concept of a sacred earth is very close to my heart."
Sharon says working with Finbar Furey was a delight. "He really is a legend of Irish music. I'd never worked with him before; in fact I only really met him very recently. When Finbar sings, you can hear every teardrop fall, see the laughter and smile in his eyes. He just becomes one with the song. His version of the Jim Reeves song He'll Have to Go is so emotionally true, it gives me goose bumps just listening to it."
Another singer on the album is Cara Robinson. Sharon met the Australian based performer when they were both playing the Sark Folk Festival, which is held on the Feudal Channel Island every July. "It's a wonderful uncomplicated festival. You can only get there by boat, and when you land you discover there are no cars on the island. For one long weekend there's folk music everywhere. We were really impressed with Cara at the festival and kept in touch afterwards. She invited us to play at her place in Australia with her partner Hat Fitz, so we met up when we were on tour there. It was then we introduced her to a tune we had been working on. A few months later she sent over a set of lyrics to it, a bluesy arrangement called Let's Go. We thought 'wow, this is something very strong'. It meant we had to do some rearranging of the melody, but what came out was a very exciting piece of music."
There are other collaborations too as Sharon tells me. "We played with the guitarist Greg Guy, the son of Buddy in Chicago. Alyra Rose is a Californian singer with whom Sharon performed at Acomo Pueblo Indian Reservation New Mexico. Together they have crafted a terrifically powerful song called the Machine with a message that is so poignant for 2017. Moreover, it's a very commercial sounding song too.
Another name looms large on Sacred Earth and that is the co-producer Justin Adams, who has brought a World music sensibility to a number of tracks. "Justin played with me on my 2007 album Renegade," Sharon explains. "He introduced us to some wonderful African musicians. He is heavily involved with WOMAD so knows all the great African musicians who are working in Europe and UK. He suggested we meet with the drummer Abass Dodoo and the Kora player Seckou Keita. They were really gorgeous people. I was awestruck by their musicianship, especially the Kora, which weaves its way through Sea Shepherd. As for the percussionist Abass Dodoo; he's a lovely, beautiful man. We played with him at Celtic Connections. As soon as he came on stage his smile just lit up the whole theatre."
The album is full of sunshine, but there are some slower more lyrical pieces including a melody from the classical repertoire. Rushad Ecclestone joins the band on this track on cello. Jim Murray gets to lead out this Merry Widow with a delicious waltz on his nylon strung guitar. Sharon has no hesitation in singing Jim's praises saying he has been a rock in the band for the past twenty years. Talking of bands, Sharon has a flexible approach to ensemble work; from her big band to smaller tighter units. "One of the longest running versions is myself, Jim Murray, Sean Regan, Jack Maher and Alan Connor," she says. However, she is sanguine about the business. Playing music is what puts the bread on the table of her Salthill home, and she is pragmatic enough to be flexible – not every venue can bring in the crowd to warrant a big band and some tours just work better logistically with the trimmed down essence.
Sacred Earth is peppered with new tunes, but there are some old ones on there too. One of which is Frenchie's Reel. Written by the Canadian Mel Lavigne and made famous by his compatriot, the fiddler Ward Allen, it is a tune that Sharon has known for over thirty years. "When I was fourteen I was listening to a tape of a band called the New England Chestnuts. They featured Rodney and Randy Miller, and I was enamoured with their music, it was the first non-Irish music I really seriously got into. However, at fourteen some of it was beyond me. I found their music hard to play on the box, but I loved it all the same. One of their tunes was Frenchie's Reel. Now I don't find it hard, but it is still a gorgeous tune and I'm delighted we got to include it on this album."
First published @ Irish Music Magazine #261, March 2017 (www.irishmusicmagazine.com).
Sharon Shannon tops bill at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann
A sell-out performance by accordion virtuoso, Sharon Shannon is expected at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2017. She will perform with her band, on Saturday 19th August at the Shannon Aerodome in Ennis to the delight, not only of her home audience, but to Fleadh goers from all over Ireland and across the world. Sharon will perform music from her back catalogue but will showcase music from her new album Sacred Earth to be released on March 17th.The Kilfenora Céilí Band will return with another exhilarating performance at the same venue on Wednesday 16th August.
‘I am really thrilled and excited to be playing at the Fleadh this year,’ said a smiling Sharon. ‘This is where I was born and reared and performing at the Fleadh in Ennis is something very special and a great honour.’ she added. From Ruan, just outside Ennis, Sharon is not only a most accomplished and unique accordion player but she also plays a range of instruments from tin whistle to fiddle and melodeon. It’s the ease with which she plays, the energy she generates and the joy that she brings that makes her performance so distinctive.
Frank Whelan, Chairman of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2017 has expressed his real delight that Sharon has accepted the Committee’s invitation to top the bill. ‘We could get no better news than confirmation that Sharon and her band will play at the Fleadh in August. Sharon was cradled in traditional music and grew under the tutelage of Frank Custy and a host of Clare musicians. She is a wonderful ambassador for traditional music, for the County and the Fleadh,’ he said. Working with the Waterboys widened Sharon’s musical horizons and she found the absence of rules wholly liberating. The Waterboys could move from a punk song to an old-time waltz to Irish jigs and reels so easily, it allowed her music to become very free. This is something that she has carried with her since. She has been open to influence from other genres, from reggae guitarist Denis Bovell aka Blackbeard to American rock and country star, Steve Earle, and has gone on to form collaborations with many world renowned artists.
In addition to Breton, Argentinian & American Country influences, Sharon has also mastered the African/Irish crossover with her new album Sacred Earth. English born guitarist and composer Justin Adams played on Sharon’s 2007 album ‘Renegade’ and has been a well-recognised expert in African and Middle Eastern music styles. ‘He is a generous musician and I love his fearless approach,’ she said.
Adams co-produced and played a vast array of instruments on Sacred Earth. Also included on the album are Abass Dodoo from Ghana on percussion, Greg Guy, son of legendary bluesman, Buddy Guy on electric guitar, Seckou Keita from Senegal on Kora and Californian maestro of the cello, Rushad Ecclestone. In fact Rushad’s cello parts were recorded at Jack Talty’s studio in Lissycasey.
Sharon Shannon’s debut album goes back to 1991 and it was the best-selling album of traditional Irish music ever released in Ireland. Her remarkable and adventurous career has seen her become a master-act and a tour-de-force. The Kilfenora Céilí Band on stage is a performance of the highest standards in traditional music and this was reflected in the 2,000 plus audience, who came to hear them play in the Shannon Aerodome at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Ennis last year. The band’s interpretation of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”, broadcast on Fleadh TV, was one of the big hits of the 2016 Fleadh last August.
The energy of their music, the expertly choreographed dancing by Michael Donnellan and the sweet singing of Edel Vaughan simply carries the audience to another time and space. Joined by other guests, this traditional super group allows the rich musical heritage of their North Clare home village to lift the hearts and set the feet tapping and will electrify audiences once again in 2017.
Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann is the most important event in the traditional music calendar. For many, it is the culmination of months of hard work and practice as they compete against fellow musicians, singers and dancers to achieve the recognition of being an All-Ireland champion. For others it is a unique and welcoming festival of the best of traditional arts that offers a wide range of activities to be enjoyed by all.
It is often said, as another Fleadh draws to a close, “This was the best Fleadh yet...!” And there is always some truth in that because each Fleadh builds on the success of its predecessors, adding the uniqueness of its own place and traditions to the experience gained by hardworking Fleadh Committees down through the years and each host town seeks to emulate the achievements of other towns that have earned Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann the reputation that it has today.
Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann 2016 in Ennis was an outstanding success, drawing almost 400,000 visitors to the town, recalling the magic of the 1956 and 1977 Fleadhanna. Now Ennis and Co. Clare are preparing to host Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann once again and through a co-operative effort involving Comhaltas branches, local authorities, business people, sporting organisations and local volunteers, we will work hard to ensure that The Fleadh Down In Ennis 2017 is not just the best Fleadh yet, but maybe the best Fleadh ever!
Photo Credits: (1),(7) Sharon Shannon, (2) Finbar Furey, (3) Hat Fitz & Cara, (4) Alyra Rose, (5) Seckou Keita, (6) Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann Ennis 2017 (unknown/website).