Friday, September 14, 2007

Voices: Donal Clancy

The guitar is a relatively new instrument in traditional Irish music, and that's one of the things Donal Clancy enjoys about it. The tunes on his solo album Close to Home
are ones that he's been playing for years, "ones that I can't even really remember learning," he said. They were melodies he at first heard on the pipes or the fiddle or the whistle though, and found a way into them through guitar. "There's a lot of music for fiddle, or pipes, or whatever, in Irish music, so those people are always wanting to find something new, something that hasn't been recorded before," he said. "With guitar, all your tunes are there."

Those tunes include the slow air An Buachaill Caol Dubh/ The Dark Slender Boy, the hornpipe Kitty's Wedding, and the jig Helvic Head. Helvic Head is in southeastern Ireland, near where Clancy grew up in the Gaeltacht area of An Rinn. He was not born in Ireland though. "I was born in Alberta, in Calgary," he said. "My father was a musician and he was doing some work out there. We lived there for a couple of years, and then moved to New Hampshire, and then to Ireland when I was seven."

Donal's father is Liam Clancy. "He was one of the Clancy Brothers, who were kind of innovators of Irish music in the sixties"Donal said. "They blended the old Irish folk song with what they were hearing in America at the time from the likes of the Kingston trio, and put a beat behind it, and add guitar and bass and banjo to some of the old traditional songs." That take on the updating of tradition went over well on both sides of the Atlantic and paved the way for many popular groups and singers. Donal found music on his own though. Though his cousins include well respected singers Robbie O'Connell and Aoife Clancy. none of Donal's brothers and sisters play. "We were never pushed into it," he said. "So they went off and did other things. I don't think I ever had the thought of doing anything else."

When the family moved back to Ireland, Donal started learning the tin whistle, and then picked up the mandolin, but by the time he was about eleven, guitar had claimed his attention. "Most of my friends were in to music, so it was handy, we'd get together and play and try out things," he said. "It appealed to me, what you could do with the guitar in Irish music. You could be very creative. One chord change could change the whole mood of the tune. I was very interested in the possibilities of that, what you could do rather than just playing tunes, how you could add rhythmic accompaniment or harmonic colors."

That's an interest he has continued. He played in the trio Clancy, O'Connell, Clancy, with his dad Liam and his cousin Robbie "and it was great to see how they worked, you know, the veteran musicians, nothing could surprise them,"he recalled. He was one of the founders of the traditional band Danu, and also worked for some years with top Irish American group Solas, whose members have included Seamus Egan, John Williams, John Doyle, and Winifred Horan. "They're a hard working band with a lot of rehearsal, arrangements that are fairly complicated," he said, "and it was good because I'd never really done much preparation for a tour. It was great too because the band was held in high regard by the fans and it's exciting doing shows like that, with the audiences really into it." He continued to have his share of that experience in other circumstances, too: he joined fiddler Eileen Ivers' band for a time, and then, as he was thinking of making a change from that, he got the call that his old band Danu needed a guitarist. "It was like coming home again, bringing it all back home," he said, laughing.

He's still a mainstay of Danu, and at breaks in their schedule has done recording and road work with top artists including Kevin Crawford, Cherish the Ladies, Aoife Clancy, The Chieftains, Niall Vallely, and Cathie Ryan. All that may explain why it has taken him a while to get to making an album of his own: Close to Home is his solo debut. It might also help explain why he chose a rather quiet way to do it.

"I went about it the old fashioned way," he said, "went into a studio for a couple of days and played. Most of the tunes I just put down, left then the way I played them on the day, and I probably will never play them exactly the same way again." The result is thoughtful stories well told, clarity of tone and touch, and new light on old tunes. "I like to think about the mood of the piece, to have that come through, rather than make the tune fit my playing," he said. "No flashiness or anything like that, the arrangements are kind of straightforward, a relaxed and laid back tempo. I wanted to make a very traditional Irish sounding recording" As to what's next? "I have a bunch of tunes written," he said, "but I'm not sure I'd call them so traditionally Irish. You'll have to wait until the next record to find out what they sound like!"

listen to excerpts of the music on Close to Home

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