Monday, November 26, 2007

voices: cathie ryan

"My grandmother Catherine Ryan was a singer, and a fiddle player as well. She loved to sing and play, she loved having people come into the house and pushing back the furniture and they'd have a dance or a ceilidh, and everybody would have to sing. My mother's father was a storyteller," musician Cathie Ryan says, "and he was the one, I think, who gave me my love of the narrative. He told stories of the history of Ireland, the mythology, and the characters, what this one did and what that one did. And stories of banshees and fairies. For him there was a very thin line between this world and and the other world, and he had one foot in each of them."

As a singer and a songwriter, Ryan carries aspects of what she absorbed from her grandparents in Kerry and Tipperary forward in her music, along with her own experiences of Ireland and America. She's been learning and collecting traditional songs since she was a child growing up in Detroit, born to parents who emigrated from Ireland.

From being involved in music at the local Gaelic League in Detroit to competing for the All Ireland title in singing, from work with traditional singer Dermot Henry's band to studying with sean nos master Joe Heaney, to being the lead vocalist with the internationally renown band Cherish the Ladies, to inclusion in the award winning projects A Woman's Heart: A Decade On in Ireland and Wayfaring Strangers in America, to a solo career during which she has so far released four albums, Ryan continues to grow as an artist whose work builds bridges between Ireland and America. These days she presents her music in places ranging from top festivals to songwriter listening rooms to orchestra concerts to intimate clubs across North America and Europe. It's not always been the easiest of roads, she reflects. "I used to think I had to be either an Irish singer or an American singer," she says."It's taken me quite some time to realize I can be both, I can bring both sides of my experience as an Irish American to my music."

Listeners at her live shows and to her recordings will find a mix of trad, sung in both Irish and English, music from contemporary writers including John Spillane and Karine Polwart, songs from the American folk tradition, and Ryan's own writings, which touch on subjects ranging from pirate queen Grace O'Malley to the leaving, returnings, and longings of Irish emigrants to the many journeys the heart makes.

Much of her personal work, especially that which she wrote for her 2005 release, The Farthest Wave, has its beginnings in the natural world. "There's a lot mystery in the Irish landscape," Ryan says, " you can search it forever. And I find Ireland very inspiring for song writing." That title track, The Farthest Wave, is a spare, unflinching look at coming to terms with grief that stands in the poetic and ballad traditions from both sides of the Atlantic. Closest to the Heart, which opens the collection, is a passionate, sensual dance of a song that holds the rhythmic melodies and vivid light and shadow ideas of both Irish and American folk history. The most reflective of her four solo recordings to date, the album also includes a hymn to Saint Bridgid sung in Irish, along with the Flatt and Scruggs song Rough and Rocky which Ryan learned from the singing of one of her musical heroes, Emmylou Harris. There's a lively set of jigs with which to dance the baby round the kitchen, also in Irish, along with a celebration of hope and healing in Karine Polwart's song Follow the Heron, resonating with connection to Ryan's own economical look at the courage it takes to do that healing, Be like the Sea.

Recording or in live performance, writing her own music or searching the tradition for songs that resonate with her, Ryan is an artist in service to the music. "I don't like to show off," she says. "I like to sing the song whatever way it wants to be sung. I believe that a song is a real entity that must be courted and loved, that you have to find a place for it in your own center and bring it up from there when you sing it. When I'm arranging a song," she adds, "I think first of the lyrics and the mood of the melody, the feeling that the character in the story has. And I find myself wanting to leave space for the thinking, feeling part of the story. I also love the idea of space because then the listener can be more in the song with me. It's their song too."

Ryan also appears on the album Best of Narada Celtic Christmas, singing the opening track, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.

There are additional articles on Cathie Ryan's work, including video of her time with Cherish the Ladies and reviews of her solo CDs, on this site. These may be found by searching the site through the box at upper right.

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posted by Kerry Dexter at


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