Sunday, June 02, 2019

Ireland, Scotland, and Story: Allt from Julie Fowlis, Eamon Doorley, Zoe Conway, and John McIntyre

Music is story. Story told in word, stories held in melody and harmony, through voice, instrument, and language. Those are aspects of music that Julie Fowlis, Êamon Doorley, Zoe Conway, and John McIntyre investigate and respect in their recording Allt.

The stories they choose to explore for this recording come from the traditions of Ireland and Scotland. There are songs and tunes from history, alongside songs with words from contemporary and historic poetry for which the musicians have made new music, and new compositions of their own creation drawing on traditional style.

That may sound like quite a bit to pack into a cohesive whole on a recording of eleven tracks. It is, and if anyone is well qualified to take that on, it is these four.

Each of these musicians is well known for a particular aspect of their creative gifts. Those come into play here -- and they each go beyond those to share other aspects of their talents. Julie Fowlis is known as a lead singer; here she sings harmony and plays whistles as well. Êamon Doorley’s work on the bouzouki has marked him as one of the best on that instrument in the Celtic world. Here he sings and plays fiddle as well. Zoe Conway is well known and much in demand for her work on Irish fiddle and on classical violin; for this project her lead and harmony vocals and her skills on the whistles also come into play. John McIntyre, best known as a guitarist, steps up to sing here as well as adding in his piano skills.

As the recording opens, each takes it in turn to lead the music, and they each step in to support the others as the music progresses. Fowlis sings lead on Port Dannsaidh Hiortach the lively Saint Kilda Dance Song, which is paired with Deora Dé, a tune from Conway. You can hear Conway’s singing on Faoiseamh a Gheobhadsa, a gentle, searching ballad with words by Máirtín Ó Direáin whose title means I will Find Solace. McIntyre steps up for a song called An Ghaelige, which as its title might suggest is in praise of (and in part lament for) the language. This is followed by a set which sees two tunes by Doorley bookending one by Conway.

Those descriptions do not begin to do justice to the thoughtful, insightful way these stories are told through music, and the way the musicians support each other. Clearly these are artists who are deeply grounded in their own gifts and tradition, and well able to focus and listen to each other as the tunes unfold.

Add to that the way this project was recorded.

"Êamon and I were fresh from recording with Calum Malcolm,” Fowlis says “and I couldn’t see past working with him again!  I enjoyed working with him so much.  He is such an intuitive engineer and enjoys recording live, and in different settings.  As a quartet, we were keen to make this a live, honest and spontaneous recording.  And that’s what happened.  Calum set it up in such a way that we felt comfortable and inspired to play.  We used vintage mics, and recorded in the round. "

The project began from conversations between the two women.

Conway comes from and still lives in County Louth in Ireland. So does McIntyre. The two are married, as are Fowlis and Doorley, who come from Scotland and Ireland respectively, and make their home in the Highlands of Scotland.

Along with Irish musician Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, Fowlis presents Port, a television series which traces connections among Celtic music and musicians. “Zoe and I worked together on one of the Port series on BBC ALBA.  She came to Ross Shire in the Highlands as a visiting artist, and it was then we really got chatting (and playing!) together,” Fowlis recalls. “Our paths had crossed before, on one of Bill Whelan’s performances in Belfast for example, but this was when we really got to know one another.  Sometimes you just really click with someone, and we both said that it would be great to do more together after that shoot.”

The pair stayed in touch and began discussing ideas. They liked the idea of writing new music together, and of honouring the languages and traditions of the landscapes they knew and loved. Support from Creative Louth, The Arts Council Of Ireland, and Iomairt Columcille allowed the four musicians time to research traditional and contemporary poetry they wanted to frame with new music, and to compose that music as well. “We searched out poetry to set music to, and ideas for tunes between us and started sending ideas back and forth,” Fowlis says. “We love the tradition but also the idea of adding to the store of songs and tunes and so we quickly settled on the idea of composing new music in a traditional style.”

There are fine lively pieces -- Dúirt Bean Liom in Irish paired with the tune Ríl Eóin and Na Hú Bhithinn paired with Hó Ró Na Priobaidean in Scottish Gaelic show the musicians’ joy in picking up the pace. A more reflective piece is Air an Somme, with words by Donald MacDonald.

There are instances of fine harmony work through many tracks on the project. This comes to the fore especially on the closing piece, An t-Earrach Thiar, a title which translates as spring in the west.

Bringing together tradition and inspiration, along with respect for language, history, and place: Julie Fowlis, Êamon Doorley, Zoe Conway and John McIntyre have created a lasting legacy with their work on Allt. "There are such beautiful poems out there, some hundreds of years old, some contemporary, and we felt really inspired to set these words to new music to bring them to life as songs, " Julie Fowlis says.

You may also wish to see
Julie Fowlis and Muireann Nic Amhloaoibh made an album exploring connections between songs in Scottish Gaelic and Irish called Dual.
Alterum from Julie Fowlis
Êamon Doorley is a member of the band Danu. Learn about their album Buan.

Photograph of Zoe Conway and John McIntyre and Julie Fowlis courtesy of the artists. Photograph of Eamon Doorleys by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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