Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Shorelines: Nuala Kennedy

The sea has been a constant in Nuala Kennedy’s life. She grew up and first began learning music in County Louth in Ireland’s east, not far from the Irish Sea. She has lived and traveled in other parts of the world with sea connections, from Scotland to Cape Breton to Spain to Australia and beyond.

In recent years Kennedy has been based near the coast of Clare, in the west of Ireland.

That sea connected life has presence in Kennedy’s album Shorelines.

The music on Shorelines tells stories of the sea, and draws on sea changes to tell human stories. So too the music, especially the songs, on Shorelines, offer stories of changes and of resilience in women’s lives.

As she was making those sea borne connections and choosing music for Shorelines, Kennedy was reflecting on her own life as woman, artist, wife, mother, and friend, and how changing circumstances require change. That had her considering the many ways resilience comes about in women’s lives That perspective too informs the music on Shorelines.

Shorelines is a title which reflects the shifts and changes in both coastal waters and the resilience of women. It is journey with a fine balance in tune and in song of original music and music drawn from traditional and contemporary sources.

Drawn from is one of the operative phrases, as Kennedy and the talented folk she’s invited along on this journey stay true to tradition while adding their own gifts to illuminate the stories they wish to tell.

Kennedy is a flute and whistle player, a singer, composer, and producer. Each of those aspects of her talent comes through clearly in Shorelines.

You will be well rewarded by following the path Kennedy has laid down through the nine tracks on the album, most of which are sets with tune and song in combination or comprising several tunes.

Several highlights:

The journey begins with the song Sally Sits Weeping, which finds a woman lamenting a false lover. Melody and variations of the verses have shown up in Ireland, Scotland, Australia, and North America; Kennedy has chosen a story which finds the woman weeping, true, but as the tale unfolds she “sets sails of silver” and heads in other directions.

On the recording this moves into Blue Devils’ Jig a lively original tune named for the melancholy Ishmael falls into in Moby Dick.

Saltwater and Flow are two lively original tunes which move gracefully into the song Cúcúín, sung in Irish. It’s a song Kennedy says that she often sings to her own young children, in which there’s a conversation between a mother cuckoo and her chicks. There’s another dimension, which aligns with aligns with the ideas that pull through the music on Shorelines. “In the Celtic tradition,” she points out, “cuckoos were considered to have toe ability to travel between worlds.”

Wake is an original tune “composed while meditating on the wake of a boat,” Kennedy writes. It is a reflective piece which points up her gentle power with the flute and the connections the musicians who join her bring as well, in this case especially Tara Breen on fiddle and Caoiminh Vallely on piano.

They move from Wake into a lively set called Sea Reels with original tunes inspired by Cape Breton bracketing a Scottish maritime reel, with Tony Byrne on guitar and Todd Sickafoose on double bass joining in.

Marguerite is a song which also references Atlantic Canada. Contemporary writer Scott Richardson drew on a true story from Newfoundland in 1542, which speaks of a woman facing circumstances which certainly tested her resilience.

Kennedy mentions that she first heard this song from Geraldine Hollett of the Newfoundland band The Once. That is how I first heard it as well. Kennedy brings her own gifts as a singer and storyteller to the tale, adding her own illumination to the powerful story. It also fits well with the intertwined themes of sea borne stories and ideas of resilience on Shorelines.

When you get to thinking about it, the story told in The Cavan Road leaves many things unexplained. It clearly has a happy ending though, which is why legendary flute player and singer Cathal McConnell taught it to Kennedy some years back when she asked for a song with just such an ending -- a rare thing in Irish love songs.

In addition to the musicians mentioned above, Moira Smiley and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, two artists whose work you’ve met here along the Music Road before, add subtle, interesting backing vocals to several of the songs.

There is more to explore, including a song suggested by Mick Moloney, an open ended version of a ‘died for love’ song, and tunes inspired by the coast of Clare.

Each of the tracks on Shorelines is worth your repeated listening. There’s more to discover each time in song, tune, and story, all offerd with top class musicianship.

You may also wish to see
Nuala Kennedy’s website, with details of her other recordings and her tour and teaching schedule
A short piece about one of Nuala’s earlier albums, The New Shoes
Learn about Day Is Come from The Alt, a trio in which Nuala joins up with John Doyle and Eamon O’Leary
Thar Toinn/Seaborne from Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
Another one of those rare Irish love songs with happy ending, Carrick a Rede from Cathie Ryan and John Doyle
Learn a bit about the music of The Once, from Newfoundland

Photographs courtesy of the artist

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