Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire is happy to scale down for a more intimate musical experience at a Cork event he knows well, writes Ed Power
A few years ago a guitarist with one of the biggest bands in the world clambered into a boat and rowed down the River Lee. It was 2015 and Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry was in Cork for the inaugural Sounds from A Safe Harbour festival. He found himself taking a journey by water with the event’s curator, Bryce Dessner.
This was a new experience for the bespectacled and tousle-haired Canadian. With Arcade Fire, in which he plays guitars, keyboard, percussion and whatever else is to hand, he had toured the globe as the group ascended from cult success to U2-levels of stardom. It was rollercoaster. Which is why coming to Cork in his capacity as a solo composer was such a rare and precious opportunity.
He considered it a gift to be able to step away from the hubbub and the relentlessness of life with Arcade Fire. So freeing was the experience he’s doing it all over again.
“It was beautiful. We all had a gorgeous time. And enjoyed the stellar company. We went out on a currach with this lovely fellow who is a boat builder. He regaled us with his Game of Thrones boatman stories.Whenever they needed a boatman in the show, they would use him. They’d dress him up to pretend he was different people.”
Sounds from a Safe Harbour began in Cork in 2015 as a festival with a difference. Music has never been more corporate. Yet the Leeside event, which this year runs from September 10 to 15, springs from a place of artistic purity.
That’s due to the people behind it. Bryce Dessner may be guitarist with The National, a band almost as big as Arcade Fire. He is also an acclaimed avant-garde musician and contemporary composer. And, coming from the American Midwest, he has a natural affinity with Cork and its proud sense of standing slightly apart and following its own path.
The 2019 line-up is in the usual boundary-breaking tradition. There is a rare Cork show from Damien Rice, the sad-eyed troubadour’s sad-eyed troubadour. Leslie Feist, the Canadian singer who had a hit with ‘1234’. The festival “finale” meanwhile will be Cork Opera House celebration of the music of the late Mexican-American musician Lhasa de Sela, presented by Dessner, Feist and various collaborators.
Parry, for his part, brings his compositional suite Quiet River of Dust to the Everyman Theatre on September 13. The project has basked in high praise. Pitchfork described it as “folk music and dissonance folded into delightful odes to nature’s pleasure and power”. And it was acclaimed by Uncut magazine as “a set of hushed, impressionistic tracks tapping the British folk tradition, digital psychedelia, Talk Talk and Japanese death poem”.
Just like Bryce Dessner and The National, Arcade Fire know all about finding their own truths. They are about as big as a group can be without having Bono as frontman. Yet they’ve always worked to break down the barrier between audience and artist. This desire flows, in part, from Parry’s background in the Canadian folk scene and his belief music should be egalitarian.
He grew up in Ottawa amidst the city’s small but dedicated traditional community. His father played in the well known Canadian folk band Friends of Fiddler’s Green. The first time Parry came to Ireland, on a cycling holiday through Galway at age 14, he was struck by the degree to which music was, in rural parts at least, a lingua franca. He’s looking forward to reconnecting with that aspect of our national identity at Sounds from a Safe Harbour.
“It’s the music culture I relate to most,” he says. “I’m not a proper trad folk musician. I do know loads of old songs. I know how to jump in and have a pub sing-song. It’s a tradition I grew up in. The last time I was here I did it at DeBarra’s in Clonakilty, where Sam Amidon was performing.
“You can still find it in corners of Ireland. It’s in remote parts of England, but is not really that widespread sadly. And in places in Scotland, where people still love to sing and play music in a community way.
Quiet River of Dust is an ongoing meditation between art, nature and spirituality. To date, Parry has released two volumes, the second this year. One of the inspirations for the compositional cycle was a creative sojourn, in the run-up to Sounds from a Safe Harbour 2015, at Lismore Castle across the county bounds in Waterford. He spent a week at Lismore, with Bryce and Aaron Dessner from The National, Irish singer Lisa Hannigan, Canadian violinist Yuki Numata, visual artist Marcel Dzama and others.
“It was so lovely to have this proper residency,” says Parry. “It was absolutely opulent. But in the most down to earth way.”
He’s proud of Arcade Fire. Yet for him the true joy flows from events such as Sounds from a Safe Harbour. He’s able to look his audience in the eye and communicate at an intimate level.
“If I could do 90 per cent of the smaller, quieter experiences and 10 per into of the big stuff… that would be the better balance for me. Ultimately to be in a band that big takes a certain amount of dedication. So I’m just grateful I have these other opportunities.
His concert at the Everyman will certainly be in contrast to the last occasion he was in Ireland. In April 2018 Arcade Fire brought their Everything Now tour to 3Arena in Dublin. There was an “in the round” stage done up to look like a boxing ring. The group entered from the floor, in the fashion of heavy weight prize-fighters, and spent most of the evening dashing back and forth across the “ring”. Though on a very different scale it was another articulation of Parry’s belief performers should strive, above all, to reach out meaningfully to their public.
“It’s a genuine desire to connect,” he says. “It can be a strange thing to navigate because the band is so massive. You play the most impersonal spaces a lot of the time. But you really want to bring a room together and to have a moment.” One suspects he’ll have one of those moments in Cork.
Richard Reed Parry plays the Everyman in Cork on Fri, Sept 13, as part of Sounds From A Safe Harbour