As The Gloaming begin their seven-night sold out run at the NCH, they tell Ellie O’Byrne about the logistics of getting such a widely-dispersed group together
IT HAS become something of an annual tradition for The Gloaming to sell out the National Concert Hall. There’s a nice symmetry to it: the contemporary trad supergroup held their debut performance in the 1,200-seat Dublin venue in 2011 and sold out that first night even when, the band has joked, they hadn’t had a chance to write any music.
The fact this has grown into a residency of seven consecutive nights, sold out months in advance both last year and this week, is still a surprise and a delight to fiddle player Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh.
“It’s ridiculous, just extraordinary really,” he says.
Ó Raghallaigh and fellow Gloaming band members Iarla Ó Lionaird, Martin Hayes, Thomas Bartlett and Dennis Cahill are eagerly anticipating this year’s NCH residency not least because of the difficulties in getting the group together.
Pianist and producer Bartlett and guitarist Cahill are based in the US, fiddler Hayes lives in Spain, and Ó Raghallaigh and vocalist Ó Lionaird are based in Ireland, and all five are frequently on the road with other musical projects, so simply assembling The Gloaming in the same place at the same time is something of a logistical feat.
“We just have to plan, and we plan way in advance,” says Ó Raghallaigh. “You put it in your diary, and the time comes around and there you have it: It’s your time with The Gloaming.”
When they do assemble, they milk every moment, even getting into the habit of using their NCH soundchecks as creative time for working out new ideas. Many far-flung collaborations now rely heavily on digital media to compose and create at a distance, but The Gloaming don’t go down this route. The magic of the live connection between them is what fuels their creativity.
Which is why they’ve decided that this year’s NCH run will be their only live gigs in 2018, because they have something larger in the offing: An eagerly anticipated third album, which they plan to record this year.
“That’s going to be the main focus this year, instead of touring,” says Ó Raghallaigh. With their preceding
studio albums, The Gloaming 1 and The Gloaming 2, forming a seamless progression in the musical identity of the five-piece, though, the 37-year-old says he’s ready for a departure.
“Personally I would like the third studio album to be different,” he says. “I’m really proud of the second one in particular, but it would be great if we all agreed that something different is required for a third album, and explored how would we go about achieving that as a group.”
In the meantime, though, there’s the release of a live album, recorded during the National Concert Hall gigs last year, and produced by their New Yorker pianist, former child prodigy Bartlett, also known as Doveman.
Bartlett selected six tracks from live recordings for The Gloaming Live at the NCH, an album that will at the very least slake fans’ thirst for live Gloaming gigs in the year of drought to come.
It’s Bartlett’s distinctively nuanced touches — his influence as a producer can also heard in the music of Sufjan Stevens, Antony and the Johnsons, and Lisa Hannigan — that are probably the biggest thorn in the side of The Gloaming’s few detractors, who tend to be staunch traditionalists averse to The Gloaming’s tendency to meld elements of jazz improv, classical, and post-rock.
Ó Raghallaigh, too, is an innovator, who says he likes to roam “that region where Irish traditional music begins to disintegrate”. He’s a big believer in adapting for survival: Irish music can’t remain static, it needs to live and breathe rather than try to faithfully replicate the past.
He thinks this is part of the key to The Gloaming’s success. It’s a hybrid, with broad appeal. “A lot of people who may not otherwise be mad about traditional music find something in The Gloaming that they can connect with. It has a broader appeal because it somehow recontextualises something that’s well known to people.”
A former uilleann pipes maker and archivist at the Irish Traditional Music Archives in his native Dublin, the fiddler now plays a Hardanger D’Amore designed by Norwegian fiddle-maker Salve Håkedal: A hybrid ten-string instrument “somewhere between a hardanger fiddle and a viola d’amore”.
Ó Raghallaigh has a seemingly inexhaustible energy for creative collaboration. Among projects he’s working on are the soundtrack to a Polish arthouse feature movie alongside his other band, This Is How We Fly, and a series of performances in the Abbey Theatre next month on the theme of music in Beckett, called Here All Night.
Not only is he busy, but he’s making his living in the work he loves the most. “I feel incredibly fortunate,” he says. “What a privileged and beautiful way to go through life.”
It wasn’t always so: As any musician can testify, it’s a battle to break through in the Irish scene, a country where, says Ó Raghallaigh, “we have a way to go in terms of how we perceive the value of arts, and in putting our money where our mouth is”.
Having spent three years making Uilleann pipes, he started playing gigs with Uilleann piper Mick O’Brien, with whom he released his debut album in 2003. “That short-term reward of feeling good after a gig, as opposed to making a beautiful instrument that’s going to be around for hundreds of years, just kind of…drew me in,” he says. “The instrument-building took a back seat.”
How did he make it through the early days? “I busked to make rent, and I learned how to live on nothing,” he says. “That came in useful: I got good at living on five pounds a week. Gladly, I’ve moved on from there, but there were times that were tough.
“Then, the natural reaction for self-employed people is to say yes to absolutely everything when work does come in. I did a few years of that, and the side effect is total burnout, and learned from that, too. That’s been a lovely part of the journey of the past decade, has been making sure I’ve time for other things in life. I’ve plenty of time to be a human now.”
The Gloaming Live at the NCH is released today. Their week-long residency at the venue begins Monday