Cathy Jordan on playing within a tradition with Dervish

Cathy Jordan on playing within a tradition with Dervish
Cathy Jordan and Dervish have a new album. Picture: Colin Gillen

Sometimes musical worlds collide, writes Ellie O’Byrne

When Irish trad veterans Dervish pulled up to their hotel in Birmingham, Alabama in the early Noughties, they stepped from their Ford Transit van to discover they were checking in at the same time as James Brown, who was appearing on the same festival line-up as them.

The Godfather of Soul’s entourage, recounts Dervish singer Cathy Jordan, came with “Cadillacs, crocodile shoes, medallions, rings, beautiful girls in the backseat, you name it.” Arriving from a three-week stint on the road, Dervish were more than a little dishevelled. Jordan looked around at her band’s runners and t-shirts: “I think we need to up our game, lads.”

For all that, showbiz pizzazz doesn’t seem so terribly impressive to Roscommon native Jordan, who has been singing and playing the with Dervish for the band’s 30-year, 14 album career. For Jordan, trad and folk are not about appearances; but about tapping in to a deep-rooted tradition.

“The music has always been cool,” she says.

Not necessarily the musicians themselves, who for the most part aren’t thinking about what they’re wearing or how they’re looking on stage: it’s not about show, it’s the tunes, the spirit and the connection to the people that have gone before.

Dervish have arguably carved out more of a niche for themselves on the international stage than domestically, with a solid annual touring schedule including dates Stateside in March.

“People in Ireland take certain abundant things for granted, whether it’s the green fields or the music,” Jordan says.

“Of course, you’re more appreciated where there’s less of the same music. But our audience varies country to country. In America, the demographic is a lot older. It’s seen as an expat thing: it might be mostly the over-50s. In Europe, we generally have a younger audience, from late teens up to thirty.”

Jordan, who grew up in a musical household, has never considered any other life but music. She presents the Fleadh Cheoil for TG4 each year, is active in community music initiatives like a choral project for the over-50s in Roscommon Arts Centre, and is a fervent advocate of music education.

The band have recently signed to US record label Rounder Records, and their first album as part of the deal, The Great Irish Songbook, is an ambitious project to say the least.

Working with musicians including Steve Earle, Vince Gill and David Gray, they’ve reinterpreted a selection of some of Ireland’s best-loved songs, including ‘Raglan Road’, as well as modern classics, such as the Andy Irvine’s ‘West Coast of Clare’.

Brendan Gleeson is best known to Irish audiences as an actor, but to Dervish he’s first and foremost a musician; Jordan says they were delighted to collaborate on his rendition of Rocky Road to Dublin.

“We know Brendan through music because he plays in sessions in Boyle. Once, he was on a tour with Mike McGoldrick and everyone ended up in my house afterwards. We sang until all hours of the morning, so for us he was always a singer and fiddle player. When it came to ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’, we knew it had to be him.”

Aiming for something as definitive as an Irish answer to the Great American Songbook may appeal to their US-based following, but Jordan knows new renditions of well-known songs could land the band in hot water at home. “Everyone in Ireland has lived with these songs all their lives. They’re in the DNA so one has to be very careful with them and very respectful of them.

“Everyone has a sense of ownership of them, so when they hear nother version, there might be an adverse reaction at first because they’ve known their mother singing it and it doesn’t sound the same. It could probably be a tetchy subject.”

But, Jordan is keen to stress, folk music is not really about ownership. “We’re so privileged to have the use of this music that will be around long after we’re gone,” the singer says. “We’re the minders and the incubators of it while we’re here, and we’ll pass it on whatever way we can.”

The Great Irish Songbook is released on Friday.

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