Iarla Ó Lionáird was thrilled to be able to include the words of two Cork poets on The Gloaming’s new album, writes Ellie O’Byrne
Some years seem more marked by death than others. For Iarla Ó Lionaird, 2018 was such a year. His elder sister Bríd passed away in February. Later in the year, he would sing at the funerals of two friends: the celebrated composer Micheál Ó Súilleabháin, and Kildare piper Liam O’Flynn.
Yet another departed friend was poet and fellow Cork man Liam Ó Muirthile, with whom Ó Lionaird had struck up a firm friendship during recording sessions for a collaborative project they worked on in 2012. Ó Muirthile died last May.
“He would sit right here in the room I’m in now,” Ó Lionaird says, on the phone from his Co Kilkenny home. “He spent weeks here with me, on and off, and we struck up a great friendship. I was very keen to honour him and pay homage to him if I could.”
The Gloaming 3, the hotly anticipated third studio album from trad supergroup The Gloaming, to whom Ó Lionaird lends his distinctive sean nós voice, has two songs based on mortality-themed poems by Ó Muirthile: the opening track, ‘Meachain Rudaí’ (The Weight of Things) and ‘Áthas’ (Joy).
Ó Lionaird says recording them, as well as the album’s final track, traditional mourning song ‘mhrán na nGleann’, sung at funerals in his native Cúil Aodha, were ways to channel and work through his grief.
“In one way or another, I was dealing with personal grief and attempting to memorialise or channel those emotions into what I was doing,” he says. “I suppose I could have chosen not to, but I yielded to the process and to those feelings and wanted to explore them using music.”
‘Meachain Rudaí’ holds particular emotional resonance for the singer, which comes across in the sombre cadence of the song.
“It wasn’t something I expected ending up talking about in interviews though: I didn’t think about it, I just dug in a hell of a lot more on this record.”
The Gloaming hardly need an introduction at this stage. Since their inception in 2011, their ethereal fusion of traditional Irish music and other influences has seen Ó Lionaird and bandmates, guitarist Denis Cahill, fiddlers Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Martin Hayes and pianist/producer Thomas ‘Doveman’ Bartlett sell out unprecedented runs at Dublin’s National Concert Hall as well as captivating international audiences and picking up a coveted BBC Radio 2 Folk Award.
Ó Lionaird says The Gloaming 3 saw a distinct departure in how the band recorded, in no small part due to the individual members’ respective globe-trotting careers.
The singer, however, now spends half the year as a visiting lecturer in music at Princeton University and so was able to work closely with pianist and producer Thomas Bartlett in his New York studio.
“A lot of my work was done by the time the lads showed up in New York in October: I’d been working with Thomas for maybe eight weeks at that point,” Ó Lionaird says.
But a recording process that was more piecemeal has also resulted in a musical departure for the quintet, with Bartlett, who has produced the likes of St Vincent and Sufjan Stevens, taking the lead and introducing avant-garde post-rock influences.
“The last two albums were quite simply recording an ensemble in the studio, everyone more or less sitting around and playing together,” Ó Lionaird says.
“This time, we wanted to use the full weight and potential of the studio as a creative tool. There was a lot of overdubbing and layering on this album that we couldn’t achieve before.”
It’s comfortable terrain for Ó Lionaird, who first drew international acclaim for his work with global fusion outfit Afro Celt Soundsystem in the 1990s. But with Irish traditional music at times keenly divided between purists and innovators, the singer takes no hard line.
“There are certainly plenty of people in the preservation game,” he says. “Look, I love the old music and I’m pretty well versed in it, but I’m not in the habit of telling people how to think about it: for me it’s a resource, a kind of magic language, and that’s how I use it.”
With his Princeton lecturing and his Masters in Ethnomusicology from the University of Limerick, as well as his Cúil Aodha connections to Seán Ó Riada’s legacy, Ó Lionaird might also be regarded as having moved towards the academic side of Irish trad.
Certainly, the National Concert Hall is a far cry from the snugs, smoking peat fires and pints of stout that are associated with Irish music’s folk origins in the minds of many. But Ó Lionaird says staying true to his gut and his emotions is the key to staying true to his roots.
The National Concert Hall gigs this spring will be the last Irish audiences will see of The Gloaming for a while. Following their album tour for The Gloaming 3, the band plan on taking a well-earned break for 2020.
Given his own Co Cork origins and the fact that interpreted lyrics from not one but two Cork writers — Ó Muirthile and Séan Ó Riordáin — feature on the album, Ó Lionaird says he’s sad not to have managed a live gig in Cork this year, but that for logistical reasons the band are sticking with their NCH dates only.
“We would do an Opera House gig every time we played Ireland if it was up to me,” he says. “I love playing in Cork: it’s a wonderful place full of incredibly friendly people and in relation to Irish music, it’s at least if not more impactful than Dublin ever was.”
The planned year-long break is a tactical move by The Gloaming: having released four albums, including their Live at the NCH to date, they feel that it’s time for themselves and audiences to have a break. “I would hate people to get sick of us,” he says.
But before the break, some more gigs to do; the father of three says the prolonged absences from home whilst touring requires some psychological preparation.
“I never like the idea of it before I do it,” he says. “I have a young family and I really love being home, and I’m already not home as often as I’d like. Once I arrive at the airport, I get a sense of mission and I know the lads do too.
The Gloaming 3 is released today. The group play seven nights at the National Concert Hall from March 4-11