“We booked a show at the National Concert Hall, although we had not met to make any music. Time went by and word reached us that the concert was close to selling out. So we thought, ‘Wow, we better do something. It’s probably time to get a show together’.”
The group was Ó Lionáird, a West Cork vocalist with a background in the sean nós style, together with Irish-American guitarist Dennis Cahill, fiddle players Martin Hayes and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett, an American avant-gardist who records as Doveman.
“We never liked being called a supergroup,” says Ó Lionáird, who grew up in the Cork Gaeltacht near Ballyvourney and is also known for his work with Afro Celt Sound System. “That is annoying. You are automatically saying you are better than anyone else. We never wanted that tag. It was never our goal to put ourselves on a pedestal.”
Nonetheless, in the traditional scene, the Gloaming’s members would unquestionably be considered super-stars of a sort. From east Clare and based in Connecticut, Hayes is one of the nation’s most renowned fiddlers. Cahill, meanwhile, is a Chicago guitarist of Irish extraction influenced by trad, jazz and classical. Dubliner Ó Raghallaigh, for his part, is at the forefront of a new generation of trad players, having honed an influential ‘droning’ style. They are, in other words, among the most acclaimed trad players of their generation.
Bartlett, by contrast, is a relative outsider. Raised in Vermont, he is a highly regarded alternative producer, who has worked with such artists as Martha Wainwright, Antony Hegarty and the National. As Doveman, he has released several collections of bleak, murmuring experimental pop.
Rather than a pile-up of egos, the Gloaming are interested in the artistic possibilities of understatement. With Bartlett’s taut piano holding the project together, they strip the adornment away from traditional music. What’s left is minimalist and pure.
“We have taken an uncluttered, stripped-down approach,” says Ó Lionáird. “I am interested in challenging what I call the ‘speed’ meme, this idea that everything has to be cluttered and showy. We wanted to show there is a very sophisticated, emotional language inside traditional music that benefits from slowing it down — letting it come to the surface of its own accord. You don’t need to be clever.”
They gathered around a piano for the first time at Grouse Lodge Studio, Co Westmeath. “We clicked from the start,” says Ó Lionáird. “I did not know Thomas but I gravitated towards his piano. We worked very closely together. Straight away I think we all understand that there was great potential here.”
As their unconventional origins attest, the Gloaming are a different kind of collaboration. They haven’t toured much, playing a comparatively meagre 20 shows in their two and half years. Nor did they rush into recording an album. With lots of projects ongoing, the five members decided it was best not to try anything before they were ready. Good music comes in its own time. “We’re a band — but not in a sense of constantly going around he world together. Every single person is doing three, four, five different things outside of the group. There was no grand philosophical goal in what we are attempting. If we have anything in common it is that we tend to be experimental — to look out from traditional music. We tend to be influenced by minimal music, new classical, jazz.”
It has been rumoured that the twilight-related name the Gloaming came from a song on Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief record. Given their experimental sound, it seems entirely plausible. But Ó Lionáird shakes his head.
“We were aware of the song but that isn’t where it comes from,” he says. “We searched for a long time for a name. We didn’t want to go with the usual thing — something like Déardaoin. ‘The Gloaming’ describes an in-between place — it is suggestive of neither dark nor light. We like that ambivalence. We want to create a field of mood — and to also write in a very non-genre way.”
Because Ó Lionáird sings in Irish, audiences often struggle to interpret his lyrics. Far from a disadvantage, Ó Lionáird suspects this helps deepen the air of mystery. His voice becomes another instrument, pushing for prominence against the piano and violins. This, he believes, has helped the group forge a very distinct sound.
If pushed, Ó Lionáird will go so far as to suggest that the Gloaming aren’t even a trad band. “We use raw materials that are old. I tend to write in Ireland. I would like to get beyond genre. Young people don’t think in genres. I suspect it’s our generation which had these problems. I have a background in sean nós singing. I can see how people would have a particular view for me. I don’t think in terms of traditional songs at all. I’m always trying something else.”
* The album The Gloaming is out now. The band play the National Concert Hall in Dublin on Jan 26.