KATE BUSH said ‘yes’ immediately. It was 1995 and Donal Lunny, composer, producer and folk icon, was curating a compilation of Irish traditional tunes, under the title Common Ground: Voices of Modern Irish Music.
It was an overview of trad, but in the context of pop and rock (Bono, Sinead O’Connor and Elvis Costello were on board). But for the old nationalist ballad, ‘Mná na hEireann’, Lunny wanted Bush.
“She is a lovely woman. Working with her was a pleasure,” he says. “I had recorded with her on the Hounds of Love and Sensual World albums. Kate had recorded several sessions at Windmill Lane studios, in Dublin, where she collaborated with Bill Whelan. He suggested we work together. So, when I was doing Common Ground she was already aware of who I was.”
There was a sticking point. Though her mother was from Waterford, Kent-raised Bush knew little Irish. Could she navigate the curlicues and cadences of ‘Mná na hÉireann’? She worried she might not have it in her.
“She took enormous care over that,” Lunny says. “She was at pains to learn Irish as well as she possibly could. For several weeks, she would send me recordings of her pronunciations, asking me for criticism or correction, which I obliged as much as I could. She knocked it into great shape. It was something she cared deeply about.”
For most musicians, collaborating with Kate Bush might rank as a career highlight. Lunny, though, has played with so many artists across the past five decades it is difficult to select stand-outs. In the 1970s, he was at the forefront of a new generation of Irish trad players, forming Planxty with Christy Moore, and later being a driving force in the Bothy Band and Moving Hearts. He also introduced the bouzouki, a guitar- like stringed instrument, from Greece to Ireland — an innovation that has gained wide currency among trad players.
Though in no way evangelical, Lunny has been keen to push the parameters of traditional music — the ways in which it could peacefully co-exist with more contemporary forms. It is too simplistic to say he wished to create trad that music pop fans would like — or vice versa.
Nevertheless, when he contemplates the broad sweep of his career, that is close to what he has achieved. He has demonstrated that folk is living, ever-evolving — not some dry and dusky museum piece.
“I was dedicated to expanding the reach of traditional music,” he says. “You want to push the boundaries and broaden the treatment of the music in an acceptable way — one that wouldn’t turn people off, that wasn’t alien to the music. It was a matter of finding approaches that worked. You could put a drum and bass on a track and it would turn 90% of traditional music fans off straight away. It destroys the music; it is insensitive. What you want to do is add things without obscuring it, or changing it too much.”
Lunny was born in 1947 in Tullamore, Co Offaly. He grew up in Newbridge, Co Kildare, where at school, he met Christy Moore. It would be several years before their friendship blossomed into collaboration. Lunny’s first project, Emmet Spiceland, was a harmony group that enjoyed chart success. However, he discovered his true passion was traditional sounds. Soon, he and Moore were travelling around rural Kildare, playing in fireside sessions and honing their craft.
Bono has referred to Lunny as Ireland’s answer to US producer Quincy Jones. Certainly, he has been prolific. Lunny has midwifed albums by Elvis Costello, Sinead O’Connor and any trad band of significance.
There is less studio work nowadays, he says. With record sales collapsing, and labels suffering straitened finances, the old ways of doing things are coming to an end. “Record companies are no longer the main financiers. People are doing on it their own — using crowd-funding or recording albums in their home You have virtual studios on computers now. Twenty years ago, that was unheard of. Everything has changed drastically. I don’t have the opportunity to work in studios with musicians and bands as much lately.”
At Cork Folk Festival, he will play with Mozaik, a longstanding collaboration with Irish-based Andy Irvine, Rens Van Der Zalm from the Netherlands, Bruce Molsky from the United States, and Nikola Parov from Bulgaria.
“It will be a heady mixture,” Lunny says. “A blend of Irish music, old-timey American music, East European music… Of course, you have to be selective, find pieces that work together. We have managed that, so far. Because we are scattered geographically, you don’t get a chance to tour that often. Everyone is involved in different things. It is difficult to build momentum. At one point, Rens was living in Australia, I was in Japan, Andy was in Ireland, Bruce was coming in from New York and Nikolai was in Budapest. We almost had to do an extra tour to pay for the flights.”
Whatever about the economics, it all seems to make sense in the music.