THE 20 or so curious souls who turned up for The National’s December 2002 gig at Triskel Arts Centre in Cork were in for a treat. All that day, the band had worked on a new song, ‘Val Jester’, which they debuted on the night. It was the first track they would write for their next album, Alligator, the LP that arguably marked the beginning of group’s ascent to their present status as world’s most credible arena act.
“There was nobody there and we didn’t mind in the least,” recalls guitarist Bryce Dessner. “We sat on that stage all day just hashing the song out. We were so excited we performed it at the show. It was before Christmas and our first tour of Europe. I remember all the Christmas lights were up and Cork was just beautiful. It has such an enchanted quality as a city.”
“Enchanted” is the sort of slightly gooey adjective misty-eyed Americans inevitably deploy when gushing about the old country. However, Dessner’s relationship with Cork and Ireland goes beyond the traditional green-dyed froth. Since that fateful first date at the Triskel a lucky 13 years ago, The National have returned to Ireland again and again — last year opting to tour the country when they could have merely performed a one-off in Dublin. They truly mean it when they say Ireland matters.
With the ensemble on a break, Dessner is taking the opportunity to return to Leeside to curate a new multi-venue event. Informed by Cork’s maritime history, Sounds From A Safe Harbour will see Dessner and Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry attend a recital of their avant -garde instrumental Wave Movements, which they have been bringing to festivals around Europe. There are also auxiliary showcases by Wild Beasts, Julianna Barwick, My Brightest Diamond, Lisa Hannigan and others.
Though Sounds From A Safe Harbour has a slightly high-brow air, the line-up is intriguing and Dessner is more than a figurehead. He helped assemble the bill and will be hands-on throughout. He does this sort of thing all the time, yet there is a hint of genuine enthusiasm in his voice.
“Ireland is definitely one of the top three places to play,” he says. “Cork is the first time I’ve had a chance to do this kind of music here. A lot of Irish artists are involved and also a lot of Icelandic artists — it’s about building a community, and exploring the dialogue that exists across different genres of music.”
One inspiration is the MusicNOW Festival in Cincinnati Ohio, which Dessner established in 2006. As with Sounds From A Safe Harbour, the emphasis is on the avant-garde end of alt.rock, with such headliners as Sufjan Stevens, Philip Glass and Sam Amidon.
Dessner suspects Cork, like Cincinnati, has a distinct identity, which he hopes the programme will reflect and investigate. “Dublin is a big city — Cork has more of a village feel to it. The reason we’re bringing Wave Movements is because of Cork’s maritime tradition. We wanted something that would chime with the sea — with the rhythms of the ocean.”
The National, of which Dessner’s brother Aaron is also a member, have been based in New York through their career. But their roots go back to Ohio, their Midwestern home state. Irish people and Midwesterners have much in common Bryce believes, which may be why he feels an affinity.
“The Irish sense of being down to earth and modest — not being too impressed with themselves and anyone else… those are very Midwestern things. And the Irish are very warm, compared to the rest of Europe. As Midwesterners, we’re definitely drawn to that.”
Projects such as Sounds From A Safe Harbour offer an important creative outlet for the musician. The National are now both business and band. Every so often it’s important to step outside and smell the fresh air.
“When a group gets bigger and the shows get bigger musicians can become pretty pleased with themselves. We try not to let that happen. The National is a pretty significant operation now, just in terms of the technical support we have to bring on tour. It’s nice to open the windows and take a deep breath.”
TIDE IS HIGH: Best of Sounds From A Safe Harbour
, Cork Opera House, Saturday, September 17
Led by sean nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird and fiddle virtuoso Martin Hayes, this trad supergroup has been a hit way beyond the beards’n’craft beer set, their debut album winning the Choice Music Prize for record of the year. The secret ingredient is pianist Thomas Bartlett, who steeps the music in American minimalism.
, Cork Opera House, September 18
We know misery loves company — but what about whimsy? Starry-eyed singer Hannigan will show us what she’s been up to since relocating to Dublin, with a little help from National guitarist Dessner. Belt up for an evening of songs about flowers, rainbows and woebegone ponies.
, St Luke’s Church, September 19
The avant-garde multi instrumentalist gives an intimate performance. Her music is both technically virtuosic and packs an emotional wallop. Not to be missed.
, Crane Lane Theatre, September 19
Somewhere between St Vincent and Bjork you will find Shara Worden, aka My Brightest Diamond. The New York based artist specialises in horizon- expanding alternative pop, music full of curiosity and ambition but catchy with it.
, Cork Opera House, September 20
The British Lake District band admit they had barely heard of Cork when they played the city around their first album. But the gig turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and warmly received they ever delivered and they’ve yearned to return. Thanks to Bryce Dessner, they finally have their opportunity.