Not content with the success of Planxty, Dónal Lunny set about reimagining what Irish trad music could be. The band he created are still going strong, writes.
He's worked with Kate Bush, Elvis Costello and The Waterboys. And he’s been a lifelong collaborator with Christy Moore. But when Dónal Lunny looks back at six decades in music, it’s his accomplishments with trad-rock supergroup Moving Hearts that he is perhaps the most proud of.
The band, back on the road this month (with a Cork Opera House date Saturday, July 6), tore down Irish traditional music and rebuilt it from the ground up. They did so in a way that was exciting and off-the-cuff, rather than dry and academic.
More than that, Moving Hearts contained multitudes. It was, from its inception in 1981, a vehicle both for Lunny’s curiosity as a musician and for (the long since solo) Moore and his increasingly political songwriting.
“When we started Moving Hearts, Christy Moore was singing a lot of what might loosely be called protest songs. Music that had a social message,” Lunny recalls.
There was one called ‘Hiroshima Nagasaki Russian Roulette’, which is about nuclear power and its dangers. It’s still relevant. And there was one about landlords. It said something at the time and it would say something now.
Reimagining traditional Irish music was absolutely on the agenda when he and Moore began the project. The two musicians, mainstays of folk supergroup Planxty, yearned to do something beyond the borders of trad. They loved the genre, having grown up with it as classmates in Newbridge, Co Kildare (Lunny would go on to an unlikely detour into pop with Emmet Spiceland).
Still, they also wanted to push forward and try different things. Lunny was eager to incorporate new rhythmic elements and would go on to introduce the Greek Bouzouki to Irish music. And Moore was, as Lunny says, writing protest music. These ambitions demanded a new vehicle.
They got it in Moving Hearts, where bodhrán and jazz trumpets, complex instrumentals and occasionally didactic lyrics, coexisted in a jittery harmony. Moore has since moved on. But Moving Hearts have endured (after a long break-up, it’s true) and now serves as a mothership to which Lunny can return when the fancy takes.
“With Planxty, I had wanted to introduce a rhythm section,” says Lunny. “Planxty had its own personality and character so it wouldn’t have worked within that. I knew I wanted some kind of bass in it. Maybe an African or East European bass. I couldn’t source these things fast enough. My attempts were only an approximation. The demos I made didn’t cut any ice with the guys.”
Fortunately, Christy Moore was up for something different too. “Christy had a huge backlog,” recalls Lunny. “A dozen or more songs he wanted to air. Planxty was the wrong vehicle. He took an interest in what I was doing and decided to push off in that direction.”
Their first recruit was Declan Sinnott, a guitarist whose background was distinctly unfolky. “He was an absolutely brilliant electric guitarist — a rock musician. From there, we got in a bassist who was coming from outside traditional. We put together a rock band with a bit of jazz in it. However, I was still pushing in the direction of trad. There were pipes in it. It was an interesting way to go.”
How controversial was a trad band with rock elements in 1981? Not necessarily as much as you might imagine. “The people who didn’t like it just didn’t come to the shows,” says Lunny. “The people who liked trad and realised we weren’t dissing it, weren’t treating it with disrespect... it was great to see them and to take encouragement from their support.”
This took Lunny back to Planxty and what they had achieved there (with guitarist Andy Irvine). “We had brought in new influences. And there was [piper] Liam O’Flynn’s mentor Seamus Ennis, one of the patriarchs of trad music.
“He loved Planxty and approved what we were doing. He made it known to us. To get the thumbs up from the master was hugely important. On the other hand, there was an entire population that stayed away in droves [from Moving Hearts].”
Lunny was born in Tullamore, Co Offaly in 1947. When he was five, the family moved to Newbridge. He attended Newbridge College and later the Patrician Brothers College. There he started a group, The Rakes of Kildare, with his older brother Frank, and his classmate Christy Moore. Later, he studied at the National College of Art and Design. As a student, music took up more and more of his time and he realised it could be his life.
Subsequently, he and Moore began Planxty. Through the 80s, meanwhile, Lunny was increasingly in demand as producer and arranger, working on records by Paul Brady, The Indigo Girls, and Clannad. He got to know Kate Bush and performed on several of her records, most notably on ‘Jig of Life’, the climactic flourish to side two of Hounds of Love.
One crucial element in Moving Hearts’ evolution, he feels, was a six-month residency at Dublin’s Baggot Inn. The venue, now long since shut down, had a special place in Irish music folklore. U2 played there, as did David Bowie’s Tin Machine. “We stuffed the place, which was fantastic,” says Lunny. “It was a stamping ground. Stamping grounds are important. You can try something without feeling you have critics who are going to shoot you down for being wrong. It’s really brilliant to be able make a mistake and get away with it. We became a collective personality there.”
They remain in outstanding fettle. However, with nine members — including pipe player Davy Spillane and guitarist Anton Drennan — Moving Hearts are too sprawling to ever feel entirely comfortable in their skin. That’s just as Lunny would wish it. The last thing he wants is for the project to be safe or slick.
“It’s important not to get trapped,” he says. “You have bands that get locked into a very limited format. ‘We’ve had a hit with that… let’s do it again’. That can be restrictive. We’re a very diverse bunch. We’re hopping out in all directions.”