The Gloaming may not be a conventional band, but they could win the Choice Music Prize, writes Ed Power
THOMAS Bartlett isn’t sure how it happened.
A driving force behind Choice Music Prize favourites The Gloaming, Bartlett is a native of Vermont, a remote state in deepest New England.
And yet, his circle of collaborators is strongly Irish; in addition to The Gloaming, he has toured with Glen Hansard and is on close terms with Bell X1, Lisa Hannigan, and others.
“It is strange,” says the understated musician, his speaking voice low and contemplative.
“I played a lot of Irish music when I was young and was especially taken with [fiddle player] Martin Hayes.” Of course, the two would later cross paths in The Gloaming.
“Entirely separately I became a fan of The Frames. I was at South By South West in Texas and Glen Hansard happened to be standing beside me. He said, ‘It’s Paddy’s Day — I have to buy you a drink’. And then, it so happened Bell X1 and I share management. There are a lot of unlikely coincidences.”
Bartlett’s minimal piano is arguably the secret ingredient that has turned The Gloaming into a phenomenon.
Though in many ways a conventional trad affair, the group, fronted by Cork’s Iarla Ó Lionáird and featuring the aforementioned Hayes and long-term guitarist collaborator Denis Cahill, have been embraced by an unexpected demographic, trendy urban types (their self-titled LP was the top seller at Tower Records in Dublin last year).
The success of the album — to say nothing of the Choice nomination for best Irish record of 2014 — is a surprise to Bartlett, but not an earth-shattering one.
“It’s been a thrill. Certainly it has surpassed expectations. The response has been overwhelming. On the other hand it can’t be that much of an upset. What Martin and Dennis do is so unique. I suppose ultimately I’m always a little taken aback when someone I like does well.”
The Gloaming have performed to sell-out rooms across Europe and North America. And yet there is a sense of holding back. If anything has impeded the band it’s the fact that actually, they aren’t really a band.
Each of the five members has a busy solo career, requiring The Gloaming to function as loose affiliation rather than a conventional ensemble.
This is exactly as Bartlett would wish.
“Everyone has a lot going on outside The Gloaming,” he says.
“We’re really busy. Even if time were available, I’m only interested in it to a pretty limited extent. I enjoy being in the studio and putting on one-off gigs, things that never get repeated.
“I’m just off the road from a month-long tour with The Gloaming, the longest I’ve done in quiet a few years. It was really fun and will be helpful in coming up with new material.
“Ultimately that isn’t the touring I enjoy. I prefer to change it up.”
Moreover, for all the grace and stateliness of their music, there’s a distinct sense of individuals making it up as they go. That is certainly how it all started.
The Gloaming’s debut concert was scheduled before they had actually written any material.
“In 2011 we announced we were going be a group,” said Ó Lionáird, who grew up in the Cork Gaeltacht near Ballyvourney, in a recent interview.
“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.”
“We’re a band — but not in a sense of constantly going around he world together,” he added.
“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.”
“We got together simply to see what would happen,” Martin Hayes told the Irish Examiner last year.
“We are happy it has been received so well. It feels like a band to us — although we come together only occasionally and are not on the road all the time. In fact, we feel like we don’t spend long enough in the same room. If you have to courage to make the leap, experimentation brings a lot of excitement into your life.”
This isn’t the first time Bartlett has watched an obscure project stumble into surprise popularity.
Since the mid-2000s he’s played and toured with Brooklyn’s The National. He came on board as the group was struggling to fill the 250-capacity Mercury Lounge in New York. Now they are headlining arenas.
Watching from the wings has been instructive.
“It is really encouraging to see a band achieve success that way,” says Bartlett.
“It was the same with Glen Hansard. I know The Frames were big in Ireland. When I met him they really were not at all known in the States. The first tour we did of America — Glen, Markéta Irglová, and me — you had maybe 80 people coming to the gigs. I’ve been lucky to be around people who have had that success.”
Bartlett respects his friends’ achievements. However, he in no way envies them.
“I prefer to be behind the scenes. That’s where I am most comfortable. Front and centre is not my thing. I saw Glen headline Radio City Music Hall in New York. It was great. Do I want to headline Radio City Music Hall? No way.”
Regardless of whether they win the Choice Prize on Thursday — and it seems a distinct possibility — The Gloaming will doubtless continue much as they are.
There will be sporadic concerts and another album is likely. But they are more interested in following where their mood leads than pursuing a conventional career path.
Upon one thing all five are agreed: they are in no way a ‘supergroup’. They wince whenever the title is bandied.
“We never liked being called a supergroup,” said Ó Lionáird.
“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.”
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