Brian and Diarmuid Mac Gloinn hope people won’t just brand them as folkies, writes Ed Power
With their Ye Vagabonds project, brothers Brían and Diarmuid Mac Gloinn are putting an edgy and intriguing new spin on folk music.
The Carlow siblings grew up speaking Irish — while their love of ’60s protests artists such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger has also seeped into their writing. It’s an earthy, intriguing mix, recognisably Irish yet with an energy all its own. Connoisseurs will be struck by its swagger and raw power.
“Labels are always applied in the aftermath,” says Brían.
“You do what you do and then it inevitably is categorised. We don’t mind being called folk — it’s a broad term. People have called us an Irish traditional band. I don’t hear that in what we do. It’s probably a little too narrow a categorisation for our tastes.”
Their mother grew up on Arranmore Island off the coast of Donegal and did not speak English until she started boarding school at the age of 12.
Brían and Diarmuid passed their summers on the island, inculcating in them an appreciation of the traditions predating modern Ireland.
That sensibility is reflecting in their repertoire, which is suffused with an ancient melancholy.
“You get a real sense of belonging and of having an Irish heritage — which you wouldn’t necessarily have had growing up in Carlow,” says Diarmaid.
“Our mother grew up speaking Irish — our family goes back so many generations there. Our grandfather actually wrote a book in which he collected the recollections of his mother. So there is a strong sense of belonging.”
Music was ever-present in the home as children. Family singalongs were a regular happening, typically led by their guitar-strumming father.
Even when they weren’t all gathered around a hearth, their parents played music constantly. By contrast, zoning out in front of a screen was frowned upon.
This was a household in which the children were expected to participate, not passively park themselves on the couch.
“We have three older sisters. We all play and sing. Our parents sing, my dad plays guitar. It was always encouraged: They’d rather we sang than just sat there watching television. We would all sit around and someone would play a guitar or a harmonica.”
Along with the punk-influenced Lankum, Ye Vagabonds are to the fore of a new wave of Irish folk — one that is spiky and determined not to fit in.
It is also outward looking, owing as much of the freak-folk movement of the 2000s as to venerable fixtures such as the Dubliners.
They’ve earned their chops with hard work, honing their songs with a Monday night residency at Walshe’s in Dublin’s Stoneybatter.
They’ve also gained influential admirers, including Lisa Hannigan and Glen Hansard. On their debut album, moreover, they sound like the finished package, their voices interweaving to shiver-inducing effect.
“The lyrics are often influenced by stuff I have read rather than by music,” says Diarmaid. “I’ve always had an interest in language and in playing with words — and admire people such as Gerard Manley Hopkins.
“We also have taken note of people such as the Incredible String Band — they took real liberties, didn’t feel they needed to write conventional songs. They could write crazy stuff that didn’t have to make sense of be simple.”
They are thrilled folk has shed its perhaps fusty image and is nowadays regarded as living, breathing genre. If they can help spread the message, in Ireland and further afield, then so much the better.
“Folk can take in artists as diverse as Bob Dylan and Devendra Barnhart , and you’ve got folk from so many countries and of so many different genres: Psychedelic folk, punk folk — it’s all part of what is going on now.”
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