Interview

Irish News Interview with Andy Irvine

Andy Irvine: If only Bruce Springsteen wrote a great song challenging Israel

Although he has been inspiring musicians for over half a century, Andy Irvine finds it difficult to place himself where others do, in the upper reaches of the pantheon of Irish musical culture. Ironic, then, that he should have just recorded an album called Precious Heroes

Andy Irvine: The people I sing about are all heroes in their own way, from Ballymoney singer Joe Holmes to Kilkenny miners’ leader Nixie Boran
Robert McMillen – 

THE last time I interviewed Andy Irvine was face to face in the Radisson Blu nine years ago when he had just moved with this Japanese wife, Kumiko to Fermanagh.

Before we started, he ordered a sandwich and went to the loo but it took him half an hour to get back as people were stopping him and thanking him for giving them a lifetime of musical pleasure.

When he finally sat down, he looked at his now-curled up sandwich with sadness at first, then with the stoicism of a man who has spent most of his adult life on the road.

And Andy finds it very hard to place himself where others do, in the upper reaches of the pantheon of Irish musical culture, someone who has been inspiring others for over half a century.

“A lot of people say that. I never quite got to the bottom of it myself,” he says, almost embarrassed by the praise.

“It’s so often told that one has been an inspiration and it’s really nice to know that, but it’s really hard to understand – I don’t know how to say it really.”

One person who has definitely been inspired by Andy is Luke Plumb, a mandolin player from Tasmania who spent 11 years playing with Shooglenifty and he and Andy have just recorded an album called Precious Heroes.

“There used to be this festival in New Mexico and he used to attend and I’d been there once, and he’d teach musicians how to be Planxty. I thought that was quite charming and slightly mad! He didn’t come in on the ground floor, as it were,” says Andy.

Precious Heroes is all about the unsung ordinary men and women who have done great things in life but who have never gained the recognition of the masses.

Luke Plumb and Andy IrvineWhat is Andy’s definition of a hero and how did the album come together, I ask.

“The people I sing about are all heroes in their own way, from Ballymoney singer Joe Holmes to truck drivers, to Nixie Boran, communist and leader of the Castlecomer miners. Most people have the hero within them somewhere,” he says.

On the album, Andy sings about Frank Ryan and his fight against fascism; political commentator Fintan O’Toole and others believe Trump has begun a trial run on fascism in the USA. Would Andy agree that are we living in dangerous times?

“Yes, I would agree,” he affirms. “I read [O’Toole’s] article myself and it was a real eye-opener in a lot of ways. One certainly had the impression that the world is moving so far right that is it moving into a dangerously fascistic state.

“They way O’Toole underlines the trial runs, as he called it, the fact that you can do something terrible, like the separation of children at the Mexican border – that you can make people feel that this is OK. That is Hitler-like.

“Six or nine months ago I thought this is not going to last. I thought people were surely going to move towards people like Sanders and Corbyn – people would move towards ‘sane’ politicians, but it’s not happening at the moment.

“The situation in Australia is unbelievable. They’re trying to build AUS$5billion worth of coal-powered power stations. The world has gone mad.”

Andy also admits to having got himself into trouble with other musicians for ‘harassing’ them about not going to Israel.

“All of that is quite sad because there are a lot of good people in Israel that one would like to play music for but you have to take a standpoint,” he says.

Planxty, reunited for a concert in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall in 2005, with Andy Irvine second left Picture: Niall Carson“It’s frustrating that the world-famous musicians and singers don’t do a bit more. If Bob Dylan or somebody of his ilk – not that Bob would do it – but Bruce Springsteen, I’ve always felt, could write a great song that would just say ‘F*** it!’ but he’s never quite done that. If he stood for president, which he surely wouldn’t want to be, he’d surely get in. Because that’s the way American people are, they’ve already voted in B-film actor Ronald Reagan.

“However, I always had high hopes for Roger Waters from Pink Floyd and Frances Black – now there’s a hero for you.”

Next up for Andy – no, he never stops working – is an album of Woody Guthrie songs, a project he has been thinking about for as long as he can remember. Recording starts this month. But then Andy comes up with a real surprise.

“In September I’ll also be working with jazz double-bassist Lindsey Horner from New York who played on my album Way Out Yonder. He’s a great musician and a nice guy. He has this idea that we get together and record a ‘jazz-ish’ album of songs that I would have heard my mother sing.

“I’m always going on that my mother didn’t know a whole song from a hole in the ground but she did know a lot of great 30s and 40s standards. I’ve had this idea for quite a long time and was appalled when Dylan jumped the gun and preceded me!

“I haven’t listened to his and I’m not going to, but I really look forward to singing the likes of These Foolish Things. My mother met Jack Strachey, the composer, and I met him once. I don’t know how that will go with my fans but hopefully it will be great music.”

Andy and Kumiko have left Fermanagh for Wexford since we last chatted.

“I decided that at my advanced age it would be better to live in a place that I owned so we bought a house outside Gorey. I miss Fermanagh, I have to say, but where we are now is nice and it’s ours,” he says in a sentence that says a lot about the uneven rewards of being a folk singer, no matter how revered.

Mr Irvine will also be going quite a few live gigs later this year with possibly a gig in Colum Sands’ Rostrevor Folk Club on October 29.

“Then we have four gigs with Dónal Lunny, Paul Brady, Kevin Burke and myself in October,” he says. “There’s also a Liam Ó Floinn tribute concert on 28 October and I’m hoping Ushers Island will be one of the bands playing there.”

source: www.irishnews.com

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Archive: Mozaik – Changing Trains (2007)

Changing Trains

Compass Records 7 4468 2; 53 minutes; 2007

This isn’t a review, but the unedited version of an article based upon interviews with the band.

It’s some ten thousand miles from Brooklyn to Blackheath, NSW, and six of the same mathematical breed from County Fermanagh to Okinawa, though neither the crows nor the various flight paths are likely to pass over Budapest on these journeys.

Once only a fool would ever consider forming a musical quintet whose members were drawn from these five locations, but the world is now a much smaller place than when Andy Irvine first embarked on his musical travels. Those initial ventures took place in the late 1960s, when he decided to quit Dublin and his successful part in the band Sweeney’s Men and head for Eastern Europe on a musical voyage whose import continues to impact upon his music today. As he would later write, ‘I hit the road for the Balkans and spent a year and a half travelling around, sleeping in orchards, taking in the sounds and falling in love with the music and the people. I hauled a bunch of records back to Ireland, locked myself away and tried to get the hang of the rhythms. Not only have I been trying to play the music ever since, but I’ve been trying to get half the musicians of Ireland to play it as well.’

One of those Irish musicians, and far more than a significant half in terms of his later career, was the guitarist (and later Irish bouzouki maestro) Dónal Lunny who’d learnt the music industry’s ropes as a member of the folk-pop Emmet Spiceland. As Dónal recalls, “Ever since Andy introduced me to Bulgarian music I had a desire to play it. I was already interested in different time signatures from listening to Dave Brubeck and other jazz players.” Though whether Brubeck would ever have considered combining the 9/8 rhythm of an Irish slip jig with the 9/16 of a Bulgarian daichovo horo, as Irvine and Lunny have found and enjoyed themselves doing is open to question.

On said Balkan travels, in Ljubljana Andy also bumped into a young musician from the Netherlands, Rens van der Zalm. The Dutch fiddler and guitarist Rens had become immersed in “the music of Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, Pete Seeger and the New Lost City Ramblers and more..” in his teens and started to play this music in coffee houses with older mentors, though “his violin teacher was not very amused”.

Rens and Andy would meet up again during the 1970s when Planxty (formed with Dónal, uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn and Christy Moore) toured Europe. By which time the fascination Andy and Dónal shared for those Balkan rhythms had become a substantial element in the band’s repertoire.

Fast forward a few years to the early 1980s. Planxty’s career had stuttered after its genesis with Christy reinvigorating his solo career and Dónal embarking on the full-pelt sleighride also known as The Bothy Band. In the midst of this period Andy and Paul Brady formed a powerful duo, recording one of Ireland’s essential albums in the process. However, by 1979 the original members of Planxty were back together again (with the addition of Matt Molloy on flute) and the reincarnation’s first album included perhaps the best-known result of Andy’s and Dónal’s Balkan interests, the 9/16 Bulgarian dance tune ‘Smeceno Horo’.

A key moment came in 1981 when Dónal (by then involved in the nascent Moving Hearts) and the future Riverdance creator Bill Whelan combined to compose Timedance, the interval entertainment for that year’s Eurovision Song Contest. As Andy puts it, “It had dancers, it had a drum kit, a bass guitar. It had chord sequences in the last part that Planxty would never even have dreamed of ten years before! It even had a Bulgarian 9/16 rhythm at the beginning of the second tune. With its archaic unaccompanied flat set of uilleann pipes in the first section, it wasn’t a bad musical history of Planxty and the music its members had performed.”

By then Andy had also released his debut solo album, Rainy Sundays Windy Dreams and, after Planxty’s seemingly final demise (reformed for a short time this decade, but never likely to play again), he embarked upon his most ambitious project so far. This was the band Mosaic which resulted from further Balkan ventures and involved singer Márta Sebestyén from the Hungarian band Muzsikás who also played gardón , Hans Theesink (nowadays regarded as one of the world’s finest blues guitarists), singer/bassist Lissa (from Denmark) and, initially, Scotland’s Dougie MacLean.

However, Dougie decided that the project wasn’t for him so, after an abortive attempt to involve Dolores Keane and John Faulkner, Dónal Lunny arrived on the scene, bringing with him the young uilleann piper Declan Masterson. The newly-fledged band embarked on a tour whose English segment resulted in fabulous reviews, but, in Andy’s words, ‘we were a very happy band but we had the sense to leave it at just the one summer! Still, I don’t think I’ll ever forget Márta playing the gárdon, a Translvanian percussion instrument that looks like a stone age cello, on sets of Irish reels!’.

While Andy’s solo career progressed during the latter half of the 1980s, a key musical moment occurred in 1992 with the release of the East Wind album, a collaboration with uilleann piper Davy Spillane. Produced by Bill Whelan, and featuring a feast of cross-cultural musicanship, this was undoubtedly the first (and probably the last) attempt to meld Bulgarian, Macedonian and Irish music together. Its cast included Nikola Parov, a multi-instrumentalist from Sofia (proficient on gadulka, kaval, gaida and bouzouki) whom Andy had previously met at a festival in Hungary. The album was critically acclaimed, but poorly bought. Subsequently, Andy, Nikola and Rens (who had played on Andy’s second solo LP Rude Awakening) toured Europe together as the East Wind trio.

During his solo career in the 1990s Andy often toured the US and it was during one of these trips that he met Bruce Molsky, a Bronx-born fiddler with an insatiable appetite for Appalachian music.

Little immediately accrued, but while touring Australia in the dwindling years of the last millennium, an idea suddenly struck Andy. “I do a lot of driving in Australia – I own a Land Cruiser out there. Driving really makes me use my brain and it suddenly came into my head that it would be great to do a tour of Australia with a band and that led to the question ‘What kind of a band?’. That thought led in turn on to Irish, Old Timey and Balkan music and then the people more or less picked themselves.

So, there was Bruce, Dónal, Nikola and Rens and Andy’s impetus to bring them all together – “I was the common link and knew everybody. I’d played with all of them in the past and had them kind of earmarked.”

The emails began to flow. As Bruce puts it “Andy contacted me with a very simple email in 2001, and asked pretty much ‘Hey, want to come to Australia and make a band?’ Well it was a bit more descriptive than that; the whole idea sounded mysterious and pretty exotic.“ Dónal, Rens and Nikola were equally receptive and the newly-formed band, henceforth known as Mozaik, first convened in Australia in March 2002. After just several days of rehearsal it embarked on a short tour whose results can be heard in the form of the album Live at the Powerhouse which, as all the bands’ members would probably agree, only partly encapsulates the unique instrumental configuration which trod the boards on those nights.

Subsequently, there was another Australian tour, one of the US and a couple of visits to the UK, but it was 2005 before this band of musical itinerants actually spent time in the recording studio. The result was the album Changing Trains, whose title relates only partly to two of its tracks, which was released only in Australia that year. Subsequently remixed, it’s now more generally available, though it’s an absolute mystery why a band of such calibre has to self-finance its own album.

The album’s ten tracks incorporate all the disparate elements that Mozaik’s members bring to the melting pot. There’s Andy’s self-composed songs (including ‘O’Donoghue’s’, his wonderful paean to the glories of Dublin’s most famed session pub in all its 1960s pomp and prime). Then there’s Bruce’s ‘Reuben’s Transatlantic Express’, reinvigorated by Nikola’s input of Rumanian rhythms. Add to that the eclectic ‘Pig Farm Suite’, first played at an Italian venue which was once a piggery, and the exceedingly rare sounding of a lead vocal from Dónal Lunny on the Donegal song ‘Siún ní Dhuibír’. The last time the Lunny larynx was heard on record was on ‘Bean Phaidín’ on the Planxty album The Well Below the Valley. Additionally, there’s ‘Sail Away Ladies’, first recorded by ‘Uncle Bunt’ Stephens in the 1920s and a wonderfully resonant version of the song ‘Reynardine’.

Nowadays Rens lives in Australia, Nikola in Budapest, Dónal in Okinawa and Bruce in Brooklyn, not forgetting Andy in Ireland. Bringing together all these disparate talents for a tour of whatever kind is a feat in itself, but, as Nikola comments ‘That’s the most exciting part of it, I think. From a practical point of view it’s hell. I mean, to organize a tour, schedule times and flights, it’s really difficult. But the freshness and the flash of creativity when we meet compensates for all the inconvenience. I can assure you I’m never bored.’

And neither should we be.

This article by Geoff Wallis originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2008 edition of fRoots magazine.

Interview: Musical tribute to heroes

Irish folk legend Andy Irvine (Planxty, Sweeney’s Men, Patrick Street) is coming to our pocket of regional Victoria to launch his latest album. Made in collaboration with Australian Luke Plumb, Precious Heroes is a tribute to his musical and political heroes who ‘‘stood up for the working people’’.

While the album cover is littered with the faces of trade unionists, rabble-rousers and singers, Irvine’s greatest musical influence — Woody Guthrie — is an absentee.

Irvine said for the first 15 years of his life he was looking for an unknown type of music which he could call his own. At this time, he said, rhythm and blues was enjoying a period of dominance before rock and roll took over, coinciding with the development of the 45 RPM record.

‘‘My friends all thought it was great . . . but it wasn’t me,’’ Irvine said.

‘‘Then I discovered Lonnie Donegan . . . and on the back of one of his EPs, it said the song was written by Woody Guthrie. So one day I was walking down in the West End of London, and there in a small shop was More Songs by Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston.

‘‘I bought it, took it home and put it on, and pretty much halfway through the first bar of the first song, I thought . . . I’d finally discovered the music I’d been looking for.’’

Fast forward to 2016 and Irvine, already a fan of Luke Plumb’s work as a musician, decided to enlist the Australian’s help as producer after appreciating his work in fine-tuning Declaration — the latest album made by Kate Burke and Ruth Hazleton.

Irvine said Plumb leaped at the opportunity to collaborate and the pair went on to transform the house of a friend travelling abroad into something of a DIY recording studio.

‘‘We put mattresses up against all the walls and windows to deaden the sound and Luke and his computer and his microphones were set up and I played and sang into it, which is the way it is these days,’’ Irvine said.

‘‘Recording studios are slightly out of date, because you can record it yourself . . . if you’ve got good microphones, all you need to do is deaden the sound and it’s as good as a studio, except you’re not paying for it.’’

‘‘We recorded the songs there . . . and later he put on his own instrument, and then a couple of other people in different countries were added onto it. So you couldn’t say it was recorded in one place — it was recorded all over the bloody world.’’

Irvine said while his greatest musical influence has always been Woody Guthrie, he has never been able to write contemporary political songs like the American singer-songwriter.

‘‘It’s a shame . . . but I can’t do it . . . because you don’t know all the facts,’’ Irvine said.

‘‘So the songs that I write are about things that happened in the past, where nearly all the evidence you’re ever going to have is there. And that’s what a lot of these are — the strike in the coal mines in County Kilkenny and the Spanish Civil War.

‘‘It’s the same mix as the last few albums in that there are traditional songs and songs that I have written. But I do feel it’s a little bit further to the left than other albums, as a concept. I have never changed . . . but I’ve evolved at my own speed. I still have the same attitude to music I had all those years ago.’’

Andy Irvine and Luke Plumb are performing at Under the Sun Café in Strathbogie on March 17.

For bookings phone 0427 317 694.

Precious Heroes is out now.

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