“To play with integrity and joy”: Q&A with Nuala Kennedy
Nuala Kennedy is a celebrated traditional Irish musician and internationally acclaimed flute player and singer. Touted as “spellbinding” and “a delight,” by the Irish Times, her live performances over the last few years inspired her return to the studio to record Noble Stranger, a road-tested collection of innovative originals and traditional songs recorded with her touring band. Kennedy uses her traditional music background as a springboard for the new album which offers a 12 song set on which her adventurous instrumentation and progressive instrumentation shine.
Kennedy has recently been calling New York City a home-away-from-home, absorbing and contributing to the City’s growing neo-folk scene. She was raised playing and singing traditional music on the East coast of Ireland – an artistic area steeped in mythology with long historical ties to Scotland.
How were you originally drawn to traditional music?
I picked up a whistle at a young age and liked the sound and there was a piano in our house I used to mess around on. When I was about 7 years old, my parents encouraged me to learn from local teachers. And when I was 12 I joined a local ceili band where I played flute and piano. By that stage I was teaching myself, by listening and copying what I heard. There were several members of the band who were older, and already accomplished musicians. Hearing them play inspired me. We did quite well in competitions and it was a fantastic social outlet, where I looked forward to seeing my friends and much as to playing the music.
What does it mean to you to be a musician doing a mixture of traditional and original work?
Its something I still struggle with at times, in some ways it’s easier to stay within one easily categorized sound. Certainly from a marketing perspective. Traditional music is a broad term, which takes in new compositions as it evolves. And some of my pieces are a little bit more on the more exploratory end of those new compositions. I grew up with a firmly defined idea of what the tradition was. It was a natural part of my life and almost taken for granted as a fully formed existing entity. My interaction with it was one of respect and study within a group dynamic. I don’t recall ever being encouraged to write a tune myself or to feel that would be appropriate. I think it later became very important to me especially during my twenties to follow my own path musically, and to see what is possible for me in the creation of different musical ideas and sounds. Both on a basic level, from my instrument itself, and from producing records to experiment and try different combinations of musicians and instruments. Tune In was especially like that; what immediately springs to mind was combining Flamenco guitar with Hurdy Gurdy on the song The Blooming Bright Star of Belleisle. But Noble Stranger combines both a live band sound with some Casio keyboards. It’s the band I’ve been touring with at home, and all three of the other musicians in it, also compose new music. So I guess I am in with the right crowd!
How does place influence your music? Both in terms of your Irish roots and your time spent in New York City?
It’s something which is very important to me. I love Scotland, and living in Edinburgh, it’s a place where you can find quiet and solitude but you can also enjoy the hustle and bustle of city life. And it’s also close to home, where I visit regularly. Scotland has influenced my music a lot in that I was living in Edinburgh in the mid nineties when the folk scene was burgeoning; all my friends were playing music and through forming some bands, I ended up playing full time as well. I’ve spent much of my musical life playing with fiddlers so that has had a huge impact on my own musical style. In recent years I have ben returning more and more often to my native area of Dundalk Co. Louth Ireland, both to see family, but also to work with Oirialla, a band I am in with Gerry (fiddle) O Connor, Martin Quinn on accordion and Gilles le Bigot on guitar. Oirialla is Irish Gaelic for Oriel, an ancient kingdom of Ireland that encompassed our home areas. That music is very much focused on place, on the local area and repertoire. It’s very satisfying for me to play music that is so connected to my own roots as a musician and person.
For some time, I had wanted to spend time in New York to connect more deeply with the musicians there, with whom I had a passing acquaintance over the years, and to live in one of the world’s great cities. I got the chance to spend a year there in 2012, and have been touring a lot in North America since then, venturing to many parts of the States and experiencing many new places. From driving through boiling hot Cleveland Ohio in June, to swimming in lakes in Vermont in September, I have really enjoyed checking out the huge breadth and vast scope of the U.S. It’s a very different place to Europe and interesting to travel through. It’s yet to be seen how these experiences influence my work, but I think they undoubtedly will, everything goes into the pot. Right now, (I just landed in Seattle another place where I’ve never been) I’m still in the thick of a very busy touring phase, and I find it difficult to assimilate and write about past experiences whilst still experiencing a plethora of new ones.
How has your music changed since you started performing? (Stylistically, philosophically…)
I hope I have grown and improved as a musician. I think about music in a much broader way now than when I first started out. I listen more to what’s going on around me, both musically and in the environment; the atmosphere of a concert, the sounds around me when I am travelling or at home.
What are you listening to now? Who and what are your inspirations?
I’m verging on an obsession with the American singer songwriter Elvis Perkins at the moment. I love his album Ash Wednesday. I just played at Celtic Colours Festival in Cape Breton where I heard lots of inspiring people perform- Daniel Lapp, Bruce Molsky, John Doyle, Troy MacGillivray, Otis
Thomas, Kathleen MacInnes, Cathy-Ann MacPhee, Wendy MacIsaac, Mary-Jane Lamond, Glenn Graham, Andrea Beaton … the list goes on. I find Cape Breton a very inspiring place to be.
Do you have a particular musical goal or focus in your current tour?
Just to play the music I love with integrity and joy. There are sad songs of course, heart-breaking traditional love songs and ballads. But also a lot of the music is dance music at its core, and has an inbuilt sense of rhythm and joy. Our show is mix of traditional and also new material I’ve composed, and reflects some other emotions or experiences.
How would you describe your musical identity? What does it mean to you to be a musician?
It’s a blessing and I feel grateful to be able to pursue my ideas and share them with others. Every concert is a special occasion that will only ever happen once, and I try to be mindful of that. My musical identity is very much linked to my roots in Ireland, but also reflects my own personal experiences and journey through life. I’m excited to be coming out West, this is my first tour here!