Entering the sonic world of The Gloaming 3

We are always trying to allow the music to breathe into a more mantric and transcendent space,” Iarla Ó Lionáird says, and then laughs a little at his own presumption. “This is coming from a guy who hasn’t got a new age bone in his body. But I do believe that is one of the primal purposes of music: to manage mental states. In the case of The Gloaming it achieves a sort of heightened transparency and intensity and goes into a dream state. People want that. They love being taken there and they love dwelling in that place. And so do we.”

Anyone who has seen The Gloaming perform will recognise the truth of that: four musicians and one singer caught in a moment, seemingly suspended in time as their music unfurls around them, its tendrils reaching out into every nook and cranny of the room. It’s Irish music— how it could be anything else with violinists Martin Hayes and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, guitarist Dennis Cahill, and with Ó Lionáird, one of the greatest contemporary sean-nós singers? But it’s also more than that: pianist and producer Thomas Bartlett steers the music towards a place where modernity and the old world become one. You can hear so much in the music of The Gloaming, despite its sparseness, because so much is there. As Hayes puts it, describing their third studio album, The Gloaming 3: “The journey of the band has been the journey of each musician finding their musical sweet spot inside the overall mix. In this recording we are all performing more deeply than ever from our areas of core strength.”

Photo credit: Heidi Solander.
“The journey of the band has been the journey of each musician finding their musical sweet spot inside the overall mix. In this recording we are all performing more deeply than ever from our areas of core strength.” Martin Hayes

On The Gloaming 3, the old and new, and the threads between the two, come together in the two songs that bookend the album: ‘Meáchan Rudaí’ and ‘Amhrán na nGleann’. The former is a setting of a poem by Liam Ó Muirthile, who died in May 2018, the latter an ancient song Ó Lionáird has been singing since he was a boy. Both confront death; the former in a son remembering his mother, the latter in its meditation over a buried chieftain. “They’re siblings, except the first one is beautifully personal and yet it reaches into the universal. And the last one is oddly impersonal. It’s more to do with community and ritual. The ritual of death and of life: they’re both there. I find the first one to be more about life in a way, and the difficulty of letting it go, and the last one is about the mechanics of letting go.”

Iarla Ó Lionáird talks with Martin Hayes during the album recording sessions at Reservoir Studios. Photo credit: Heidi Solander.
"I think the songs on the record are very much about the realisation that occurs when you reach a certain age, that this is a very temporary situation and we need to reflect that as beautifully and as powerfully and as honestly as we can. That sounds very pious, but that's where it's at." Iarla Ó Lionáird

In translation, the lyrics of ‘Meáchan Rudaí’ are extraordinary, but when Bartlett set it to music he had no idea what it might be about from the words. When he and Ó Lionáird come together, he is dependent on the nature of the singer’s delivery to work out the journey the music might navigate. “I can respond to what is being conveyed emotionally pretty easily,” Bartlett says. “Iarla does talk me through things eventually, and the words of ‘Meáchan Rudaí’ are just extraordinary. Iarla had recorded that vocal with very minimal accompaniment, then he went away and I built the whole song around that vocal, and when he came back he was astonished because again and again I had picked harmonic things that seemed to be responding very directly to things in the text, but I didn’t know what the text was: there’s a certain amount of intuiting what’s going on. Its like Sigur Rós before: you can tell what Jónsi is getting at even if the words are gibberish.”

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“What was interesting about that,” Ó Lionáird says, “and probably instructive, is that when we were writing that —writing and recording it at exactly the same time— he was feeding off whatever energy I was expressing, and then he was sending it back to me in the way he was playing the piano, and the pressure and the power with which he played, and that just fed me more.” The result is an extraordinary and uncompromising recording, one that contains joy and sadness and nostalgia and pain and yearning, and a strange sense of ritual in its repetitions.

The official video for 'Meáchan Rudaí (The Weight of Things)', created by film maker Tom Kalin

It reflects, too, Ó Lionáird’s preoccupations over the last 12 months. “There was a lot of grieving in my life this year. This was an unusual year for me. My sister died in the spring, and then Liam Ó Muirthile died, and a bunch of other people. It was obviously on my mind. Maybe it’s not so much grieving as reaching a realisation: I think the songs on the record are very much about the realisation that occurs when you reach a certain age, that this is a very temporary situation and we need to reflect that as beautifully and as powerfully and as honestly as we can. That sounds very pious, but that’s where it’s at.”

Another Ó Muirthile poem, ‘Áthas (Joy)’, was recorded for perhaps even more personal reasons. “He actually sent that to my mother a few weeks before he died— he had worked with my mother as well. I really wanted to work on that song; I don’t know why. I thought I could do something with it. I spent the whole summer working on it.” It also contains the lines that perhaps sum up the whole ethos of the album, in which death becomes a way to celebrate life: “And I let grief itself / Show without shame / If that’s what I feel.

The first two Gloaming albums were simple affairs, the band gathering in a studio to record songs they had worked out while playing live. This time was different. Bartlett says only three of the 10 songs had been road-tested. So instead of The Gloaming playing as a quintet, Bartlett and Ó Lionáird got together in New York a handful of times to work out the songs, the assembled the band for three days in Bartlett’s Manhattan studio —where he shares space with Nico Muhly and Sufjan Stevens— to lay down the bulk of the record, before Bartlett spent a month knitting it together.

But instead of losing spontaneity, The Gloaming gained something new from the process. “Rather than having these big chunks of music we knew had a particular shape and were set in stone, I was able to make more precise decisions about where the emotional turns happen and showcase Martin and Caoimhín in different ways to where it’s material we’ve all played together, so they have both developed exactly what they are going to do before we record. Whereas with this, I could think, ‘Now I’m going to get just Caoimhín playing this tune and I can build up around it.’ There’s a little more depth and specificity this time around.”

Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett at Reservoir studios. Photo credit: Heidi Solander.

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It also helped Bartlett, as the producer, to make a record that’s reassuringly Gloaming-like without descending into a caricature of what has become a very distinctive sound. “That’s something I’m very aware of, skirting that line. And that’s part of why I felt strongly about opening the record with ‘Meáchan Rudaí’ —something that comes out of nowhere and feels very different to what we’ve done before. Then the second track comes in and it’s so The Gloaming— I’ve given us the space to do that by having something so different in front of it.”

There are little touches throughout The Gloaming 3 that signal its points of difference: from the single repeated note that opens the whole album to the integration of very untraditional instrumentation. “It was fun for me to be able to subtly reinforce different harmonic things,” Bartlett says, “not having to bash them out on the piano but have a voice over to the side. In that sense, this one felt very new for me.”

Photo credit: Heidi Solander

But the heart of The Gloaming remains the accident of time and place that brought these five people together. The accident of Thomas Bartlett, as a child, being obsessed by Martin Hayes’ playing and as an adult dreaming of finding a new way to showcase it. The accident of him being elected their producer when taking a nap on the afternoon he first met the other four. The accident of the chemistry between the players, and the instinctive sympathy between them and Ó Lionáird, enabling words sung in a language that few who hear the group can speak to communicate their truths through sound.

“They are going into some sonic world, an area where dots from all sorts of worlds connect,” Ó Lionáird says of his bandmates. “With The Gloaming it all has to do with when we happened and who was in the room. If it had been anytime else and anyone else I don’t think this conversation would be happening.”

The Gloaming 3 is released on Real World Records worldwide on 22 February 2019. The band are touring across Europe and the USA throughout the Spring.

Pre-order the album

Featured release

  • The Gloaming 3

    The Gloaming

    Released 22 February 2019

    World renowned Irish American supergroup The Gloaming return with their highly anticipated third album. Produced by Thomas Bartlett, the album was recorded in New York City at Reservoir Studios. Like its predecessors, it richly reimagines the vernacular of traditional Irish music through a modern prism via elements of post-rock, jazz, contemporary classical, chamber and minimalism.

By Michael Hann

Writer and editor (Guardian, Financial Times, Spectator, 1843, Uncut, Classic Rock, Prog, Pitchfork, The Quietus). Main image: The Gloaming in New York City, 2018. Photo credit: Heidi Solander.

Published on Wed, 20 February 19

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