Exploring the musical dialogue of Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Thomas Bartlett’s debut album

Music writer Sophie Harris speaks to The Gloaming's Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett about their new self-titled album, which is out on Real World Records on 13th September 2019.

“Do you know the feeling you have when you experience a film that affects you, and you leave the cinema and you don’t want to talk to anyone?” asks The Gloaming’s fiddle player Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh. “When you don’t want to go home, and you just walk around the streets until that feeling has been given the space it needed?” He pauses for a moment. “That’s something I really value, and I think we succeeded in on this album. To give a feeling— and then to leave the space for you to digest it.”

It is as perfect a description as you could hope to find for a record that’s so satisfyingly hard to pin down. Beautiful, spare and unendingly intriguing, the album draws inspiration from WS Sebald’s 1995 novel The Rings of Saturn (itself reviewed in the New York Times as being “like a dream you want to last forever”).

Largely improvised, these songs shimmer with aliveness and spontaneity, taking cues from the last Talk Talk albums: “On those records, there’s a feeling of things unfolding in a way that has more to do with the natural world and the way a plant grows than some musician making a decision,” says Bartlett; also, the spirit of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks: “I love that you can hear all the wheels falling off the carriage as they’re going,” says Ó Raghallaigh.

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

Both musicians are celebrated in their own right —Bartlett for his Doveman records and as a producer for St Vincent, Rhye, Sufjan Stevens, Yoko Ono, among others— and Ó Raghallaigh as a member of Irish-Swedish-American fusioneers This Is How We Fly. But together the pair are best known as members of international folk supergroup The Gloaming.

Onstage with The Gloaming, be it at Carnegie Hall or the Sydney Opera House, you’ll see Ó Raghallaigh and Bartlett performing at opposite sides of the stage. “There’s this core of volcanic intensity in the middle,” says Bartlett, with a laugh, “and then Caoimhín and I are making cloud shapes around it.”

Playing as a duo is, of course, a world away from playing with The Gloaming. “Compare having a conversation with one person, to sitting down around a table with five people,” says Ó Raghallaigh. “No matter what the language is, those are going to be fundamentally very different conversations and very different ways of interacting.”

The Gloaming live at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, March 2018.
"We just started and went, for hours and hours. It’s extraordinary to have a connection with a musician like that, where you’re discovering it in the moment as you’re recording. We didn’t know that there’d be anything there, but this thing unfurled in front of our eyes.” Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh
 

While there were always flickers of magic between the pair onstage, neither could have anticipated the electric connection that opened up the first time they played together, alone. The Gloaming were touring in Mexico (March, 2015) and the band had booked studio time on their day off— but only Bartlett and Ó Raghallaigh could make the session.

“Of course, the sunshine was blazing outside, but we were oblivious in this dark cavern,” remembers Ó Raghallaigh. “The entire day disappeared right there. We just started and went, for hours and hours.” The experience was nothing short of a revelation. “It’s extraordinary to have a connection with a musician like that, where you’re discovering it in the moment as you’re recording,” says Ó Raghallaigh. “We didn’t know that there’d be anything there, but this thing unfurled in front of our eyes.”

Bartlett agrees. “It just felt so completely natural,” he says. “There is a lot of delight between us, and I think both of us really loves the other’s playing, in a pretty uncomplicated way.” Bartlett is often asked if he’ll make a solo piano record, but, he says, “I don’t want to listen to myself— it’s not of any interest to me. But the sounds that Caoimhin coaxes out of his instrument, I find so beautiful. That I can be a part of that, and facilitate, is just delightful to me.”

The pair’s fascination with deconstruction and decay in art is evident in the album’s artwork— Saul Leiter’s 1960 photograph, Snow. “It’s such a powerful image,” says Ó Raghallaigh. “I love how the lines are blurred and definite things become indeterminate. It says to me what I would love our music to say to others,” he says, beginning to laugh, “without really knowing what that is.”

Two songs came out of that first Mexico session— Barlett’s ‘Zona Rosa’, named for the Mexican district where they were staying, and Ó Raghallaigh’s ‘Wanderer’, inspired by the moment he and his wife moved into their new home, a tiny cottage in Dublin, months earlier. The playing here is so luminous, you can practically see the dust motes suspended in sunlight.

Thomas Bartlett in The Wood Room at Real World Studios. Photo credit: York Tillyer

A year later, the pair were at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios near Bath, recording a piece for Volker Schlöndorff’s film Return to Montauk (September, 2016). Again, they had extra studio time on their hands. So, after playing like kids on each of the many synthesizers in the main studio, they moved to the smaller Wood Room to record. “There’s a real warmth and resonance there,” says Bartlett, adding, with a laugh, “I think at that point it seemed like, Oh, maybe we actually are making a record.”

It took another year for Bartlett and Ó Raghallaigh to reconvene, for the album’s final session in New York (October, 2017). Here, they recorded at Reservoir in Midtown, where Bartlett and his friend and collaborator Nico Muhly both have their studios; it’s also the workplace of Grammy-winning producer Pat Dillett, who mixed this album. The electrifying album opener, ‘Kestrel‘, was improvised here, initially as a soundcheck, when a fully-formed song fluttered into view.

Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Thomas Bartlett - Kestrel

The beauty of simple things: Saul Leiter

American photographer Saul Leiter's work features on the cover of an upcoming Real World release.

 

“When we’re playing together, it’s just totally open, and anything can happen at any point,” says Ó Raghallaigh. “Both of us are interested in what happens when you push the big red button and see what comes out.” Indeed, the connection between the two musicians is so palpable and powerful that the experience for the listener is positively intimate— Bartlett and Ó Raghallaigh’s shared wonder, now being shared with you.

As with recordings of Keith Jarrett’s improvised Köln performance, the music becomes familiar, catchy even, on repeated listens; as Ó Raghallaigh observes, “You hear the first echo of an idea, and come to love where it grew from.”

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Naturally, the prospect of playing these largely improvised pieces in a live setting is a juicy one. “The nice thing will be that since I’ve barely listened to this record since sequencing it, I’ll have just as little idea of where the songs go as when we recorded them,” says Bartlett, “So we’ll make different decisions but I think they’ll retain the same feeling.”

The kaleidoscopic possibilities of a tune were opened up to Ó Raghallaigh early. Growing up, the aspiring fiddler was taught in music lessons, “These are the notes of the tune, and then you tell your brain to come up with variations and be very clever.” That all came undone for him as a teen, when he played a simple tune over and over again until he’d exhausted all his clever variations— and there was nothing left. “Beyond that,” he says, “there was an experience I’d never had before, where ideas came from nowhere, through my fingers. Since then, I’m always trying to find ways in which I can cheat myself into a state of not being in control.”

“The challenge is, how do we find ways to embrace chance —and actually create the conditions for chance to thrive?” he asks. Evidence of his search, shared with Bartlett, can be found on the album Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Thomas Bartlett— a record shot through with joy, curiosity, mystery and wonder.

“And that’s not just in making music,” he adds. “That’s in everything you do. Make more place for chance.”

Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Thomas Bartlett’s self-titled album is out on September 13 2019. Tickets for autumn live dates in Cork, Dublin, London and New York are on sale now.

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By Sophie Harris

Sophie Harris is a music writer currently based in London where she writes and sub-edits for MOJO, The Guardian and Rolling Stone, among others.

Published on Fri, 30 August 19

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