Iarla Ó Lionáird on soundtracking the music for ‘I Could Read the Sky’

Iarla talks to Mic Moroney about the new album

It's often hard to know where Timothy O'Grady's novel, I Could Read the Sky, is set, other than in the splintered memory of an old, broken, spent Irish labourer, reminiscing in his London bedsit. It's the oddest of books, liberally illustrated with Steve Pyke's moody black and white photographs. It arose in part from O'Grady's own experiences, as well as conversations and vibey musical sessions with the great fiddler Martin Hayes from County Clare in Ireland and other emigrant Irish musicians and indeed labourers in England and the USA.

Once published, the public launches of the book —from Seattle and Chicago to Dublin and London— snowballed into big, emotional gigs with coalitions of artists performing in solidarity with an hitherto unwritten Irish experience —that of the countless, nameless thousands of Irish navvies who worked themselves to death, building the roads and railways and infrastructure of great metropolises all over the western world.

At the London launch, apart from O’Grady and Pyke, there was actor Stephen Rea; and amongst the musicians were Irish sean nós (literally “old-style”) singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, Sinéad O’Connor, and Martin Hayes with his guitar accompanist-partner Dennis Cahill. They all did their bit, performing under Pyke’s large projected photographs —as if the subject was somehow bigger than all of them.

Iarla Ó Lionáird. Photo credit: Steve Pyke

“The Shepherds Bush gig was so emotional because the place was full of Irish emigrants, and the response was rapturous. I’ve had successful gigs there with the Afro Celts, but this was different. Old people were coming. For the first time in their lives, someone was celebrating their experience.”

When Nichola Bruce mooted her moody, impressionistic, feature-length film of the book, Ó Lionáird leapt at the opportunity. “She approached me as a singer, but I offered my services in a broader way. I was hoping to bring a synthesis of my own experience as a Gaelic-speaking person from the West of Ireland, and my understanding of immersion in the urban London landscape.”

From the book 'I Could Read The Sky' by Timothy O'Grady and Steve Pyke. Photo Credit: Steve Pyke.

Ó Lionáird’s record company, Real World, didn’t take much convincing to row in behind the soundtrack. Now they are releasing an album of music written for and inspired by the film: a thoughtful, low-temperature soundscape in its own right, with key voices emerging from the mix on different tracks. “I wanted to see if we could make a coherent, interesting album as a by-product of the film, using different structural components, short narrative snatches of what would have been longer abstract pieces…”

As producer Iarla drew together a web of people, at the hub of which is desk-man Ron Aslan, the sharp London-based programmer— in Iarla’s words, “a real left-field, underground, hardcore, drum-and-bass techno man, who’s worked with Bowie and Trevor Horn. Ron was a real pleasure to work with; it was easy to spend 15 hours at a time working really hard without any sense of dismay or upset —and that’s important”

Iarla came at the album from a multiplicity of angles, singing new material himself, his voice hovering on the thermals of multi-layered, compacted, quasi-ambient sound —just as he did with Canadian producer Michael Brook on his solo album on Real World, The Seven Steps to Mercy (Seacht gCoiscéim na Trocaire).

Building in samples of everything from instruments and building sites “just to give haphazard texturing” to the voice of novelist Dermot Healy (who neatly fits the film’s central role), Iarla also brought in London-Irish musos James McNally and Tommy McManamon, as well as Caroline Dale‘s lyrical cello.

Meanwhile, Sinéad O’Connor re-interpreted the 18th century Irish rebellion-hymn, ‘Roisin Dubh’; and the final album track is herself and Iarla duetting on the old Northern Irish song, ‘Singing Bird’ —live from the Shepherds Bush Empire gig.

Photo credit: Steve Pyke

Another fine track features the Scary Eire rapper, with the handle of Rí-Rá – based in London but originally from Tullamore, County Offaly— delivering himself in the blistering, marinated rage of a sedated hip-hop routine (Knuckles to the Marrow) which will raise brand new hairs on the back of your neck. “I was blown away by the sheer originality of his hip-hop vibe. I felt I was in the studio with someone really special. He’s very good at compressing lyrics down to very strong statements, way ahead of himself in some ways…”

The general sound has as much to do with the undertow of Iarla’s ambient Irish drones. “I wanted the whole thing to have an uncertainty to it, there’s a jazzy element as well, with industrial soundscapes and beats, with no attempt to squeeze it into a dance category.”

However, the heavy texturing is respectfully broken for the naked recordings of two great Irish musical masters: the impeccable lilt of Martin Hayes‘ fiddle playing the nostalgic old tune, ‘The Old Road to Garry’; and Noel Hill‘s little concertina, shaking the emotion from the air to the traditional song, ‘The Mountains of Pomeroy’.

Born in 1964 as the fourth-last of 12 kids, Iarla grew up in west County Cork: a place called Cúil Aodha, a remote, rural Gaeltacht area where Irish was the first language spoken by the people and emigration was as common as supper. “I must say this, the character in the film is only one of hundreds of thousands that went to England and fell into a quasi-slave class and never integrated, except in ghettos.  Many came from the back of beyond, to arrive in London with no understanding of a complex modern society.” Like the guy in the film says, his first day left him with the impression that England was ‘all grey walls running with water…’

“Because I grew up in the countryside, I can understand so strongly that the only things these men had ever really heard were birds and cows and horses.  So, from a familiar world of country lanes and cottages and seasonal farm work— that’s the mindscape Noel’s and Martin’s music comes from, a world of birdsong, of gentleness— all of a sudden, these people were hearing monstrous machines, Hilti guns, buses. The mind wouldn’t have the apparatus to deal with that, it could be quite a crushing experience. That was the threshold we were trying to cross… “

The beauty of Iarla Ó Lionáird's voice was apparent from a very early age. In this clip Martin Hayes describes first time he heard Iarla sing and the impact it had on him. Taken from the film 'Moment to Moment', directed by Philip King & produced by South Wind Blows.

“I spend a vast proportion of my working time in London now, but until recently I knew nothing about the London-Irish community, apart from old fellas in Cúil Aodha who’d worked their whole lives as navvies and their memories were very scattered. That workman’s life in London had, and indeed has, quite an invisibility to it. A never-ending supply of young men who are dead by their early 60s…”

“I was trying to reflect the turmoil inside a man like that, at the end of his life, using an amalgam of memory, modernity, fracture and disturbance, and pressing them in on each other.  His mind would have been full of pockets of reflection; full of a kind of compressed sadness, like a huge weight. I also wanted to bring something uniquely Irish to it —using voices, words, prayers, melodies and instrumentation characteristic of my upbringing.  It was bound to end up slightly blue.”

If you’re Irish, the prayer-track, ‘Urnai’, will probably raise gooseflesh. “I was asked by the director to create a piece where the camera is panning over all these old heads at the father’s funeral; she wanted something that would lift the prayers out of their heads. So I started imagining what my exposure to prayer was, which was pretty non-stop when I was a kid. I remember lying in bed and hearing my parents and grandparents praying in different pitches. My mother, like a lot of the old people, always said prayers in a genuine tonality. They almost sang their prayers, and I had fun making the drones with the keyboard and harmonium together —they have different ways of modulating, they kind of pulse at you, with the prayer words showering over you…”

From the book 'I Could Read The Sky' by Timothy O'Grady and Steve Pyke. Photo Credit: Steve Pyke.

Originally, Iarla started working from a script and a cue-sheet, talking it all out with the film director Nichola Bruce to develop an appropriate musical language.  “I didn’t have the movie in front of me so it was very open, like an imaginary landscape you were filling in. I worked 70 days solid in the Real World writing studio they call The Bunker and in Ron’s studio in London. The writing phase was about 50 days long.  We were in there for 15 hours a day.  We would read the scenes to each other and imagine the tone, a general sense of the colour required.”

Although he wasn’t the director, how did he enjoy the process of producing a soundtrack?  “It’s very, very interesting. The director is ultimately the boss, and often a director may have a very different understanding of music to you and you’ve to subjugate yourself to that. But I was lucky that I was producing something I was very involved with, I wasn’t producing a band, so I had the best of both worlds. And it’s brilliant when you lay the music on for the first time and really see the film coming to life. For my own solo album, I arrived with lots of sketches on paper and I played a lot of instruments, and this time again I had my little mascot, the ship’s harmonium.

During the writing phase I did everything that had to be done, doing the keyboard programming and playing piano, keyboards, organ, harmonium, deciding where things went, and how much of them went in —basically rolling up your sleeves and mucking in. But I used a lot of those instruments just for texture, and when Ron had programmed them I distressed and modulated them way beyond the raw sound.”

“As a producer, you work in both a musical and programmatic way, with a structure which you can actually see visually. Basically, you’re responsible for everything and at the end of the day people look to you for ideas— and, thanks be to God, I wasn’t short of them. I threw what I could at it, conceptually. “

What I couldn’t do.

Eat a meal lacking potatoes. Trust banks. Wear a watch. Ask a woman to go for a walk. Work with drains or with objects smaller than a nail. Drive a motor car. Eat tomatoes. Remember the routes of buses. Wear a collar in comfort. Win at cards. Acknowledge the Queen. Abide loud voices. Perform the manners of greeting and leaving. Save money. Take pleasure in work carried out in a factory. Drink coffee. Look into a wound. Follow cricket. Understand the speech of a man from West Kerry. Wear boots or shoes made from rubber. Best PJ in an argument. Speak with men wearing collars. Stay afloat in water. Understand their jokes. Face the dentist. Kill a Sunday. Stop remembering.

Excerpt from ‘I Could Read The Sky’

Although many voices and accents and experiences are brought to bear on this project, many percolate from Iarla’s native Cúil Aodha where the local hinterland hosts many fine poets, storytellers, fiddlers and flute-players.  Iarla’s own family provided a trove of songs and singing; he was first recorded at the age of seven, thanks to the many Slogadh music-competition prizes he won as a child, never mind his early association with the incorrigibly native choir in the Cúil Aodha church.

This unique choir was first set up by the late Sean Ó Riada —a giant of Irish traditional music and a man who set the old melodies into the European art-music setting, most memorably with his stirring, nationalistic Mise Eire orchestral symphony, around the motif of the air to ‘Roisin Dubh’.

Iarla’s first solo album on Real World, The Seven Steps to Mercy (Seacht gCoiscéim na Trocaire) —which he describes as a “core sample of where I come from” —includes a recording of himself at the age of 14, singing ‘Aisling Gheal’ under the tuition of Ó Riada’s son, Peadar, who took over the running of the Cuil Aodha choir. Indeed, Peadar Ó Riada’s own spacey, visionary recordings share much with Iarla’s —the same forthright emphasis to an old hymn or air, always respecting the rough-hewn shape of the Gaelic words; the same holistic atmospheres; the same philosophy of sampling ambient sounds, voices, tunes, histories. “We grew up in the same landscape, hearing the same sounds, voices and tunes…”

From the book 'I Could Read The Sky' by Timothy O'Grady and Steve Pyke. Photo Credit: Steve Pyke.

Although he remained with the choir until his early 20s, Iarla left to study literature in University College, Dublin and worked for some years as a teacher. But increasingly his sean nós crooning began to pop up on recordings such as on Shaun Davey‘s symphony, The Pilgrim —in front of 500 musicians including full orchestra, a 35-piece pipe band and three choirs; and on the great accordion-player Tony McMahon‘s beautifully pure album with Noel Hill, Aislingi Cheoil. Indeed, it was McMahon who coaxed Iarla back into singing after a two-year “sabbatical”.

Iarla even (briefly) pursued a career as an Irish television producer, but preferred his stint as a scrubbed-behind-the-ears producer presenter on The Pure Drop, meeting such great Irish musical folk luminaries as the late Micho Russell and Junior Crehan, Sean Maguire, Treasa Ni Mhiollain, Peg McGrath and Connie O’Connell.  “I was very privileged in that they talked to me. They were usually very shy, yet they were vast stores of a very complex art.”

The official video for 'Release', the title track of Afro Celt Sound System's second album, featuring Iarla and Sinéad O'Connor on vocals

Nowadays, Iarla spends a considerable amount of his time with the big touring outfit of the Afro Celt Sound System and is currently deep into the “writing stage” of the new Afro Celt album. However Iarla also tours his own “multi-media” solo show, backed up by projected computer-generated imagery. “It’s basically a set of 17 songs, about half of them accompanied by backing tracks from Michael Brook, like ambient poems. It’s pretty intense, but it’s a fantastic workout for me. I do it thematically, going through all the laments, children’s songs, love songs, spiritual songs —including one mediaeval song-cycle.”

“I’m extremely fortunate with my solo work, in that I can indulge myself and make the work more dreamy —and more hardcore at times. I don’t have to go down the paths that people other than Real World would try and carve out for me. I’d wither away without that opportunity.”

Featured Album

  • I Could Read The Sky

    Iarla Ó Lionáird

    Released 04 June 2000

    From the alluring nostalgia of a traditional Irish way of life to the exhilarating but sometimes brutal energy of London’s modern urban existence: outstanding and highly emotional performances by a select group of Ireland’s finest contemporary artists.

By Mic Moroney

Mic Moroney is a writer and freelance music journalist from Dublin, Ireland.

Main image: Iarla Ó Lionáird. Photo credit: Andy Glass, 1999.

Published on Thu, 03 February 00

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