Foxlight

Iarla Ó Lionáird, 2011

For his third solo album - Foxlight - the acclaimed singer Iarla O Lionaird delivers an impassioned and sublime set of personal songs, combining the twin urges to write more new material and yet also work with an intriguing set of collaborators. O Lionaird began writing new songs, secluding himself in his home studio on Herdman's Hill in remote Kilkenny. Joined by guitarist and producer, Leo Abrahams, the album took shape as O Lionaird and Abrahams split their time between rural Ireland and Abrahams' own studio in Bow, East London.

These disparate settings and the varying tonality of the contributing artists make this a record that shimmers with versatility. Whilst rooted in certain traditions, it is also unclassifiable and refuses to be located in one genre or another. It's one of O Lionaird's most organic, naturalistic records to date. Instrumentation and layers are embedded in each song, but ultimately it's about Iarla's exquisite, sonically unique voice.

From his early days as a sean-nos singer, to Afro Celt Sound System and his collaborative and solo work, O Lionaird has always ploughed his own artistic furrow. His work is very connected to the totems of traditional Irish music - sean-nos, the Irish language, traditional instrumentation - but various projects have broadened his experience and understanding in the multi-faceted nature of music. Nurtured on childhood songs, the Celtic rhythms that underpin the Afro-Celt sound and collaborations with composers Gavin Bryars and Donnacha Dennehy, there is much more to O Lionaird's exceptional gift than merely being a sean-nos singer. "People ascribe a lot of things to me musically - Cuil Aodha, Sean-nos, traditional... all of those sacred cows. They're certainly there, but I've always been a journeyman. With this record, I wanted to do things I hadn't done before and that's also because my way of listening has changed."

A host of diverse musicians contribute to these songs. Composer Jon Hopkins, strings duo Geese, folktronica innovator Leafcutter John and fiddle and hardanger player Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, helped provided the eclectic, epic sweep of these compositions. Central to the album's inception was producer Leo Abrahams. O Lionaird produced the last record himself, but this time around decided that "singing, writing and expressing" were his priority. "This time, I've tried to just experience the voice, I wanted to reach new levels of expression". Abrahams is a talented guitarist who has gravitated towards the production end of music. Having worked with Brian Eno, Paul Simon and Ed Harcourt, Abrahams brought a huge amount to bear on the record, according to O Lionaird. Iarla cites an acute observation Abrahams made on 'Eleanor Plunkett', which sums up the trust that lies in their working relationship. "The song was a blizzard of ornamentation, because I was singing it the way harpers play it. Leo said there was "an over abundance of melismatic activity"; it was a joke we had, but he was right so I stripped it all away."

The ensemble of musicians involved is just as intriguing, given their varied musical backgrounds and disciplines. Abrahams plays guitar on the songs, as does Neil McColl; Leafcutter John offered multi-textured electronics, while accomplished players, Sarah and Vince of Geese provided strings. Jon Hopkins' complex piano compositions feature heavily too. On 'Daybreak', Iarla is joined by a female singer, from a vocal tradition with a similar aural history to his own sean-nos. Sara Marielle Gaup of Norwegian act Adjagas is a Sami singer, expert at yoiking. The two performed together at a church in Dublin and the shared narrative of the relationship to time and land is something O Lionaird was drawn to, and calls "quasi-shamanic." His old friend fiddler Caoimhin O'Raghallaigh is central to the album. O Lionaird describes him as "an explorer who creates these large, deep sound fields around a note. He puts this beautiful dirt back in to the traditional."

"I've learnt to sing a certain way because of the way I listen to music," says Iarla, of his approach to singing. "I really feel that before I even said I decided to be a singer, my body, my mind and my psyche had been co-moulded with songs, to such an extent that I wouldn't be able to sing the way I do where it not for the fact that my body wants to, and I get intense joy out of doing it. It's a complete sort of feeling." That complete feeling echoes throughout the songs. 'The Heart of the World' opens with an atmospheric vocal of compressed wisdoms and proverbs. Shot through with pastoral rhythms and birdsong, it introduces the countryside setting that prevails throughout. "It's a song about renewal", says O Lionaird, "I've known people who've had to lose everything to get anything. This song talks about what is profound and important in life. It's about the loneliness of the soul, but it's an ecstatic loneliness".

'Fainne Gan An Lae' comes from the Goodman Collection, and is a song many learn to play on the tinwhistle. "I learnt it from the great Steve Cooney and it's very much like a vision song. It's very diaphanous, spooky... and is a song about light." 'Eleanor Plunkett' was composed by Turlough O'Carolan and O Lionaird likens this version - with piano and guitar - to American folk in the Bob Dylan tradition. 'Foxlight', an anthropomorphic ode to nature, is built on the electronic flourishes of Leafcutter John. Originally taught to him by his mother, 'The Goat Song' is a traditional song noted as a classic for its simplicity, which Iarla wanted to acknowledge.

Unsurprisingly, the inspiration behind 'For The Heavens' came from skywards. O Lionaird admits to being interested in stars and owning a telescope. "I've always been intrigued by that sense of scale, and when I was small, I would drag my dad out at night to watch satellites tracking across the sky. That song is really about the blessings of home and how they rain down on you. It's almost a prayer of thanks for the heaven I have here in my home". Perhaps the most celebratory song on Foxlight is 'Hand in Hand', an exultant love song, with a falsetto chorus. It echoes back to the singer's childhood, but is ultimately a love song about his wife, featuring strings duo Geese. Written by a poet friend Domhnall O' Liathain, 'Imeacht'/'A Leave-taking' is "an inverted vision song". It laments the loss of human ecology and old rituals. 'Seven Suns' is an ancient monastic work of praise featuring huge amounts of instrumentation. "It's a prayer song, celebrating every day," says O Lionaird. "Despite my atheism, I felt a transcendence at the end of this song, and we did it in one take." The album concludes with the circular themes of family and mortality, in the form of 'Stay'. Jon Hopkins plays piano and lyrically it examines the hereafter and death. All eleven songs are imbued with a sense of time and place, of connections and myths. From ancient rhythms to modern electronics, O Lionaird's exceptional voice is the fulcrum around which everything pivots.

2011 will be a productive year for the singer. May saw the release of Donnacha Dennehy's Gra agus Bas (Nonesuch Records) in which Iarla features as a soloist on the title piece. He will also reunite with Gavin Bryars on a forthcoming project and has established a new band The Gloaming with Martin Cahill, Dennis Hayes, Tom Bartlett and Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, which he describes as sounding "like an indie band playing traditional music".


(Text edited from original words by Sinead Gleeson)

Reviews

  • His voice remains a thing of wonder. He comes from the unaccompanied sean nos singing tradition, one into which he was born and in which he was nurtured throughout his childhood. To say that he has updated that style would be inaccurate; instead, I'd say that he has extended it into the present and created a sketch of its future possibilities. On Foxlight, he is accompanied by artists from a variety of traditions on songs both traditional and original, all of them delivered in a hushed and contemplative style. CD Holist Online (USA)
  • ...one of the greatest living practitioners of the sean-nós ("old-style") tradition of Celtic singing, returns with Foxlight. ...with its added emphasis on original material, is a gorgeous step forward for Ó Lionáird. allmusic.com (USA)
  • delicate melange of earthy acoustic instruments with gentle electronica textures. Foxlight opens with "The Heart of the World," an epic track that builds slowly and soon sweeps the landscape like a bald eagle in flight, helped with a repetitive riff... The music is a delicate melange of earthy acoustic instruments with gentle electronica textures. In the center of it all is the beautiful instrument that is O'Lionáird's voice. It has the purity of a sean nos singer with a contemporary flair of a modern folk player. Irish Central (Ireland)
  • ...plethora of pleasant percussion, sweeping electronic washes, and twinkling string arrangements. Iarla sings contemporary Gaelic songs that incorporate a plethora of pleasant percussion, sweeping electronic washes, and twinkling string arrangements. ...world music renderings are evident with soulful vocals, soothing instrumentation, and plaintive percussion. The dozen tracks are an insightful romp through the musical repertoire of a candid and creative performer. Insideworldmusic.org (Online)
  • The Telegraph - A feast of new Folk music ...the new album by IARLA Ó LIONAIRD called Foxlight. The former Afro-Celt Sound System singer, who is doing a PHD in Ethnomusicology, sings beautifully on his fourth solo album, which is produced by Leo Abrahams. There are flowing violins, viola, cello, fiddle, guitars and keyboards and O' Lionaird's golden voice in an album mainly sung in Gaelic. A particularly lovely track is Ta Dha Ghabhairin Bhui Agam - The Goat Song. The Telegraph (UK)
  • That voice, with all its midnight depth and soaring breadth... The mood of Ó Lionáird's third solo album, Foxlight, is one of buoyant lightness, with shards of darkness slicing through it. His last album, Invisible Fields, was released in 2005. Lengthy gestation, resulting in the release of work that is fully realised, is a hallmark of Ó Lionáird's recorded output... Foxlight follows an ambitious arc through traditional songs such as Fáinne Geal An Lae and The Goat Song , with a beautiful reading of O'Carolan's Eleanor Plunkett, and a kaleidoscopic range of original material, written by Ó Lionáird. His producer, Leo Abrahams, brings cool, clean lines to the arrangements, having worked previously with Brian Eno, David Byrne, Gavin Bryars and Nick Cave, among others. read more here The Irish Times (Ireland)
  • Irish traditional singer pushes boundaries with outstanding results He's blessed with a wonderfully expressive voice, and with the ability to sing in Gaelic like few others...each of its predecessors has been a gem and his interpretations of traditional Gaelic pieces are pretty much definitive. ...perfect soundscape for O'Lionaird's peerless voice...hugely rewarding experience it is...rich, powerful and tender...providing the perfect atmosphere and the end results manage the rare trick of sounding both ancient and contemporary at the same time. 8/10 Americana.uk.com
  • ...beautiful sounding songs Iarla's voice is rich and expressive, coming across with such clarity that it soon becomes irrelevant what language you are hearing. The sounds themself are sufficient to carry you. ...repeated listening definitely brings rewards. Foxlight has been awarded the Irish Times Best Album of the Year Award in the Traditional category, which says a lot about the quality of the songs on offer here. Guitar Cafe (UK)
  • This is an outstanding and original album which is both passionate and personal. His broad experience has taken ideas from diverse sources... It's contemporary with a reflective and natural feel which is enjoyable and relaxing. Like the cover artwork, it shimmers with beauty whether or not you understand the Gaelic language. AAA Music (UK)
  • Iarla wins Best Traditional Album of 2011 The prestigious Irish Times has awarded Iarla O Lionaird Best Album of the Year in the Traditional catagory. A well deserved recognition of his outstanding, ground breaking new album Foxlight: "Reflection and contemplation seem to be the order of the traditional music world these days. Stand-out albums have had one thing in common: a consistency of tone and mood that hints at a desire to do so much more than merely air a new (or an old) tune set or song.... Iarla Ó Lionáird raised the bar yet again with his soul-filled, light world, Foxlight . " (Siobhan Long, Irish Times) The Irish Times (Ireland)
  • ...rich, compelling and nothing short of prefect. ...there's also an expressiveness and a clarity in the vocal performance that simply can't be equaled. As always Iarla Ó Lionáird's voice is rich, compelling and nothing short of prefect....a release that can stand proudly next to its predecessor, Invisible Fields. Folkradio.co.uk (UK)
  • Foxlight takes listeners to distant musical planets from which they may not wish to return. ...broad palette of sonic textures...Opener 'The Heart Of The World' has seductive Eastern overtones... A meditative stillness... featuring delicious strings... It would be sacrilege to treat this as mere chill-out music... Hot Press (UK)
  • ...Ó Lionáird breaks new creative ground with Foxlight... The result is not so much a fusion or synthesis as a melting pot of sublime pure- note singing, a charming sense of almost monastic oddness, and some of the most sky-kissing melodies you'll hear all year. Irish Times (Ireland)
  • Now on this album from ancient rhythms to folktronic... ...innovator John Leafcutter's modern electronics, the exceptional voice is the fulcrum around which everything pivots. TAPLAS (Wales folk, roots and world music magazine) (Wales)
  • Folk music with a bit of class if you're looking for a serious bit of 'chill-out' then this album will more likely appeal to you as it did me. Many of the folk world will know Iarla O'Lionaird having been the vocalist in the Afro Celt Sound System but here...this recording is a far more relaxed affair...repeat listening will be justly rewarded by those who enjoy their 'folk' music with a bit of class. Maverick magazine (UK)