Foxlight

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.

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.

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 The Gloaming, 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."

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.

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 has already been a productive year for the singer. May saw the release of Donnacha Dennehy's Gra agus Bas (Nonesuch Records) on 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 called The Gloaming with Martin Cahill, Dennis Hayes, Thomas  Bartlett and Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, which he describes as sounding "like an indie band playing traditional music". Their made their debut with a sold out concert at The National Concert Hall in Dublin in August.

(Text edited from original words by Sinead Gleeson)

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