An interview with Alyth McCormack - Life in Ireland, 'Homelands' and The Chieftains.

In August this year we launched Alyth McCormack’s 'Homelands' album on Tradconnect, and we also added it to our Download Centre, where broadcasters can download it for free.  At the time we spoke to Alyth about the album, her move to Ireland seven years ago and her regular tours with the Chieftains.

What influences your choice of material for an album, especially when it comes to a choice of standards like Carrickfergus and Raglan Road, over material by new writers? Is older material always better?

When I begin working on a new album, the process starts unconsciously long before I really start thinking about it. I begin to be drawn to certain songs that have a similar thread. My previous album ‘People like me’ was influenced greatly by my parents. As I was growing up, they were, and still are, politically and environmentally proactive and I realised a selection of songs I was singing reflected this, and that became the thread of that album. When I moved to Ireland 7 years ago I found it, surprisingly, a big change, it wasn’t as if there was a language barrier but I noticed several differences from living in Scotland and it was a more difficult change than I expected.

I had left the group of musicians I was used to working with, and missed the regular get-togethers with my close friends. In time I noticed I was being drawn to singing songs about loss and separation and that is where Carrickfergus and Raglan Road come in. The fact that they are ‘standards’ is secondary. I don’t believe older songs are better per se but some songs, even ones being written now, will become and will remain standards, the reason being they connect with people and reflect people’s situations.

Like myself, people have, and always will, emigrate, so songs about that, and loss and love will always remain. One new song on the album ‘My Grandmother’s Eyes’ which is written by Martin Furey, Finbar’s son, is striking a chord with listeners.  It’s a fresh take on a known theme, separation, and listeners are responding to the original take on this. The tradition I was brought up on thrives on older songs but as with all traditions, you have to look to what is going on currently and towards the future too.

 

Do you find yourself torn between the two traditions, and your two homes in Scotland and Ireland?

I wouldn’t say I feel ‘torn’ between the two. Perhaps I was initially. As a child growing up on the Island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides I felt that the sea that surrounded us, which I could see from every window in our house, protected me. When I came to Ireland first of all, I felt the Irish Sea separated me from my real home in Scotland. Now I am living in County Wexford and I am surrounded by fields, trees, farms and wildlife, and I know so many great musicians and good people.  I am very happy once more, and I now believe I have the best of both worlds.



Has anyone else close to you experienced emigration? If so, can you tell us a bit about how it affected them?

My Mum’s Dad, my Grampa, lived in Australia for 15 years. When I was growing up I didn’t fully comprehend what that meant. Now that I have moved to Ireland and have lived here for 7 years, I have a far greater understanding of that. Australia, when I was younger, was never a top destination for me. I know a little of my Grandpa’s time there but as he died when I was 8, a little is all I have.

As I said moving to Ireland was tough. That surprised me. It’s not that different from Scotland but it is different. I missed my girlfriends more than anything at first. I was 37 when I moved to the Emerald Isle and really, you’ve made very strong friendships by then. Some of my girlfriends I’ve known since I was 4 so that was a wrench. I, of course, miss my family but thankfully they still travel and I go home as often as I can to see them. However, imagine if I couldn’t do that? That would be really difficult and many early twentieth century islanders found themselves in that situation. Travel now is much easier than it was back in 1923. This is when my Grampa went to Australia.

When he was a young man he wanted to be a marine engineer but his father didn’t want him to go to sea. His father wanted him to become a teacher, so my Grampa began training for that, but seemingly hated it, which I find quite amusing as both my Mum and Dad were teachers! Then there came a placement in one of Lord Leverhulme’s schemes for training marine engineers. Two Stornoway youngsters were chosen, one of whom was my Grampa, and when Lord Leverhulme’s schemes collapsed, and he left Lewis for Harris, my Grampa was left with no job prospects.

In 1914 an older sister had married and gone to Australia. The story behind that is that an Australian gentlemen, came to Lewis on holiday with his eldest son doing the ‘Grand Tour of Europe’ and my grand-auntie became friendly with this son. When he left to go home to Australia they corresponded for 5 years before they married and, my grand auntie Mary, went to live in Australia – she never returned to Lewis.

As my Grampa, Kenny Dan, was so despondent in Lewis, he wrote to his sister and she invited him over to work on their sheep farm. Kenny Dan worked on several farms as a state manager over the next few years. He learnt to ride horses, play tennis, be a sheep farmer and really loved the life there. I have no doubt it was a massive change for him but he loved it. In 1939, 15 years later, he came back to visit his Mother for 6 months, his Father unfortunately had died during Kenny Dan’s time overseas, and then KD planned to return to Australia – for good. 6 months living in a different country is a long time, 15 years turned out to be a 5th of his life. I constantly compare that now to myself in Ireland. How much I have changed since living here. How much about my life has changed. I am married. I live once again in the countryside. After 7 years it is finally beginning to feel like home. How much would you change in 15 years?

So, Kenny Dan, is home seeing his family. No doubt exchanging tales of his travels, his new life, his loves. In 1939 during his 6 months in Lewis, visiting, the 2nd world war broke out, so basically Hitler ensured that Kenny Dan is not going anywhere and will not be able to go anywhere for 5 years at least. Everything changed. Everything he thinks he is going to do with his life, everything he has worked for, for the last 15 years is stopped. That must have been a huge blow.

By 1940 he was deemed too old to be called up and was given a job as a warper of Harris Tweed, which was then seen as a ‘reserved occupation’ so it appeared he would not be called up. I guess he got on with things, followed the news like everybody else, wondering when he would get back to his new home.

One day he was in Stornoway, and was spotted by a young woman called Murdina Mackay. She enquired as to who he was and shortly after that broke off her 11 year engagement; an 11 year engagement - Kenny Dan was obviously quite a dish. At some point the pair got together and married in 1940, my Auntie Margaret was born in 1942, my Mother at the end of 1944 and my late Auntie Joan in 1947. All the time Kenny Dan still wanted to go back to Australia but my granny, Dina, didn’t want to leave her family in Sandwick. She looked after her maiden aunt who had looked after her as a child and it was too much for her to leave.

I think after the death of her Auntie Johann and when the girls were older, Grampa suggested leaving but then Dina was worried about how her daughters would get on in a new country, at a new school and with a new lifestyle. My Grampa never went back to Australia. Never picked up the pieces where he’d left off. Never rode horses in Lewis. He still worked with sheep though and that is one of my fondest memories as a child, going to the fank with the North St crofters to shear and dip the sheep, where the young and old folk would meet together and have the craic outside in the fresh air, surrounded by fields and crofts and then all surrounded by the sea.

All these thoughts are also involved in ‘Homelands’. My grandfather had two lives, two homes. I feel the same. A huge connection to Scotland and a growing connection to Ireland. I am still an Islander, I will be forever, but that is because I come from Lewis not because I live in Ireland. Fate, a bloody war, stopped my Mother and I or whoever we would have been, from being. I could easily have been part Australian, all Australian really. We are all emigrants, immigrants, migrants. We’ve all come from somewhere else. Why do we leave? What do we take with us? What do we learn? This is the essence of ‘Homelands’ and no doubt the beginnings of the next album too. This is why Australia, is now on top of my list of destinations to visit.

 

How did the link up the The Chieftains come about? What’s it like touring with them?

Back in 2007, the same month I moved to Ireland, I was performing at the Beo Festival at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Noel Eccles, my husband, was also performing with his band Moving Hearts and we were asked to come along to a promotional photo session at the concert hall. Paddy Moloney, was also there as he was on the board of governors. We got chatting, he asked to hear my CD and as they say ‘the rest is history’.

Initially I was invited to join them for one 4 week tour in the USA in 2008. I brought Scottish musicians and my good friends Brian Mcalpine and Jonny Hardie with me, and I guess I must have been doing something right, as I have sung with The Chieftains ever since. Touring with them is a blast. They are my ‘family on the road.’ We know each other very, very well. We look out for each other, sometimes we annoy each other, but best of all we go out on stage every night and perform.

I have a great deal of respect for the lads. They have toured the world over, performed with some of the world’s most well-known and talented musicians from every musical genre, and as your readers will also know, have put Ireland and Celtic music on the map. They are very traditional in their approach in many ways, but embrace all musical styles. Basically they just love doing what they do. Very few bands will achieve what they have - for a start they have been together for 53 years, I think that’s the same as The Rolling Stones! The stories they have are incredible, involving Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, Pavarotti, Angelica Houston, Ziggy Marley, Van Morrison, The White House on more than one occasion. I think they were the first western music group to perform in China, the list and awards, go on and on and at the end of it all, they are gifted traditional musicians who just want to keep on playing.

What are your plans for the rest of the year, particularly when it comes to promoting the album?

I have lots of things going on. I’m not sure I set out for my career to be like this but I really love it now, working with different groups and in different musical and vocal configurations. I’m touring parts of Asia in November with The Chieftains; I’ve been to Japan with them before but this time we’re beginning in China. I also work with The StepCrew, which is a dance show, tour with country star Trace Adkins and with Scottish-based vocal and harp trio Shine. Shine are recording an EP next month for our upcoming winter ‘Fire and Frost’ tour, we’ve 10 dates throughout the UK in December.

I have just finished a promotional tour of Germany for Homelands. I haven’t really toured in Germany since about 2006, so it was great. I’m hoping to do some gigs closer to home promoting the album but I have to be home for a bit to work on organising them. Things can get quite busy and as I do much of my own preparation and promotion, it takes time. I also recently launched Homelands at the fantastic Hebridean Celtic Festival in Lewis, in my hometown of Stornoway (it made perfect sense) and played there with regular collaborator pianist Brian Mcalpine and Scottish fiddler Alasdair White who is also a Leodhasach, they are both top-notch musicians. It gave us a good taste for more, so the trio will definitely be heading out soon.

 

Homelands is now available to purchase or download on www.alyth.net

For radio broadcasters the album is free to download from our download centre on Tradconnect. Just click on the icon below.

 

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