Interview : Niamh Dunne on her new solo album Portraits

Niamh Dunne has just relased a debut album of traditional song. It’s an outstanding album that now firmly places her on the top rung of the ladder when it comes to traditional singers in this country.  She called the album Portraits.  Like a picture or a painting she describes it as “a snapshot of a musical moment” It was her ambition to take time out from her work with Beoga, one of our leading traditional groups.  With some long term friends in toe she isolated herself in a cottage in Dingle with no TV and most importantly no internet.  Like the rugged coastline that surrounded her she went back to a simpler time when you could think and more importantly listen. Grant it there may have been an iPod of albums and songs to listen to, and from them she gathered her thoughts with regard to the type of album that she would deliver.  Outlines of tracks were sketched out and some early demo tracks were laid down.

 “I had lots of songs with me when we went to this cottage in Ventry just outside Dingle in Kerry.  We went through them  one by one and by the time it came to recording I had a fairly clear idea about which songs I was going to do and how best to approach them.  We also had arrangements loosely set out with demo versions recorded. Having that preparation work done made it easier when it came to going into the studio.”

It’s funny when you go away you start to appreciate where you’re from a bit more, it becomes more poignant to you and I am very proud of my little city and county

Niamh places a high priority on home and family and the influence they have had on her over the years.  Maturity as an artist and an individual brings a certain element of reflection for most people and the same applies to Niamh.  She is extremely proud of her roots and her home county of Limerick.   Its vibrant music scene and colourful and honest characters still resonate strongly in her life.   Be they musicians, neighbours or family, they are all woven into the fabric that has become her life and she pays due respect.  Her return to these early influences is evident on this album. 

“From a music perspective we have a fantastic music scene in Limerick, not just traditional.” she explains.  “We have great rock bands and have received great support from Dolan's as a venue. They put on a lot of gigs with local bands in there. There is a jazz society in Limerick that runs gigs once a month. There are a lot of venues that put on live music for free as well. So there is a lot going on which is great. Places like Cobblestone Joe’s and Burke’s put on free gigs where people can come in and listen to great live music featuring local musicians.”

“With this album I don’t know if I set out to do it or if it evolved that way, but the music of Limerick and my local area features strongly.   I have a particular interest in the traditional songs from my home town and the local singers that have been central in keeping the tradition alive down here. That was the basis for how the material came together for the album. Now not all the songs are from Limerick.  For me it comes from the fact that I travel a lot and am now living in Antrim.  It’s funny when you go away you start to appreciate where you’re from a bit more, it becomes more poignant to you and I am very proud of my little city and county.”

“Inspiration comes from my family first” she explains. “No matter how contemporary or exciting our music with Beoga was, the appreciation of traditional song came from those around me in my youth.  It is always good to remember where you came from and to respect that.  My Dad would have been my most obvious early inspiration.”

I wanted something that was consistent and made sense as a collection and as an album

“I didn’t really start singing professionally until I was 17, so it’s still new and exciting and I'm still learning and finding my way.  That makes the whole thing a bit more interesting for me as well. Karen Casey, Paul Brady, Delores Keane were all inspiring singers for me.  I listened to a lot of contemporary music when I was a kid.  A lot of English folk stuff because that was what my Dad was into.  We listened to Clifford T Ward, Nanci Griffith, Sandy Deny, Richard Thompson and a whole lot more.”

This broad appreciation and grounding in traditional song over the years starts to manifest itself in the song selection and the manner in which new material is approached.  Combine this with Niamh’s significant experience on the music scene with Beoga and you have a natural warmth and depth that is evident on this new material.  Her vocals may have been immersed too deeply in Beoga’s more contemporary material which is understandable given the constraints of a group situation. Here however she has the stage to herself and she makes exceptionally good use of it.  On tracks like Ballyneety’s Walls and Beauty of Limerick there is an honest interpretation of some great traditional songs that would not be heard too often.  The arrangements are sophisticated and subtle at the same time, perfectly underscoring Niamh’s perfect vocal delivery. For the album she brought on board some of her Beoga band mates including Sean Óg Graham in the production hot seat. It also features Damien O’ Kane, Eamon Murray, Trevor Hutchinson, Kate Ellis, Barry Kerr, Mickey Dunne, Noelie McDonnell.

We asked was if it difficult managing that many musicians?

“It wasn’t too difficult a process” she explains.  “A lot of the inputs that finally ended up on the album came about through the production and recording process.  When tracks required something, a natural solution always materialised.  For example on Cáillín Rua I got Caitriona McKay to contribute to that particular song.  The track was done and it was sitting there but there was something missing. We tried different things and nothing was working. Then Séan Óg was on tour with Fiddlers Bid in Scotland and Caitriona is a member of that band and discussions about the track came up.  That’s how a lot of things happened, just by chance meetings.  Cathal Hayden appears on The Games People Play. He is a fiddle hero of mine and every time I'm in his pub in Co. Tyrone I sing that song and he plays the fiddle, at stupid o’ clock in the morning. That was a no brainer as well. It just kind of evolved and worked out as we went through the process.” These inspired moments make the difference and the contribution of Caitriona on Cáilín Rua lifts the track to another level with the counter intuitive almost ethereal feel that she brings to the track. 

Song choice is such a critical issue on albums and we ask Niamh if she was guided solely by her own inner vision of what she wanted the album to be, or alternatively, is there a lot of thought given to commercial considerations.  What sells?  What do the listening public want?

“If you are going to do something commercial as a professional endeavour you have to give consideration to both.  What I was really concerned about, and what I learned through my work on the Beoga recordings is that consistency is important.   I wanted something that was consistent and made sense as a collection and as an album. I didn’t want to do a bit of this and a bit of that.  I tried very much to keep it consistent and relevant the whole way throughout.  I probably did more traditional material with this album then I did with Beoga from a song choice perspective. I have sort of developed a style of performance from playing with Beoga and Sean Óg is in Beoga as well so there is always going to be elements that cross over. I didn’t think about it in the sense that it had to be traditional or it had to be contemporary, I just wanted it to make sense.”

Listen and Buy : and on

Niamh Dunne plays The Cobblestone Bar, Smithfield, Dublin on 4th October 2013.

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Comment by Aindréas Ridire on October 8, 2013 at 13:17

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