Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A traditional life that's anything but

For many traditional singers, airing a song is the thing, but for Karan Casey it's more important to dig deep, make each song your own, and give something back to the tradition, writes Siobhán Long

WHEN IS A singer not a singer? When he or she stops singing? When the songbook runs dry? It's a question that, according to Karan Casey, is akin to speculating about the beginning, middle and end of one's personal identity.

Casey is certainly a singer first and last. Her identity is bound up between the limitless bookends of the traditional songbook. Excise the songs or the act of singing from Casey's life, and you leave scar tissue that runs deep. With her fifth solo CD, Ships In The Forest , recently unleashed, there's one certainty that pervades this musician's life choices: it's her unquenchable need to sing.

"I was always a singer from a very small age," she smiles wanly, her eyes betraying the evidence of a few late nights celebrating in quick succession the two weddings of musician friends. "I can't conceive of myself not being a singer. What I enjoy most is the performance part. I'm not too fond of the travel and the rest of what surrounds it, but I'm probably addicted to that live performance. When it goes well, there's nothing like it. It's very hard to find that high anywhere else."

Casey was a long-time devotee of Frank Harte, the late Dublin singer and custodian of a gargantuan folk and traditional song collection, who died in 2005. Finding herself bereft of her key confidant and hungry to fully embrace all that Harte stood for musically, Casey chose to return to the well when it came to selecting material for her latest CD, having written much of the material for her previous album, 2005's Chasing The Sun .

"Frank's death was massive for me, because I was very close to him," Casey says, somewhat tentatively, mindful of the risk that she might be perceived to be hijacking Harte's memory in some way. "I certainly don't want to try to claim ownership of certain ideas with Frank, but he did say to me, shortly before he died, 'who's going to sing these songs, after I die?'. It did worry him a lot, and it's a constant question which all traditional singers ask, and I ask myself that question too." Collaboration is central to Casey's music, notwithstanding her current catalogue of five solo albums. Her recent experience working with Iarla Ó Lionáird on the I Could Read The Sky tour (based on Timothy O'Grady's searing book of remembrance, of the same name) yielded many benefits. In particular, working with Ó Lionáird added further fuel to her intention to keep pushing at the boundaries of traditional singing.

"My ears opened up," she says. "For a long time, I felt like I wasn't giving anything back to traditional songs. I was singing them but they were just going in and coming back out again, and I wasn't happy with that. Then when I listened to Iarla, and the depth of what he did with [ his last album] Invisible Fields , I realised how much deeper you have to dig to really become a traditional singer. It's so much more than just churning out traditional songs. It's about making them your own, and reaching another imaginative level.

"For a long time, I've been working away - I'm a bit of a grafter - and I became much happier when it came to doing this album. It's very sparse, and it's by no means easy, but it has allowed me to delve deeper, which I needed for my own gratification, and to be confident that my own singing could get better. I suppose it's about not being afraid of the spaces and the silences and the gaps in the music. Working with Caoimhín [ Vallely, pianist] and Kate [ Ellis, cellist] helped me a lot with that aspect of the songs this time round."

BALANCING A CAREER that's heavily dependent on live touring with motherhood poses its fair share of challenges, which Casey admits can be overwhelming at times. Rendezvousing for this interview in a showery Botanic Gardens, Casey's partner, Niall Vallely, is dispatched with Muireann, 8, and Áine, 2, in search of entertainment while Casey knuckles down to the demanding business of forensically examining the state of her musical career. It's the kind of multi-tasking that she, and most other women, could happily do without, she surmises.

"I try to remain very philosophical about it," she smiles, "and some days are easier than others, but it is a life choice. I must want to do it, I suppose. I've got huge help from my parents and from Niall, but it certainly could be helped further if we had better childcare in Ireland. I've seen a lot of my friends pull back in recent years, when they've had kids. I think the hardest thing is trying to weigh up what matters, and in many ways, there's no competition.

"Some people think it's very unconventional [ for a mother of two small children to be touring] and they baulk a little bit. Their perception of what I do, as a mother, when I go on tour, can be totally different to the reality of it. They can sometimes think that I'm off on some glorious skite, but in fact when I'm on tour, it's probably the time when I have the most routine in my life."

These days, Casey tries to distill her longer tours into the months of March (the US) and October (Germany), although managing her diary alongside that of Niall's (he's a concertina player and member of Buille) is one of those tasks that requires supreme, year-round attention. It's a consideration that she feels is particular to women though. She doesn't believe that her male peers have to give much thought to the rituals and demands of daily child-minding, when planning a tour or an absence from home (unless you're Tom Waits that is, and you have the luxury of bringing two of your offspring on the road - once they've hit puberty, of course).

"I wouldn't have admitted that 10 years ago," she says, wryly, "but it's definitely easier for men. That's just the way it is, and I don't think that an awful lot of men who are musicians appreciate the amount of work that's done at home. For example, they would never dream of bringing their children with them, whereas I brought Muireann with me until she was school age, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh [ of Altan] brought Nia, Karen Matheson [ of Scottish band Capercaillie] brought Hector, and most other women musicians I know brought their children with them - at least in the early years. So yes, it's definitely a life choice."

Casey recently joined the swelling ranks of independent musicians who've abandoned the berth of a record label, by establishing her own company, Crow Valley Music. With one eye trained firmly on the future, she sees this as not only a practical attempt to get more of a financial return for her creative efforts, but also as a step towards controlling the future interplay between her music and emerging technologies.

"Nobody really knows how it's going to go with digital music," Casey reckons. "Everybody's holding their breath, but having ownership of the music is really important I think, because you don't know how it's going to be used down the road. I mean, nobody guessed 10 years ago that ring tones and lots of different avenues would become so important. We [ in traditional music] have a little dilemma here; most of us are just so delighted to be able to make our own recordings, that we don't pay much attention to the record contract, and every generation seems to go down the same path. Mistakes are repeated out of a naivety and a generosity about the music, but it's about having reverence and respect for people in the past and for yourself too."

Ships In The Forest is awash with the subtlest background sounds of raindrops and birdsong: one of the benefits of recording at home, far from the soundproofed void of your common or garden recording studio. Which is not to suggest that Casey's coasting on the back of the release of Ships In The Forest either.

This month she's off to Nashville to record a CD with John Doyle (her old band mate from Solas) and Dirk Powell (an American old time fiddle player who's guested with everyone from Loretta Lynn to Sting, T Bone Burnett, Levon Helm and Ralph Stanley). If this is the musician's lot, she's more than willing to accept it - with gusto.

"I do miss the camaraderie of being in a band," she muses. "With Solas, we had a great work ethic and I learned so much from that time in my life. What matters most to me though is that the songs are good. That, and travelling with my band and with the right instruments. Getting a grand piano and a beautiful cello at every venue mightn't be the wisest thing to be doing, but for me it's worth it, if the music is right.

"I've always just gone with my gut: sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, and you've just got to be prepared to take those risks."

• Ships In The Forest is out now on Crow Valley Music.

© 2008 The Irish Times

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times