Celtic Colours Artist Profile; Nuala Kennedy

Nuala Kennedy is an Irish singer and flute player with hauntingly beautiful vocals, adventurous instrumentation, and an eclectic mix of influences. Her singing and flute playing springs from the traditional music of Ireland and Scotland, and from the fathomless realms of her own imagination. A consummate performer with a buoyant personality, her music has been described as unique, evocative, and soul-satisfying.

What is your own heritage/ethnic background?
I grew up in Dundalk, Co.Louth on the East Coast of Ireland. It’s a town just south of the border with Northern Ireland so has strong musical connections with the North and historically with Scotland. I moved to Edinburgh several years ago and enjoy singing and playing Scottish tunes and songs as well.

How, when and why did you get involved with music?
There are pictures of me as a very young toddler with a small tin whistle. I expressed an interest in it at a young age. I always enjoyed singing and my parents encouraged me to play piano. I was never a child who had to be asked to practise, I just loved playing and the challenge of learning new pieces. At school I was involved in operettas and musicals – when I was eleven I played the artful dodger in Oliver Twist – and I still remember a bunch of the songs from that!! My introduction to traditional music was through tin whistle lessons with a local teacher, Mary Grennell and later through learning the flute as part of a local Ceilidh band. It was a great social outlet and way to have fun with your friends, the music seemed almost secondary to that, at the time.. but I do recall being very fascinated by the tunes and having strong opinions on what ones I enjoyed, or not, as the case may be!

Are they the same reasons that you do it today?
I think so – essentially, I use music as a way to communicate with people – with the audience, with my fellow musicians. Music is the big connector in my life and in that way, its function is the same.

What else inspires you these days?
Other musicians and other genres of music as well as the great practitioners of the tradition. I love to hear songwriters such as John Prine, Anais Mitchell, A.J. Roach, Will Oldham. I was blown away by June Tabor during last year’s Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow. And more recently by Scottish singing legend Archie Fisher who I saw perform in Albany New York. Scottish musicians like Iain Macleod (ex-Shoogelnifty mandolinist) and pianist Russell Hunter have had a big impact on how I play and perform. Cathal McConnell is a constant source of inspiration and Gerry O Connor and Martin Quinn both from my native home area are two traditional musicians who inspire me. I like to hear them live if possible, I am really into experiencing of a person and their music in a live setting rather than a passive listening session. In fact I’m finding myself gravitating more towards singers these days in general; experiences on my travels inspire me to write songs. I’m not a very prolific songwriter but I like to think about new songs when I am not on the road. Similarly with tunes, I find they come creeping up unexpected when I’m busy washing the dishes or such at home. When I’m home, even though I have a pile of CDs I’d like to hear, my preference is for silence or if I do want background sound, then I reach for the radio, for a program like NPR’s Radio Lab, the Memory Palace or something random on Raidio nan Gaidheal (Gaelic radio Scotland).

What are the biggest challenges of the profession?
The general unpredictability, but I guess you can say that of a lot of jobs, and actually at the same time it’s an aspect I often enjoy! I find it hard sometimes being away from home so much, and juggling all the different strands of what I do….. Added to that, you are self employed which means a lot of the time, you never really are not working, in some way. It’s a really good thing I like my work because it certainly keeps me busy!!

What are the rewards?
Seeing people happy at concerts, seeing your friends and family having a good time, contributing to the arts. Making music live is one of the most amazing things; being on stage with your band mates and enjoying the music and the experience. Time stands still. Travelling, meeting people, going places and seeing things that take your breath away, eating new kinds of food. I do love to experience local foods and wines! Over the years I have developed a strong relationship with the people of Cape Breton. I love playing there, and playing music from there. I have a lot of friends there whom I consider my Cape Breton family. It’s a really special place with which I had a strong affinity from my first visit, back in 2001 and I’ve returned many times since.

What have been some career highlights?
Most recently, I was in North Carolina, and wandered down by a river, where there was a forest of bamboo and a farm of organic vegetables and flowers. The light was so beautiful, everything was shimmering. In the evening I sang songs with some great songwriters, and heard their songs. It was joyous. One thing I loved was touring with Will Oldham back in 2006, we stayed in touch and he played on a piece of mine.. I think he’s one of the great performers and writers of our time, and a great guy to boot. During a tour in Canada last Summer, myself and the band went kayaking on a lovely calm day, and had a delicious home cooked meal in the evening with some nice wine – these kind of experiences mean so much to me.

How have you grown as a player over time?
I’ve become more relaxed about what I do, and less concerned with the pursuit of perfection. My mother actually told me years ago, that that’s one of the benefits of growing older… that you generally worry less about small stuff, and I think she’s right! I still find myself my own worst critic but, I think that’s also a good thing- it keeps me improving (I hope!) I’m spending more time singing at the moment, and my approach to the flute has changed because of that. I’m looking for a depth of tone in the instrument and I’m interested in what’s possible with the sound, aside from the playing of all the notes.

What inspired Noble Stranger, and what are some of the themes of the recording?
The idea for ‘Noble Stranger’ came from a very live experience of touring with my band (Iain Macleod on mandolin, Donald Hay on drums and Mike Bryan on guitar). We did several tours over the past few years and began to gel, to form an identity which I felt resonated with the music very well. The sound is very much a collection of all of our talents, and it affected the material on the album. I was given a Casio keyboard back in 2009 and messing around on that changed how I developed the ideas for the songs. I also started to look back at some songs I’d known for a long time, but from the perspective of a songwriter and a Casio player (!) and with my band in mind. It was quite a straightforward process in the end. I wanted to keep this record simple in its execution too – the music was recorded in five days, with one night of keyboard overdubs.

Is your creative process more ‘inspirational’ or ‘perspirational’?
Ha ha! That’s a good question! I’d say it’s inspirational in that those are the moments when I find something really works, as an idea or a melody; it appears happen naturally and that seems best to me. But a lot of the time, it’s perspirational, and I might work for a long time on an idea which is never used or recorded. Very occasionally something will pop out which I know is finished before it’s on the page, if that happens I almost try not to breath even, in case I forget what it is or get distracted!

What makes a good song?
I’d say there’s no short answer to that question. One could speculate about the combination of melody and lyrics… but when I think about songs I love to listen to, it seems difficult to generalize.

Are we doing enough to promote and preserve Celtic culture?
I think things have a time and place- Celtic music is always adapting and changing, absorbing new influences and retaining old themes, which will help it survive. It seems to me that the Celtic culture in terms of its recognition worldwide, is really quite strong.

What can we be doing better?
I think it’s important to recognize the tradition bearers, the great older singers and musicians amongst us. They won’t be around forever and sometimes I feel they are under-used or appreciated because of their age, or their connection with a Celtic ‘sound’ which is now perceived as too old-fashioned.

What’s next on your creative agenda?
Well the upcoming tour is featuring pretty highly! A big tour in the UK, Ireland and all over the U.S. to celebrate the release of Noble Stranger. I’m working on some new songs for a duo record with the Appalachian poet-troubadour A.J. Roach. We are exploring the musical link between Ulster (the northern region of Ireland) and Appalachia, and writing our own songs in those styles as well. I’m interested in recording some of the new contemporary music project I’ve been involved in during the past year. But mostly I’m excited about the upcoming release of a record by ‘Oirialla’ a group I play in which performs music from the ancient Irish kingdom of Oriel. That area encompassed Dundalk, the town I grew up in, and I play in the band with Gerry ‘fiddle’ O Connor, also from Dundalk, Martin Quinn from Armagh on accordion and Breton guitarist Gilles le Bigot. The repertoire is very interesting, it’s all completely traditional material, songs and tunes we have dug up from the local region, all lesser played pieces, and most of them have never before been recorded.