THEY hail from County Donegal, draw inspiration from the poetry of WB Yeats and have sold
THEY hail from County Donegal, draw inspiration from the poetry of WB Yeats and have sold more than a million records during a stellar career spanning almost 30 years.
Since forming in 1987, traditional Irish folk band Altan have worked with some of the biggest names in music on both sides of the pond.
They even played a St Patrick’s Day set at the White House in 1994 at the invitation of President Clinton.
But on Monday night they will be rocking up in Nettlebed for a gig at the 200-seater village club — and they couldn’t be happier about it.
Lead singer Mairéad NÃ Mhaonaigh said: “Nettlebed Folk Club is one of our favourite places to play in England. The folk that go there have an informed knowledge of the music and especially the songs.
“It’s one of these establishments that you do not need to explain yourself too much, as the audience is very knowledgeable.”
There’s a lot to know about Altan, who are a third of the way through an 18-date tour of England and Scotland, the final date of which will see them perform in Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, on May 7.
Were it not for the curvature of the earth, you could stand on the highest point in Lewis and enjoy an unbroken view across the Atlantic to the New World — a direction of travel that has come to resonate strongly with Mairéad and her fellow band members.
Their latest album, The Widening Gyre, was recorded in Tennessee and features guest vocals from Mary Chapin Carpenter — a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame since October 2012.
The track Carpenter appears on is a setting to music of WB Yeats’s The White Birds, while the album’s title is taken from the opening line of one of the poet’s best known compositions, The Second Coming.
Says Mairéad: “It just happened on this album that we chose this title The Widening Gyre and his beautiful lyrics in White Birds as a song.
“Although we love his poetry this was a complete coincidence. As it happened the album came out on the 150th anniversary of his birth — so it was meant to be.”
What was it like working with the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter on this album?
“We have known Mary Chapin Carpenter a long time. We actually joined her on a shared tour of the States back in 1996 and we have always been toying with the idea of doing a duet but needed the right song and the poignant White Birds seemed to fit the bill. She loves coming to Ireland and she also enjoys traditional music.”
Another notable guest on the album is Eddi Reader, of Fairground Attraction fame, who lends her angelic backing vocals to the haunting Far Beyond Carrickfinn.
Says Mairéad: “Eddi Reader is also a long-time friend whom we have played together with in concerts here in Ireland and abroad.
“She is such a great musician and singer as she instinctively knows how to colour a song with her voice and gets it in one.
“The song Far Beyond Carrickfinn was written for me by my neighbour, singer-songwriter Ian Smith, from my own personal perspective on the passing of my father 10 years ago.
“I happened to tell him that a shooting star passed over me that night when I arrived home and that I felt it was a good sign, on such a sad occasion.
“He wrote the song with this image in his head and Eddi really gets the sensitivity of the song on this track.”
As the lead vocalist — and one of two fiddle players — in a band forged in the bustle and crack of a thousand late-night sessions and festivals throughout Ireland, you might expect Mairéad to prefer live work to the studio.
But as with many things to do with Altan, there has been something of an evolution of late.
“I personally did not like studio work until recently as I love reaction and interplay and audience reaction and the whole feelings that you get from people,” she says.
“It took me a very long time to settle in the studio, but nowadays I’m enjoying the studio approach and nearly using the studio sound as another instrument in the arrangements.
“I love the carefree playing in a live situation and the whole experience with every new audience, and I thoroughly enjoy the focus of the studio and the challenge of getting the piece across as you envisage it to sound. Both are equally enjoyable experiences and I love both now.”
The title The Widening Gyre is appropriate in yet another way. Preparing for the sessions at Compass Records’ studio in Nashville, the band wanted to try a fresh approach to recording that would reflect how they have broadened their musical horizons over the course of their career. Strangely enough, this process was one that would in a sense return them to their starting point — their roots, even — as Mairéad explains.
“Back in 1994, the great Dolly Parton invited us to Dollywood to record on her live album, Heartsongs. There we met a lot of Nashville’s finest session musicians and singers — Earl Scruggs, Alison Krauss and Union Station, the Cox Family.
“Every evening after rehearsals we would meet up for a session with these wonderful people and realised that we had so much in common with them, between tunes, songs and musical approach.
“We were invited back to record with Dolly on her Songbird album. She was so hospitable and generous and is such a wonderful singer. She then offered to sing on our album, which we were delighted to do, and she sang The Pretty Young Girl with me on our Blue Idol album.
“Through all these experiences and through meeting a lot of the old-timey, bluegrass, Americana musicians on tour over the years, this idea of collaborating with them has always been on our minds.
“Ricky Skaggs introduced us recently at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and said it in one — he said that country, bluegrass and old timey music’s roots came from Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales.
“They know that their music is rooted here and that is why we have so many of the songs and tunes in common with these musicians. It was a natural progression for Altan to record in Nashville and explore this connection.”
While their current trajectory has brought them from Nashville to Nettlebed, it hasn’t all been plain sailing, as Mairéad laughingly admits.
“I remember being at Nettlebed a good few years ago when my daughter was a baby sitting with my mother in the audience. During the intermission, she happened to make her way under the stage and twiddle the EQs of the sound system, which led to an awful noise when we started the second half of the show. I still cringe at the thought of it.”
For his part, Nettlebed Folk Song Club organiser Mike Sanderson is looking forward to welcoming the band back to the High Street venue for the first time in over two years.
He said: “They’re always a popular band. They’re a great live band — they’re huge in Ireland and huge in America. They’ve even played the White House.”
Tickets for Monday’s show are £17.50 in advance and £18.50 on the door. Doors open at 8pm.
For more information or to book, call 01628 636620 or visit www.nettlebedfolkclub.co.uk