A Q&A with Nuala Kennedy of The Alt
By Geoff Gehman
Nuala Kennedy has spent many years in Celtic music’s many chasms, coves and hollows. The singing flutist grew up living and breathing performing in Dundalk, County Louth, a heritage she references in an Irish-Canadian quartet called Oirialla. She spent a year absorbing Scottish Gaelic sounds in the city of Inverness, where she wrote a globe-trotting piece for 10 musicians. One of them was her good friend, the late Canadian composer-fiddler Oliver Schroer, who, dying from leukemia, composed farewells for each of his 59 students.
Kennedy has stretched boundaries with contemporary Appalachian troubadours Will Oldham, also known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and her husband A.J. Roach, whom she met at a Scottish songwriting retreat. She pushes the triangle in a powerhouse traditional trio with guitarist/bouzouki players Eamon O’Leary, a longtime New Yorker from Dublin, and John Doyle, whose sterling credits range from co-founding Solas to serving as Joan Baez’s touring music director. Named for a mountain glen in County Sligo, The Alt will make their Mauch Chunk Opera House debut on Oct 8, sampling songs they recorded in a cabin in the North Carolina Appalachians.
Below, in an email conversation from the road, Kennedy discusses the joys of vocal harmony, guitar melody and scaling a peak nicknamed Top of the World.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your ears and soul?
A: My parents gave me a tape and a tape player when I was around nine years old. On one side of the one tape I had, which I played over and over, was the Eurythmics and on the other side [the Australian entertainer] Rolf Harris. I remember “There Must Be an Angel” and “Two Little Boys” as my earliest ear worms.
Q: Who was/is your flute mentor/role model and why?
A: Cathal McConnell is an inspiration to me, as he is deeply involved with the music on a daily basis. He is constantly thinking about and questioning the music, mining traditional tunes for inspiration. He has not stood still or become complacent through all his many years of playing. And he is one of my all-time favorite singers.
Q: What was the best lesson you learned about singing, the one that made all or most of the difference?
A: To be yourself and accept yourself. To embrace all the facets–strengths and weaknesses–of your own voice.
Q: Why did you need to take up residence in Inverness in 2007 and what did you get out of the residency?
A: I wanted to take a break from my life in Edinburgh and find a secluded spot to write in. I had been commissioned by Celtic Connections to write a piece for their “New Voices” series. Colin Hynd, then the series’ director, encouraged me to think outside the box when it came to personnel, so I wrote a piece for 10 musicians, including several of my favorite Scottish players and singers, including the incredible Donald Hay on drums, who is a long-term collaborator and plays in my touring lineup (Nuala Kennedy Band); Daniel Lapp from BC on fiddle and trumpet, and Oliver Schroer, the late Canadian composer and fiddler.
I love three-part harmony singing and wrote a lot into the piece during that period in Inverness. It was the first time I had tried to notate any vocal music. It was a learning curve and I was greatly assisted by my friend Jenn Butterworth on guitar and Eilidh Mackenzie, our third female singer.
Q: What convinced you that you had to team up with Eamon O’Leary and John Doyle when you performed with them in the village of Coolaney, County Sligo?
A: We rehearsed in Coolaney for two periods of time. The first time was a period of exploration, to see what kind of material we wanted to play, to try out different ideas. The second was to hone those ideas and rehearse in a more focused way. That makes it sound very planned out, but really we just felt a kinship and a desire to harmonize and look again at some traditional songs from the trio perspective. It felt very natural; we had all known each other for many years, so it was a comfortable collaboration. We are touring right now and having a ball.
Q: Are you doing anything in The Alt that you’ve never done, that you’ve been angling to do for a long time or you never thought of doing?
I A: I’ve never been part of a trio where each person can play lead melody and sing. It’s fun and makes for a powerful live show.
Q: Every album has a pivotal track, one that serves as a lightning rod or bolt. What was that track while you, Eamon and John were cutting your digital record in that North Carolina cabin?
A: In this regard, I would think of the first track, “Lovely Nancy,” which Eamon brought to the group. It starts off with the three voices in harmony, and I love the arrangement. It sets the scene for the rest of the record.
Q: Even a little research reveals that Oliver Schroer was a remarkable musician and person. I love that in his final years he threw out conventional labels for tunes and began branching into the likes of “prayers,” “fractal reels” and “forest blessings.” What’s your favorite memory of being around Oliver? How did he leave his mark on you?
A: Oliver was a pivotal person in my life. We shared a similar approach to music and creativity and a deep personal bond. It was fundamentally reassuring to me to meet a kindred spirit and to play and work together. He is still an inspiration to me, in terms of music and life. Oliver experimented with many different approaches to his music over many records. His life’s work is a fascinating and philosophical exploration of fiddling. I think he was one of Canada’s greatest folk musicians.
Q: What was your happiest time in the music trade, when you felt on top of the world?
A: Last week Eamon and I were playing in Old Crow, a native community north of Dawson in the Yukon, and we got to the top of Second Mountain, which is also known as Top of the World. That felt pretty good to be up there!
Q: What tops your Bucket List? Musicians have told me everything from traveling the world to ending world hunger.
A: To look back on my life and think “not too many regrets.”
Nuala Kennedy: The Scoop
She studied classical piano at the Royal Academy of Music in Dublin.
Fine Friday, her former trio, released an album titled “Mowing the Machair,” machair being a grassy plain common in the Outer Hebrides.
“Tune In,” her second solo CD, was inspired by a vintage radio dial.
In 2011 she received a master’s degree in music performance and composition from Newcastle University.
“Enthralled,” her 2011 CD of original pieces with the late Canadian compose-fiddler Oliver Schroer, received a Canadian Folk Award nomination.
Her most recent record, “Noble Stranger” (Alliance, 2012), includes the tunes “Napoleon’s Dream” and “Love at the Swimming Pool.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. A longtime bibliophile, he’s particularly intrigued by Nuala Kennedy’s song “The Books in My Library.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.