Everything Always Was
Everything Always Was
A Q&A with Seamus Egan
By Geoff Gehman
The last time Seamus Egan played the Mauch Chunk Opera House, in 2016, he hosted a multi-media version of his band Solas’ album “Shamrock City,” a panoramic portrait of Butte, Mont., a brawling, bursting 19th-century center for union organizers, prostitutes and Irish miners like his great-great uncle Michael Conway, a bare-fisted boxer from County Mayo murdered by cops for refusing to lose a fight. It was a typically ambitious project for Solas, which soon took a sabbatical after 20 years as pioneering fusioneers of full-blooded stories threaded with Celtic, folk, rock and jazz yarns.
The next time Egan plays Mauch Chunk, on Jan. 12, he’ll be in an unfamiliar yet familiar groove. The multi-instrumentalist, who grew up in Mayo and Montgomery County, is touring for the first time with the Seamus Egan Project, a flexible, fluid quartet with a former Solas member who leads a vocal and body-percussion ensemble, a guitarist who has composed for crossover cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and a bouzouki player who is a Celtic-Gaelic musical encyclopedia. Egan and his comrades will interpret everything from Jesse Collin Young’s “Darkness Darkness,” a Solas staple, to a strikingly intimate, Appalachian-haunted version of Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die,” a barn-burning R&B hit for Blood, Sweat & Tears. The concert will be anchored by tracks from the soon-to-be-released “Everything Always Was,” the first solo instrumental record in 23 years from Egan, a whiz at guitar, banjo, mandolin, flute and what-have-you.
Egan discussed his latest experimental traditional venture during a recent conversation from a hotel in Manhattan, where his Project played an annual conference for arts programmers. The menu of topics included studying button accordion with a paralyzed champion for the physically disabled in Ireland and a house party with a surprise appearance by actor Richard Harris, who in his hell-raising heyday caroused up a storm when he and Sean Connery filmed “The Molly Maguires” in and around Jim Thorpe.
Q: Can you remember your first unforgettable song, the one that turned you upside down and inside out?
A: The first thing that comes to mind, quite quickly, should mean absolutely nothing to you or most people on the planet. It was a tune I heard when I was six or seven years old and we were living in Mayo. I had just started taking music lessons; I would go to the town hall once a week with my sisters. I played the whistle and I had just moved onto playing the concert flute but I wasn’t very keen on practicing; I just didn’t have an appetite for rehearsing. My parents didn’t really play but they loved music—it was always around the house. They wanted to watch this program on RTE with [traditional flutist] Matt Molloy and [classical flutist] James Galway, a kind of in-the-round studio concert. We didn’t have a television so we went down to the house of a neighbor who had one. I remember bringing a tape recorder and putting it up to the television. At that point I was not really interested in Galway’s playing but I was definitely interested in Molloy’s playing. He played this popular Irish tune, “The Bucks of Oranmore,” and I remember from that moment I wanted to play the flute and Irish music. I came home and took the flute out and that was pretty much it.
The tune that Matt played, “The Bucks of Oranmore,,” is one everyone learns and after a while no one plays because it’s played to death. It was what Matt did to the tune that sparked my imagination. And if anyone out there knows “The Bucks of Oranmore,” well, they get a prize [laughs].
Q: I love stories about memorable musical mentors. You had one in Martin Donohue, the Mayo button accordionist who played his instrument from a wheelchair, with turned-in wrists, and talked you through lessons on whistle and flute. I’m sure you were inspired by his indomitable spirit. What else did he leave you?
A: I was about six when I started lessons with Martin, who really didn’t have use of his arms. He could move his hands to get around the accordion and he had this exceptional ability to explain what to do and obviously he had a ton of patience to get us to comprehend and appreciate. He tried his best to get me to read music but only succeeded with my sisters. My sister Siobhan would practice the sheet music in her room, with the door closed, and I would just sit outside and learn the tune by ear. Then I would go back to Martin the next week and put the music in front of me, as if I had learned it. One time I put the music upside down and he caught me out. That’s when the jig was up. It wasn’t my finest moment [laughs].
Martin had a center in Ballindine that was the center of the community, where folks came from all over to play and learn. We used to play fundraisers for the Disabled Drivers Association of Ireland, which Martin ran. He was instrumental in getting vehicles outfitted for the physically disabled so they could drive, which gave them a great sense of freedom and hope. He was quite something else.
Q: Did you put Solas on sabbatical after 20 years partly because you wanted to launch a band that was simpler and managerially easier?
A: No, that wasn’t the motive. I think we began talking about the idea of taking a break two years before we were coming up on 20 years as a band. We just felt it was time to hit the pause button on something that had been part of our existence for so long. People wanted to try other things, even if those other things were not all that concrete. It was kind of an internal clock that was winding down and we needed some time to wind it back up.
We had celebrated our 10th anniversary by inviting all our members, current and past, to record a live CD and DVD. For our 20th anniversary we recorded an album [“All These Years’] with pretty much all the folks who had passed through the band over 20 years, which was a considerable amount. It was a sense of coming full circle. After the album came out we toured for a year and a half and then hit the pause button.Anniversary projects are quite daunting. They seem like a great idea at the time and then you start worrying, “Oh, I brought all this upon myself,” and then you get on the other side and you end up quite happy.
Solas’ sound happened right from the get-go; I think many older bands get that stamp. In some ways, as time goes on, you want to shake that personality. A band like Solas has a lot of moving parts, creatively and organically. Everyone moves at different speeds; everyone has different needs. Bands are tricky; they have their own kind of ecosystem. That ecosystem needs careful tending: new seeds get introduced into that garden that might not grow.
Q: You’ve compared going solo to re-entering “the dating world.” Why did you hire and why do you like working with your Project partners Moira Smiley [vocals, banjo, accordion], Kyle Sanna [guitar] and Owen Marshall [guitar, harmonium, bouzouki]? They certainly are versatile musicians, with Moira leading the ambitious ensemble VOCO, Kyle composing for the likes of Bela Fleck and Yo-Yo Ma, and Owen basically swallowing the Celtic-Gaelic folk canon.
A: They each have their unique abilities and styles. Moira is an exceptional singer and arranger for choral groups; she has a matchless arrangement sense. I admire the way Kyle approaches music; I don’t think I’ve worked with someone with that combination of musicality and deep knowledge of theory. Owen gives me my first regular opportunity to play with the bouzouki. The bouzouki doesn’t have a huge amount of space it can occupy. Owen has this intuitive ability to fill up that space by fitting in with the players around him. I love that sonic combination of Owen’s bouzouki. Kyle’s steel-string guitar and my nylon-string guitar. We each carve out a space; we each get to shine and cross over. And crossing over is when you get the magic.
What I really like about playing with Owen, Kyle and Moira is that we listen so well to each other, whether we’re playing sensitively or raucously. You would think that listening carefully is common among professional musicians but that’s rarely the case, unfortunately. We just click; we have these little magic moments that pop up and put a smile on your face and then they go away. Which is even better, because that sort of magic is not meant to last, or else it wouldn’t be magical.
We’ve discovered that we’re quite compatible, so to speak, even though we come from very different places, almost generationally as well. Owen is a good deal younger than I am. It’s good to have a young guy around; I don’t mind being “the old guy” now [laughs]. It’s been a learning experience because my creative musical life, particularly performing live, has been so wrapped up in Solas. You kind of get set in your ways. There’s comfort in that but it can block you, too. So now I’m opening myself to new approaches, forgetting about rules, slowly chipping away at boundaries. It’s a new outlook that I’m enjoying. I’m certainly learning an awful lot.
Q: The Project’s version of “And When I Die” is worlds apart from the Blood, Sweat & Tears standard. It’s slower and smokier, more elegant and elegiac. What kind of atmosphere were you trying to conjure?
A: Moira was the one who brought it to us. She actually had another version which was gorgeous on the piano. She was trying to mess around with it and she generously let us have at it. Obviously, it’s a song with quite a pedigree. You just want to capture some of the original spirit while making it your own.
Tackling songs outside the boundaries of your tradition is very enjoyable. I enjoyed doing that a lot in Solas. We did everything from a Bruce Springsteen song [“The Ghost of Tom Joad”] to a Tom Waits song [‘Georgia Lee”]. We tend to gravitate to story songs because that’s what we grew up on, that’s where we come from. When you cut away the bells and whistles and you get down to the pure essence, it turns out there’s not a great deal of difference between songs from different worlds. At the end of the day a great song is a great song.
Q: What are you doing on the new album, “Everything Always Was,” that you didn’t do, couldn’t do, yearned to do, on “When Juniper Sleeps” , your previous instrumental solo record?
A: During the vast length of time between the albums I’ve learned a thing or two about recording and other things (By the way, learning a thing or two is not a given in our profession [laughs]). I’ve become a better writer because I’ve been writing that entire time. I’m happy with the way this new album is shaping up.; there’s a waltz that I’m sort of pleased with. Hopefully, the music feels a bit more lived in, in a good way. You tend to write and play according to your life experiences; it’s something hard to put into words, but it’s definitely there.
Albums go through stages. You have that initial excitement that propels you. Then you have that period when you’re thinking, “Oh my god, I don’t know if it’s a good idea,” and then you really question everything you’re writing, everything you’re playing. Then you put your head down and keep going and eventually, with a little bit of luck on your side, you get to the two-thirds part, when have a sense of how it’s coming together. Now you can see the end; now you can remember a bit of the original joy. You’d think that after all these years of recording you’d worry less but actually you worry more [laughs].
One of the best things about the new album, and the new band, is that I can tinker with tracks that have been floating around for a number of years, tracks I tried out in Solas that didn’t make sense at the end of the day, tracks I tucked into the drawer. I’ve recorded three versions so far of one tune that didn’t work with Solas and I’m contemplating a fourth version; it’s just one of those ornery tunes that haunt you. Maybe I’ll put all four versions on [“Everything Always Was’} and ask people to pick the one they like the best [laughs].
Q: What are some of the tunes on that mixtape you’re offering to people who pre-order “Everything Always Was”?
A: I haven’t finished putting it together. But I can tell you that Matt Molloy’s playing will be a part of it because he was a huge influence on me growing up. Another huge influence was Mick Moloney on banjo and fiddle. When we moved back to Philadelphia, where Mick had settled in the mid-’70s, he took me out on tour for the first time and took me under his wing. I learned a tremendous amount from Mick and I always like honoring him in some way or another.
Q: Another pre-order incentive is a house party. What’s the craziest, rafter-raising, walls-bursting residential gig you had the great fortune, or misfortune, to play?
A: The one that comes to mind happened after this annual concert with Mick Moloney that takes place on or around St. Patrick’s Day. We had this big blowout session going on at the house of friends, with lots of musicians and food and drink and dancing and all kinds of things going on that are pretty much best not to print or speak about [laughs]. Around one o’clock in the morning there was a knock at the door and the door opened and standing at the door, in this Jesus-and-the-amazing-Technicolor coat, was the actor Richard Harris. He appeared completely and utterly out of the blue. What makes it stranger is that I had seen him the night before on a late-night television show hosted by David Letterman or someone like that, wearing the same coat! I know he had been quite a hell raiser in his day but he only had a Budweiser in his hand. He was certainly ready to go; he certainly helped kick the party into another gear [laughs].
Q: So, Seamus, what tops your Bucket List?
A: It would be nice to play in Mayo. I haven’t played there since we left [in 1980]. My real wish is to keep doing this [making a musical living] for as long as possible—to be able to continue to be able to do this. Because you can’t take anything for granted.
Q: And what tops your Fuckit List?
A: Being so concerned with what other folks think. I think we get a little sidetracked by that. I read a while ago something I think Gore Vidal said and I hope to get it right: The thing that’s important is not what people think of you, it’s what you think of them [laughs]. Life is just too short to not do your own thing.
Q: What other instrument or instruments are you itching to master? When I interviewed your Solas mate Win Horan in 2016, before the band played “Shamrock City” at Mauch Chunk, she said she was eternally grateful that you’ve allowed her to shine on the fiddle by not mastering it.
A: My goal is to keep trying to master the instruments I’m playing at the moment, of which there are already too many [laughs]. Some of them are quite difficult to master; some of them are not so forgiving. Maybe it’s because they think I may favor one over the other [laughs].
Seamus Egan: The Scoop
He spent his first three years in Hatboro, Montgomery County, the child of an Irish father and a Germantown mother. He spent his next eight years in the textile town of Foxford, County Mayo, his dad’s home turf
He decided to learn banjo after hearing the instrument played on the radio by Mick Moloney, his future boss in the group Green Fields of America. He later joined a band with Moloney and Eugene O’Donnell, a step-dancing fiddler who introduced Egan’s parents to one another. The trio entertained Bonnie Raitt and her wedding guests.
By the age of 14 he had won all-Ireland titles in banjo, mandolin, flute and tin whistle.
He played in the Chanting House, an Irish-American ensemble led by the singing composer Susan McKeown.
He and Moira Smiley, the singing accordionist in the Seamus Egan Project, wrote “Days of War,” an invocation for waging peace inspired by the global epidemic of lack of listening.
He supplied the soundtrack for the 1995 film “The Brothers McMullen,” which includes the song “I Will Remember You,” which he co-wrote with Sarah McLachlan, whose live version won a 2000 Grammy for female pop vocal.
He can thank a broken-down car for his “Brothers McMullen” gig. He and his pre-Solas band mates borrowed an automobile from their Rhode Island hosts, who were repaid with copies of Egan’s 1990 album “A Week in January,” which was enjoyed by their son, a “Brothers McMullen” technician who recommended the record, and Egan, to Edward Burns, the movie’s director, writer and co-star. A distributor and a bigger budget enabled Egan to add new tracks to the soundtrack.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. Like Seamus Egan, he is rooted to northeastern Pennsylvania, where his father grew up, and western Ireland, where his maternal grandmother was raised. He can be reached at email@example.com.