Interview // Maria Doyle Kennedy
Originally published in the Irish Sun on August 17.
‘Sing’ might not seem the most descriptive word ever used to title an album, but for Maria Doyle Kennedy it sums up everything that’s worth celebrating on her fifth studio album.
“The title ‘Sign’ is a statement of intent,” says Doyle Kennedy. “Singing is very important to me. I don’t ever take it for granted and I don’t think it’s a trivial thing. It’s a powerful thing. I always get people singing at my gigs, and I think the sound that we can make together is better than anything I could do on my own.
“There are a lot of references to singing on the album – there’s the track Sing, obviously, there’s Sing for the Sea, there’s Hola Luna where ‘she walks across the mountains singing,” and there’s Silence where I sing ‘I’ve found my voice.’”
Written and recorded over the past year in partnership with her husband Kieran Kennedy – who also performs live with Maria – ‘Sing’ is a warm and engaging collection of 10 joyful tracks inspired in part by the birth of their fourth child last year.
“I started writing the songs for this just after my youngest son was born – he was kind of a surprise! I felt like it was a great gift, so I started off in a place of joy. A lot of the songs are inspired in some way by the kids. They’re a positive source of inspiration for me.
“It’s a joyful album. I’m really glad about that. People could do with a bit of joy right now. It’s easier to write songs when you’re not happy because you’re stiller and you’re more inward. Sometimes when you are in a really good place, you’re too busy off out enjoying yourself to write songs.”
The follow-up to 2011’s ‘The Storms are on the Ocean’ takes in influences as varied as traditional Irish, Appalachian folk and flamenco, and features duets with Damien Rice, Paul Brady and – most interestingly – smoky-voiced US folk legend John Prine on the moving country ballad ‘Yes We Will.’
Doyle Kennedy says: “I was amazed when he called to say he wanted to record the song. I was so encouraged by that – I felt that what I was hearing, somebody else was hearing too. He was coming to Ireland a month later – he lives in Nashville – and Kieran and I just put our mics in the boot of our car and drove up to Kilsaran where we recorded in his front room.”
The collaborations with Irish artists Rice and Brady are a bit less unexpected but are no less interesting as a result. Rice, for instance, almost sounds cheerful on the title track – a feat many would have deemed impossible until now – while Brady’s braying howl adds a hypnotic texture to standout track ‘Hola Luna.’
“Paul Brady has a very high voice and I have quite a deep voice, so I thought it would be interesting to have the man and the woman at opposite ends of the singing spectrum. But then when he came in to record he started doing this mad Arabic chanting, and it totally took over the song and made it something really different than he would ever do himself.”
While ‘The Storms on the Ocean’ was a celebration of the American folk tradition, ‘Sing’ is very much inspired by the rhythms and pulses of flamenco music, which Doyle Kennedy reveals is strongly influenced by a few months she and her husband spent living in Spain.
“After our first son was born we went to live in Andalucia for a few months and we got really sucked into the rhythms of flamenco, which are absolutely incredible. I had great notions of going off to sing flamenco but I had a tiny baby so there was no chance of that, but we did go and see a lot of performances in this tiny place up the road.
“It was like a scout hall or something in the middle of nowhere. People would come and play, but you didn’t get up on stage unless you were amazing. The standard of what they did was amazing – this was like the local postman and he could play the guitar like a god.
“A lot of the rhythms come from that – I got really into the clapping. What it did was make me come back home and listen to Irish traditional music. They’re so proud of their culture and it drove me to really listen to our own music.”
The simplistic structure of the songs – most are based around voice and acoustic guitar – is strongly in keeping with the album’s folk origins, and Doyle Kennedy credits this simplicity with making ‘Sing’ her most coherent and comprehensive work to date.
“It sounds like all one piece of work. Sometimes I’m not so good at that. It’s hard to finish songs sometimes. Some people write lots and lots of songs, but I don’t. I will write a few and then it will take me a while to finish them off.
“Sometimes they all come together and that’s brilliant, but a lot of the time you get an idea anda melody and there are 12 different ways it can go, and it’s really difficult to choose which one. Somehow we were able to find the one that was right – a bit of Spanish, a bit of Levon Helm creeping in, but I was able to keep them all connected.
“Before there would be one that was electronic, then one that was more punk – really interesting things, but it didn’t sound like the same body of work. With this one we were able to keep it connected.”
Heading into the future, Doyle Kennedy is hopeful ‘Sing’ will open new commercial avenues, but is philosophical about what success would entail.
“I measure success by how much I’ve learned. I think surviving at all and having a family as an artist – I feel we’ve achieved a lot just by doing that. If I could travel around the world and play venues the size of the Olympia, I would be absolutely ecstatic. You’d earn enough money to be comfortable, but it’s small enough that everyone can still feel connected to the person on stage.”
‘Sing’ is scheduled for release on August 24 and will launch the album in Vicar Street on September 29.