Born in County Louth and currently based in County Clare with her family, singer, composer and flautist Nuala Kennedy has an impressive background. Having worked with the likes of Janis Ian and Mike Scott as a member of traditional power trio The Alt, Oirialla and Harem Scarem, Kennedy has also released six previous solo albums.
This, her seventh, was initially commissioned as a concept piece by Glór Theatre, Ennis, and features a collection of traditional songs alongside new instrumental pieces on which she’s joined by Tara Breen from The Chieftains on fiddle, Danú’s Tony Byrne on guitar, bassist Todd Sickafoose, Caoimhin Vallely on piano and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and Solas’s Moira Smiley on backing vocals.
Charting a solitary struggle through love, life and woman’s ultimate triumph over adversity. Kennedy says the work, a thematic suite “of love and loss inspired by the sea” charts “the imagined journeys, both external and internal, of the songs’ central female protagonists, side by side with the evocative coast of County Clare”.
As such, it opens with Sally Sits Weeping / Blue Devils’ Jig, the melancholic, flute-coloured and fingerpicked song, sometimes known as Once I Had A Sweetheart, referencing An Saileog, the Irish for a weeping willow or ’sally’ tree. The version here is assembled from a variety of sources, while the self-composed jig with its fiddle, flute and whistles is named for the deep melancholy that overcome Ishmael in Moby Dick.
Kennedy first heard the track sung by Niamh Parsons, who also recorded the lightly fingerpicked, melodically tumbling Irish emigrant-themed Ye Lover’s All, its inclusion here in memory of the late musician and ethnomusicologist Mick Moloney. Initially sung unaccompanied, part learnt from Alasdair Roberts by way of Shropshire singer Fred Jordan, Father, Father aka Sweet William, a lament for a drowned lover, is kin to The Croppy Boy, among the first Irish tunes in the oral tradition to be written down. Kennedy adds her own input to the dreamily forlorn melody.
Clocking in at almost nine minutes, Saltwater / Flow / Cúcúín are pieces inspired by the swirling musical sounds of Brittany, opening with guitar and fiddle gathering pace into the lively mid-section before the tempo subsides as it resolves into a multi-vocal springtime lullaby she sings to her children, imagining a conversation between a cuckoo and her chicks. Introduced with atmospheric whistle and featuring piano, a brooding, spare six-minute instrumental, Wake was composed while meditating on the wake of a boat while imagining both the dark cadences of Reed’s fiddle work and those of the late Clare fiddler Ellen Galvin.
Another instrumental, water also buoys up the lively Sea Reels medley, Downtown Troy being composed for her fiddler friend Troy MacGillivray and named for a tiny village on Cape Breton Island. Meanwhile Haul Away Da Hauser is a traditional reel with the final section, Distant Colours, written in tribute to the Celtic Colours Festival where she was artist-in-residence during Covid.
Simply fingerpicked and accompanied by fiddle and whistle, the gently melodic Marguerite was written by Ontario educator Scott Richardson and learnt from the singing of Geraldine Hollett from Newfoundland outfit The Once. The song tells the story of Marguerite De La Roque, a French aristocrat marooned on the Îles des Demons by her relative Roberval, the Lieutenant General of New France, when she became the lover of a young man on board, while travelling to Quebec in 1542, before eventually being rescued by Basque fishermen and returning to France to found a school for girls.
The last of the instrumentals, driven by Breen, Whirlpools / The Lighthouse Polka are self-composed tunes inspired by the coast of Clare, the first with its dancing fiddle slightly more sedate than the title suggests, the tempo duly picking up in the second. Finally, sung a capella, comes The Cavan Road, learned from Cathal McConnell and previously recorded with Oirialla, an Irish drinking song celebration of parental consent with the final verse a glass-raising benediction.
With its themes of rising above loss and adversity, while underpinned by the sea connections, it’s hard not to view Shorelines through a post-pandemic perspective. But whatever angle you come from, it’s a haunting work from one of Ireland’s foremost exponents of the tradition.Mike Davies
Released on CD and digitally July 7 2023. Produced by Nuala Kennedy and Todd Sickafoose
1. Sally Sits Weeping / Blue Devils’ Jig
2. Father Father
3. Saltwater / Flow / Cúcúín
4. Ye Lover’s All
6. Sea Reels (Downtown Troy / Haul Away Da Hauser / Distant Colours)
8. Whirlpools / The Lighthouse Polka
9. The Cavan Road