Méav Ní Mhaolchatha
Musical Discoveries: Please tell us a little bit about your background prior to Anúna.
Meav: My family was very interested in classical and traditional music so singing was a natural part of growing up. My father played the piano and occasionally wrote songs. My grandfather lived with us and was singing well into his eighties so all family celebrations were marked with music. At my school everything was taught through Irish, and there was a strong emphasis on traditional music and dance. When I left school I hadn't really considered a fulltime career in music, so I followed my brother into studying Law in Trinity College, Dublin.
I spent almost all my time involved in various musical projects and sang classical repertoire with a chamber choir in College and plainchant in St Teresa's, a Carmelite church in the city centre. I occasionally gigged with a big band and string quartet singing more contemporary material. Once I finished my degree I did a post grad in arts administration and worked for an organisation called Music Network who organise tours of Classical, Jazz and Traditional music around Ireland. Eventually I admitted to myself the music was taking over, and I have been singing fulltime ever since.
And once you joined Anúna, what happened next?
Michael McGlynn, the director of Anúna, heard me singing on the radio and invited me to join Anúna. It was a time of change for the group, as Riverdance was just being set up and the group was expanding. There was a great mixture of singers in the group. Some had traditional backgrounds, some classical, and the two blended together very comfortably. You got so used to singing with the group that you sensed when the person beside you was going to take a breath, and you learned to blend your sound with theirs. We did a lot of recording and I developed a taste for touring--travelling with the group was great craic. I still socialise and sing with a number of ex-Anúna members.
Then you released your self-titled solo album. How did that come about?
I had been singing around the US with The RTE Concert Orchestra in a show called The Spirit of Ireland. While on tour I got to know David Agnew, who plays oboe and cor anglais in the Orchestra. He was always trying to convince me to do a recording project of my own. I recorded a few tracks for an album of his, and his record company liked them and asked for more--so David and I put the first album together.
Your album Silver Sea was released in some territories earlier this year. Can you fill us in on what has happened since the debut album and this one?
The debut album was released in the US, Japan, Korea, South Africa and Ireland. It was well received and sold well, but I didn't start touring with the new material until relatively recently. I toured South Africa with the Lord of the Dance for three months, and promoted the album while I was there.
Between shows I was planning material for a new album, and this time I wanted to do more live gigs with a mixture of traditional and classical musicians. I launched the album in Korea at a festival in Seoul to celebrate the World Cup in May, which was great.
I definitely want to go back to perform there again. Silver Sea was released in Japan in August and will soon be available through specialist music shops in Europe and the US under the Celtic Collections label.
Who are your favourite artists? Who else do you find yourself listening to all the time?
I listen to a lot of different styles of music, but I always find myself going back to Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald. They seem to sing so effortlessly, and they draw you in emotionally.
How did you develop your vocal style?
I had singing lessons from a nun, Sr Peter Cronin, when I was a child and she taught me the importance of making an unforced, natural sound. Later I studied singing more formally with a pupil of hers, Mary Brennan, in the College of Music. I studied Irish harp in first in school, then in the College of Music , and piano after hours in the Royal Irish Academy of Music. I felt very comfortable singing in Irish, and I tried to bring the same simplicity and intimacy to singing in English, whether the material was traditional or classical.
What artists to you feel have influenced the sound?
I admire musicians like Clannad and Nóirín Ni Riain that have pushed the boundaries of traditional music and brought it to a wider audience. I love the way traditional players like fiddler Martin Hayes get under the skin of traditional tunes and present them in a fresh way. When Martin performs, it looks like the tune is playing him instead of the other way around. He has what is called "the lonesome touch" which moves the listeners whether they know anything about traditional Irish music or not. I also enjoy hearing pure-toned singers like Emma Kirkby who prove that it is possible to sing classical music without a big fruity operatic voice!
Where do you find the inspiration for your material?
I find inspiration in nature and in poetry that is full of vivid imagery. The Silver Sea album was inspired by many happy childhood holidays on the coast of county Louth. Quite a lot of the material I sing is folk music and I love investigating where old songs came from and comparing different versions of melody and text. Folksongs take on lives of their own as they are handed from one person to another, so you find some very quirky additions and omissions!
Please contrast the material on Silver Sea with Méav.
The songs on Silver Sea are all linked by the sea theme, whether they are classical, traditional or contemporary. The first album did not have a theme running through it, but again there was a mixture of different song styles. David Agnew and myself chose the songs. It was originally planned as a duets album. I chose all the tracks on Silver Sea myself, and produced it myself, so it feels more personal to me than the first one now. I also used fewer synthesisers than on the first album, choosing acoustic instruments to create a more intimate sound. Both albums include some songs I have been singing since I was a child.
Will you tell us about some of the other artists on your new album.
I was very fortunate to record with a great team of musicians. I felt that violinist Maire Breatnach would understand where I was coming from because she has a similar background in classical and traditional music. I have known the Ó Snodaigh brothers from Kíla since I was about five years old; they went to school with me, so it was great to collaborate with them using global percussion and traditional instruments on a few tracks.
Conor O Reilly, who wrote "Wicked Sister" with me and who also wrote a number of haunting arrangements for the album, had already written for my voice, so he knew instinctively what would work. There were many others who added something to the overall sound, including David Agnew who guested on one of my favourite tracks, "You Brought me Up."
Please explain the various sequences you go through when writing and recording your music.
I like to spend a few months gathering ideas and songs together for a recording. I recently inherited the Steinway piano from my parents' house, which is a great incentive to work from home! It has a lovely warm tone. I have no high-tech equipment at home, but it is fairly quiet, and I just record layers of sound onto minidisk, experimenting with different harmonies. I meet up with a few key musicians and try out different ideas with them.
The next stage is going in to studio with a basic plan of what I want to record and when everyone will come in to play. I recorded Silver Sea in Pulse Studios, which is within walking distance of home. Because I produced Silver Sea myself, I was very lucky to have the support and guidance of engineer Brian Masterson. He has a wealth of recording experience with musicians like the Chieftains, Altan and Anúna and we had already worked together on various projects.
Brian Masterson and Maire Breatnach have two of the greatest pairs of ears in the business--you can't sneak a flat note past them! As well as playing violin and viola, Maire was invaluable as a sounding board for arrangement and instrumentation ideas. She even speaks Scots Gallic, so s he could polish up my gallic pronunciation too. We managed to fit a lot into a relatively short recording period.
I am starting to put together material for the next album at the moment, which will be quite similar in style, and I may also be working on an orchestral project.I will keep you posted!
I will be performing on a PBS TV programme hosted by Jean Butler of Riverdance and will be recording in October/November with a great bunch of Irish musicians.
Do you have a career or work outside music?
I have been singing full-time for about six years. Besides my solo work, I sing classical material with the National Chamber Choir of Ireland. We have recently appointed a new Brazilian conductor and we will be touring in South America and Europe with him next year.
Please tell me what you think about your live performances. Are there any interesting plans afoot?
I love performing live--a warm audience reaction guarantees a better gig because you feed off the energy of the crowd. I usually perform with three multi-instrumentalists, and because I record acoustically, we can re-create the recorded sound fairly easily. I especially enjoy singing a capella numbers with all the musicians singing harmony lines.
Venues with a natural acoustic like churches or concert halls make it easier to create an intimate atmosphere. The audience reaction in Korea was brilliant--even though the introductions had to be done with the aid of an interpreter!
With regard to further concerts, I will be performing at a festival in Tokyo in December, and I'm currently planning a tour of Holland with a Dutch promoter in 2003. I'm also hoping to do some performances in the US next year.
We would be interested in your comparison of music by artists of similar backgrounds to your own.
The early Clannad albums influenced me. My schooling was all through the Irish language and I remember performing Clannad songs with bands in school. Maire Brennan's sister Enya clearly comes from the same background, and it is interesting that her work on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack is simpler than the layered harmonies and electronic samplings of her previous albums--so maybe she is getting back to her roots.
I like to listen to Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh of Altan and Karan Casey, formerly of Solas--they both have voices that are sweet and true. Michael McGlynn, the director of Anúna, had a talent for bringing together voices with clear, simple delivery and unoperatic tone. Both Eimear Quinn and Katie McMahon were in the group at the same time as I was and many of the singers from that time have gone on to sing for a living.
How has the internet influenced your musical career and the promotion of your music?
The internet is a great way to communicate with people who have similar interests even if they are far away. I can remember the difficulty of trying to arrange business phone calls to the US at a mutually convenient time. Now those time zone problems are effectively eliminated. It is also a great way of discovering new artists and you can log on at midnight if you feel like it.
My website is still quite new, but my webmaster is really on the ball and posts up information the minute he gets it--thanks Eamon! It has already broadened my audience and I hope it will continue to do so.