Méav at the Celtic Cafe


In the spring of 2002 I attended the funeral of an old and dear friend in St. Theresa's Carmelite Church in Dublin. The occasion was for a friar from the church, a widely known and much loved gentleman who was in life an extremely cultured and scholarly man, and knowing that his passing was imminent he had left specific instructions for the day, ensuring that instead of a gloomy event it would be very definitely the celebration of a life. It was a service I will always remember, not only for the man it honoured and the selection of music and readings that reflected him so well, but most of all for the exquisite voice of the young, fairhaired soprano. In the superb acoustics of St. Theresa's it was truly 'the voice of an angel'. The church being packed, and my seat being far back in a side aisle, I did not know at the time who she was, although many people were talking about her contribution afterwards. Then, quite by chance, recently Bernadette asked me if I would like to attend the launch concert of the new CD of Méav Ní Mhaolchatha and write a review of the CD for Celtic Cafe. I was delighted to accept, and we decided I would follow it up with a new interview with Meav, as the original one for Celtic Cafe was put together back in 2000. As I read up on Meav's background in preparation I saw that one of her current activities was singing in a Carmelite church in Dublin… suddenly all the pieces fell into place! I checked with Meav and yes, she was the soprano of that day - what a small village Dublin is! - and so meeting her took on a special personal interest for me.

I spent a wonderful evening at the launch concert, held in a small 'club-style' theatre called The Sugar Club in Leeson St., and there met Meav for the first time. It was, of course, not a suitable time for our interview, and as I needed somewhere quiet in order to tape our conversation she graciously invited me to her home one afternoon the following week. This was special treat for me as I always love to see where people live! Tucked away on a peaceful side street in Dublin's fashionable Portobello area, Meav shares with her husband a lovely spacious, airy home. Although it was an old, terraced house with steps up to the front door, she told me there were no period features remaining in the house when they moved in a couple of years ago, so they felt free to do as they wished with the interior. The result is a wonderful open plan space of white and wood with sliding patio doors onto a deck at the back. Out on the deck are exotic potted palms and tempting seating, the uncluttered interior furnished for comfort with sofas to sink into, and pride of place in the centre of the living area is given to an antique baby grand piano that is a family heirloom. The tranquil house is a haven away from the buzz of the city on its doorstep, and seems to reflect perfectly its lovely owner. Meav made the customary Irish 'cuppa' as soon as I arrived and we sat talking over the pot of tea for an hour. Thanks to the magic of tape recording, I now invite everyone to share our fascinating conversation. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Meav once again for welcoming me so warmly into her home

The Interview

Are you the only member of your family to follow music as a career?

I am, although music is a big part of my family. My brother played flute when he was growing up. My father plays the piano and writes songs - he wrote one of the songs on the CD, it's called 'The waves of Tory'. He wrote the Irish version with a friend and we added some English verses for the album. I remember being very put out when he wrote it - I was only small, I suppose I was about five or six - because he brought a singer to the house to sing it. I was annoyed that he was bringing in somebody else to sing it. I felt this was someone muscling in on my territory!

So the instinct was there even at that age?

Well, I just knew that something exciting was happening in the room where the piano was and they were recording it. It wasn't a big commercial thing but something was going on and I wasn't part of it.

You said your father wrote the song in Irish. Did the family live through Irish at home?

We used a mixture at home. The school I went to taught through Irish and at home we used a mixture - my grandfather didn't speak Irish and he lived with us so we couldn't really use a single language for that reason. My parents had tried speaking only Irish to my older brother when he was little, but they used a mixture by the time I came along.

What made you follow a law degree in Trinity College? Was it the 'something to fall back on' syndrome?

Yes, I suppose it was. At the time when I was leaving school the climate was quite different to what it is now and it didn't really dawn on me that you could make a career in music. Music was something that I enjoyed as a hobby but a career in music seemed unattainable at the time. I did consider doing a music degree in Trinity College but I just wasn't sure. My brother had done law before me and I'd seen him having a great time in college, so I thought it might suit me too. The hours of lectures were not that long at all, you were really expected to put in the hours of study yourself and that meant you could have a bit of flexibility and spend time doing other things, so that's what I ended up doing.

Did you consciously decide to focus on the voice as your principal career instrument, rather than the piano or the harp, or has that come about more by chance?

The voice always came naturally - singing was just something that was part of growing up, it was part of playing and family events, you'd always get up and sing. I did have to practice but it didn't feel like hard work, whereas with the other instruments I was a very lazy student! Singing was always what interested me most and I felt it was the easiest way to communicate with other people. I don't feel I chose it, it was just always there.

Do you play piano or harp in any of your live performances?

Yes - I played harp at the concerts I did in Korea recently. It was tricky to keep it in tune because we were playing outdoors in blazing sunshine! I sometimes play keyboard too, but I prefer to focus on the voice in concerts.

You have had a wide and varied selection of work in your singing career. Was the RTE Concert Orchestra your first big break and when did you join them?

I had been singing fulltime for a while before that. I'd been singing with Anuna for a couple of years, but that wasn't a fulltime job - but we were quite busy at the time, we'd been doing a lot of touring, and I was singing with the National Chamber Choir, which I still do. So I'd been making a living out of singing, but it was a chance to take it to another level, and Michael McGlynn of Anuna encouraged me to go for it. They were looking for somebody with an interest in classical and traditional music, so I went along and auditioned... that was probably... 1997, and I ended up touring America with them for three years in a row. It was a chance to see a bit of the country, and it in turn has led to other things. I befriended David Agnew - who plays the oboe in the Orchestra - on the first trip. So by the second year he was saying 'well have you done anything on your own yet?' I would say 'no' and he was bullying me gently towards the right direction!
And he worked on the first album with me, so I suppose that led to working on my own material.

It must be a huge undertaking to make that first album, take the big plunge, with the enormous expense of producing one?

Yes, well... initially David and I worked on the first album as a duets project, so it wasn't as daunting as starting off on your own. As we did it, it turned into a solo project, although he plays on many of the tracks - that was the direction the record company took when we'd already made the decision to make the album. David had an input into some of the tracks we recorded - he chose some and I chose some. But it does also mean that I feel more attached to the new album than to the first one, because I feel it reflects my taste more accurately.

How long were you with the orchestra and what are some of your favourite memories?

I toured around America with the orchestra for about a month at a time for three years. We did some concerts around Ireland too, in Limerick,Belfast and Dublin. There were so many things that happened, but there were certain cities that I really liked that I'd like to go back to - I really liked
Seattle, and San Francisco. We spent some time in Canada as well -we performed in a really great venue called the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto - it was acoustically great and very beautiful. The first year we travelled a lot in Springtime, criss-crossing the country, travelling from snow to sun and back again. I can remember doing one concert - I can't even remember where it was - but our instruments didn't arrive in time, they'd been delayed, and our costumes, all our luggage was missing! So we did the concert, it in our own clothes, jeans and wooly jumpers, and borrowed some instruments from a local orchestra. Most of the musicians carried their instruments as hand luggage; but I know we had to borrow timpani and concert harp and few other things. And it was really a great concert because the audience were very much on our side, they could see we were under pressure! But then by the second half some of the things had arrived and we were resplendent - it was back into black tie for the second half of the concert!
They were great of classical musicians, and there a traditional piper with us as well- Michael McGoldrick - so there was a good mixture in the concerts.

When you travelled for your career, was that the first time you had done a lot of travelling?

I had travelled a fair bit in Europe when I was small - not to very far-flung places, but my parents were interested in languages and travelling. I think there's a real bonus to work and perform when you're abroad because you get be places you wouldn't be and to meet people you wouldn't meet if you were just there on holiday. Even if you're only there a short time you get a bigger picture, a little slice of what it's like to live there.

While you were with Anuna you had opportunities to perform with such diverse artists as The Chieftains, Brian Kennedy and Elvis Costello. That must have provided a wide range of experience. Is it a specific challenge to cover a variety of musical styles? Tell me some of the moments that stand out in your memory.

It is really stimulating to work with people with different styles. At the time it doesn't seem intimidating to work with them... I suppose that's the sign that they're good musicians. But strange things happen! I know with Brian Kennedy we did some live concerts in Dublin and there was one this Christmas concert when we were doing White Christmas as an encore, just as something completely different. And I remember singing the main vocal line with Brian without having rehearsed it, and realising it was really difficult to blend with him because of his Northern accent! His vowels were a completely different shape to mine. Usually when you are singing with somebody you're unconsciously matching their vowel sounds, and I was just thrown by his. I have a recording of it and I listen back to it and you can just see that I'm trying to slot in - without trying to mimic him, you know!
...But they were all great musicians - The Chieftains, we worked on some recordings, and they're just so individual, they've just ploughed a path for themselves and it's quite different from anything anybody else is doing. We worked with Elvis Costello at a festival he directed called Meltdown in London. Every year a different person directs it and invites a mixture of artists to perform. He had invited us to sing. We weren't supposed to be performing with him, but the people we were supposed to work with were involved in a car crash - it wasn't very serious, but serious enough to prevent them from performing that night... so we had this really impromptu concert where other musicians who happened to be at the festival came in to perform with us. Elvis Costello came and sang a new arrangement we prepared that day - so it really felt like a session in somebody's house except there was an audience there too. It didn't seem to faze him at all that half the concert programme he had planned had disappeared! Donal Lunny played that night too - a great bunch of musicians got up and performed with us.

Those must be, in a way, the best times, when it isn't planned.

Oh yes, it keeps you on edge all the time.

But you can't, at the same time, worry about the pieces that went wrong in rehearsal because there wasn't any!

No, that's true! You've no pre-conceived notions about what it's going to be like anyway.

I know you spoke briefly in your previous Celtic cafe interview about your tour of South Africa with Lord of the Dance Troupe 1 in 2000, but I'm sure Celtic Cafe visitors would love to hear more about that. Tell me something about the tour; how tough a schedule did you follow?

Well, we were there for three months and we travelled quite a bit, but it wasn't as hectic as some of the other tours because we had a residency in every town for a few weeks. You got to know the area and you had a chance to unpack your bags for a while. We were in Johannesburg for a couple of weeks, a place called Blomfontein which is a small town, that was the shortest run, then Capetown,and Durban was the last stop. So it wasn't that tough a schedule - certainly the dancers, they had done a lot of touring where they had overnights - and that's what some of the RTE concert tour gigs were like too. It's really tough to travel all day and then perform that night.

How did you travel between venues?

We travelled by plane, except for one of the shorter journeys which I think we did by coach. In some ways I prefer coach journeys because they don't take so much out of you. You get so dehydrated on planes and you have to be there hours before you go anywhere. And if you can develop a knack of being able to sleep on a coach, which kind of comes to you after a while of touring, it's actually not so bad. You do get cabin fever after a while but you can at least get up and move around.

What was the audience reception like in comparison to what you have experienced elsewhere?

The audiences were brilliant in South Africa. They really liked the show.
One thing I did feel was a pity was that we were playing to mostly very wealthy people because the tickets were expensive. But we met some great people. And that's the thing about being somewhere for a while, that you get to meet other musicians who happen to be in town, as opposed to when you're just moving all the time and you don't get a sense of any place. And we got to go on safari, just for two days but it was very exciting!

Did you find it tedious to perform the same three songs every night and not have more involvement with the rest of the show, or is the energy of being in a big show enough to make it feel satisfying?

Well you do get a great buzz from the audience and that does sustain you, but it is hard doing the same material every night. I think all the musicians have different ways of dealing with that. A lot of them end up working on other musical projects while they're on the road, at least planning them, and then recording them in the down time between shows. I think you do need to have something like that to keep you going, and you do get into a kind of a rhythm with the show, but I don't think it's something that I could do for a very long time. I think a couple of months at a time would be the most I would do, because you do feel you can't give as good a performance as you would like to if you have been doing it for too long.
However, every audience is different, and if you feel there's more electricity out there some nights it definitely does help you to give a better performance.

I often wondered about that particular role in Lord of the Dance because there must be large chunks of the evening when you're just waiting around, yet you can't change or anything as you have to be there for the end.

That's right - well, when I did Lord of the Dance, the offer to go to South Africa came at a good time because my first album had been released there and I saw it as a chance to do both, to go out and do some promotion. That was interesting too as it meant I was doing other work outside the show times, and I was also preparing material for a new album, just going through ideas, trying things out, writing out sheet music from stuff that we had worked on before with a view to performing it. So you have something to do in your dressing room - I brought a tiny keyboard with me - which all the dancers laughed at because you could play nursery rhymes and things on it if you pressed a certain button! But it was just very portable and meant you could try out a bit of harmonising or whatever in your dressing room without disturbing anybody else.

You are also currently involved with the National Chamber Choir. Do you like to keep a variety of projects running at the same time, and do you think each one benefits the others?

I very much enjoy working on a mixture of musical styles, and I think it gives you a different perspective, but it can be tricky trying to divide your time. I'm relying on the good will of my colleagues and my Artistic Director in the National Chamber Choir to let me take time off to work on my own material - singing with the Choir is a big commitment.

One of the most unusual places you have worked is Korea. Tell me how you came to go there and how your time there has been spent.

Yes, I was there the week before the World Cup started. My first album had sold quite well in Korea, and through that I met a Korean journalist based in Dublin. She introduced me to the Director of the Namyangju Open Air Festival who was travelling round Europe looking for ideas for his festival.
He liked my music and invited me to perform at it. It was a festival of all kinds of performances to celebrate the opening of the World Cup. I think the festival had happened before but this year it was expanded and had more international acts. So it just seemed like a great opportunity, and at the same time the second album was being released and the record company said "come over and we can do some promotion and give you a chance to sing in front of people". I went for a week and I brought three musicians with me, two of whom play on the album ... and we had a ball! It was just brilliant craic! We really hit it off with our Korean hosts. They start off very formally with a lot of bowing, as you'd expect, with their culture being very formal, but actually, within half an hour of meeting people they were up singing songs and having a bit of a laugh with you - despite the language barrier, which was quite something. I find that their personalities were quite similar to Irish people.

Was it your first time in the Far East?

Yes, it was. And I was surprised at how easily we got on.

Other Celtic artists have also found success in that part of the world. Why do you think the Irish sound appeals to audiences there?

It's hard to know. Actually, my husband produces TV documentaries, and one of them is about a Japanese musician, called Isao Moriyasu - when he's in Ireland he's known as 'Paddy Moriyasu'! He loves Irish music and he talks about feeling a sense of belonging here because there's more connection between everyday life and traditional music and culture here than they have in Japan anymore. Maybe it's a simplistic way of explaining it, but he feels that his family have lost touch with their own traditions and that is why he has borrowed from ours. He says that eventually Irish people may have to go to Japan to see their traditional dance or hear traditional Irish music because the Japanese have now, in turn, embraced it! I suppose because we come from an isolated island culture, our traditions have been protected. In Korean traditional music they have quite a lot of high pitched female singers, so high melodies appeal to them. And a lot of the tunes are familiar to them. The Last Rose of Summer, which is on the Korean version of my album, was already known out there as an Irish tune, and a lot of people would hum along with it. There seems to be an awareness of our music.

Your new album, Silver Sea, has just been launched in Dublin - Congratulations on that achievement - tell me a little about putting that together.

I had hoped to do a project of my own for a long time, and in some ways it felt like the first album although the other one was out there, because I had come up with the idea myself. On the one hand that made it exciting, but it also meant that there was nobody pushing me to make the decisions, I had to push myself! So we recorded it before Christmas. I had an idea of a few people I really wanted to work with, who I felt would be able to guide me through it, because I wanted to produce it myself but felt a bit inexperienced about taking on that kind of role. Maire Breatnach, who is a very good violinist, seemed like the ideal person, because she has a background in both classical and traditional music and she could see where I was coming from. And also Brian Masterson, who was the engineer on the project and has worked with The Chieftains and with Anuna, and knows how to work with voices very well. So they were two very calming influences on me.

I had been collecting songs that I wanted to record for a while, and the idea of having a sea theme came to me because a few of them had a connection with the sea anyway. That started me thinking that it would be a way of knitting together songs that come from different traditions.

I was wondering if the sea was a personal 'thing' for you.

Yes, we spent all our summers by the sea when I was little. I also felt that the sea theme was a way of drawing attention to the similarities between songs from different traditions. It shouldn't really matter where they come from so long as there's something about them that's simple and speaks to you, why shouldn't they sit side by side.

Which track is your personal favourite, or do you have one?

It's funny listening back to your own work because there are always things you want to change. Full Fathom Five is a personal favourite because it's the first time I released something that I had written myself. It was daunting because I feel I 'm primarily a singer, and often people will ask,'why don't you write your own material?' I feel there's already so much great material out there that I want to sing. But having said that, I really enjoyed the writing and I would like to do some more of that. I also love the imagery in You Brought Me Up, which was written by a songwriter I admire very much, John Spillane.

Having had a theme for an album, do you forsee doing that again, having a particular theme for an album?

It becomes a habit - I've already started collecting songs around other themes, but I don't know, I wouldn't feel tied to doing it again.

Silver Sea follows a very successful first album. What are your plans at present? Will you tour to promote the albums? If so, can you give me an idea of when and where? Many who see this interview will be asking!

Well, the first touring of my own material that I did was in Korea and I'm hoping to do some more. I had a concert in Dublin recently to launch it in Ireland. I have been invited to sing in Japan at Christmastime and do some promotion there, which would be exciting - and I'm hoping to travel with the same musicians that came to Korea with me.

Any thoughts about the U.S.?

I'd love to. I haven't any firm plans yet but I' will definitely go back again.

Do you think the public in general, both in Ireland and abroad, are more educated about Irish music as result of the worldwide exposure our culture has had over the past decade? Do you sense a change in the appreciation of your work?

Music opens doors to places you would never imagine yourself going - it really is a passport to anywhere, and it's great that people seem to empathise with Irish music and find something in it that moves them. However I think there is a danger that people choose to capitalise on the tremendous success of Celtic music without caring about the music itself. At the end of the day the listener should be able to tell the whether the music is sincerely presented or not.

Do you think it's made Irish people much more aware of how much there is here?

I suppose in the past, Irish music and dance were traditionally associated with poverty and people were anxious to throw off those connections. When Irish people first emigrated to America they didn't want to be seen speaking Irish because it might be considered backward. Now the American-Irish have come full circle and are happy to embrace the traditional arts. Maybe it's just taken longer here at home, and it's a sign of maturity in Ireland that we can now take pride our traditions and develop them.

Do you think it is any easier now for young Irish musicians and singers to gain respect - and return - for their talent than it was in the past?

I would have to say 'yes'. As I was saying earlier I never considered growing up that I could sing for a living, whereas now I think that's an option open to a lot of people. So it has become easier, but that's not necessarily a good thing. It can be better to have to strive for something. If it's too easy you mightn't put enough effort into it in the first place.
I remember when I was at school I was always sorry I didn't play an orchestral instrument. I played harp and piano, but neither of them were in the normal orchestral set-up, and I felt when I was with classical players who did play orchestral instruments that I had to try that bit harder to prove myself and I think that did me no harm

Long-term, what are the dreams and ambitions of Meav?

I certainly want to continue performing. I'd like to explore working with musicians of different backgrounds and do some more touring as well as recording.

Would you like to do more writing, maybe produce an album of your own material?

Oh, I don't know about that - it's a painful process I think! But I would like to do some more writing, yes.


At this point both Meav's time and mine had run out, so after taking a few photos of her by her beautiful old family baby grand piano and on her sunny deck, and thanking her for her hospitality, I left to go to my Irish Dance class. As I drove out of town listening to 'Silver Sea' I pondered what an amazing wealth of very special artistry we are blessed with on this small island of Ireland.

Interview: Annie of Dublin
Editing: Louise Owen
Feature: Bernadette Price
Original Web Design: Alexander Servas

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