Christy O'Leary and Bert Deivert at the Celtic Cafe

SONG'S SWEET CARESS - New CD by Christy O'Leary and Bert Deivert

Review and Interview by Alfredo De Pietra

The Celtic Cafe is grateful to Keltika Magazine of Italy for sharing some of the work of Alfredo De Pietra, its Music Column Editor, translated into English. Click here for Alfredo's bio page at the Celtic Cafe, with links to his other features available here at

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It’s a “Song’s Sweet Caress” that comes from cold Sweden, but it’s also one of the most enjoyable CDs we have listened to in the last months. Christy O’Leary, former piper and vocalist with The Boys of the Lough for twelve years, and the Irish-American guitarist/bouzouki player Bert Deivert released their new album – “Song’s Sweet Caress” – deeply rooted in tradition, but also using an interesting and modern approach, rich in jazzy nuances.

In the past months we have been able to listen to several Irish musicians, who, for various reasons, have decided to live abroad: think about Shantalla in Belgium, Gillie McPherson in France or the “Italian” Kay McCarthy: we could say that all of them are able to attain interesting results thanks to their artistic sensibility, and also able to “borrow” some elements from the traditional music of the areas where they live.

The same can undoubtedly be said about this musical experience by O’Leary & Deivert, who show not only their ability to mix traditional Irish and Scandinavian music, with wonderful results, but also use an even more jazzy approach typical of Northern European nations. Take, for instance, the opening track, “Green Grows the Laurel”: Bert’s accompaniment is enriched by the soprano sax of Jonny Wartel, and the voice of Christy O’Leary has a great counterpoint in a harmony duo created by the electric guitar and sax. But it still remains Irish traditional music at its highest level, though with its eyes open to 21st Century musical reality (there is also a guitar synth on this CD, but it sounds perfectly immersed and absolutely natural with the typical nature of this music).

“Song’s Sweet Caress” is a series of musical gems, and it’s difficult for us to choose a favorite: it is probably the composition by Swedish fiddler Eva Deivert - “Bembring” which flows naturally into “Up Downey”, written by Tola Custy, or the great song “Bonny Light Horseman”, but the general quality of the whole album is really very high. A special mention goes though, in our opinion, to “The Slave’s Lament”, a song written by Robert Burns and sung in a splendid way by Christy with a great ‘50s jazz mood, courtesy of Gunnar Backman’s guitar and Jonny Wartel’s sax, with some nuances that remind us of some the magical moments in Chet Baker’s voice… but only a few seconds -- and the wild set of reels “The Watchtower Set” is ready to remind us that we are listening to some of the best Irish music we could meet up with in this day and age…

We talked with Bert and Christy about their Swedish experience and their music.

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Bert, you have lived in Sweden since 1974, and your CV talks mainly about your activities as a singer-songwriter and composer for theatrical plays. There isn’t very much about your passion for Irish music. Could you tell us something more about it? When did you begin to have an interest in this music? How did you “discover” Irish music? Your main influences in Irish music?

”Well, my mother comes from a Boston Irish American family and I spent a lot of time with that side of the family. My mother sang and taught me music hall songs, which she told me was "Irish music", taught me to dance the jig, made me learn tap dancing, and instilled in me some sort of American "Irishness" that exists in the US in the Irish-American community. I was, unfortunately, never exposed to traditional Irish music except hearing the Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers on TV in the '60s. It seems too, that none of my family know anything about traditional Irish music. However, my musical interest was awakened early and I always sang, and then played drums and later guitar. I always had groups going, playing rock music, and finally made a living as a singer in San Francisco while finishing my Master's degree there in Film. I moved to Sweden the following year and continued making music, writing songs and delving into American and English folk music which fascinated me, due to the playing of Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, and John Renbourn, which I heard in college. While living for a short spell in Holland about 1976, I met a Dutch group, King's Galliard, who played Irish music. I started playing a bit with them and learning more about Irish music, while teaching them a little about Swedish music. Since this was my first introduction to live Irish music, I was very excited about learning to play, and felt I was getting back to my roots in some way... I got more and more interested, they helped me buy records and recommended things, and I toured a bit with them, in Holland, and later in Ireland. Doing a gig at the Rotterdam Folk Festival, I ran into Jamie McMenemy of the Battlefield Band. He and Brian McNeill admired the Swedish "nyckelharpa" I had with me, and I admired Jamie's cittern, which is a sort of large mandolin type instrument, a bit smaller than a bouzouki. We had a chat and I got the maker's name, Stefan Sobell, from Northumberland. I started playing on a cheap Greek bouzouki, and it took a few years to get my first Sobell, but during that time, listening to a lot of playing, especially Jamie's playing got me started on cittern and bouzouki. So I did more and more playing of Irish and Scots music from the late '70s till now.

Since I could not make a living on that kind of music, and at the time wasn't really good enough at it, in my estimation, it became my main musical hobby, while living by playing singer/songwriter/folk and rock stuff. I met my wife Eva, who is a fiddler, in 1981 or so and we started playing together and she was interested in Irish music, so I had someone to play with in this quiet area of the country where I live. We formed a hobby band, then became more serious about Irish music, and continue to play together to this day, doing Irish, Scots, and Swedish music. I had taught myself DADGAD guitar in the mid-'70s and my bouzouki and cittern playing became modeled on the way that I play DADGAD guitar.

I am a backing guitarist/bouzouki player. I am not interested in playing melody, but I do weave little melodic counter lines in the chord backing using crosspicking techniques. I like to lift and influence the melody, using different types of chords, I always consider the melody to be the most important factor in a song or tune. I have never sat down to actually learn the way somebody else plays, but sometimes players inspire me or I hear some little thing that catches my ear and I want to know how they did that so I listen again and try to figure it out. I approach cooking in the same way. I read cookbooks for inspiration, but I rarely use recipes!

Going to my influences as bouzouki/cittern player, well, the main influence I have had was Jamie McMenemy's brilliant cittern playing that I saw live in Rotterdam in the mid-'70s, and the playing he did on the first Battlefield Band record and on his The Road to Kerrigouarc'h solo album. It was very inspiring, though my playing is quite different from him, stylistically. I taught myself since there was nobody else around my area of Sweden playing. Since I am also a self-taught DADGAD tuned guitar player, I decided to use the tuning intervals for the cittern as GDGDG and for the bouzouki as DADAD, which uses similar fingering to DADGAD.

My main instrument, a Nordic bouzouki, is made by two luthiers in Sweden, Ådin and Ekvall, and I also play on a Stefan Sobell cittern and a Sobell guitar (Hexham, Northumberland).

As a DADGAD guitar player, I listened to a lot of American and English guitar players, and some Scots, and then Irish ones that inspired me in backing techniques. While experimenting with different tunings and teaching myself to play DADGAD by inventing chord shapes, since I had absolutely no material about it or teacher around, I found the players that really made me sit up and listen were John Renbourn, Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, Paul Brady and Mícheál Ó Domhnail. I think if there is one guitar player that I could be compared to in style, it would probably be Mícheál Ó Domhnail. I think we have similar kinds of rhythmic and harmonic ideas in some of the backing I have listened to. His playing with Kevin Burke and Paddy Glackin is lovely stuff.

Some of my other favorite Irish guitar players of today to listen to are: Garry O Briain - an absolutely brilliant guitarist, Arty McGlyn, John Doyle, Randal Bays (USA), and Donogh Hennessy.

I got passionate about Irish music and take every chance to go to Ireland for the music, and I just feel very good to be there!

How did you meet Christy?

Well, in 1999 I heard that an Irish piper lived about 90 miles from me, and that he used to be in the Boys of the Lough. Since the "Boys" was not a band I listened to, I looked up a little on the Internet and found that this man, Christy O'Leary, had made a solo CD called “The Northern Bridge.” So I ordered it. I was knocked out by his singing and his playing, and got his address from a mutual acquaintance and sent him a letter with a CD of some demos I was working on, as an example of my playing Irish and Swedish music (which admittedly is rather in its own style, and not to everybody's taste!), and asked if he wanted to get together sometime and play some tunes. He called me up, and said yes... and that is how it all started.”

Do you and Christy play together as a full-time duo?

We do as much work as we can get, but being that most of the gigs have been in Scandinavia, there is a limited audience. And also, it is practically impossible to live on one band or duo in the musical world of today. We are gearing up all the time on our duo playing, and this new CD is the culmination of a lot of work which we hope will lead to more touring. Live gigs are the best way to reach people. We both wish to work doing more recording, and not too much touring, since we have families, and hopefully there will be more fruitful interaction between us and other musicians in Sweden. Christy has been playing a bit with another guitarist, a Swedish style and classical guitarist doing O'Carolan tunes, and doing session work on the pipes, and hopefully that may create some other configurations for gigs for Christy, and I play with my wife in a duo, as well. We are both open for lots of music, but we really enjoy what we do together, and that is the main thing for now!”

How do Swedish audiences react to your music?

“They really like it, but the normal Swedish person is not that aware of what Irish music is, and therefore, so much sounds the same to them. They can't often distinguish between a really good trad band or a fair one. It is the "feel" of the music that gets them. A lot of pub-type bands flourish over here, but real trad music is pretty unknown. But there are some great Swedish musicians playing Irish music, and I hope it will take off again like it did for awhile in the late '70s and '80s.

How is the Celtic music scene in Sweden, actually?

There are some bands and individual musicians playing, but not much of a session scene. We try to have little invited sessions at home when we want to play with other people. Most sessions happen in the larger cities, like Stockholm, Göteborg, and Malmö, and we both live in the countryside in the middle of Sweden.

How did you end up living in Sweden?

(Christy) My wife Lisa comes from Sweden and we had bought a house here before I finished with Boys of the Lough so it seemed quite natural to move here. Its also a good country for children to grow up in.

Christy, could you please tell us something about your musical experience with Boys of the Lough?

(Christy) The time I spent with The Boys changed my life completely. It took me places I would never have seen and people I never would have met and musical experiences I never would have had. It was also a good school where I learned a lot both in musical and performance terms. I also lived in Scotland for the twelve years I was with the band which was also a rich experience, traveling with the group around the Highlands and Islands every Summer during the Eighties will always be a fond memory. The music of Scotland is nearly as important to me as Irish music which is why we've included two of my favorite tunes on the new record, "Farewell to Whiskey" and "The Slaves Lament."

Are there any significant differences in playing Irish music in Sweden as opposed to Ireland?

(Christy) In some ways it works better and in other ways it doesn't work as well. When you play in Ireland there is a natural association and familiarity to the music and songs but at the same time living here in Sweden one comes into contact with the music of Sweden and Swedish musicians and the possibilities for exchange and mixing styles gives you a new perspective.

How do you look at your music? Has “Song's Sweet Caress” a modern approach, in your opinion?

(Christy) Bert and I started playing together about three years ago and we had been talking about doing a record together, then I heard some film music Bert had written with Gunnar Backman and I thought it would be great to combine some of the ideas they were using with the music Bert and I were playing, so “Song's Sweet Caress” is the result of that. I don´t know how to define a modern approach, we try to have fun but at the same time keep the music's integrity intact.

(Bert) I suppose my coming from a rather eclectic musical background made this "modern" approach, as you call it, rather inevitable. Christy with his solid traditional background together with my style definitely makes the setting unique, and gives us what I consider a different "sound" than that of a lot of other groups and duos around. And since Christy really liked the film music we were doing, Gunnar and I looked at the possibility of expanding certain tracks without losing the freshness and tradition. Still, I do notice that pure traditionalists think that even some tracks that I think of as rather traditionally oriented are still a bit too modern for their taste. But I do not believe there is an detraction in the quality of the music because of our approach, and our RESPECT for Irish traditional music shines through everything we do. But one mustn't forget that the influence of Swedish music has had a definite and positive effect on our playing. That may be the answer to the quandary about what is "modern" in the cd, when in reality it is just another tradition showing its colors in our music.

What can you tell us about the use of soprano sax and virtual guitar on the record?

(Christy) Doing this project was a new experience for Gunnar so he listened a lot in the beginning and then he came along with these great sounds on virtual guitar and then we thought sax on a very traditional song like “Green Grows the Laurel” would fit in with the arrangement we already had so Johnny came in to do that.

(Bert) The Roland Virtual guitar system (VG-88) is basically an amplifier simulator and can also use synthesized types of sounds. Gunnar is a brilliant jazz guitarist and used the system with fretless guitar sometimes to achieve an effect that took us beyond tradition but still kept the basic tracks and feel intact. Jonny has been playing jazz and roots music, and just finished a record with the famous Indian musician Paban das Baul, together with Gunnar on guitar. Amazingly, both Gunnar and Jonny moved easily from the Indian roots to Irish roots music!

And finally, what about the presence of a “jazzy” track on “Song’s Sweet Caress”? Please tell us something more about “The Slave’s Lament.”

(Christy) ”The Slave’s Lament” is a Robert Burns song which I heard sung by the great Scottish singer Sheena Wellington from Fife and I've always wanted to do it in this way because it just works so well with the melody and working with Gunnar it seemed the right time to do it.”

(Bert) Christy laid down the track acapella, and then Gunnar and I sat in the studio working on backing tracks for it with Gunnar's guitar playing and some bass, and then Jonny on the sax. Later Christy came back and could sing to the new accompaniment, which was great fun for him since he had always wanted to sing with jazz backing, and it really fit this tune. I used to play a bit of jazz when I was a teenager, and my approach to accompaniment is still "jazzy" with certain chordal colors and rhythm, so I think this style fits right in with what we are doing.

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CD Review and Interview: Alfredo De Pietra
Feature: Bernadette Price
Original Web Design: Alexander Servas

Christy O'Leary and Bert Deivert



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