Karan Casey has long been a heart-on-her-sleeve type of person, whether she’s singing or speaking, and this past year has seen her do plenty of both.
One of Ireland’s most high-profile female singers of the past two decades, a co-founder of groundbreaking Irish-American band Solas, and now a well-established solo artist, Casey released her new album, “Hieroglyphs That Tell the Tale,” last fall as she prepared to tour as lead singer with Boston-based fiddle ensemble Childsplay. She also appears on its new CD.
Some months before, Casey had spearheaded a campaign, #FairPlé (“Fair Play”), to promote gender balance in the production, performance, promotion, and development of Irish traditional and folk music. Many performers – male as well as female, in Ireland and elsewhere, including Boston – voiced their support for her endeavor.
There’s ample evidence of the #FairPlé spirit in “Hieroglyphs,” notably through the presence of other prominent female singers like Maura O’Connell, Niamh Dunne, Pauline Scanlon, Karen Matheson, and Boston-area native Aoife O’Donovan, and musicians like Catriona McKay and cellist Kate Ellis, not to mention the work of songwriters Janis Ian, Eliza Gilkyson, and Patti Griffin.
Several weeks ago, prior to a performance with local guitarist Matt Heaton at Boston College, Casey reflected on the making of “Hieroglyphs” – which includes two of her own songs and another she co-wrote with guitarist Sean Og Graham – and the impetus behind #FairPlé. Having spent a quarter-century as a musical performer, including stints in jazz as well as folk and traditional music, Casey has developed a clear perspective on the influences and inclinations that guide her as a singer. The premise, she feels, is a pretty basic one.
“I don’t get into the whole ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ question,” said the Waterford native who now resides in Cork. She lived in the US for most of the 1990s and still tours extensively here. “I just don’t classify songs that way. For me, the criteria is, ‘Is it a good song?’ We’re always looking for stories that are sung well and delivered with meaning, and that’s what’s most important. I used to torture myself trying to make the trad thing sound new and trendy and different, but if you try to box things in, they generally rear up.
“It really has always been about the song, and the story. Your creative center has to be genuine. You have to really want to sing that song. If I’m in the kitchen listening to a song, and I start crying, well, that’s a pretty good sign. If there’s a conversation going on, where you’re giving to the song and the song is giving to you, and you share that connection with the audience, then you know it was a great idea to learn it.”
When Casey prepares to make an album, therefore, she decides what stories she most wants to tell at that time. For her 2008 “Ships in the Forest,” for example, her choices – traditional songs such as “I Once Loved a Lass,” “Black Is the Colour” and “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye,” along with Joni Mitchell’s “The Fiddle and the Drum” – spoke to what she saw as an unresolved grief about aspects of Ireland’s past. Six years later, it was Casey’s own songwriting that became the vehicle for “Two More Hours,” her first album of all-original material, much of it written during a period of introspection following the death of her mother; the album also saw Casey branch out into R&B, blues, jazz and rock-ballad styles.
“Hieroglyphs” carries forth elements from both those releases. It’s musically adventurous like “Two More Hours,” with flavorings of alt-country, rock, gospel and blues, and utilizing brass and a string section as well as folk/acoustic instrumentation (including concertina, played by her husband, Niall Vallely). And as with “Ships,” Casey’s vision by and large extends outwards, with songs that express concern, empathy, and sometimes disdain, for that which ails humanity: “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” Bob Dylan’s telling of grim poverty in the bleakness of South Dakota; Gilkyson’s “Man of God,” which lacerates the exploitation of religious belief for political and personal gain; Griffin’s “Mary,” with Jesus’ mother as personification of war’s devastation; and “In the Gutter,” Mick Flannery’s portrait of intricately linked self-destructiveness and co-dependence.
But “Hieroglyphs” also contains songs about resilience (Ian’s “I’m Still Standing Here” and Casey’s own “Hold On”) and simple, joyous whimsy, in the form of “The Doll in Cash’s Window,” a Cork street song revived by Pat Daly and Jimmy Crowley. “Sixteen Come Next Sunday” is Casey’s nod at the Irish tradition, and while this version of the song will be familiar to Bothy Band listeners, Casey’s rendition is infused with what can aptly be called attitude: It starts out in a funky groove that transitions into a swaggering 6/8, all underlined by Vallely, harpist McKay, mandolinist Innes White, percussionist James MacKintosh, plus a gorgeous keyboard backing by producer Donald Shaw.
Casey said that songs can be meaningful to her not only for what they say, but also for how she comes by them; sometimes, they may be in the form of a keepsake, or a gift. “I did a workshop with Eliza, and she was so kind about my songs, I felt like I wanted to have one of hers – ‘Man of God’ really spoke to something I’d been feeling for a long time. As for ‘I’m Still Standing Here,’ I was on tour with Maura, and that was one of the songs she did. Then she said to me, ‘You should sing this. Take it, it’s yours.’ Maura is like that: She has given Ireland such a good canon of songs.”
After having felt some self-generated pressure in putting together “Two More Hours,” “Hieroglyphs” was “just going back to singing great songs,” summed up Casey, who credits Shaw with nudging her back into the studio and Og Graham for his engineering work. “It was all about confidence and enjoyment.”
As for the social and political content of the album, she said, “it all just came to me. I felt I wanted to say a lot of things: anti-colonialism, anti-war, anti-poverty, and strong songs for women. These are the same themes I’ve been harping on for a while, and I thought maybe people would be more into hearing them.”
One of the album’s unquestioned high points – and an illustration of her way of uniting the personal with the historical – is the unabashedly emotional and moving “Down in the Glen,” her take on the centenary of the Easter Rising. Rather than focusing on the storied figures and episodes associated with 1916, she opted to tell the story of Julia Grenan and Elizabeth O’Farrell: Grenan was the nurse who stayed in the Dublin GPO to care for Easter Rising hero James Connolly, and her lover O’Farrell accompanied Padraig Pearse to surrender the Irish Republic flag to the British.
“Just before the photo was taken of the surrender, Elizabeth stepped out of the way; in the original, you can just see her feet next to Pearse,” said Casey. “But in the reproductions, she was airbrushed out completely – and as many have said, she was basically airbrushed from history. Unfortunately, this is something that’s happened all too often in Ireland: The role of women, whether in the Rising or elsewhere, has often been forgotten or ignored.
“So for ‘Down in the Glen,’ I imagined what Julia would’ve thought as she saw Elizabeth going out the door that day. It’s worth remembering that both women survived the rebellion, and went on to fight for the poor and downtrodden of Dublin. They’re buried together in Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery, in fact.”
“Down in the Glen” underscores Casey’s interest in promoting a higher profile for women, and not just in Irish history. Against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, she explained, she acknowledged to herself a longstanding concern over what she saw as a gender gap in Irish music, despite the emergence of many female artists over the past few decades. One glaring example was the paucity of female performers at Irish festivals: She noted that of 16 acts booked for a major fundraiser in Dublin in early 2018, she was the lone woman. Given that more than 40 pop, jazz, and classical festivals worldwide had pledged to achieve a 50/50 gender balance by 2022, it seemed to Casey that Irish music was behind the wave – and she let the audience at the Dublin event know it.
Discussions revealed there were many others who shared this feeling throughout the arts profession, not just in music circles. Thus was born #FairPlé.
Casey knows the conversation still has a ways to go.
“There’s been some resistance, even some anger: How dare we ask this question, and by doing so aren’t we criticizing Irish traditional music? Well, we’re not. But we’re also stressing that traditional music isn’t more important than the women that make it. No ethos or philosophy is more important than the people.”
Karan Casey’s website is karancasey.com.