March 29, 2021
Karan Casey: "I think of music as an in-between time and space where we can talk about difficult and thorny subjects; we can put these subjects into the room in an easier way, through the words and melody of a song.”
CREDIT: Crowmusic via Wikimedia
Boston holds quite some significance in the life and times of Irish singer-songwriter Karan Casey. She lived in the area briefly during her 20s, and it was at The Burren in Somerville where she had her “first night out” with her husband-to-be, musician Niall Vallely. And, of course, over the years she has performed at many venues and events in Greater Boston.
Now, Covid-19 has added a few other bullet points to Casey’s history with Boston. Her November 2019 appearance with fiddle ensemble Childsplay at Sanders Theater in Cambridge was among the last live gigs she did before the pandemic, and in March of last yea, she arrived in Boston to perform at The Burren just as the lockdown began (the show was cancelled).
But this year, Casey has been able to reconnect with Boston in a virtual way, as a featured performer at the annual BCMFest (Boston Celtic Music Fest) that was held online in January and, about a month later, as a guest on “The Irish Influence,” a weekly webinar series hosted through the Boston College Irish Studies Program and Boston College Ireland.
Casey did far more than sing, however. She offered insights and reflections from a three-decades-plus career that has included excursions into jazz, rock and pop as well as traditional and contemporary folk music – highlighted by her stint as co-founder and lead singer for the pioneering Irish-American band Solas – and in recent years, her emergence as a songwriter. The Waterford native also discussed her role as advocate and activist for the social-justice dimension of music, as demonstrated by her championing of the FairPlé (Fair Play) campaign, which seeks to promote gender balance in the production, performance, promotion, and development of Irish traditional and folk music.
In an interview that served as a backdrop to her appearance at BCMFest, where she performed via livestream in the festival’s “Nightcap” finale concert and led a masterclass on “The Performance of Social Justice,” Casey said, “I’ve always tried to say what I think politically, certainly, but I’ve always been mindful that at a concert, some people don’t view music as having to do with politics, while others definitely see music as imbedded in, imbued with politics. It’s a dilemma I’ve struggled with, because I’d like to be able to converse with people about political ideas and situations. And I think of music as an in-between time and space where we can talk about difficult and thorny subjects; we can put these subjects into the room in an easier way, through the words and melody of a song.”
In the BCMFest interview, Casey – who has been hunkered down in Cork with Vallely and their two daughters – talked about what has helped keep her busy during the pandemic, revealing much about her fascinating array of interests. Having become fully immersed in songwriting over the past decade (her 2014 album “Two More Hours” was her first of all-original material), she’s now working on a project of more originals, “I Walked Into My Head,” which she envisions performing and filming. She described it as “very different than what I’d been doing: a kind of internal mapping of my lived experiences and landscape; the music is more modern, more like sound design, really.”
Where “I Walked Into My Head” represents a new direction, Casey’s other big project explores more familiar territory, and is simultaneously historical, personal, and of the moment. She’s writing a book about her great-grandmother, Agnes O’Dwyer, who was part of the Cumann na mBan, a revolutionary group of Irish women in the early 1900s. Concurrently, the research she has undertaken is helping provide the basis for a series of songs she’ll be writing about the women in that period.
“The backdrop, obviously, is the rebellion and the national question – there was a tremendous amount of artistic momentum, particularly from women, during that time,” she explained. “I’m having a ball with it: I’ve been interviewing members of my family and different historians and also doing research in the military history bureau. I’ve never done anything like it, although I don’t know if I’ll ever end up publishing the book.”
If all that isn’t enough, Casey also spent the pandemic year rediscovering her touch on the piano, an instrument she began studying in her teens, to accompany herself: “The lockdown really has forced me to re-imagine how I present these songs, since obviously I can’t put a band together. So I’ve really been devoting a lot of effort and imagination to that.”
Casey unveiled her reclaimed piano chops (showing traces of jazz as well as classical influences) in grand fashion at the BCMFest Nightcap, opening with a spellbinding medley comprising a traditional song in Irish and two of her own, “Daughter Dearest” – part of the “I Walked Into My Head” project – and the Easter Rising-themed “Down in the Glen,” 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, Elizabeth O’Farrell, accompanied Padraig Pearse to surrender the Irish Republic flag to the British.
“Right,” she said with a laugh after she finished the trio, “that was a bit more dramatic than I intended.”
Another highlight of the set was an a cappella rendition of “The King’s Shilling,” an anti-war traditional song that has become one of her signature pieces.
However wide-ranging her musical inclinations might be, Casey never forsakes her deep attachment to folk tradition. During her appearance on “The Irish Influence” – also joining her was local broadcaster/music event producer Brian O’Donovan – she spoke about her friendship with the late Frank Harte, one of the most respected traditional Irish singers of the past half-century or so and a major influence for Casey and many others. She recalled meeting him many years ago at the Catskills Irish Arts Week (“I had 10 songs, he had 24,000”), an event she said was life changing.
“Frank gave me so much time. I’d go and tape him with my cassette or mini-disc, and we’d talk about songs. And he just sang. He sang all day. It could even be a little embarrassing: We’d be in a shop or a bar, he’d be singing away, and I’d say ‘Uh, Frank?’ He was amazing.”
Casey also related an anecdote about Harte that spoke to her interest in how songs can help foster dialogue about difficult or controversial subjects. Giving a presentation about rebel songs, she said, Harte fielded a question from an Englishman, who asked “Why do you Irish have all these sad songs?”; Harte replied, “Well, probably because of you lot!”
“And this amazing conversation ensued, which wouldn’t have been possible without songs,” Casey said. “What we couldn’t have talked about earlier had been brought forward because of what Frank had sung. So, I think a lot of community can be built, a lot of love in the room can be built. Now, some people may hear a Lambeg drum, or people from that tradition may hear traditional music, and they don’t feel it brings them together. We need to be honest about that. But I definitely feel that the songs, for me anyway, are a possibility of change. I think all art is about that possibility, and moving people into someone’s else different way of looking at life.
“That happened to me when I went to America, and I heard Nina Simone’s songs, like ‘Mississippi Goddamn,’ or her songs for women, like ‘Young, Gifted and Black.’ That directed me to a narrative in American history that wasn’t obvious. It opened up a whole world, and pathways to other people’s lives.”
In fact, at the outset of her BCMFest masterclass, Casey sang the Billy Taylor-Dick Dallas civil rights movement anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” which she’d heard covered by Simone.
“I love the tremendous positivity in that song,” she explained at the conclusion. “It’s important to keep in mind people sing social justice songs – well, I do, anyway – because they’re optimists. I believe very much in love and compassion, and that the world can change if we sing these songs.”
Of course, change often can be a hard-won process, as Casey noted on “The Irish Influence” in discussing the progress of FairPlé, which she said had garnered support from men as well as women in the Irish music community (and music communities elsewhere), and has led to increased opportunities for women.
“[FairPlé] was about raising awareness about gender balance and fairness, and also women in other areas of music that aren’t traditionally seen as female, particularly sound and recording – I’ve never been recorded by a woman,” she said.
More recently, the campaign prompted the rise of a movement called Mise Fosta (“Me Too”), led by young activists who have shared stories about sexual harassment and assault in Irish music circles. Casey said she and others in FairPlé have encouraged those coming forward to seek legal redress, counseling, and other resources.
Casey puts FairPlé and Mise Fosta in a wider, deeper context, where women of Ireland have long been marginalized not only in the arts but also in politics, government, business and even history itself – part of her motivation in writing “Down in the Glen,” she has noted, was that Elizabeth O’Farrell was typically airbrushed out of photos depicting Pearse’s surrender to the British. Stories that have percolated through Mise Fosta may be painful and difficult to hear, but they must be heard, Casey believes, or else the harmful legacy will persist.
“In Ireland, we are good at not listening to testimonies from women, even with the mother-and-baby homes,” she said on “The Irish Influence.” “It’s very much an issue that happens a lot of the time. So we’re winding down FairPlé because there’s a broader campaign evolving where all of the arts are coming together to campaign for change.
“This is a broader societal issue, and it would be ridiculous to say that it doesn’t exist in traditional music, which people were trying to say – that the sanctity of traditional music couldn’t be questioned. That was difficult, but in fairness, people have come around and been very supportive.”
Fittingly, Casey capped off the webinar with her cover of “I’m Still Standing Here,” Janis Ian’s testament to resilience:
“See these lines on my face?
They're a map of where I've been
And the deeper they are traced,
the deeper life has settled in
How do we survive living out our lives?”