The Alt -- (L-R) Eamon O'Leary, Nuala Kennedy and John Doyle -- appear at The Burren Backroom series on September 7. Photo credit: Douglas Robertson
For Irish musician, singer and composer Nuala Kennedy, life is often analogous to one’s personal library, replete with inspirations, memories, lessons, cautionary tales, and every emotion on the human spectrum – the scale of it sometimes beyond our ability to keep up. So she writes in a winsome, heartstrings-tugging song she recorded for her 2010 album “Tune In”: “Amongst the books in my library/There are some/I’ll never open again.”
Kennedy’s book on Boston has plenty of material, including the time she performed at The Burren Backroom in Somerville, along with her friend and frequent collaborator, the guitarist/bouzouki player/vocalist Eamon O’Leary: “There was a power outage, we were all in the pitch black – no air conditioning, either – and they lit some candles so we could get a bit of light. We just went ahead and had a totally acoustic performance, with candles and no sound system or AC. A situation like that, things can go either way, but it turned out to be a very special night. I remember at one point [host/organizer] Brian O’Donovan led us all in singing ‘The Leaving of Liverpool.’ It was a great spirit of community and love of the music. Boston audiences are very warm, very vocal, and very supportive and lively.”
The unfailingly buoyant Kennedy will add some new pages to her Boston tome when she and O’Leary, along with guitarist-vocalist John Doyle, perform as The Alt at the Burren Backroom on Sept. 7 at 7:30 p.m. [See burren.com/music.html for information and ticket links.]
When the trio formed nearly a decade ago, it was one of those you-gotta-be-kidding-me landmark events, given the stature and portfolio of the three individuals: Doyle, a much-admired and prominent figure in Irish traditional music over the past three decades, who also has emerged as a fine songwriter; Dublin native O’Leary, a mainstay of New York City’s Irish scene for many years and a member of The Murphy Beds (who’ll be at Boston College later this month; see the September events round-up); and Kennedy, a flute and whistle player and vocalist whose innovative interpretations of Irish and Scottish music have been spotlighted on her three acclaimed solo albums.
The Alt has more than lived up to its promise – even though its members are often busy with numerous other projects and commitments – as demonstrated on their two albums, including “Day Is Come,” released earlier this year. Their three voices are an ideal complement to one another – Kennedy’s ingratiating, sweet high tones; O’Leary’s mellow, affable bass; Doyle’s cogent, compelling tenor – while their musicianship and feel for arrangements are at an equally high quality.
Their material comes from many sources, including ballad collections, traditional music archives, poetry and their own pens, and extends to Gaelic as well as English-language songs. The emotional-tonal range on “Day Is Come” is similarly expansive, such as the joyous “Ta ’na Lá,” the darkly humorous bothy ballad “Falkirk Fair,” the solemn “Willow Tree” – a lament written by eminent singer, songwriter, and academic Pádraigín Ní Úallacháin – and the infectious, sweet-toned long ballad “The Flower of Northumberland.”
“Day Is Come” – and The Alt’s general body of work – is a championing of traditional song. Even with the representation of contemporary songwriters, including the three Alt members themselves, their repertoire asserts that the old songs can resonate with, move, and delight us at least as much as new songs. As the band notes on its website, “The old ballads, winding tunes, and freshly discovered songs that each artist brought to the table reflect the pure love of the song that has made Irish music so beautiful and compelling over thousands of years.”
Kennedy’s love of song, and Irish music, came early during her childhood in Dundalk (Co. Louth). Her parents both sang, as did her father’s six sisters – not as professionals but simply for the enjoyment of it: “Mom and Dad met at a folk club in London in the late 1960s. They always had a real feel for the music.” Kennedy evinced an interest in the singing, but her parents steered her toward playing whistle and piano, then flute and joining a local ceili band (“The conversation went like this,” she recalls. “Dad said, ‘The ceili band needs a flute player’ and I said, ‘But I don’t play the flute,’ and Dad said, ‘Here’s a flute. You’re going to go and play it,’ and I said, ‘What?’ Now, my Mom and Dad were friends with Sam Murray, a great flute maker from Belfast, and he made my first flute, and Dad went up to get it – unbeknownst to me.”).
Kennedy points to Lá Lugh, the duo of Gerry O’Connor and Eithne Ní Uallacháin – and their first album in particular – as an important influence in her understanding of how traditional music could sound. “That album really inspired me as a young singer, because it has a mix of tunes and songs, and though I liked playing instrumental music I was always interested in song, and in singing different kinds of songs, like the contemporary, singer-songwriter stuff. Eithne’s voice inspired me, because it’s so beautiful and so plain; she was able to communicate big feelings in a simple way. That’s one of the things I love about this old music – the feelings in these songs, the topics they cover are ancient and universal: love, loss, joy, emigration, fun.”
Her sojourn in Edinburgh during the 1990s further broadened her view of traditional music, what with musicians of different backgrounds and interests, and across generations, playing and performing together. As a masterful flute and whistle player who also had studied classical piano, and who appreciated both the commonalities and differences in Irish and Scottish music, Kennedy felt stirred to explore her eclectic tastes and ideas. This led her to start the trio Fine Friday with the Scottish guitarist/singer-songwriter Kris Drever and the fiddler Anna-Wendy Stevenson. They released two albums before going their separate ways, setting the stage for Kennedy to release her first solo album, “New Shoes,” in 2007.
Since then, Kennedy – now based in Ennis – has followed her muse in quite a number of directions, including The Alt. She’s put out three more solo albums; formed The Snowflake Trio with Norwegian musicians Vegar Vårdal and Frode Haltli – they released “Sun Dogs” in 2019; took on the role as producer for American singer-songwriter Nels Andrew’s 2020 album; collaborated with composer Brian Reitzall for an episode of the “American Gods” TV series; wrote and performed in “Shorelines,” a work commissioned by the glór, Ennis’ local theater; and joined with Lúnasa bassist Trevor Hutchinson and Kern guitarist-mandolinist S.J. McArdle as Long Woman’s Grave, which resulted in a video (“High Germany”). Oh, there’s yet another project, “Hush the Cat,” exploring the music of Oriel, the old region encompassing southeast Ulster and north Leinster; you can watch the video, for which she provided the animation, and buy the tote bag, which she designed.
“I’ve thought a lot about innovation and creativity within the tradition: How to play traditional music and make it your own and interpret it in your own way – to have some more personal ownership over that music. That’s something I work on a lot with my students, and I really enjoy thinking and talking about that aspect of the music.”
However busy they might be, Kennedy and her fellow Alt members relish whatever time they can spend together, and the enjoyment goes beyond the musical aspect of their partnership: Among other things, the trio also likes to hold ad hoc literary discussions and, while driving to their next tour stop, have been known to stop the car when they spy a pond or lake and take the plunge : “We were in Maine one September, and the weather was very hot, so we jumped in the water, and it was freezing cold. We all kind of screamed and got out, but then it was lovely and warm. It was just so refreshing.”
She continues, “We’re all from similar backgrounds, and we just understand where we’re coming from. We’re none of us native speakers, but when we’re having a conversation in the car, for example, we’ll throw the odd Irish word in there. We know what we’re talking about. We can be silly together, and just sing our questions to each other when we’re chatting. It’s just a lot of fun.
“It’ll be great to be back together, in the same room. Far too much time’s gone by.”