A Q & A with Clannad’s Moya Brennan

Forty years ago, a quintet from Gweedore, Donegal – siblings Moya, Pol, and Ciaran Brennan, and their twin uncles, Noel and Padraig Duggan – first made its way into the Irish music scene, joining a generation of influential performers like Christy Moore, Andy Irvine, Paddy Keenan, Triona Ni Dhomhnaill, Michael O Domhnaill, Donal Lunny, Paul Brady, Kevin Burke, Frankie Gavin, Dolores Keane, and many others who helped reshape Irish traditional music. Even on this crowded stage, Clannad made an impression with its repertoire of mainly traditional Gaelic songs joined to influences from rock, jazz, and other genres, and imbued with exquisite vocal harmonies – and in particular the stunning lead vocals and Irish harp-playing of Moya Brennan.

The 1980s saw a shift in Clannad’s music: more original material; the use of synthesizers and other electric instruments, as well as percussion; and a lush, reverb-accentuated quality to their recordings – what became known as the “New Age sound.” But the band (who at one point were joined by another Brennan sibling, Enya) kept a connection to their old sound, using Gaelic lyrics in many of their compositions, retaining the acoustic guitars, mandolins, string bass, and Brennan’s harp that had characterized their earlier incarnation – and most of all, their hauntingly beautiful vocals. Clannad made inroads into popular music, with songs like “Theme from Harry’s Game” and “In a Lifetime,” which featured a guest appearance by Bono and an accompanying video that gave the band major exposure in the US and elsewhere.

By the end of the 1990s, Clannad had become an international success, with record sales of more than 15 million, film and TV soundtracks, and several awards, including a Grammy. The first decade of the 21st century was a quieter one for the group: There were no new recordings (other than compilations), some solo or duo projects by members, and relatively few concert appearances. But this fall, Clannad embarked on its first North American tour in almost 20 years, which included a performance at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and announced that a new album was in the works.

Recently, Moya Brennan spoke with Sean Smith of the “Boston Irish Reporter” about Clannad’s 40-year history – including their association with Bono – and some of her own projects.

Q. How has it been, back on the road in the US?
A. Absolutely tremendous. We’ve been playing to full houses, with a fair amount of people who saw us 20 years ago, but also a lot who never saw us before but know our music. Many of the audiences want to hear the older material, from the first years of the group – like “Dulaman” or “Nil Se Ina La” – so we try to fit in as much as possible, along with the stuff from the 1980s on.

Q. Was it difficult to get back into a “touring mode” after all this time?
A. We had felt we needed a break, we just didn’t expect it to last this long. But we’re a family, so it’s not like we don’t get together; we stayed in touch, talked about what we wanted to do, and when. We made a few appearances, like at Celtic Connections [in 2007], and we did a short tour [in 2008]. Then we gave a concert at Christ Church Cathedral last year, and that was definitely a boost; people hadn’t forgotten us. And we decided that it was time to think of doing a new album, and getting back to the US.
We’re really enjoying this. The excitement we always used to feel about performing is still there, although there is a sense of maturity along with it. The reaction we’ve been getting is quite amazing.

Q. Does Boston carry any special associations or memories for you?
A. Well, it’s definitely a special community, what with its Irish history and legacy. One special memory we have is of Fr. Bartley MacPhaidin, who was president of Stonehill College – he’s from Donegal, too, originally – because we would always end up having dinner with him when we came through town. In fact, the Boston stop on our first tour of the US – in 1979, I think – coincided with Thanksgiving. He invited us to dinner, along with loads of people, and we were just this young Donegal crowd who didn’t know much of anything about Thanksgiving. It was the first time we’d ever had sweet potatoes!

Q. Talking of Donegal: There’s an impression of Donegal as this remote place, kind of away from everything else, and yet Clannad shows up on the Irish music scene in the early 1970s with all these different influences as well as a strong traditional background. How did it all come together?
A. Gaelic was our first language, so we grew up with it. Our teachers would always include Gaelic songs, dramas, and the like at our school. My mother would always put us in the feis, and so we had exposure to the traditional music. And my father ran a pub, of course – Leo’s Tavern – so there was always music and singing there. My father had a show band, as well, and they would also play a bit of Elvis, or Nat King Cole, so there was that influence.
Now, my kids have had a great time with music because of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, but that wasn’t available to us as kids. Whatever connection you had to traditional music was through your family – my dad sent me to school to learn the harp, for example.
But the other thing that went on during that time, in the 1960s and ‘70s, was because we were on the coast we were able to get all these broadcasts from pirate radio stations. And we’d hear songs by The Beach Boys and The Mamas and The Papas, with all these harmonies, and it made a big impression on us. Kind of funny, when you think about it: Here we were, on the west coast of Ireland, listening to the “West Coast sound” of America.
So, because of things like that, we’d branch out in our musical interests. Ciaran picked up the bass, and he became interested in modern jazz, like the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea. My record player had a selection that was pretty unusual, too – I even had records from “Sesame Street,” because I loved the songs!
However, when we first began playing, we were shunned. At that time, Gaelic songs were just never done with instruments, except the harp, or with harmony voices; it was sacrilegious. That’s why we headed off to Europe a lot at the beginning, because they didn’t care what language we sang in. We were determined to stick to our guns. When you’re true to something, you do it for years because you believe in it, if you’re honest.
Of course, after a while, there was more acceptance about our approach to singing in Gaelic, and it wasn’t so much of a problem to play in Ireland.

Q. Do you see a real divide between that early stage of Clannad and, let’s say, the “Harry’s Game”-and-afterwards era? It seems to me that, if you go back and listen to those first few albums, you can hear some hints as to the future direction of the band – even on the first album, like the jazzy stuff Ciaran and Pol play on “Nil Se Ina La,” for example; or the vocals and the electric piano on “Eirigh Suas a Stoirin” from the “Dulaman” album.
A. We always had that adventure in us. I mean, on the first album, we used a jazz drummer for one of the tracks, we had “Liza,” a pop song in Gaelic we wrote, and we even did a cover of Bonnie Robson’s “Morning Dew,” and of course the work with harmonies was already there. Clannad never went with the established flow; we always felt like branching out. When “Theme from Harry’s Game” became an international hit, the fact it was in Gaelic made it all the sweeter.
But whatever we did, whether it was with traditional music or our own material, it all felt natural to us, it wasn’t a stretch. We wanted to enhance the music, and we did it with respect. We felt our audience would understand, and appreciate that.

Q. Okay, since “In a Lifetime” was probably the first introduction for most Americans to Clannad, you have to tell the story about how you guys wound up getting together with Bono.
A. It was one of those very lucky occurrences. We were working on the “Macalla” album, in Dublin, and we went around to the pub nearby. And Bono happened to be a regular there. Now, this was after “Theme from Harry’s Game” had come out, which we had written for a TV show about The Troubles, and it had become a big hit in both Ireland and the UK, and had gotten nominated for a British Academy Television Award. As it turned out, Bono really loved Clannad, especially because we sang in Gaelic, and you know, because we had done a song in Gaelic for a TV show about The Troubles. So he was quite interested in what we were doing, and we invited him to the studio.
There was a song we had started on, and at the time it was just really a backing track, and he listened to it. It’s not like either of us said, “Let’s do a song together.” But as we were listening, the idea of some kind of duet started to form – I just remember, after we all went home that night, there was this incredible thunderstorm, all this energy in the air. And over the next two days, he came up with this amazing vocal, and everything came together.

Q. And then you went on to do a video of the song.
A. That was a fantastic time. I mean, Bono and U2, they were big fry and we were small fry. Bono called all the shots. He said, “We’ve got to film it in Donegal.” And the record company wasn’t about to say, “No, Bono, you can’t do that.” So we shot the video in our hometown, Gweedore. It was very funny, because shooting the video involved bringing wind and rain machines – to Donegal, of all places! The production got local people involved, too. And we were back in Leo’s afterwards, pulling pints, and I’d be teaching Bono Gaelic songs. He and the boys were just fantastic.
But the best part was, if you remember, there’s a scene in the video with a hearse. Well, Bono had actually bought that hearse before we had left to go do the shooting. So we all packed up the cars and drove off to Donegal in a convoy along with the hearse, which Bono was riding in. Now, at that time, you had to pass by an English army barracks to get to Donegal. Before we got in sight of the barracks, Bono had his friend who was driving stop the hearse. And Bono climbs in the back and lies down, and the convoy goes on, right past the soldiers, and they see him in the back and start yelling, “It’s Bono! It’s Bono!”

Q. You’ve had a number of your own projects going on these last few years. You’ve toured with your own band, and you and Cormac de Barra teamed up to do the “Voices and Harps” album.
A. The album was an outgrowth of performances and workshops we’ve been doing for a number of years. My daughter Aisling has been involved with that, which has made it even more enjoyable.

Q. And you also recorded with Triona Ni Dhomhnaill [Bothy Band], Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill [Skara Brae] and Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh [Altan] as “T with the Maggies.”
A. Oh, that was an absolute pleasure, we practically did nothing but talk and laugh, and we don’t do it nearly often enough. All of us come from Donegal, so it’s a very special collaboration, and I have a lot of respect for them. Being with Triona and Maighread in particular is a treat, because they were in Skara Brae, who came about around the same time as Clannad. We were all very close and spent a lot of time together.
There’s a whole different feel to the Maggies for me, because with them I’m an equal part of a quartet, so there’s not as much pressure. You just have fun and make music. We’re talking about doing another album sometime, which will definitely be something I’ll look forward to.

Q. I understand you also are involved in some activities and initiatives that don’t relate to music. Give us an example.
A. Well, there are a number of Franciscan monasteries that are closing, and they have stored up an incredible amount of literature, some of it going back to the 10th century. I mean, this is the history of Ireland, but many people are unaware of it. There are boxes and boxes of materials. So, I am on a commission that will work on creating a library so people can access them. It’s very important to me, because I’m passionate about my history.
I’m also taking part in causes that have to do with nature preservation, especially in Donegal – trying to protect the land against pollution or destruction from development. If you love Clannad, you have to go to Donegal: It’s so earthy, such a beautiful place, and you can see what it’s meant to my family and how it’s helped inspire us.