Sharon Shannon has played with the likes of The Waterboys, Christy Moore, Jackson Browne, Frankie Gavin, Michael McGoldrick, Sinead O’Connor, and the RTE Concert Orchestra, among others, while taking her masterful Irish accordion playing (not to mention fiddle and whistle) on excursions through Appalachian, country, rock, hip-hop, reggae and Portuguese music. She has performed for Bill Clinton and Lech Walesa, and appeared in a charming music video frolicking with her dogs.
This month, the Clare native will be stopping in the Boston area for shows on Aug. 6 and 7 at The Burren in Somerville as part of the pub’s Backroom series, and on Aug. 8 at the Irish Cultural Centre of New England in Canton. She recently spoke with the BIR’s Sean Smith.
Q. Sharon, what memories and impressions do you have of Boston?
A. I first came to Boston when I was 14, playing with a band called Disirt Tola. It was the first time I was in America, my whole family was with me, and we had such a lovely, warm welcome in Boston, and made a lot of friends. So I’ve had a long association with a number of people there, especially including [Burren owners] Tommy and Louise McCarthy.
Q. You’ll be accompanied on this visit by guitarist Jim Murray and keyboardist Alan Connor, is that right?
A. Yes, I’ve been playing with Jim for about 15 years now, and he’s been on my albums; he’s a wonderful guy and it’s always a treat to play with him. Alan and I have been performing as a duo for only a couple of years now, and we’ve had standing ovations all over the place because he’s such an incredible man for the keyboards. I haven’t worked a lot with keyboard players, except in a “big-band” setting, but I just loved his sound – he’s great with the jigs and reels.
We’ll be doing mostly stuff from the albums, and a few new bits and pieces. It’ll all be well-rehearsed and tight. I can’t wait for American audiences to hear all three of us together.
Q. You grew up in Clare, which we all know is such a hotbed for Irish traditional music, and you got started on Irish accordion when you were, what, eight years old? But it seems like from the get-go, you took an interest in exploring other music traditions and genres, whether it was playing French-Canadian reels or putting a reggae backing to a set of Irish tunes.
A. I think it was very, very important to have that base of tradition, and to be rooted in it. The way I look at it, the other music I bring in is a sort of decoration. If I hear a melody I like, it doesn’t matter to me where it comes from – it can be from anywhere in the world – I just enjoy trying it out and seeing how it fits with what I do.
Q. Looking at your career, certainly one important highlight would be your participation in “A Woman’s Heart” [a 1992 compilation album featuring Irish female performers Dolores Keane, Mary Black, Frances Black, Eleanor McEvoy, Maura O’Connell, and Shannon]. I think a lot of people look on that album as a real turning point for women in Irish music in general. How do you see it?
A. It’s interesting – usually, if you’re donating a track to an album for a charitable cause or the like, you tend to forget about it, and just hope maybe you did some good. Well, the success of “A Woman’s Heart” just took us all by surprise, and was a big, powerful boost to all of us. We were able to go out and do much bigger gigs, and reach a much wider audience, than we did before. So the traditional music fans who’d been listening to me were now being joined by other people who weren’t familiar with the tradition.
And you know, there’s still a lot of interest in “A Woman’s Heart.” We did a 20-year reunion concert in 2012, and we were surprised at how popular it continues to be. It was great having young people in their 20s tell us that they’d grown up listening to “A Woman’s Heart,” and now they’re mad into the music.
Q. And then there’s “Galway Girl”: You didn’t write it, and you didn’t sing it on the recording of the song – that was Steve Earle in both cases [the recording of “Galway Girl” appeared on Earle’s 2000 album “Transcendental Blues” and in 2001 on “The Diamond Mountain Sessions,” which featured Shannon and special guests; Shannon later collaborated with Irish singer-songwriter Mundy on a cover of it]. Yet it’s unquestionably one of the most popular things you’ve done. What’s the story behind “Galway Girl”?
A. I guess you could call it one of those right-place-at-the-right-time kind of things. Steve came to Galway a lot, which is where I live now, and would hang out and play at the sessions, and that was how we became friends. He just fell in love with the place, he’d stay for months at a time, and he wrote a number of songs, including that one. So he got a bunch of us – myself, my sister Mary, Jim [Murray], Liz and Yvonne Kane – to play with him, and the arrangement we came to was we would all have use of that track; so that’s how it wound up on his album and on “Diamond Mountain Sessions.”
At first, you know, nobody really paid it much attention. But several years later it showed up on TV and in a film or two, and Mundy and I did our version, and it’s just become a massive success. It’s hard to say why these things happen the way they do.
Q. You might also say “Galway Girl” is a symbol for the Irish-American roots music we’ve been seeing over the past several years, what with Tim O’Brien, Grada, The Unwanted, the Cherish the Ladies “Country Crossroads” album, and so on. How did you find yourself drawn to it?
A. Well, of course, American country music is massively popular in Ireland, and my friends and I listened to a lot of it growing up – Larry Cunningham, Big Tom, and the like. And from a young age, when we’d be playing in the local pubs, you’d just get used to playing for a set dance one minute, and then in the next having a singer come up and do a country song that people would dance to.
I just find that playing along with the American, old-timey and country music feels very comfortable, and in some respects it’s similar to Irish music. So it all works very well.
Q. Any upcoming or ongoing projects you’d like to mention?
A. There’ll be a live DVD I’m going to do with Alan, which we’ll be recording in Galway. I don’t know if it’ll be ready in time for the US tour, but it’ll be coming along soon. Aside from that, well, there’s bits and pieces of a project on the horizon, but no hard ideas yet. We’ll see how it turns out.
For information on Sharon Shannon’s performances at The Burren and the Irish Cultural Centre of New England, see burren.com and irishculture.org.