When it comes to making albums, Boston-area musician Martin Butler half-jokingly sums up his modus operandi this way: “Finish breakfast. Start dinner.” In other words, practically as soon as he’s wrapped up the work on one recording, he’ll get cracking on the next one, which he’s usually had in mind for some time.
“I’m very good at thinking up and planning out concepts for albums, but not so much at marketing my stuff – I find it a soul-crushing experience,” he says with a laugh. “So I like to balance the two activities. That way, when I’m doing what I don’t like very much – the marketing – I compensate by thinking about what the next album could be like. Sort of like while you’re busy clearing the table and washing up from breakfast, you think about what you’re going to make for dinner.”
Thing is, Butler’s metaphorical musical meals are no microwave-and-eat affairs, but sumptuous feasts involving a multitude of chefs with special talents. He recruits literally dozens of musicians and vocalists, from Greater Boston and well beyond, to contribute to his projects, as was the case for his recently completed album, “Poems & Songs from the Woodlands Edge.” The recording is a follow-up to his 2016 release, “Thomas MacDonagh: Poet and Patriot,” which explored the life and legacy of MacDonagh, a poet, playwright, educator, and co-leader of the 1916 Easter Rising – one of the seven Easter Proclamation signatories executed by the British. In between these two works was 2019’s “Poets in the Trenches: The Irish in the Great War,” which commemorated the experiences and sacrifices of Irishmen, including his namesake great-uncle, in World War I.
All three albums have a similar format: songs and tunes mainly from Irish tradition, interspersed with readings of poetry or prose, all of which recount or evoke thematic elements. In “Woodlands Edge,” Butler does a deeper, more extensive examination of the foundations of and major influences on MacDonagh’s writing, including his well-known poems “Knocknacree,” “John-John” and “At the End.”
“Where ‘Poet and Patriot’ was basically a three-act play of MacDonagh’s life, and the different roles he played,” says Butler, “I saw ‘Woodlands Edge’ as a closer look at him as a poet and writer, and the sources of his inspiration.”
Butler’s fascination with MacDonagh comes in part from having grown up in the Co. Tipperary town of Cloughjordan, MacDonagh’s birthplace and childhood home. Beyond the deep respect he holds for MacDonagh’s body of work, Butler finds admirable qualities in the way MacDonagh lived his life.
“He was a man who took chances, simply through the act of baring his soul through his poetry,” Butler explains. “His life was one of passion – including a passion that would eventually lead him to lose his life – and I wanted to have the listener explore those things which fueled that aspect of him, including his great love of nature and Irish history. He exemplifies that basic, but elusive desire so many of us feel: having a dream and fulfilling it.”
MacDonagh’s “stubborn determination” is reflected in his relationship with William Butler Yeats, notes Butler. Prior to publishing his first volume of poetry, “Through the Ivory Gate,” MacDonagh sent a draft to Yeats – to whom he intended to dedicate the work – for his comments. Yeats wrote back “in less than glowing terms” and offered MacDonagh some advice: Learn the old Irish language and don’t print too many copies of “Through the Ivory Gate.”
“MacDonagh had the guts to ask, and I admire that,” says Butler. “In the end, he ignored Yeats’s suggestion on the number of copies to print. He felt it was better to fail dramatically than to not make a total commitment. In the midst of it all, he was still traveling, lecturing ,and continuing to write – being true to himself. But he did take part of Yeats’s advice: He went to the Aran Islands to learn Irish.”
The seeds for “Woodlands Edge” were sown during the work for the “Poet and Patriot” album, Butler explains. “There was so much I wanted for ‘Poet and Patriot’ but just not enough time and space, and some of the tracks recorded then were set aside for possible future use, since I had little flashes of where else I might go. And then I got involved with ‘Poets in the Trenches,’ which obviously was something different, but as I was wrapping that up I started thinking more about the ideas I’d been sorting through during ‘Poet and Patriot.’”
A get-together in The Burren in Somerville with Turlach MacDonagh – the grandson of Thomas – and Martin O’Malley, a former governor of Maryland and avid Irish music fan, was a turning point, Butler says. “We were sitting together and talking, and we hit on the thought of ‘taking a journey through Thomas’s mind.’ Martin just launched right into ‘The Man Upright,’ a poem that is believed to commemorate one of Thomas’s teachers of Irish. I think that really lit the spark – I had Martin record it for me, in fact, and it ended up on the album.”
Once again, Butler began inviting friends, acquaintances or friends-of-friends – including Irish music luminaries like Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains, singer-songwriter Liam O’Maonlai, and sound engineer/producer Brian Masterson (his credits include Van Morrison, Sinead O’Connor and The Corrs) – to take part in his recording project; also among the cast were Turlach and three other members of the MacDonagh family, Muriel McAuley, Michelle Drysdale ,and Dylan MacDonagh.
“I figure if I don’t ask someone, I’ll never know whether they can or want to do it,” Butler says. “I’d rather take the chance and see if it works out. And you know, more often than not, it does.”
It certainly did for “Woodlands Edge,” and as with Butler’s previous albums, the result is an incredible array of sounds, styles, and tones over its 31 tracks, with a goodly number of Greater Boston-Massachusetts musicians involved: Martin Maguire’s reading of “The Night Hunt,” MacDonagh’s recollection from childhood of local dogs in pursuit of game, punctuated by a driving reel, “Devaney’s Goat,” on melodeon by Paudie Walsh with Butler accompanying on bodhran (he also plays low whistle and tin whistle on the album); a snippet from “My School Days,” read by McAuley, that celebrates the pristine beauty of Cloughjordan’s wooded hills and flowered fields, with an elegant fiddle and piano duet from Rose Clancy and Janine Randall; and Aedin Moloney (daughter of Paddy, who plays whistle and uilleann pipes on the “Knocknacree” track) reciting “The Little Barley Stack,” in which MacDonagh references the traditional music found in and around Cloughjordan, while fiddler Laura Ridarelli plays the hornpipe of the same name.
“These are examples of how the sights, sounds and memories of his youth in Cloughjordan, with all its natural features, influenced MacDonagh’s writing,” says Butler. “Musicians playing on the street were not unknown in Cloughjordan and so MacDonagh grew up with a soft spot for the traditional music. In fact, he played uilleann pipes, as well as clarinet and piano, and was a singer himself.”
But Butler notes that MacDonagh’s poetry wasn’t all rosy nostalgia, as is evident in “John-John”: a woman’s ruminations on her ill-fated marriage to a man from the Traveller community, expressed through a complex range of emotions – disappointment, regret, sorrow,and wistfulness.
“I included ‘John-John’ on ‘Poet and Patriot,’ but felt it should be given a rebirth here,” says Butler. “It shows the empathy MacDonagh was capable of. He supported the suffragette and women’s rights movements, but influenced by his mother’s sympathy for Travellers, he doesn’t cast John-John as a villain. At the end of the track, there’s some lively music that symbolizes John-John’s return to his traveling people, and the wife’s to her own freedom.”
“Woodlands Edge” also offers a glimpse of writers whose work proved influential not only in MacDonagh’s artistic or personal development, but in the formation of his identity as an Irish nationalist. These include patriotic songs such as Robert Dwyer Joyce’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” – sung passionately on the album by local singer Colm O’Brien – and “The West’s Awake” (performed here by Connemara singer-pianist Monica Brennan) by Thomas Osborne Davis, another Cloughjordan native.
“MacDonagh’s love of Ireland took on many dimensions: not just its aesthetic beauty, but its language, its history and culture, and this all came together in the belief that Ireland should be free from oppression,” says Butler. “So by 1915, Thomas MacDonagh has risen to such prominence in nationalist circles that he becomes the central organizer for the funeral of the great Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa – a very important event in the run-up to the 1916 Rising – and his tribute, ‘On a Poet Patriot,’ is included in the commemorative program for the funeral.
“Inevitably, we’ve come to focus on his death. But ‘Woodlands Edge’ offers an opportunity to consider his life through what he read, saw, heard, and experienced.”
Butler is full of praise and gratitude for his many collaborators on the album, including John Schreck, its executive producer, and Mike Cleveland, who served as first associate producer. Many of the musicians and vocalists on “Woodlands Edge” recorded in remote locations, necessitating some additional engineering to synchronize and standardize the tracks with one another.
All of which leads to the inevitable question: Now that he’s finished with breakfast, is he onto dinner? True to form, Butler is already sorting through some ideas, and he has every reason to feel confident that one of them will take hold.
“I never get disheartened on a project; it may take forever, but I’ll finish it,” says Butler. “I think there’s a momentum to every project, and I don’t like to let it stop – and, fortunately, I have friends who help keep it going.”
“Poems & Songs from the Woodlands Edge” is available via iTunes. For information, news and updates concerning the project, see the Facebook page at facebook.com/irishmartin1971.