Take an album’s worth of traditional Irish songs and spice them up, as a way to both shed a different light on music often regarded as being pretty “uncool” and to celebrate Ireland’s rich songwriting past. It’s a vision Sinead O’Connor has fostered for more than 12 years, one that numerous major label execs and business associates have panned during that time, and one that she nevertheless realizes with the forthcoming “Sean-Nos Nua” (Old Style New), released today (Oct. 8) via Vanguard.
Perhaps more interesting is how, despite this lack of interest, O’Connor finally found the spark to make “Sean-Nos Nua”: She says her longtime manager, Steve Fargnoli, came to her in a dream a few days after his September 2001 death and said, “Look, I understand now what this record means to you. That’s what you have to do — go and make this record.”
Fargnoli, O’Connor explains, was one of the many naysayers. “We always had an issue about this album,” she says, discussing the project in a midtown hotel room on a recent trip to New York. “It meant a lot to me. But he didn’t get it, and his job was to think prejudicially in some ways, because [like the major-label execs] he wanted to sell loads of records, too.”
The dream also included an image of John Dunford, managing director of Irish roots label Hummingbird Records and an industry acquaintance she had first met more than a decade earlier. So after waking from the dream that morning, she called Dunford.
On “Sean-Nos Nua,” O’Connor covers traditionals she learned from her father (“Molly Malone”), songs “drilled” into her head in school (“Oro, Se Do Bheatha Bhaile”), and even songs she didn’t discover until living abroad (“Paddy’s Lament”). These 13 songs, she says, speak to her of the endurance of the Irish people, “the endurance of the soul, and the everlastingness of love.”
She speaks passionately, often gesturing with her hands, about the history of many of these songs, and how — much to her dismay — they have been taken out of context and/or watered down through the years. On “Sean-Nos Nua,” she sought — with the help of her hand-picked production team of Donal Lunny, Alan Branch, and Adrian Sherwood — to “sexy up” these usually rigidly performed songs by giving them a bit of a rock’n’roll spin.
It was that desire that many, including Fargnoli, didn’t quite understand, she says. “There’s such a prejudice about this kind of music, even within Ireland. It’s thought of as being pretty uncool. So when I would approach record companies, I don’t think they could see what I was talking about — that I was gonna funk them up, for lack of a better word.”
Dunford says the album — which O’Connor will support with shows this month in the U.K. and Ireland and then a U.S. tour in early 2003 — may give some younger people in Ireland a way “to be able to look back through their musical heritage and find a way of appreciating it that might not have existed prior to this.”
It’s perhaps fitting that “Sean-Nos Nua” finally came together as the result of Fargnoli visiting her in a dream, as many of the songs on the album, she feels, carry a ghostly quality. “That’s partly why I love these songs, because they’re kind of ghost stories. The whole area of traditional Irish music is quite haunted, and there’s something quite haunted about Ireland in a way, and Irish people, and all that; we’re very ghosty.”
Excerpted from the Oct. 12, 2002, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Billboard.com members section.
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