In Irish traditional music, most performers acknowledge composers, sources, and influences in their album liner notes. But no mature musician wants to be complimented for sounding exactly like his or her teacher, mentor, or idol. The word “clone” rears its ugly head in those instances.
Also, instrumentalists often tell me how they scour tune collections for good, overlooked melodies. Or they rearrange familiar tunes to distance their interpretations from prior ones. The prospect of another musician or some music critic (like me) invidiously comparing past and present renditions chills their blood.
All musicians want to stand out for the right reasons of freshness, invention, and imagination rather than for the wrong reasons of staleness, roteness, and (gasp!) rip-off.
Singers frequently have a tougher time with songs previously recorded by others. Interpretation may be the most appealing part of a good song, and so it can be hard to keep a lustrous past rendition from seeping into a new rendition. Some songs seem inextricably linked to certain vocalists. Of the many versions of “Arthur McBride,” has anyone topped Paul Brady’s on “Andy Irvine / Paul Brady” from 33 years ago? Has Triona Ni Dhomhnaill ever trembled for fear that some other Irish singer might surpass her interpretation of “Do You Love an Apple” on “The Bothy Band” debut from 34 years ago? Can any singer escape the brilliant light shone by Dick Gaughan in his rendition of “Song for Ireland” on his “Handful of Earth” album from 28 years ago?
“Poetic influence need not make poets less original,” Harold Bloom argued. The same is true for Irish traditional singers, and none eclipses the interpretive ability of Waterford native, Cork resident Karan Casey today. Her influences include Frank Harte, Aine Ui Cheallaigh, Dolores Keane, Anne Briggs, Ewan MacColl, Dick Gaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone. That’s a formidable, diverse crop of predecessors who could produce anxiety in even the most assured of vocalists, yet Casey invariably manages to make any song her own when she sings it. She is also courageous in tackling material that may scare away less committed singers.
On “The Winds Begin to Sing,” her second solo album, Casey covers “Strange Fruit,” and she acknowledges in her track note both Billie Holiday and Nina Simone as her influences on that song, chosen by Time magazine as the greatest of the 20th century. Imagine covering a song with such an indelible, overwhelming pedigree. The label “dilettante” or, more bluntly, “fool” awaits any misstep. Casey risks further disaster by singing it with only the spare keyboard accompaniment of Capercaillie’s Donald Shaw.
Her interpretation has pregnant pauses that could become tedious or affected, sudden drops in register that could become flat, and quick ascents and surprising accents that could become jarringly clumsy. Yet she never slips or falls. Her jazz inflections and melismas enhance, not encumber, the stark imagery and emotional rawness of a song about lynching black people. The plummet of her voice on the word “south” undercuts any notion of false gallantry. The rise in commingled anger and anguish of her voice in the line “Then the sudden smell of burning flesh” conveys the rising malodor and atrocity of the crime. She even undercuts expectation by lifting her voice on the word “drop” in the second to last line, as if to suggest that any notion of normalcy is impossible.
What other Irish traditional singer could do what she does in that song? Whether you like it or not, her artistry is beyond reproach.
In the past I have chafed at singers who were clearly inspired by Casey’s song interpretations yet avoided acknowledging her as their inspiration. I still bristle when I see “She Is Like a Swallow,” “One, I Love,” and “Where Are You Tonight, I Wonder” pop up on recordings by other vocalists with no mention of Casey. Did they think their own anxiety of influence would escape notice?
In 2008, Casey issued her fifth solo album, “Ships in the Forest,” and it’s a beauty of mainly melancholic, wistful, or reflective songs and settings for them. The album is not blithe escapist fare for parlous times, and that may have hurt sales. People shipwrecked by the recession are seeking relief wherever they can find it, and songs probing the darker recesses of the psyche will not likely end up as ringtones.
But there’s a difference between the thematically sad and the sadly inadequate, and no one who listens closely to Karan Casey’s singing can ever mistake one for the other. She does not sing her songs so much as experience them, tapping into their more elusive narrative power. It’s part of the magic she evokes on record and in concert: a unique empathy eliciting a unique catharsis. She is blessed with a great voice and an equally great interpretive skill, stamping her as that rarest of singers.
Seeing and hearing Casey in concert constitutes an event. For proof, cue up her lead singing of “Pastures of Plenty,” “Nil Na La,” and the bonus song “The Unquiet Grave” on the concert DVD in “Reunion: A Decade of Solas” from three years ago.
This month she is doing a very short U.S. tour with pianist Caoimhin Vallely, cellist Kate Ellis, and guitarist Ross Martin. Their dates include Thurs., Nov. 19, at the Sellersville Theater in Sellersville, Pa.; Sat., Nov. 21, at the Highline Ballroom, 431 W. 16th St., Manhattan (212-414-5994); and Sun., Nov. 22, at the Blackstone River Theater, Cumberland, R.I. All three concerts will start at 8 p.m. and open with Buille, led by concertina virtuoso Niall Vallely, Karan’s husband. Casey will also be performing on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” at Manhattan’s Town Hall on Sat., Nov. 28.
In early winter of next year, she and John Doyle will release “Exiles Return,” a Compass album produced by Dirk Powell and featuring Michael McGoldrick as a guest. Also next year Karan Casey and Crooked Still singer Aoife O’Donovan, daughter of WGBH-FM “A Celtic Sojourn” host Brian O’Donovan, will issue a recording produced by Seamus Egan.