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20 Years of Danu

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Back in 2005, Issue 63 of The Living Tradition boasted a very fresh faced looking young band by the name of Danú. Despite their youthful appearance, the band had already been on the road for almost ten years and had released six CDs to great critical acclaim. In the accompanying article, Steve McGrail told the story of the band’s origins and how it came to be known as “a top-flight Irish traditional music band”. As the article drew to a close, Steve reported that changes were afoot and that Danú planned to take a bit of a break due to changes in their personal circumstances.

Though they said that they were not splitting up, the signs were there that Danú, as we knew it, might be coming to the end of the road. After all, ten years is a long time to keep a band going – especially one that, at times, was a seven-piece! Individual members were embarking on new projects, either solo or in slightly different fields. Spouses and kids were appearing. Change was on the horizon and the Danú fans amongst us waited with baited breath to see what would happen. Was this the start of the end for Danú, as it is for so many others?

Fast forward 10 years and the answer is clear. It was definitely not the end, and Danú is still at the forefront of Irish traditional music. Now with 20 years under its belt, the band has just released another album, Buan, and is in the middle of an extensive tour around Ireland and parts of Europe.

I caught up with founder member and accordion player, Benny McCarthy, and he told me the next part of Danú’s story.

“In 2004 we brought out a record called Up In The Air which was different – it was essentially an album of solos. Everyone in the band was capable of doing an album of their own; they were all really good solo players. So we decided to do an album to feature that and to remind people that not only does Danú have a lovely collective sound, but that individually the members are great players in their own right. So that worked really well and I think that made us all realise that we could do things ourselves.”

“So, in 2007, the band decided to wind down a bit from all the touring – we were touring like crazy at the time. That’s fine when you are in your twenty somethings, but when you become thirty somethings and guys are getting married and kids are on the way, lots of things change. To accommodate all of that we made a very good decision, in my opinion, at that time. We decided to take a little break and give everybody a bit of space to get on with their own family life; to be at home and to have a bit of time to do a bit of work on our own solo careers. We also needed to have a bit of time away from the band, because when you are with a band, it is all about the band – you don’t get time for much else, for family or for solo projects. I think every band should think about doing the same at times.”

And so they did. The touring slowed down and individual members developed their own careers further, but Danú was still very much part of their lives and the end that many of us feared did not come. They still met regularly and, possibly due to the break from the hectic schedule, the band found that the freshness and excitement they got from playing together was still there.

“We wound down when we weren’t burnt out from touring,” explained Benny. “We wound down when we were in good form and allowing that space kept everyone happy. When we meet now to go away on tour for two or three weeks, there is still a great energy there. We have a nice balance – we don’t go away for that long anymore but we go and do really good tours.”

And now that Danú members have families and other careers, is touring still a viable option for them? “Yes. It’s all about planning – two years in advance for the big tours, so we know things are coming up and we plan for them. It is all about balance, we have struck a nice one and it works for us. No-one is complaining and the band is still playing.”

Danú toured when their singer and flute player, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh was pregnant, and now that there are children around, they are often brought on tour with the band – an amazing experience for the kids and one that Benny thinks is important for them. He talks often about how childhood exposure to traditional music is vital for the development of good musicians and how he feels that changes in the scene mean that young people don’t always get that same exposure anymore.

“We have seen a lot of changes in the 20 years of Danú. We started in the days before YouTube and stuff like that. How did we ever tour without sat nav? Or without email or mobile phones? So much has changed, when I think back. We used to go to America for two months with nothing but a map and a folder of contracts, and we made it to all our shows, no problem. Now, we type places into the sat nav and it takes us right there. We know how long it is going to take us – that kind of technology makes life really easy and is brilliant for touring. It is also lovely being able to Skype home and show the kids where you are.”

“But the music scene has changed too. I look at our generation who were brought up surrounded by Irish music and then look at this new generation and it is a different ball game. When I was a kid, every Saturday night in our house we would go to 7 o’clock mass. Then we would come home, have a cup of tea, and by 9 o’clock we were wondering where we would be going that night – there would be some pub in County Waterford that had a session. We were kids, but we were able to go to these pubs at 9pm. I was very fortunate to have played with all the great old musicians here in County Waterford – a lot of them are dead now. We were able to meet the old boys and that connection was very important for traditional music – it is one thing learning the tune and being able to play it and do all the rolls and everything, but the character of the music is a different thing and you don’t learn that, you pick that up by osmosis.”

“Often in sessions with these old guys, there would be an hour of jokes and stories before a tune was played. All of that gives context to the music. In the sessions now, that is often missing. The standard of music has never been better technically, but the character of it is the thing I would worry about, and that’s why I think people need to expose their kids to the music. Kids need to be in the sessions, listening to the music but also listening to the fun people are having.”

“Which one of our great politicians brought in the rule about there being no under 18s allowed in the pub after a certain time? Some pubs turn a blind eye to that rule, but most aren’t comfortable with kids being there, even when they are playing music. So what is happening now is that you have a generation that is not exposed to some of the great musicians – because a lot of those boys won’t be found playing in a community hall with a cup of tea, they are going for their Saturday night pint in the pub, and you have to be there to see that and to be part of it. And if you are not, you miss it. The only fear I have for the music, even amongst great young players, is the lack of this type of contact. The best players have learned more than the music. They learned the character of it as well.”

“My own experience of the older generation of musicians wasn’t that they were cranky old devils; they were encouraging and respectful and easy to have a natural connection with – that all plays a huge part in keeping a tradition rich and is probably the reason why Irish traditional music is so strong. All of that stuff stays with you. But we all need to do our part.”

“I remember sessions where there wasn’t a marathon of reels; it was a few reels, then a song, then a half set, then a cup of tea, a joke and a recitation – there are not too many of those sessions left – but they are the real deal. The playing was brilliant, but it was the craic around about the tunes that was even better.”

“We try to bring that into the band. How you introduce a set of tunes and how you communicate with the audience is as important as the set of tunes itself. If you can communicate well, the audience won’t switch off, they will stay with you. I manage a few other bands and one of the things I tell them is that if you want to be a great musician, you have to be able to talk to your audience. I was never any good at talking, but even the most nervous people can learn to do it. I learned it from older generations who I have seen - Tom Paxton, Liam Clancy, John Sheehan - so we are back to the same old thing again. When someone can communicate with you from the stage, it is far more enjoyable than the greatest musicians in the world playing with their heads down and eyes closed for an hour. And Irish music is a very social music. It is not one of these things where you only watch and appreciate – the listener is as important as the performer.”

Twenty years of experience on the road and a lifetime of learning from others has given the members of Danú a more informed perspective of the scene and they bring this knowledge and learning to their music now. They have recently recorded their ninth album, Buan, under the watchful eye of Dónal Lunny, and are really happy with the outcome.

“We have only made nine albums in 20 years, so we haven’t been churning them out. We could have done more, but we didn’t. At one time, when you were with a record company, you were talking about 18 months to 2 years between albums - a new album keeps your profile high. But the model is kind of different now.”

“Last March we were on tour in the States and we thought, ‘Look, next year is 20 years of the band; we should do something for it and treat ourselves to a nice record.’ We decided not to do a compilation; they are fine, but we wanted to do something new. So we booked a house down near Muireann’s home in Dingle and had a week down there, sitting round the table, having a nice time and seeing what we came up with. Before we went down we had emailed a few tracks between us, so we arrived down to Dingle and were surprised by the amount of stuff we had in our heads – stuff we had been hearing and researching.”

“We decided to go into the studio the following September. We picked a really nice studio, one of the best in Ireland (Grouse Lodge in Westmeath) in a lovely setting in the countryside and with exceptional equipment. And then we thought, ‘What about a producer?’ We are all kind of producers in our own right now, but we wanted to go into the studio and play. Who is the best producer? We didn’t have to think very far – Dónal Lunny came to mind.”

“Dónal arrived in the studio and we hadn’t sent him any material so he didn’t know anything about what we were going to do. The only brief he had was that we had seven days there. Oisín McAuley, our fiddle player, was over from Boston and Éamon Doorley, who plays bouzouki and guitar with us, was over from his home in Inverness, so we had to record the album in seven days. That was the brief. We sat around and it all happened fairly organically. We had a few bits and pieces put together ourselves and a few bits that we had half put together but we didn’t know how to make them work, and that is where Dónal stepped in. He made it very pleasant for us all in the studio, because we didn’t have to think about the overall picture, which is quite taxing when you are trying to concentrate on your own performance. He was there, so there were times when we could leave the control room and go for a cup of tea, knowing that things were still progressing.”

“Dónal also plays on the album with us and it kind of turned into a lovely session. We didn’t know him very well, but we knew who he was and we had admired him forever. So no-one was going to be lazy – everybody was at the top of their game and every minute of the seven days was very constructive – there was no time wasted. But it wasn’t very tiring; it was a pleasant seven days, which is a long time when you are in the studio all day. But it was the easiest time we ever had in the studio and Dónal definitely brought that about, as well as Ivan O’Shea who was our sound engineer. There is a reason for all these guys in the process. In this day and age, we all have our own studios (several of Danú do) and we all have the gear. But when you come to make a record, you can’t beat the good old days when you are in a really good studio with all the equipment that you can’t afford, and with a really good producer. We got a flavour of the good old days of recording with Buan.”

There is some real wisdom here. These days, with increased access to recording technology, it seems like everyone is making a CD. But it is a hard thing to do properly. To know when not to do it yourself shows a great understanding of the process.

Danú is in the enviable position of having two singers in the band and songs feature strongly on Buan, with the mix of songs and tune sets being roughly half and half.

Dónal Clancy, son of the legendary Liam Clancy, was another founding member of Danú, but he left the group soon after to tour with his father. He became known primarily as a guitarist and played with many excellent acts such as Solas, Eileen Ivers, The Chieftains and Riverdance, before rejoining Danú in 2003. It is only relatively recently that Dónal has begun to focus his attention on songs, and in particular on the family songs he was brought up with, and a couple of years back he brought out a solo song album, Songs Of A Roving Blade.

Benny explains: “Dónal didn’t always sing even though his father always tried his best to get him to. When his father died and Tommy Makem died, Dónal thought that there was no-one else doing what his dad did so he started to sing a bit, and recently he has done more. Dónal sings a different style of songs to those that Muireann would tackle, so it brings a new dimension to the band.” On Buan, Dónal sings Willie Crotty, a new ballad written by his cousin Robbie O’Connell, with fantastic imagery and a cracking chorus, and it works really well.

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh is well known for her beautiful renditions of traditional Irish songs and has sung with the band since 2003, having taken over the vocal duties from Ciarán Ó Gealbháin. In addition to her work with Danú, she has released two solo albums and Dual, a collaboration with Julie Fowlis, Éamon Doorley and Ross Martin. She has an incredibly expressive voice, both strong and powerful and yet full of emotion. Danú’s arrangements of her songs are always thoughtful and appropriate and are further examples of their excellent musicianship.

“In a band situation, songs can be the biggest challenge - to be able to arrange them well. It is all down to experience, and appreciation of the song. When you are growing up playing jigs, hornpipes and the like, it is important not to switch off when someone sings a song. Listen to the phrasing; the trickiest of phrasing for any musician is to phrase like a singer.”

“Muireann’s expressive voice plays a huge part in the arrangements. You have the story of the song, and you have to work out how to paint that picture musically, allowing the lyric the space and clarity that it deserves – because every word deserves to be heard.”

One of Danú’s big ‘hits’ and a song that helped them become more widely known in England was Tommy Sands’ County Down.

“It was amazing. We did that on Muireann’s first album with us. She had recorded the song when she was at college and so she was reluctant to do it again as she wanted to do new stuff with the band. But we were in the studio and we told her we had to do it; it was such a beautiful song and everyone loved it. She had done it unaccompanied before, so we decided to do a band arrangement of it. We recorded it and before we knew it everyone was asking us to sing it. That year (2004) we got the Best Group at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and County Down also won the Best Original Song. We also won a BBC Folk Award for Best Group in 2001 with Ciarán, so I think we are due another one!”

That level of success in England is a big thing in itself. “At the time we were doing very little touring in the UK, so we were really pleased. The English folk scene has been very good to us down the years and has embraced our music. Though we have embraced their traditions too – we did a song we learned from Nic Jones, The Outlandish Knight, on Think Before You Think, and a Sandy Denny song. We haven’t toured so much in England in the last few years. It can be logistically hard with our fiddle player, Oisín, based in America, but we have a few things coming up.”

“We are doing more this year than we have done for a while – we have 12 or 13 festivals across Ireland and Europe this summer. We are heading to Lorient this year as well and we haven’t been back there since the band was formed while at that festival in 1995 – 20 years later, we are coming back.”

Buan, the title of Danú’s recent release is a lovely Irish word meaning ‘lasting’ and ‘enduring’. It seems a perfectly fitting word to describe a band that has spent the last 20 years bringing us some great traditional Irish music. And long may they do so.

by Fiona Heywood

This article was printed in Issue 108 of The Living Tradition
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