Traditional music meets jazz as Damien McGeehan hits uncharted territory
He’s been preparing for a while, but Donegal’s violinist Damien McGeehan’s new solo album contains a whole slew of surprises lurking under its hood.
Having forged a reputation as a formidable violinist during the revolutionary debut of the fiddling trio Fidil, and having tapped into the depths of his home country tradition with his debut solo album, The Tin Fiddle, McGeehan is now venturing into the field. unknown with his latest collection, Kin.
This is where traditional tunes meet jazz and a tinge of blues, with a rockabilly edge, just for fun.
“It’s been a few years since it is recorded at this stage”, offers Damien with an ironic smile. “This is not at all a pandemic project. The hardest part was trying to keep everyone’s schedules in sync, but we finally got there.
Certain drone and percussion tracks by Liam Bradley were the only elements of this album recorded during the pandemic. Kin, unsurprisingly, is an album imbued with a strong sense of people and place. It marks a milestone in a musical journey that has taken this violin player to places he never imagined possible.
“With The Tin Fiddle, I wanted to focus only on the Tin Fiddle,” McGeehan offers, reflecting on his solo debut in 2017. “It was really specific. He focused on a really traditional sound, without any effect. I always think of the sound of the group when I arrange music: where everything has a particular space in the arrangement.
“I’ve always thought from a band’s perspective anyway, so it was a natural progression for me to go from The Tin Fiddle to this album, although it seems like it’s not at all. a progression.”
For this album, McGeehan adopted songs for the first time, with his wife Shauna Mullin guesting on a number of key tracks. Her voice is an earthy blend of Dolores Keane in her prime and June Tabor. It’s an intriguing combination of violin and vocals, with finely tempered arrangements, and a guest list that includes co-producer, Seán Óg Graham on guitar, ukulele, accordion and mellotron and Kieran Munnelly on flute and violin. Richard Thompson’s Strange Affair and Tom Waits’ The Briar and the Rose find a solid buy in the capable hands of Mullin, alongside a rich array of diverse orchestrations.
“As far as the songs go, I mostly work as a session musician now and I support singers a lot,” says McGeehan. “People also send their songs to me at home, and I record violin on them. It’s something I’ve been doing for years now. So it was a very natural progression for me.
I have developed interests in many different genres of music over the years and also meeting many different musicians so I have tried to tie it all together.
Recording with his wife Shauna was another godsend that came with this album recording.
“We were in UL [University of Limerick] at the same time, ”he says,“ and we learned so much – from all the sessions and concerts we went to while we were there! This is where I first bumped into Tom Waits, to be honest. Of course, everyone knows Tom Waits! And this song, The Briar and the Rose is one of our favorites. He writes songs that lend themselves to so many different interpretations. And that also goes for Richard Thompson. Shauna’s take on Strange Affair is definitely influenced by June Tabor’s version of this song.
McGeehan’s roots in Donegal are visible and he is very happy that they reveal so much about who he is and where he came from. McGeehan’s frame of reference extends well beyond the traditional realm.
“I’ve developed an interest in a lot of different musical genres over the years,” he says, “and meeting a lot of different musicians as well, so I tried to tie it all together. When I was growing up my dad was a huge influence on me. He was in a huge range of music, and this had a great influence on the music that I went looking for myself.
The strong sense of belonging is palpable throughout Kin. The opening track, An chéad chathlán, is a tune dedicated to his grandfather, Peadar, and a nod to the place his grandfather called his home, Finntown.
“Finntown was where my grandfather used to live,” McGeehan says. “We used to go there when I was young, and there was this big and beautiful lake where we would go fishing, and this place is so etched in my memory.”
Making an album is a big financial commitment, but the vision I had for this album, I really needed this funding from the Canada Council to make it happen.
African rhythms also permeate Kin, with McGeehan’s love for New Orleans scintillating in the warmth of some fine brass, recorded in Nashville, but with an unmistakable kinship to the technicolor sounds of Bourbon Street.
“Myself and Shauna went to New Orleans for a week,” he says, relishing the impact this brief stay had on him. “We checked into the hotel and the first thing we did was go to Preservation Hall where we heard a great jazz band, and it was just amazing.
“It’s a crazy place: it’s the atmosphere and the spirit of the place. I just felt it was so amazing: a typical jazz band playing the tune of the air and then the clarinetist will do a solo and during that the trumpeter will start playing him, then the trombone will do it, and by the end of the set, they were all playing hard and that was the sound I wanted to create on this track, Runnin ‘on Bourbon.
“And it’s also in the last track The Girl and The Lass. That atmosphere comes over you. It’s like being at Glenties Fiddle week, except they’re trombones and trumpets. It’s surreal. I didn’t mean to. no tight brass, but I wanted them to create this chaos! ”
McGeehan is not a musician to retain his many influences. He has fond memories of touring with the late Senegalese kora player, Solo Cissokho, and had decided to invite Cissokho to contribute to the album, before learning of his untimely death.
“Solo Sissokho was a truly magical being,” McGeehan said with a broad smile. “I wanted him to play this song, but he passed away shortly before. I was in contact with his nephew, Seku who is another great kora player and percussionist. Solo’s influence was huge on me: not just the music he played, but his whole mind, his soul, just what he brought to the music.
McGeehan is now a member of Daniel O’Donnell’s band, but the touring schedule allows for some very pleasant and long stays at home (even before the pandemic) where McGeehan has had the luxury of time to work on his solo projects. An award from the Arts Council Deis was also key to the release of this album, he admits.
“Making an album is a big financial commitment, but the vision I had for this album, I really needed this funding from the Arts Council to get there,” admits Damien. “When you listen to the album, even the brass: the costs add up very, very quickly. And there is also a great artistic freedom, with the Deis price. It’s not like a record company gives you money: and says it wants X, Y, and Z. I don’t think I could have made the album without it, to be honest.
Kin is out now. Damienmcgeehan.com