The Shining Light Of Ireland - The Solas Interview
beidh ceolchoirm mór san amharchlann an tseachtain
Sean-nós (meaning "in the old style") is a truly applicable phrase when describing the history of Irish music. The lilting, nonsensical vocals that counterpoint the lyrical phrases, the harp and flute producing a wave that rode with the Irish Diaspora to inhabit new lands. The Appalachian tremor of a mandolin and guitar swell desperately, coupling with the bluegrass banjo and fiddle creating a rendition of what was to become Americana.
Solas (which means "light") wrote itself into the sheaves of Celtic music history in the mid 1990s when it was formed. Through more than a decade of honing their signature sound, Solas has played almost every type of venue around the world while creating eight acclaimed albums with a ninth one in the works. The current line-up is comprised of Seamus Egan (flute, whistles, tenor banjo, mandolin, guitar and bodhrán), Winifred Horan (fiddle and vocals), along with Mick McAuley (concertina, accordion and vocals), Deirdre Scanlan (lead vocals) and Eamon McElholm (guitar, keyboards and vocals).
Their repertoire is a fat bottomed romp through the reels and jigs of traditional Irish folk played with the uniquely courteous branding that has brought their music alive to contemporary listeners. Within that same framework, they take on modern tunes in a traditional blending, creating a new sound for such American icons as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.
I spoke recently with Seamus Egan while he was in Scotland preparing for the upcoming tour of the States. Our long distance conversation wound its way through the course of Celtic music's intriguing history.
J.T.: Do you feel that there seems to be a resurgence of interest in Irish music as of late. What do you attribute that to?
Seamus: I think, first off, Irish music has always enjoyed a fairly healthy existence in the US. I think in large part just because there's such a huge percentage of the population that claims some sort of Irish heritage, so I think that probably plays a part. There's always been a really strong Irish music community in the United States. That's not to say that the music itself doesn't have the ability to reach out to folks of all backgrounds. Whether you have any background in it or in the culture, I think the music has the ability to convey universal emotions…joy, sadness, love.
J.T.: When you hear the Irish musical structure and influence in early American music and, more recently, in the world music genre, does it make you feel like Celtic music is an integral part of musical history?
Seamus: I think so. I mean, certainly if you look at, say, Appalachian music, bluegrass…the lineage is there from when the Irish and the Scots came over. Once it came over, and lived for a while over in the States, it became it's own thing. It took on it's own influences. It became what we know of it now. It's origins goes back to Celtic music.
J.T.: You said once about traditional Gaelic music that you wanted to play it, but that you were 'Obviously unable to write within that tradition, but to my mind it has that kind of sway to it.' Is that referring to a purist definition of the music?
Seamus:…and that's something I said?
J.T.: I have the quote and everything!
Seamus: You know, if I thought about it as much as I should, I'd never get out of the bed. I think maybe I was referring to the fact that we've never really allowed ourselves to be confined, limited or defined by what was 'traditional' in the sense of what is considered 'teardrop' pure. I mean all of us grew up in tradition and I think that's one of the reasons that Irish music has maintained it's relevance, in this day and age. Now, three years ago, Timbaland sampled a track off Solas and so, it lends itself to almost every genre. It's exciting to take something that can be played in its absolute purest sense and can also go into other worlds and fit comfortably there as well. The music has unique properties that have allowed that to happen while retaining its integrity. It seems to be able to absorb outside influences and still retain its inherent structure. I think that it's an important fact that Irish music maintains a relevance. Otherwise, I think that it retreats behind a glass wall in a museum. That's fine, but, I'd rather be practicing something that still has the power to affect people, to touch people.