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Music interview – Moya Brennan: ‘I’m still learning’

Moya Brennan plays at The Junction in Goole tonight and at Leeds City Varieties next week.
Moya Brennan plays at The Junction in Goole tonight and at Leeds City Varieties next week.
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Clannad singer and first lady of Celtic music, Moya Brennan speaks to Duncan Seaman ahead of her two Yorkshire gigs.

Moya Brennan’s UK tour this month is destined to be something of a family affair. Not only is the Clannad singer and harpist’s husband Tim Jarvis her manager, their daughter Aisling and son Paul are now part of her touring band.

“This time last year we just finished a new album that I did with both of them,” says the First Lady of Celtic music, now 65. “They dragged me into the studio. With their influences as well it was really fun to be in the studio with them. Out of 11 songs [on the record] we ended up writing nine together so it was a refreshing approach for me.

“I was still my own self but they brought other things into it as well. It was really interesting. My son finished his degree about a year ago but he’s always been a musician and he just said, ‘Mum, I fancy doing a bit of stuff. Is it OK?’ and I said why not – if they’re not ashamed to be on stage with their old mother.”

She adds: “I have a great band because I have my daughter and my son on guitar, bouzouki, whistles, keyboards and percussion but then I have a fantastic harp player that plays with me [Cormac de Barra], he’s one of the best Irish harp players ever, so having two Irish harps on stage [Brennan also plays the instrument] is a lovely kind of image, and he’s a great singer as well. Then I have a lovely fiddle-violin player, Lia Wright, and we all sing as well so there’s a lovely blend of harmonies so it’s really nice.”

Canvas, which came out last year, was Brennan’s first solo outing in a decade. Following the deaths of her father, Leo, and uncle, Padraig Duggan, Brennan found the opportunity of making music with her children both “joyful” and “healing” – so much so she says that she’s “itching to get back into the studio to do more with them”.

Moya Brennan

Moya Brennan

There’s also another album of voices and harps on the cards with de Barra. It’ll be their third and Brennan reports that it’s “three quarters done”.

As a musician and songwriter Brennan has always been open to new ideas. “I’ve rarely said no to people that have asked me to perform on techno songs in Germany or a DJ in Holland or just singing with a great singer on an album that they’re doing,” she says. “I’m still learning. When people say to me ‘What’s the best advice you could give us about music?’ and I say ‘The day you stop learning you give up’. It’s just so interesting all the time and it keeps changing.

“I love co-writing so that’s why it really worked with my kids. Paul is influenced by electronics – one of his big influences is Bonobo – and Aisling loves Imogen Heap and film music. It’s really fun to be in the studio with people who have different influences and ways of going about things. Then you bring yours into it and that’s what makes it interesting for me.”

Brennan’s own musical roots are deep. Her father was in a showband and ran Leo’s Tavern in County Donegal where Clannad, which the singer formed with her brothers Ciaran and Pol and uncles Noel and Padraig Duggan in 1970, first performed. “It was the stage for us when we were off school or on holidays,” Brennan recalls. “He’d get us up and we’d perform together. Basically it was the birth of Clannad in this little pub in Donegal, which is still going and we’re having a 50th anniversary this July. Clannad will be playing at it and so will a load of other people.”

When people say to me ‘What’s the best advice you could give us about music?’ and I say ‘The day you stop learning you give up’. It’s just so interesting all the time.

Moya Brennan

From the start, Brennan says, the band’s influences extended beyond traditional Irish music. “Gaelic language was important to us and that’s what we grew up with – I learned English at school – so the Gaelic songs were always there from my mother and my grandparents then from my father’s side, because of the showband, this contemporary music was there, so it was kind of always a fusion. It was what created Clannad, using what was there in our family. People regard it as the beginning of the Celtic sound. It’s nice to feel that we’re part of that.”

International exposure came in 1982 with a song for a TV drama about the Irish Troubles – the ethereal Theme From Harry’s Game, which became a hit in the UK, the Netherlands and Sweden – and the band’s seventh album Magical Ring. Brennan says up until that point the band had largely concentrated on rearranging traditional songs, rather than writing material of their own.

“We had all this time to creatively discover new ways of approaching our voices and things like that. We were into harmonies from the word go and because we were a family we grew into blending together. We’d done a bit of layering but not as much as when we were asked to do Harry’s Game.

“We were nicely surprised and it was from a Scottish Gaelic song that we did with a lot of harmonies that somebody heard and asked us would we do the theme for the Harry’s Game series and we were thrilled.”

Nevertheless as band who were “never political”, they had to consider their involvement carefully. “When we saw that it was a show about the tragedy of two sides and nobody wins we thought it was in keeping with our cultural aspect of the music.”

It was their studio engineer, Richard Dodd, who had previously worked with 10CC who introduced the band to more layering of vocals, traditional instruments and synthesisers. Brennan says: “Because of the fluency we had with our harmonies it happened automatically, but it was amazing to work with Richard Dodd.

“We had on our fifth and sixth albums dabbled with synthesisers – the Prophet V and the Mellotron – but we were always interested in adding dimensions to our voices. That was there from early on.”

Clannad would go on to even greater success around the world with albums such as Legend, Sirius and Anam – and along with it came the kind of temptations offered to rock and pop groups. “Just because we’re a folk band it didn’t mean that drink and some drugs was not involved, because it was just there in front of you wherever you went,” Brennan remembers. “At the beginning our main places were Germany, France, Switzerland and Holland. We didn’t really have that much money so we used to stay with friends or really bad bed and breakfasts, especially if you stayed with friends and there was a party for them that night but it ended up being a party for you every night and you can just get into a bad habit really quickly without any warning. It was kind of because we were out on the road, we were young, we were so happy-go-lucky and thrilled to be making a few bob from something we loved doing, you can easily slip into something like that. Back then in the 70s it was all about the craic, then when you’d meet other bands it was open for all seasons.”

Meeting her future husband Tim Jarvis, then a photographer for the NME, and rediscovering her faith in 1991 transformed her life. “There is so much craic and drinking you can do and feel good about yourself in the morning, it doesn’t make you happy,” Brennan says. “You wake up with a hangover and say ‘Never again’ and you’re away the next night, it can be a black hole. I was kind of a bit lost. Nobody would have guessed it because I was always up for fun, so it was hidden inside but I was sad about my own life. It was amazing, Tim came along and it was just the right time and it got me together. I was wanting that as well but it all came at the right time.”

One of Clannad’s biggest hits, In A Lifetime, was a duet between Brennan and Bono, of U2. They remain friends, Brennan says. “That guy is so busy and he lives in so many parts of the world but we do meet up on occasions. It’s normally at a do or a get-together that somebody has or unfortunately a funeral. We had a very good friendship way back and when we see each other we just pick up where we left off.”

Brennan talks affectionately about his sister Enya, who was a member of Clannad for two years before going on to huge success as a solo performer. “She’s done tremendously well,” she says, but points out: “You have to remember that we as the five [founding] members were Clannad. She joined us and she was paid as a session musician. We were together ten years before she came into the place. She wanted to do her own thing and I think she benefited from coming in and sharing with us.

“It was great for me having another girl on tour for a couple of years, but she really did want to strive in her own way and she’s done amazingly and we’re really proud of her.

“But I think Clannad paved the way a bit for her as well because more people were susceptible to that kind of sound, that mood. It’s amazing to come from the same family – a young band from Donegal and there’s about five Grammy Awards and lots of nominations.”

After a 15-year hiatus Clannad made an album in 2013. Brennan hopes Nádúr won’t be their last. “I know one member passed away recently but we had two shows locally in home town last year which were absolutely amazing, and we brought it back to the old Clannad as well,” she says. “We were out there with the drums and all the keyboards and everything but it was lovely to bring it back to base, so there might be something in the cards to that.

“That last album was really nice because we felt there was a bit of everything that we had been part of with all the other albums in that album.”

She reveals a record company in Germany plans to soon release a CD of a concert they played in 1978. “We listened to it and it was absolutely amazing, we said, ‘Goodness we were tight’. We were surprised. We used to go to Europe and play for two months non-stop so we were really together and there are songs in it that we never recorded. We’re releasing that at the end of May. We’ll launch it up in Donegal at my father’s 50th anniversary gathering. We’re thrilled about it, it’s really good quality, I think they’re even talking about bringing out a vinyl of it.”

She says she “never says never” to the prospect of new music from Clannad. “Time is flying so fast I can’t believe it. Every time we see each other we go ‘Let’s go into the studio and do a bit of writing’ and then a couple of months pass. I’m doing my own things, the boys are doing their own things, but I think we might get around to doing another album.”

Come what may, Brennan remains a great believer in counting her blessings. “When you pray for things and expect big things to happen it’s all the small things that are incredible,” she says. “Look at me now touring with my kids. They wouldn’t be on stage if they weren’t good. They’re fantastic musicians and great fun to have around and it’s a really great vibe on tour. My husband’s with me as well – he’s the manager but he tour manages as well and drives and sells the merchandise. It’s a nicely family-orientated enterprise, but homely. I go out and talk to people afterwards and it’s lovely.”

Moya Brennan plays at The Junction, Goole on March 9, and Leeds City Varieties on March 12. moyabrennan.com