Karan Casey - finding a new way with tradition

Twenty minutes into her set onstage at the ABC in Glasgow, Karan Casey is about to send shivers down her audience’s collective spine.

The singer from Ballyduff, just outside Waterford, has done this before - often. There was the time when, bunged up with the flu, she dragged herself out of her hotel bed to play a Celtic Connections concert and sang as if her life depended on it. That was special. This time is different.

With a trilogy of songs that date back to the Irish rebellion of 1798 and with no preamble, Casey presents a clear, heartfelt reminder of the human cost of war. The message, that this is still going on, is unspoken but palpable. It’s brilliant theatre, like something from a Brecht-Weill cabaret, and elevates traditional music from its clichéd “here’s a wee song” style of presentation, even if its political point is one that Casey feels no-one should have to be making any more.

“For a long time I’ve felt that we have to bring traditional songs into the twenty-first century,” she says down the line from her home in Cork. “The way they’re presented hasn’t really changed in forty years and for me, we need a new way to approach them. A lot of them are big songs, they’re addressing serious subjects that have as much relevance, if not more, today as they did when they were written, and there’s a dramatic element to them that we could bring out more. I don’t mean doing them with big light shows and stuff, but by creating a mood with different instrumentation and keeping it going to give more impact.”

At one point as she was working on the trilogy idea, Casey suggested to her band that they might run the whole first set into one long piece. This was met with looks of horror and she decided not to pursue the matter. But as someone who holds strong political beliefs but isn’t about to go onstage and talk about them (that’s not the way she was brought up, she says), the 1798 trilogy has become a pivotal part of her concerts, the bit she lives for, she concedes.

 Casey has been singing for as long as she can remember. At school, at parties and at church she was always put forward for a song, which would mostly be the parlour variety that she learned from her grandmothers. Traditional music came later, through a woman she describes as an inspiration, a teacher, mother of ten and self-sufficient gardener who lived up the road and encouraged Casey’s interest in singing by playing her ballads and old love songs.

At college in Dublin a friend gave her Ella Fitzgerald’s Cole Porter Songbook album as a birthday present and for the next few years Casey, mesmerised by Fitzgerald’s adventurous approach to songs, devoured the female jazz singer catalogue. For a while she sang jazz in Dublin cafes and bars but while singing jazz taught her about putting herself into a song and making songs her own, she shies away from any notion that she might be a jazz singer these days.

It was while living in New York, in the mid 1990s, having gone there to escape unemployment back home and to study at Long Island University, that Casey the traditional singer really began to flourish. In one of Manhattan’s many Irish bars she met Seamus Egan, an American-born Irish musician who, unbeknownst to Casey, had already established quite a reputation, and Winnie Horan, who had played fiddle with Irish-American favourites Cherish the Ladies, and they started to play gigs together. Egan’s name, plus the small detail that he’d been All-Ireland champion on whistle, flute, banjo and mandolin and making albums since his teens, seemed to open doors and soon, Solas, as the band they formed was named, were touring all over the US.

“I got absolutely everything from Solas,” says Casey. “Before I met these people, who it turned out lived in the same street as me, I knew nothing about stagecraft or how to approach recording sessions. It was like having a crash course in being a professional musician and just the most valuable experience I could have asked for.”

By the time she left in 1999, Solas were the major draw on the Irish-American music scene and Casey had a burgeoning solo career, with a voice that can be delicate as well as tough and a choice of material that, although she’s not a songwriter herself, speaks on her own behalf. Her recording of Joni Mitchell’s late 1960s folksong The Fiddle and the Drum, for example, on her latest album, Ships in the Forest, is a classic case of an interpretative singer finding a song that expresses exactly what she’s thinking.

“The Fiddle and the Drum is another one of those songs that, although it’s brilliant, we shouldn’t have to be singing these days,” she says. “But sometimes we can only sing certain songs when we’ve reached a level of maturity. It takes a depth of experience to do justice to them and have people believe what you’re singing.”


From The Herald, April 16, 2009

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