I came across my favorite Irish pop music album a couple of years ago at the big tent music sale held every summer in the parking lot at Old Orchard shopping center. I was deeply into the music of Sarah McLachlan and had also started listening seriously to electronica over the previous year. I’d purchased a compilation CD released by the Triloka label, which contained remixes of tracks by various Triloka artists. Most of these were electronic artists to begin with, but one track was quite different; a rendition of the Stranglers’ song “Golden Brown” sung by an ethereal female voice. The singer was Emer Kenny, and a few weeks later I stood in the tent at Old Orchard holding a copy of her CD in my hands. It had been released in 1997 and contained the original, un-remixed version of “Golden Brown”, so I bought it.
Kenny plays Irish harp, not exactly an instrument that comes to mind when you think of pop music. She was classically trained the College of Music, Dublin, and Trinity College’s College of Music in London. She also does some keyboard work on the album and plays bodhran, the traditional Irish frame drum. But it is her voice that is truly the marvel of her debut album. Ethereal, warm, and heavily spiritual, she is able to sing both her own compositions and arrangements of traditional Irish music with the same deep feeling. To listen to this album is to close you eyes and be transported. The Irish songs, sung in the native Irish tongue, can make you feel that you are in some far corner of the Emerald Isle, not only far away in space but possibly also in time. Kenny’s own compositions take you somewhere else entirely, perhaps not even on this planet. “Heaven”, the album’s opening track, is a perfect example. Kenny here works with violinist Fionnuala Sherry, who, along with pianist Rolf Lovland creates the musical experience known as Secret Garden. Sherry, second violinist Brona Fitzgerald and Ronan Browne’s schyte pipe work create a traditional feel, while Kenny’s husband/co-writer John Murphy provides a velvet bed of sequenced bass and drums over which Emer’s harp and voice glide like a mist. “If only we could see / Heaven’s dream is here / Would we spoil Heaven / With greed and with fear” she intones, before soaring into wordless vocalizing while her harp arpeggios swirl in ascending and descending patterns. In the album notes Emer tells us that the traditional Irish songs on the album are known as ‘sean-nos’ songs, in which the song’s rhythm is based on the breath of the singer.
There is evidence linking these types of songs with the music of North Africa, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has listened to Sheila Chandra’s album Weaving My Ancestor’s Voices, on which she demonstrates similarity in the vocal ornamentations found in music from Africa and the Indian subcontinent and English folk music. Seamus Mac Mathuna describes sean-nos thusly: “Sean-nos singing is at once the most loved and the most reviled, the least often heard and the least understood part of that body of music which is generally referred to as Irish Traditional Music … It is the least understood because, technically and emotionally, it is the most complex part of that body of music, and many of those who dislike it do so because the techniques of sean-nos singing are not the techniques which they have come to regard as the “proper” or “correct” ones. For the feeling and emotion of sean-nos singing is not expressed by the standard European ‘bag-o-tricks’, and so it is that to some not unbiased ears it sounds ‘uncouth’, ‘untuneful’, and ‘unmusical’.”
Two of the songs, “Siobhan” and “Is Fada” are traditional love songs, and quite beautiful. “Siobhan” again features Fionnuala Sherry, as well as uilleann piper Ronan Browne of Afro-Celt Soundsystem and pedal steel guitar from Emer’s brother, Shane Kenny. “Amhran Na Leabhar” (Song of the Books) has an interesting story, and the song itself is spare and haunting. Since Irish children were taught English under British rule, the Irish language went into decline until “hedge schools” began to appear to teach the children their native language. The song is one of despair because a ship that was carrying books to be used in these hedge schools sank off the Kerry coast. Kenny’s voice sounds ancient as she sings the words, accompanied by a synthesizer drone, her gentle harp, and uilleann pipes. Wind whistles throughout the track, recorded by Kenny and John Murphy “during a storm near the hill of Tara”. This lament is much different than anything I’d ever heard by Irish popular music performers such as Sinead O’Connor or Enya.
The themes of Emer Kenny seem to be love, redemption, the ability to move on and to let go of the past. “There is forgiveness inside you / To free you if you choose to / There is forgiveness inside you / To forgive the world and you,” she sings on “Light of You”. The music is impossibly beautiful, shimmering and hopeful. What sets Emer Kenny’s debut album apart from other Irish or New Age pop performers? As I’ve mentioned, her voice is gorgeous, but then so are the voices of Enya, Sarah McLachlan, and a host of others. I think it’s the juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern, the traditional Irish songs balanced against Kenny’s own delicate compositions. The sounds of uilleann pipes and violin merged seamlessly with sequenced percussion and hip-hop scratching. Among Kenny’s favorite performers are acts such as U2, Clannad, Massive Attack, and the Fugees. Her first musical memory, she says, is the Chieftains 2 album, while her first pop music idol is Debbie Harry. What Kenny did so well on this album that keeps it never far from my CD player is to balance the traditional with the popular, folk art with hi-tech.
I was really pleased to hear that Kenny was recording a new album in 2001. Entitled Fade Into Day, it took a year to produce (compared to 23 days for Emer Kenny). Kenny’s take on the new album: “… I explored my cynical and bitchy side. The production values compliment this by being more in your face yet at the same time being melodic and soulful, just as the world is … a beautiful place that can be screwed up and made ugly by greed, hypocrisy and hatred.” Unfortunately, Fade Into Day presents Kenny as another pop artist without many of the elements that made her debut so special. Her voice is still magical and there are still traditional Irish influences, but the trip hop, electronica, and worldbeat influences have encroached on them seriously. I’ve always abhorred those who want to keep artists locked under glass at a specific point in their careers and not allow them to breathe, grow, and even make mistakes. Kenny is pursuing music and sounds that interest her, and that is more important than my opinions. I am merely happy that her first disc allowed us to glimpse her special gift for infusing spirituality of the ancient with the energy of the present.