Central And Remote: Brigid Power-Ryce
Interview with Brigid Power-Ryce.
“I’d been listening to Margaret Barry and loved the way she sung ‘The Flower Of Sweet Strabane’ and ‘My Lagan Love’ so I added them to my list. What I love about all those songs is the strength in them and the melody. They’re very flexible at the same time and you can go up and down and all over the shop with them if you like. But there is something about them that I find easy to lose myself in. They calm me down too, that’s why I like singing them live so much, as I feel they ground me a bit and bring me back to myself in between songs, or they help settle any nerves.”
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
It was during early Spring when I first witnessed the live performance of Brigid Power-Ryce. This gifted Irish singer-songwriter possesses the power to truly stop you in your tracks in an utterly profound way. It is rare that a performance – especially a solo performance – leaves an everlasting imprint; beautifully left to linger in your collection of cherished memories. Several months have since passed but my feelings of Brigid’s music remains as vivid and immediate as that particular night in DeBurgo’s, Galway.
Quite simply, I feel the magic lies in the songwriter’s expression of raw emotion, in all its delicate beauty. Is this not the basis of all art? It is the purity distilled in the song’s embers that serves the inner flame inherent in all of Brigid Power-Ryce’s recordings. The songs range from moving renditions of traditional song (‘She Moved Through The Fair’, ‘The Flower Of Sweet Strabane’), divine folk music (‘Tiny You And Me’) and improvisations on accordion, piano and guitar (‘Ghosties’, ‘Black Eyed Hen’). As ever, it is the singer’s potent voice that provides the guiding light to all these beguiling sonic creations. The voice shares the spark of Cat Power, Sandy Denny and a whole host of genre-defying luminaries.
Her live performance in Deburgo’s was as support to Newcastle singer-songwriter Richard Dawson. The perfect prelude to an entirely unique and ground-breaking songwriter. Think Daniel Johnston meeting at the crossroads with Son House and you’re somewhere there. The sparks of spontaneous beauty soared the curved ceilings and stone walls of the underground space. The a cappella rendition of ‘She Moved Through The Fair’ and new song ‘Tiny You And Me’ made a deep impact, where I felt the power and glory of folk music and traditional song come to meaningful life.
There are several of Brigid Power-Ryce’s recordings available on independent labels such as Rusted Rail (gorgeous 12-string guitar based ‘You Are Here’ EP) and Abandon Reason (the recently released ‘I’m In The Abyss!’ compilation). My personal highlight is ‘Ode To An Embroyo’ EP containing fragile instrumentation of acoustic guitar and voice that exudes the spirit of early Cat Power. Later this year, we hope to see the arrival of a full-length release on the Galway-based independent label Abandon Reason. Like the flower of sweet Strabane, the album will undoubtedly captivate the heart.
Interview with Brigid Power-Ryce.
My first time seeing your live performance was quite recently in Deburgo’s, Galway where you supported the English folk singer-songwriter Richard Dawson. This night was very special. A feast of truly touching and affecting folk/traditional music, yet each artist having their own unique vision. Please take me back to this tour with Richard and your memories of your recent live shows?
The gig in DeBurgo’s was a special one for sure. I hadn’t played in a while, maybe 6 months, so I felt like I definitely had a lot of stuff brewing that needed to be let out. I had just seen Richard Dawson play in Dublin in Whelan’s two nights previous and was blown away. It was the most amazing performance I had witnessed and it sort of shook me up a bit and made me realise “Oh yeah, that’s what I like to do and that’s why I like performing”. I feel like I had kind of forgotten about my own need to express myself like that, not completely forgotten, but had been holding back a little bit. So when I saw him I was really inspired and eager to play again. Before that gig in DeBurgo’s I think the last gig I played solo stuff at was in Athlone at a teeny-tiny theatre called The Passionfruit, which was nice…Before that then I played in September in London at a benefit gig for Jason Molina (who has sadly since passed), along with Peter Delaney and Alasdair Roberts, which was organised by musician Laurie McNamee.
‘Tiny You And Me’ is a truly beautiful song. I was dumbfounded as I witnessed you and Declan Kelly perform this song live onstage. It’s a song you have written for your son. Please tell me about ‘Tiny You And Me’ and the song’s construction? I love the accordion that weaves majestically throughout.
Thank you! Well, it’s a very honest song lyrically, so I needn’t go into too much detail as it’s all there, but I wrote it last summer whilst practicing for a gig. I was feeling overwhelmed with self-doubt and the responsibility for an amazing little being’s whole life, as a single parent the responsibility all being in my own hands. Making decisions, constantly questioning what I was doing, whether I was doing the right thing, all the time. Then sort of calming myself down, putting things in perspective and accepting that there is no perfect right way and it’s ok, just keep going. It just poured out and was pretty much completed in 20 minutes. It always seems to happen with me that the moment of making the melody is a complete blur. So I don’t really know what to say about its construction, I feel like it just burst out of me and was ready-made. That usually doesn’t happen with me, I tend to take my time with song writing, leaving a lot of things unfinished, coming back to them months or even years later. But it is very satisfying to play it live and Declan playing the banjo with it really completes it. I guess it’s only natural that it would as he is a big part of that song too, being around for the last year when the song was a-stewing. We don’t have it recorded with the banjo yet but hopefully soon!
Discuss for me please your love for traditional song? I am amazed when listening to your powerful voice sing ‘She Moved Through The Fair’ and The Flower of Sweet Strabane’. What is it about these particular songs that resonate so much for you?
Well, ‘She Moved Through The Fair’ is probably one of the first songs I’ve known. My Grandad used to sing it on every family occasion, Christmas, Easter etc. I started singing it about 2 years ago, I had thought about singing it before then but felt a bit weird about it because it really was ‘Grandad’s song’ so I felt like I was trespassing or something. But then 2 years ago I was invited down to this amazing underground car park by Declan Kelly and I recorded some songs down there. A few months later I was itching to go back down and sing, but I didn’t have any original material as I was in the thick of minding a newborn. But I still needed to sing down there so I thought “hmm I’ll try some traditional ones” and to be honest I don’t have actually that a wide knowledge of traditional songs to sing off the top of my head, so I stuck to ones I knew of.. I’d been listening to Margaret Barry and loved the way she sung ‘The Flower Of Sweet Strabane’ and ‘My Lagan Love’ so I added them to my list. What I love about all those songs is the strength in them and the melody. They’re very flexible at the same time and you can go up and down and all over the shop with them if you like. But there is something about them that I find easy to lose myself in. They calm me down too, that’s why I like singing them live so much, as I feel they ground me a bit and bring me back to myself in between songs, or they help settle any nerves.
What are your earliest musical influences? What instrument did you first begin to play?
Um, I feel like my Mum had music on almost constantly when we were kids. In the kitchen, in the car. A lot of trad, rock, country, bluegrass, everything you can think of really. But she was a huge, huge Beatles and John Lennon fan and I think that they were probably my earliest musical influence. I always liked the John songs and the songs that made me shiver. I think I still am always after things that make me shiver. Jeff Buckley and Nirvana were on a lot in the house too and they really left an imprint in me when I was young. I weirdly enough was a Davy Spillane fanatic for a while when I was little, probably about 8 or 9 years old. I loved the uilleann pipes and how they made me feel sad and want to cry. Dunno if that’s such a good thing for a kid, but sure what can ya do. My first instrument I learnt to play was the button accordion, upstairs in an Irish pub in London. Hauling a big black Paolo Soprani accordion up three flights of stairs at the age of 9. Those accordions give people heart attacks now you know, because they’re so heavy. So I was taught the accordion by ear which was a very beneficial way to learn. I had a piano in the house so I then started to play that by ear too. Singing was quite big in my family, every Christmas people would take their turn singing and everyone would be quiet and listen. I think that had a big effect on me musically, learning how to sing so people are still and listen.
Abandon Reason recently released the wonderful compilation ‘I Am In The Abyss’ which compiles many of the amazing Irish artists who have performed in the near-mythical abandoned underground car park in Galway. Please discuss this project, which you were part of? It’s a beautiful concept and such an inspiration to listen to so much compelling and innovative sounds from Irish home-grown talent.
“I’m in the abyss!” is really wonderful. I almost feel like it’s too early to comment on it, like it hasn’t sunken in yet properly. But basically for the last two years I have been going down to this amazing space with Declan and sometimes others like Dave Colohan, to record and play music.
When Declan asked me to go down there 2 years ago, I didn’t think it was weird at all. I felt like I had finally found the right place. It suited me because I was a lot shyer then and wouldn’t have been able to record with one person just looking at me, nope sir-eeeee, so when Declan asked me to record I said yes as I felt comfortable with him and it’s so dark down there it’s impossible to be too self-conscious. I think that’s why such great stuff has come out of there because it is so freeing being in a big dark space, you just naturally want to scream or do cartwheels around the place or be quiet or just be yourself really. I think you’d be right by calling it near-mythical and I feel like the band that was created down there ‘Gorges’ is an example of a weird gift born from the underground. Dave had a dream that him, Declan and myself were down there with harmoniums and I was doing some ‘wordless singing’, so we figured we would follow the instructions of the dream and try it out. I’d never improvised before, with others, so was quite nervous about playing, but it all just kind of gelled together. There are two tracks in particular that just sound so unimprovised, like we all knew what we were doing, which still kind of spooks me out. But anyway the Gorges album will be released on tape very soon by Abandon Reason, which we are all excited about! But yea the “I’m in the abyss!” compilation, is a brilliant collection of some of the sounds and songs recorded down there and it comes with a nice print of artwork.
I believe you have a new full-length album coming out later this year on Abandon Reason. Can you please shed some light on this particular record?
I have no idea at all time-wise when it’ll be released. I am sitting on a lot of unrecorded songs and instrumental stuff but it feels too early and I can’t really see the album itself yet. They need some slow cooking. But maybe by the end of the year. It’ll probably be more piano/accordion/harmonium based. Maybe not though!
What albums inspire you the most to make music and create art?
Well the music that I put on when I’m drawing and painting is usually instrumental. ‘Black Saint and The Sinner Lady’, ‘Ah Um’ by Charles Mingus, a lot of John Fahey albums, Erik Satie too. Prokofiev. The Dirty Three.. They’ve all contributed to a lot of pieces and weird characters. But I’ve been going through a phase of drawing without music on, which is weird because it’s almost exclusively how I used to get my music listening done. Maybe it’s because I’m usually drawing in the night and trying to not wake my son up. Albums that inspire me to make music..hmmm..that’s hard, but off the top of my head, Sharon Van Etten’s last two albums (especially of late), Neil Young..’On The Beach’.. Tim Buckley, Happy Sad, Dream Letter Live.. Michael Hurley ‘Armchair Boogie’ Joni Mitchell..Dirty Three albums.. listening to amazingly talented local artists DeclanQKelly and Yawning Chasm and getting to see them live is really inspiring and a huge treat. David Colohan too. They usually give me a kick to do something.
On top of music, you are a renowned artist. I adore the beautiful artwork that adorn the sleeves of your various releases. Please discuss your artwork and the way the process compares and contrasts to making music? With both forms of art, you effectively express such endearing emotion.
Thank you! Um, well they have been typically two very different ways of creating, but I feel my music way is merging to be more like the way I create pictures, which is a good thing. With drawing and painting I don’t think about it at all, I just doodle all the time. I’m not aware of their progress or anything, there’s no end goal with them, I just really draw to soothe my brain. Like going for a run or something. I think I haven’t really changed my approach since I was a kid. I remember I had a rainy-day book that had a game in it where you had to just doodle without looking at the page and then try and make something out of the shapes you had drawn. I still do that now. The paintings of patterns I kind of feel like they are sort of mental landscapes and scenes of feelings. They don’t seem to make sense to me for a while after, maybe a few months or even years I’ll look at them and then figure out “ohhh that’s what that means”. I have a freaky habit of drawing people who I’m yet to meet. It really weirds me out because I’ll meet someone, and I don’t tell them obviously because they’d RUN, but I think “eek! It’s you, I have a drawing of a similar character to you” I go through much-needed phases of a couple of months at a time without really drawing or painting, but then I’m usually back to doing maybe 5 to 6 things at a time. Just kind of dip in and out of them here and there. Never really remember when they’re finished.
With music it’s similar where I have a few things all going at once, and pretty much the same approach as with drawing, especially with lyrics not meaning much to me until months later. But I don’t have as much output at all at all as with art. And that’s down to procrastinating and avoiding it. I was terrible a few years ago, not so bad the last few years but now I’m getting good at trying to approach it as also a self-soothing thing rather than a thing that needs an outcome. I think music has almost been too special to me so that I tend to avoid it at times. It’s usual that I wouldn’t sing at all in between gigs. I almost need the upcoming gig to force me to open my mouth and practice! But like I said, things are really changing and I’m not avoiding it now and it feels great!
What’s next for you, Brigid?
I want to create a new type of touring where you just go somewhere for a weekend at a time. Do two gigs at a time. It’d suit me babysitting wise and I’m not good at repeating myself more than a couple of nights in a row. So yea I want to play some gigs in different places, to stop my coffee habit, and hopefully to release an LP soon!
The compilation “I’m In The Abyss!” is available now on Abandon Reason.
For all information on the music and artwork of Brigid Power-Ryce please visit: