Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola – An Raicín Álainn (2002) review A CeltCast Classic
We have been writing reviews for you since 2014 starting with
Earth Warrior album. Since that first review many bands have passed our ears and we have happily told you about a lot of them. But it also means that there is a huge void of music that we have never written about. The pagan folk scene, the music that forms the roots of this station, is about 20 years old (If you take
2002 Zauberspruch album as a starting point.) The ‘modern’ Celtic folk scene goes back decades earlier even, with bands like
popularizing the style in the late 60’s. And I don’t even want to mention the traditional folk scene, with a history that goes back for centuries.
The CeltCast Classic series is meant to look back at the rich history of folk music and wants to highlight the beautiful albums that were made before there was CeltCast. The time we all at the station were ‘just’ fans. Now I could focus on the big names, the albums that everyone knows, the classics so to say…. But is is much nicer to dig up those smaller, less known gemstones that were made. The albums that some may have forgot about. An Raicín Álainn by the Irish Singer Lasairfhíona
is such an album. But it is so worth listening to that I’ll gladly pull it out of the shadows and into the spotlights one more time. I hope I can convince you all to give it a listen, I promise you, you won’t be sorry.
Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola or in short Lasairfhíona is a folk singer that comes from Inisheer, one of the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland. As she herself says in the booklet coming with the album, Lasairfhíona learnt how to sing even before she could talk. With her style of singing deeply rooted in Inisheer’s sean-nós singing tradition, it was not a surprise her interest went further than ‘just’ Celtic singing and she became a graduate in Celtic studies from Trinity College Dublin.
It was in 1998 when she was ‘discovered’ by
and was featured as one of the lead vocalists on his Irish sacred songs compilation Lights In The Dark. In 2002 she released the subject of this review, her first solo album An Raicín Álainn at the
Lorient Festival Interceltique,
an album that got here a lot of positive feedback. Hot Press Music Magazine called it one of the best folk albums of 2002 and fRoots Magazine said it was: ‘one of the most sumptuous traditional albums to have emerged for some time.‘
It got Lasairfhíona a lot of attention including a special documentary on the RTÉ Léargas television series (directed by Moira Sweeney) in 2002; concerts as prestigious as the Montreux Jazz festival; television exposure; and even a guest appearance on
Goodnight DVD, on the track Thank You, You’ve Been A Lovely Audience. She worked with Hector Zazou again on her song Dragonfly, a song that was used in the presentation of the 2004/2005 fall/winter collection of the fashion designers Prada, Issey Miyake, Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Chou. Her success continued into 2006 as her second album Flame Of Wine came out gaining the young singer even more praise, including a nomination for a
Meteor Irish Music Award
…. And then the internet goes all quiet. The silence was broken in 2016 when her third album One Penny Portion was released, but other than a few appearances on several compilation albums there isn’t much more I could find. Not including the fact that she clearly isn’t forgotten by the Irish folk stations, who regularly feature her music in their programs. And that is exactly what I’m going to do right now, right here, so cue spotlight: ‘…Spotlight on!!!!‘
An Raicín Álainn
Opening song An Raicín Álainn gives you a perfect feel for what to expect of the whole album. minimalistic beauty. In this case a single guitar, a lone violin and a beautiful voice. That is it. Nothing more is needed anyway. Lasairfhíona’s voice is the main feature of this whole album. It is warm, delicate, tender and emotional all at the same time. She sings in the lower female regions and she has a lovely almost whispered, ever so slight hoarseness to it that makes it extremely beautiful. I can listen to her sing all week long. (Actually I did during the writing of this review.)
The second song; Bean Pháidín (Páidín’s Wife) immediately shows another strength of this album, it’s variety. Although the whole album is intimate and almost minimalistic in instrument choice, it still has a huge variety in feel and tune. If An Raicín Álainn werre a small watercolour painting ‘coloured’ with acoustic guitar and violin, then Bean Pháidí would be a fun pencil drawing sketched with only the aid of a lone bodhrán and a low ‘drone’ sound giving the song its body. A real powerful song in all its simplicity. I also love the combination of the Irish Gaelic language and the beat of the bodhran. I never realized that Irish Gaelic is such a rhythmical language with its strong ‘ch’, ‘th’ ‘mi’ and ‘shh’ sounds. It is as if I hear her voice ‘clapping’ along with the rhythm of the tune.
Caisleán Gearr is the first of the three acapella song, showcasing Lasairfhíona’s full talents as a singer. I imagine this to be in the sean-nón singing tradition of Inis Oírr (Inisheer). Which brings up the question what IS the sean-nós singing tradition? To quote Wikipedia for an answer: ‘Sean-nós singing (Irish for ‘old style’) is unaccompanied traditional Irish vocal music usually performed in the Gaelic language. Sean-nós singing usually involves very long melodic phrases with highly ornamented and melismatic melodic lines.’
It does describe this heartfelt ballad of a unreachable love of a man for a fair lady he met at Caisleán Gearr (Castlegar) perfectly.
I found a short article on
where we get some more information about Lasairfhíona’s musical roots. In this 2005 article it says the following:
On the Aran Islands, where Lasairfhíona Ni Chonaola grew up, there is a big singing tradition that grew into the sean-nós style. Although Lasairfhíona is regularly connected with that style, she rather not be labeled as such:
– “On the islands there were just songs,” She says in an interview with The Irish Times: “We just sang songs. We didn’t call them sean-nós. I came from a sean-nós background, but I live in the modern time, too, so there are inevitably influences there.’ In an interview with the Sunday times she underlines this will to express herself without the bounderies of musical label limiting her artistic possibillitys even more. Tradition is clearly important but artistic freedom evenso: – “There is something in the islands, a sense of mystery. It’s hard to define what’s special about them; but I was quite privileged to be raised there. The song and the singer were appreciated, there was silence for a person that sang, so it gave me the confidence to sing I expected to be listened to. “But I also live in the modern era. I wasn’t brought up with a gramophone, so there are influences from nowadays and you have to go with that. You can’t live in the past. It’s why I like living in the city and on the island. On the island I can relax with the sea around me, then go to the hustle and bustle of the city.”
reading how Lasairfhíona expresses her love for the relaxing sea in the interview fragment above, it is an easy bridge to Oileán Na Teiscinne (The Isle Of Teiscinn), the next song I want to pick up on. You can feel every ounce of that love reaching you through your speakers as this song starts. You can hear the tide gently coming in. The calmness of the waves, combined with an almost meditative guitar tune will instantly calm you down. The soft, single-voiced ‘choir’ in the background, and Lasairfhíona spoken lyrics over it are the icing on the cake. One of the best songs on this album in my opinion.
After the poetic calmness of Oileán Na Teiscinne, comes the more serene calmness of Banríon Loch Na Naomh (The Queen Of Loch Na Naomh), a duet between harp and voice, a typical folk ballad about a not-so-typical meeting between a ghostly lady and a limbless warrior in the deep of the Celtic night.
What I especially notice in this song is how Lasairfhíona just let’s her voice flow naturally while singing. She sounds as if she is at the very limit of her high voice in this song, sometimes maybe even a wee bit above it, but she just goes with it. Allowing her voice to break a bit while it reaches for that softly whispered high note, making the sound even more intense, more vulnerable and eerie, but therefore more beautiful than it would have been if she used her obvious singing technique to form the note perfectly. It makes Banríon Loch Na Naomh another of the many favourites of mine on this album.
Talking about favourites, I feel a big smile inside every time Bímse Féin Ag Iascaireacht is playing. It is the odd one out on this CD, as the lead vocals are not by Lasairfhíona, but by her dad, MacDara Ó Chonaola, a poet who wrote several of the songs on An Raicín Álainn. The song itself is a fun singalong accompanied by bodhrán, with Lasairfhíona on backing vocals. In this song it becomes clear that the vocal talent runs in the family, as MacDara could easily be featured as one of the lead vocalists of
(In all fairness I thought he was at first)
MacDara Ó Chonaola is not the only person contributing to this lovely debut album. We hear
on tin & low whistle,
Johnny McDonagh (former De Dannan)
on Clàrsach (the Celtic harp),
on piano accordion and bells, and
on fiddle, viola and piano, who all add their delicate parts to Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola’s music. And I say that deliberately, as all musicians play purely in service of Lasairfhiona’s voice. the instruments seem to be there like illustrations in a well written book,to enhance the intensity of the story.
This feeling is even more enhanced by the beautiful production of the music by Máire Breatnach. She and Lasairfhíona carefully selected the instruments each song needed, with a clear ‘less is more’ approach, giving each song its very own colour. Be it the gentle colour of guitar and fiddle, the ancient combination of harp and vocals, the rich colour of the guitar and viola, the ‘classical’ combination of piano and tin whistle, the romantic sound of the piano accordion and a distant bell, ore no colour at all, as are the beautiful acapella songs on An Raicín Álainn or the sketched pencil stripes of the bodhrán/vocal combination.
Due to these carefully made choices this is the most intimate album I have heard in a long while. I have often described in reviews how I had the feeling the artists were sitting right there with me in my living room, but with this album it is the other way around. I have the distinct impression I was lucky enough to walk into the space Lasairfhíona was in, singing to herself. Every time I hear it the sound stops me in my tracks, leaving me with the deep urge to quietly sit down in a corner, disappear into the shadow and listen, just listen.
The first time I clearly had that urge was listening to Banríon Loch Na Naomh, but it happened a couple of times. When listening to Tonnta Chonamara (The Waves Of Connemarra) for instance, or the acapella song Amhrán An Phúc. But find the feeling especially strong listening to De Thaisme (Coincidence), a song Lasairfhíona is lilting, only accompanied by the bodhrán. Lasairfhíona’s whispered singing style feels almost introvert in this song, and the clever reverb on the bodhrán and her voice even enhance that feeling. Musical simplicity in all its beauty.
Another example of that ‘introvert’ singing style is Ar Bhruacha Na Laoi even though it is one of the more richly arranged songs on this album. The viola melody gives it a suprisingly Eastern feel, in the direction of
Nine Million Bicycles. Come to think of it, Katie Melua has that same whispered, delicate, almost introvert singing style I find so beautiful in lasairfhióna’s voice.
All in all this is just a beautiful debut album. As I said in the intro, after this Lasairfhíona went on to release Flame Of Wine in 2005 and One Penny Portion in 2016, both also well produced beautiful folk albums, well worth listening to, but it is the intimate magic that Lasairfhíona, Máire Breatnach, and all the other musicians captured on An Raicín Álainn that makes this album stand out for me.
A true folk Classic, well worth putting the spotlight on one more time.
Cover art: MacDara O’Conaola
Quotes taken from: