Heard A Long Gone Song sees Lisa O’Neill intermingle a clutch of original compositions with some traditional folk tunes to create a succinct, at times stark album with the most parsimonious instrumentation, and minimal production fuss. It’s the result of the Ballyhaise songstress making good on her chat with her new record label River Lea Records to make an album with a “traditional feel”.
“I decided not to bring in a rhythm section,” says Lisa, speaking from Leeds while touring the new album. “If we had drums and bass in there it would have been a totally different album, that’s what’s not in there this time - if you put it up against another records.”
The opener, The Galway Shawl has Lisa singing a capella, while on other tracks it’s seldom more than a guitar, banjo or bouzouki strolling alongside, leaving her voice room to roam. She’s conscious of not over embellishing the traditional songs.
“They are not my own compositions, they deserve respect... I chose them because I was attracted to them, they are amazing songs – they stand really tall on their own. You don’t want to go too far in destroying that. They deserve to be stripped down.”
On the track The Factory Girl, folk star Radie Peat harmonises with Lisa without any musical accompaniment. It’s powerful and raw as together they sing of a young woman who refuses a rich man’s patronising advances.
“These old traditional songs would have been sang in somebody’s kitchen initially,” says Lisa. “It’s storytelling. So I didn’t want to drown it out and I don’t think they need to be dressed up too much. You have to be very careful with that.
“Also I would consider my voice to be my strongest instrument. I play around with a lot of different instruments: banjo, guitar, harmonium, ukulele, but it’s my voice that I would see as my main instrument and I didn’t want to drown that out with all these layers.”
She’s right, at it’s best her voice can mainline the listener into the depths of our folk heritage. It’s the strength of that voice, the immediate recognition, which gained her a ‘Best Singer’ nomination for the inaugural RTÉ Folk Awards, even though she hadn’t released an album during the period of the awards.
“I don’t expect to win,” she says of this Thursday night’s bash, “but I’m delighted to get the nod in the year that I don’t officially have an album out.
“I think Radie deserves to win this year - she’s had a busier year than me.”
The essence of Lisa’s voice features strongly in the universally glowing album reviews of ‘Heard A Long Gone Song’. Amidst The Guardian’s 5/5 review they described her voice as: “stripped raw, rough and calloused, evoking the old women anthologised a century ago by Harry Smith; a style that might distance some, or suggest affectation to others”.
Hotpress (9/10) too noted her voice’s “polarising” effect, while the Times (4/5) used the inevitable “Marmite” reference. The Celt wonders how she feels about these love/hate assertions.
“I don’t mind at all. I’m under no illusion that everybody’s going to get me. I don’t get everything, so why would everybody get me?”
She notes that it is “developing in some ways” and recalls that while recording a duet with Damien Dempsey recently she was required to stretch herself.
“His producer asked me to go higher than I had ever went, and I thought no I can’t, and he asked if I’d try. And I did, and I was over the moon, I couldn’t believe I could sing that high!
“Every now and then I feel I bend a note a way I haven’t done before, that’s exciting – you find something new. There’s so far you can go. It’s exciting.
“The vocal is an amazing instrument, it’s the body that’s singing. It’s not just the vocal chords, it’s coming from your gut and the whole body can be shaking sometimes and quivers come in here and there. Sometimes they’re mistakes and it’s like a happy accident.”
Instrumentation adorn her own compositions on the album more liberally than the trad tracks. On Rock the Machine - penned three years ago - she gives voice to the plight of dockers cast adrift in the name of progress; thousands deemed expendable from the 1960s through to the ‘80s with the emergence of automation. Chilling fiddle and harmonium drones seemingly drift over the composition like a mist off the Liffey. Lyrically, she’s at the peak of her powers on this track.
Machine with the strength of a hundred men
Can’t feed and clothe my children
Can’t greet a sailor coming in
Or know of desperation
Lisa speaks of feeling “very lucky” to have been asked to write a song about the docklands, and she decided to focus on this human story.
“I didn’t think when I was taking on that project that the song would become what it has become, and what it means to people. It seems to move people. All my songs move me – if they don’t nobody’s going to hear them. But that doesn’t mean they will connect. This one has connected, it’s a lovely surprise.
“I’ve met some of the dockers and they’re happy with the song, they feel that it does their situation justice, and you can’t put a price on that... I’m happy that I have been somewhat of a voice for people who are still alive who had a hard time.”
It’s like an Irish response to Billy Bragg’s Between The Wars which spoke of the miners and dockers similarly laid to waste in Britain. She agrees with the comparison.
“We all know unemployment as well – it happened me, it happened family members – it’s a tough blow to a family. That’s what I’m trying to get at in this song, it’s not just the single man it’s the family.”
The Celt notes it may resonate so strongly, far beyond the economic squalls of the docklands as the threat of automation looms over many of us.
“And it’s happening so much today, so much. I disagree with it, I think it’s sad and I wouldn’t mind if we protested a little bit more.
“I don’t use the machines in Tesco. I don’t use the machine in the bank. I queue. And I know that my protest isn’t going to move things, but I feel better about it.
“We like to talk to a person, you know. So rock the machine,” she says with a gentle laugh over her trusty old Nokia mobile.
The Celt notes that notes that the Luddites seem to get a bad rep these days.
“They were attacking the opposition, and they weren’t attacking the people, but they were attacking the actual machine that was threatening their livelihood, it’s understandable.
“If change rattles your world and destroys it, there’s an argument for not accepting it.”
She’ll have played Manchester, Liverpool, London, Glasgow and Sheffield before she comes home for her only Irish show in Vicar Street, Dublin on Saturday, October 27. For this concert she will have all of the artists who played on the new album, except for Radie Peat who’s on tour. Special guest is Cormac Begley.
“If the train was back on the tracks - hopefully it would be full from Cavan to Dublin on the 27th. I hope that people get on the bus and take the journey to come and see us - we’d love to have the support.”