“We’ve been performing in France for many years and we find French audiences are very energetic and educated in the music; when we play there we feel that we’re playing to people who know and appreciate the finer details of our music.”
Iconic is an over-used moniker, but not in the case of Irish traditional music ensemble LUNASA who this year celebrates 21 years together. Acclaimed by the New York Times “the hottest Irish acoustic group on the planet”, during that time they have earned a reputation as one of the most innovative and intriguing instrumental groups in Ireland and this year marks the release of ‘CAS’, their tenth album.
CAS, gaelic for Turn, marks a new departure for the band, featuring vocals for the first time with the band calling on an enviable collection of friends including Natalie Merchant, Tim O’Brien, Daoiri Farrell and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Lunasa’s uilleann piper Cillian Vallely explains the catalyst for this new approach, “We’ve recorded a lot of Lúnasa albums at this point and we felt we needed to do something very different. Having singers was an obvious way of making a big change in sound and direction and since we had been working with a lot of guest singers over years, they were our first calls.”
Over the years Lunasa have continued to deliver music with a passion that informs every note and continues to define and redefine the genre. So what is the musical inspiration that directs their music? “Most of the tunes come from a traditional Irish music playing background but we’d all listen to a lot of other music – particularly acoustic music like bluegrass, jazz, world music. The rhythm section of the band is very influenced by other genres, particularly rock in Trev’s case. He’s always had a huge influence in the arrangements and overall style of the band and because he’s a bass player too, he has that ability to stand back from the music and see it in a different light to traditional melody players like ourselves who can tend to think in very technical and individual way.” Trevor Hutchinson is the group’s double-bass player and formerly played with The Waterboys recording Fisherman’s Blues (1988) and Room to Roam (1990), the latter featuring Sharon Shannon.
Lunasa’s innovative arrangements and unique approach to the music create a singular sound that has propelled Irish acoustic music from familiar ground into surprising and exciting new territory and they compose, arrange and perform their own pieces. “Only a certain amount of the melodies are actually composed by us and most of the music is traditional but I would say what makes the pieces sound like Lunasa is the arrangements, especially the rhythmic grooves and harmonic choices of the guitar and bass”.
After twenty one years together, the groups enthusiasm for touring and performance is as strong as ever, including concerts at prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall & The Hollywood Bowl. “At this stage, the live shows are the main thing. We recorded a lot more in the early days when there was an actual recording industry for our genre and we had formal record deals in place where we had to adhere to a defined schedule. The difference now is a new album doesn’t make the impact it once did so you don’t just base your tours around releases. The live gigs are how we earn a living and a lot more people will now attend a show than buy a cd. It’s also where we hone our arrangements and new music so critical to our existence and we rarely ever go longer than six weeks or so without performing as a band.”
2018 has already seen Lunasa perform at Paris Celtic Live and at Festival de Corbeyrier near Geneva and they will return to l‘Hexagon to headline at Festival Les Traversées Tatihou on 13th August. They return to Paris’s Pan Piper on Friday 7th Sept and then travel to the prestigious Folk Festival de Marsinne in Belgium on Sat 8th Sept. “We love playing in France where audiences are so appreciative, possibly due to the fact that most of the great Irish bands have toured there at some point since the folk revival of the 1970’s, and there’s huge number of great Irish traditional musicians in France. Outside of Ireland, and emigrant communities in England and US, France is certainly the country with the most and best Irish musicians.”
Over the years, the Lunasa line-up has evolved and the all-star quintet comprises Cillian, Trevor, Seán Smyth (fiddle and low whistles), Kevin Crawford (flute, low whistles and tin whistles) and the group’s newest member Ed Boyd (guitar). “It hasn’t been easy to hold together a band with members based on both sides of the Atlantic, but we’re still enjoying playing the music and the band has been successful enough to keep everyone on board. We have a few very reliable subs that come in when someone can’t make a tour and that helps keep it fresh and interesting.”
So what does the future hold for this stellar Irish Trad outfit, 21 years and daily growing, “there’s plenty more to come. The new album was the first after a long break but I think the positive reaction to it is inspiring us to push on and get another recording going as soon as possible”.
LUNASA, a band renowned for their stunning shows honed by superb musicianship will perform their inimitable brand of Irish TRAD as part of Paris Celtic Live at the Pan Piper 75011 Paris on Friday 7th September.
Article by Mick Walsh © 2018 The Irish Eyes magazine by The Irish Club