There was a time when Irish singers steeped in their country’s musical and folk heritage were all over the airwaves, but in recent times we’ve heard less from the other side of the Irish Sea. With Villagers receiving a Mercury nomination this year and now a new album release from Heidi Talbot, the Irish singers look to be back with a bang. Talbot was raised on Irish folk music before moving to America, where she served an apprenticeship with Irish all-girl folk legends Cherish the Ladies. Since leaving the band and relocating to Edinburgh with collaborator and partner John McCusker, Talbot has gone from strength to strength. With new album “The Last Star” Talbot looks set to take her lilting Celtic music to a wider audience, so we ventured some questions in the direction of the bewitching songstress.
Your background is varied; you were raised in Ireland, you cut your teeth in America and you now live in Scotland. Which element would you say was the most important in your development as an artist?
One of the things I’ve learned is that you never stop learning. Growing up in Ireland with traditional music played around the house was the start of my love for singing. Then going to America and joining Cherish The Ladies was the best learning experience you could wish for and moving to Scotland has been amazing for meeting loads of fantastic musicians and singers and to getting to collaborate with lots of them….even if I can’t always understand what they’re saying! I’m only 30 and feel like I’ve already had lots of brilliant musical experiences but at the same time hopefully this is the beginning of something exciting.
Tell us a little about the new album and how it varies from your solo breakthrough “In Love and Light”?
I started recording last November while pregnant with our daughter Molly Mae and as the record progressed my belly got bigger! With John producing, we started off in the studio with a core band of Ian Carr, Boo Hewerdine, Ewen Vernal and Kris Drever. The basic tracks were recorded in four days. Then it was the singers’ turn and Karine Polwart, Eddi Reader and Kris added their vocals. Sessions with the fantastic Michael McGoldrick, Phil Cunningham, Alan Kelly and Andy Cutting followed and it wasn’t long ’til we found ourselves in Andy Seward’s studio in Yorkshire doing overdubs and starting to mix. With “In Love and Light”, we recorded it over a full year and kept going back to it in-between tours. At the time that was great as I was still with Cherish The Ladies and spending lots of my time touring the States. “The Last Star” feels more like a band record.
How was it being produced by your partner John McCusker on the new album?
We’ve worked together before on different projects like Drever, McCusker Woomble and Idlewild records, but this is the first time we’ve worked very closely together in the studio. We love playing music together and it’s really lovely to tour together with our daughter Molly Mae.
A lot of artists have recently found success from making folk music, or at least music indebted to the sounds of folk music; what do you put that explosion in popularity down to?
I grew up in Ireland listening to the Dubliners, the Chieftains and the Clancy Brothers who were all selling out the Albert Hall when I was still in nappies, so it’s nothing new. It’s just brilliant that people are getting excited about the music we all love. There’s no doubt that this is a brilliant time for folk and acoustic music though with lots of people making beautiful records.
You seem to have had more of a hand in the songwriting than ever before – how does your songwriting partnership with John work?
I started to work on the material for “The Last Star” while travelling with John around America and Europe on the Mark Knopfler tour two years ago. John would write melodies during sound checks, bring them back to the hotel and leave them with me to write or find traditional words for. I really enjoy the process of trawling through songbooks and finding a good story or beautiful words.
What kind of music did you listen to when you were growing up? Presumably there was a strong traditional Irish element to it…? I started off listening to whatever my parents and brothers and sisters were listening to. I’m one of nine children so it was a broad mix from Luke Kelly to Dolly Parton and Guns ‘n’ Roses to Blondie! I was always drawn to the traditional and folkier stuff. I was a huge Mary Black and Dolores Keane fan and still am.
How did the Sandy Denny cover version come about and are you a big fan of hers?
Yes, I love her. I heard this song on “Like An Old Fashioned Waltz” and I’ve always it. I wanted to record it a few years back on a Cherish The Ladies album but it never happened and I’m glad because now I get to sing it every night on “The Last Star” tour.
Do you feel a strong sense of heritage in the music you make? After all you are the latest in a long line of very fine Irish female singers…
I’m very proud to be Irish and Ireland certainly has loads of fantastic singers and musicians. Growing up listening to Mary Black and Dolores Keane was and is very inspiring. Singers like Mary and Dolores set an amazing standard that not only gives you something to look up to and strive towards but the most important thing they did for me was give me my love for traditional songs.
You became a mother earlier this year. Has that changed your view of your music career or your relationship with music?
Becoming a mother has put lots of things into perspective. At the end of the day singing and playing music is fantastic and what I love to do, but really what’s important is that Molly Mae is happy and safe and if I’ve had a nice sing that night it’s a bonus.
“The Last Star” is out now on Navigator Records.