“We just felt like crackpots in Carlow”

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The Carlow Ye Vagabonds Brothers Believe Music and Community Are Inseparable

Brían MacGloinn, half of Ye Vagabonds, once heard an analogy of how individual folk artifacts fit into the larger lore. “If you see a river flowing, it looks like a fixed landscape. But in fact, it’s still moving. It always changes shape. And if you were to take a spoonful out of it at some point, you can tell what’s in it right now, but it’s not the river. It’s just a bit of that.

Ye Vagabonds, the MacGloinn brothers from Carlow with roots in Arranmore, Donegal, are set to release their stunning third album, Nine Waves. It’s their little stretch of river. They talk to me via Zoom, Brían from Wicklow and Diarmuid from Stoneybatter in Dublin. Nowadays, they are rooted in folk tradition. As teenagers, they were more into rock music until they found themselves from Led Zeppelin to Bert Jansch to Sweeney’s Men. Why do they think so many Irish people follow such a complicated path to trade? “I think the Irish weren’t so proud to be Irish for a while and maybe they tried to reject a certain type of Irish identity,” says Brían.

“The pub singing belonged to the GAA clubs. . . and followers of Ra,” says Diarmuid. “It was linked to nationalism. . . We didn’t hate it, but it just didn’t seem interesting to us. Our parents’ musical tastes ranged from Cat Stevens to Mary Black and Planxty and a bit to Simon & Garfunkel. . . and they were in folk clubs. But it was our parents’ music. . . When you’re a teenager, you want to find your own thing.

The MacGloinns didn’t start singing together until Brían was 16 and Diarmuid was 19. “Someone asked us to sing something and we sang in harmony together, just the two of us, for the first time” , explains Diarmuid. “We realized it was easy and enjoyable and our voices blended well.” They started playing together. “Anything we could pick up quickly was simple and had great harmonies and we could play with a guitar and a fiddle or a mandolin.”

When we walked into the night before Larry stretched, it was really exciting to hear this high quality, beautifully embellished vocals from young…

A strong traditional folk scene was developing at this time – other bands such as Lankum and Lisa O’Neill – but the MacGloinns were initially unaware of this. “I think the first time we went to a singing session was the night before Larry stretched. [music session] in the Cobblestone and it was one of the first times we saw how many of these people there were,” says Brían. “We just felt like crackpots in Carlow.”

Diarmuid laughs. “We’ve definitely had people come to Carlow asking us ‘Why don’t you play Sex on Fire [by Kings of Leon]?'” he says. “When we walked into the night before Larry stretched, it was really exciting to hear that high quality, beautifully embellished vocals from the youngsters . . . And a little bit terrifying too, because that suddenly we weren’t the only folkloric young people anymore.

Why do you think young people found something in this music? “John Francis Flynn and Lankum and the Skipper’s Alley guys, we would all be out of school at a time when it wasn’t possible to find a job,” says Brían. “It was the peak of the recession. I think that was part of it. We were all hanging out together and making this music. . . It was really something we did together in dark, smoky kitchens late at night. . . It’s easy music to share in those scenarios.

Old folk songs are often about the poor, marginalized and exiled, but traditional music is also part of official culture in Ireland. The MacGloinns are aware of the tension between the two things, especially in the fact that artists who used to sell Ireland cannot always afford to live here. “The official culture thing, you really want to avoid some of this stuff because you can get trapped in a Bord Fáilte ad,” Diarmuid says. “We did things for Michael D [they played his second inauguration] because Michael D is really solid when it comes to politicians. If you’re an artist, there’s no reason not to like it. He’s a good boy.

Diarmuid and Brian MacGloinn from Ye Vagabonds

“There’s this huge international greening project going on,” says Brían. “It’s the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That’s what they’re talking about. But it ghettoizes the music and limits how people hear it. . . In the United States and Europe, people don’t really hear music the same way. Even the songs that we write, they’ll define themselves as being kind of rooted in tradition, like they could have been written 200 years ago, which I don’t necessarily hear them that way.

Vagabonds are not purists. For Nine Waves, they worked with Crash Ensemble string players Kate Ellis and Caimin Gilmore and noise rock producer John “Spud” Murphy (who also produced Lankum) to create eerie soundscapes to which their playing adapts. more traditional. “To bring in other sounds from other worlds, it opens people’s ears,” says Brían.

The three original songs they recorded, An Island, Blue is the Eye and Go Away and Come Back Hither, are considered the emotional centerpiece of the record. “Blue is the Eye started out as a lullaby,” says Brían. “The images were all taken from a set of memories of an old friend of mine who died during the second lockdown. He was 88 or 89 when he died… I spent a lot of time with Andrew talking to him about [renowned Arranmore singer] Róise Rua, telling him about other songs from the island. . . He had an excellent memory and was an amazing storyteller and a hilarious character, brilliant at getting people hooked. . . He was the link to an older generation on the island that I wanted to know more about.

Much of Ye Vagabonds’ repertoire comes from archival research. Before Covid, they spent a day a week in the Irish Traditional Music Archive using the helpful archivists there as “an algorithm” directing them to interesting things. Diarmuid gives an example of a song on Nine Waves called Her Mantle So Green that he learned from a singer called Jim O’Neill. “I left and slightly modified the melody. . . I felt like the lyrics were incomplete. . . part of the story was not particularly told. So I went looking for other versions of the song.

There was no radio or television and no recorded music was available in rural Ireland and if you had a song it was an extremely valuable thing.

Were there other versions? “Loads. There was PW Joyce’s manuscript. There were various other manuscripts, some from newspapers. They used to print ballads in newspapers. Then there were two friends of ours who had versions that had their own unique quirks, great vocalists: Micheál Quinn and Andreas Schultz, I kind of pulled all those sources together and made a few little tweaks myself.

There’s a puzzle-solving element to these quests, he says. “Sometimes you’ll have a song that will grab your attention because there’s something dark and weird in it that doesn’t make sense. And then it can be really satisfying when you’re looking for versions and finding a verse that reveals the meaning of the whole song.

Since the 1960s, it’s been a truism among rock fans that there’s something inauthentic about someone singing songs they didn’t write. But for singers in the folk tradition, there is power in singing something that has been shaped by centuries of singing. “It’s like a diamond, every facet has been polished by the next generation,” says Diarmuid. “Academics interested in folk songs are particularly interested in finding the original version. . . But there are a number of songs where the original was [a song] no one sings anymore, but there’s a newer version that, because of the singers who took it over and made it their own thing, looks better.

You wanderers

Being able to collect and memorize songs was once a culturally important skill, says Brían. “There’s a guy in Arranmore called Johnny Duffy. He’s my other 89-year-old friend. Johnny used to say that when he was younger, people didn’t have music. There was no radio or television and no recorded music was available in rural Ireland and if you had a song it was an extremely valuable thing. He had such social capital.

“People would go on a trip to love the nearby town if they heard someone had a new song they had never heard,” says Diarmuid. “People were really going for the songs because they were so valuable.”

Growing up in Carlow town, crossing Carlow on the houseboat was like this heroic journey

For Ye Vagabonds, music is connected to the community, whether it is an island community or a community of pub singers or a community of avant-garde musicians making a folk record or the community that forms between the performers and the public. Last year they cruised the waterways of Ireland in a houseboat, playing gigs on the banks along the way. “Growing up in the town of Carlow, crossing Carlow on the houseboat was like this heroic journey,” says Diarmuid. “And, in fact, we performed feats of heroism, various rescues.”

Seriously? “We got a call from one of the lock keepers at one point and they said, ‘Guys we need you in Carlow as soon as possible, there’s another boat after we got stuck under the Carlow Bridge,” says Brían. “It was like Batman got the call but was going four miles an hour.”

Ye Wanderers:

You wanderers

“The first string actually broke,” says Diarmuid. “We attached the second rope and then raced full speed towards the weir, which is the last place you want to go in your barge and just at the last minute their boat broke free. . . and we had to turn the barge around as fast as we could.

Did any of you play an exciting soundtrack? “High-speed banjo music,” says Diarmuid.

In keeping with their general ethos, they stayed in touch with many people they met along the way. Are many barge people folk musicians? “There’s a Venn diagram somewhere,” says Diarmuid. “But maybe it’s just us at the center.”

Nine Waves by Ye Vagabonds is released by River Lea/Rough Trade on May 13

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