Canada-based Dublin singer Jane Irish Theresa Monica Bernadette Mythen – aka Irish Mythen – talks to Michael McDonagh
Irish Mythen is a Dublin-born Canadian contemporary folk singer-songwriter who has performed with Gordon Lightfoot, Rod Stewart and many others and at major festivals around the world, including the recent Cambridge Folk Festival and will be appearing at the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith.
Her third album, Irish Mythen, won the East Coast Music Association 2015 Roots Album of the Year. She has been described as “rambunctious and thoughtful, tender and loud” by North American reviewers.
She spoke to the Irish World’s Michael McDonagh about globetrotting, living on Prince Edward Island (the home of Anne of Green Gables) being compared to K D Lang and how she is so proud of how her home town has become a modern, tolerant European city.
You were born Jane Irish Theresa Monica Bernadette Mythen in County Wexford and went to school in Dublin then went to live in Canada, when was that?
“Ha, yes, that’s me, Jane Irish Theresa Monica Bernadette Mythen, which is a bit of mouthful, so I shortened it and work as ‘Irish Mythen’ and yes I went to St Columba’s College in Rathfarnam, a seven-day boarding school.
“But when I was getting into music, I went travelling by myself and went to Sweden to do my music and lived in Gothenburg for a while and Sweden was such a great place to be playing music and to get around Europe. Then I went to Australia for a while and lived there for four and half years and then Canada.”
You have travelled a lot, your very first gig was at the Al Ain Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi. How did that come about?
“Well my dad worked for Aer Lingus as an engineer, so we moved around a lot. When I was six or seven I was in Trinidad and when I was fifteen we were in the Middle East and then I went travelling myself.
“And yes, it was the Ally Pally (the Al Ain Palace Hotel). Basically, we moved out to the middle East in Abu Dhabi and dad was working with Gulf Air there and I hated it. I hated being taken from free Ireland, where I could do anything I wanted, to be there which was so restricting.
“My parents were at their wits’ end so gave me a guitar and said get your teenage anger out on that. I did not know I could sing and I taught myself how to play and then I started writing and the minute I started writing then the floodgates burst.
“I started playing and singing then my mum and dad thought I was fairly alright at it and my dad made some enquiries and he found out that there was a folk night at the Al Ain Palace Hotel. So off I went to the Ally Pally, with my parents, as I was only 15. That was my first gig and the minute I got up on stage it was like electric. For me it was just incredible.”
Was it your parents’ music collection, The Clancy Brothers, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the like, that influenced you?
“No that music had always been in me and through me but it was not until much later that I realised the art of songwriting, the art, or the tradition of, setting the listener up and then bringing them on a journey and that’s something that I could definitely fall back on, the Irish tradition but I did not have any training at that stage and did not know I could sing.”
You went to the original rock music college in Ballyfermot. So many up and coming young musicians that we’ve interviewed recently went there and they all say who have how good it was for their careers. Was it good for you?
“Oh, it was a great experience for me and it was the way they set us up. Why it was so innovative is that it did not care about theory and it didn’t care about jazz or blues or folk or any one particular genre as it basically set us up to be good touring musicians. It taught us a lot about how not to get tripped up by contracts and stuff and always to seek out good management and good agents and stuff and that was invaluable.
“It was invaluable and still is invaluable and they were a different type of course, so Ballyfermot is great for musicians like me starting out.”
In the 1960s and ‘70s I spent loads of time hanging out in Yorkville in Toronto, where there were great coffee house gigs, where so many great musicians would play. Do you see yourself as Irish or Canadian as you are following a great tradition of Canadian coffee house singer songwriters?
“That’s a really interesting question because I feel I am born and bred in Ireland and I carry that very much with me and all that is very dear to my heart but then I feel that I’ve represented Canada in the peak of my career so far, so I like to call myself CanIrish.”
“That coffee house scene was tremendous and it rivalled Greenwich Village in New York with the great Canadian songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Buffy St Marie and Gordon Lightfoot.
Gordon Lightfoot was over here for the first time in 30 year to play the Royal Albert Hall in 2016 and talked to the Irish World. How is he?
“I did a show with Gordon, he is good, but he is not a twenty-year-old anymore and the voice is not what it was, but he is still an incredible force and the songs are amazing, such works of art. I mean all his songs are works of art and you could study each and every one of them, a marvellous fella, marvellous.”
You have done the Mariposa Folk Festival more than once. I used to love Mariposa back in the sixties and knew Estelle Klein who ran it. Back then it was held on Toronto Island and always reminded me of Cambridge. Did you enjoy being there?
‘Oh, I love it and it was a great honour to be asked back and you are right it is similar to Cambridge with such a friendly atmosphere and in this heat today it feels like a Toronto summer. It is now back in Orillia where it started more than 50 years ago”.
In 1968 when Muddy Waters played there he turned up his amps loud to mask the horns of the ferry and as a result many people missed the last x-crossing and were stuck there all night. He played a great set though, so everybody enjoyed themselves.
“Ha ha, that would be Muddy alright, that’s great and it still is a great Festival.”
You worked with The Pogues?
“Oh, that was a good while back when I was in Sweden. I did one show with The Pogues but the next day Shane slipped on the pavement and broke his hip, so the tour was off and that was it.”
You shared a glass of wine with Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones?
“Ha ha. Yes, I had a bit of a problem with my voice and had to rest it for a while and I had never done anything else and I did not know what to do so I blagged my way into a wine shop in London and got a job selling wine. I didn’t know it but at the time Ronnie Wood and his then wife, Jo, had opened The Harrington Club and the guys I worked for supplied the wines.
“We would go out there a lot but then we would get phone calls at all times of the night asking for a few more cases of a particular wine and I’d have to say ‘No Ronnie it does not work like that we have to physically go over to the Château in France and to the vineyard to get that wine. We don’t just have a few bottles here,’ and he never quite got that.
“He would just say ‘Right, bring it over now,’ but Jo was very nice, and we got on well with both of them. He is a great bloke and a good artist too, not just a musician.”
He is big into Irish music and is friends with Irish fiddler Frankie Gavin. How did you come to be living in such a remote part of Canada?
“Yes, Prince Edward’s Island is where I am. My career started to go steadily upwards very quickly and some International Awards came, and I had to think about what was going to be good for my ‘self ’ and living in a sort of out of the way place suited me best.
“I’d lived in Halifax and I’d lived in British Columbia (BC) for a bit and I had toured Prince Edward Island a few times and had done a concert at the Confederation Centre – and I just fell right in love with it. Like it was this mini Ireland that is beautiful.
“They have an airport there, so I can get to anywhere easily. My time is very precious when I am off the road and I wanted to be somewhere where I could completely relax.
“I usually tour about ten months a year and do it in blocks, so I’ll do a European block or a North American block.”
“This is really the first time I am making a big effort here in the UK and Ireland and my saving grace is going to international showcases, as I am too long in the tooth to be going back now to small pubs and clubs and from these showcases I get booked for festivals and stuff.
“There is this contention that says to sell out an Irish festival you need to wheel out all the old established names that have been around for years – but you don’t. There are now lots of new Irish names coming up like Daoiri Farrell, who is playing here at Cambridge, who is great, and then there’s Imelda May, who was here last year. She is outstanding, and I love it, just love what she is doing now.
“Cambridge is a great Festival and if you look down through the years you can see that this festival has always had gender parity, which was unusual and fantastic and is not the case with other festivals that you look at.”
Do you get cross when you are compared to K D Lang, which seems to happen often?
“Aaah, no, it does not drive me mad. Usually, if it happens, I get it pre show but I never get it post show, which is good for me as, by then, people have obviously seen me and liked me for my own thing.
“Anyway, being compared to a great artiste like that is never a bad thing but there is the short hair and the lesbian issue and that kind of thing that they sometimes compare.
“But at the end of the day, I don’t mind if they are listening to the music and form their own opinion afterwards, rather than one before from seeing a picture of me.
“Of course, Ireland is a completely different country now from even when I was growing up. You mentioned that black and white Rocky Road to Dublin film in 1968 and every fella wore a suit, and all the women had their hair the same way. Ireland needed to change.
“Joining the European Union and the auld Maastricht Treaty really pulled Ireland by the bootstraps and the stranglehold of the Church has gone. We got the abortion vote and I am so happy for Ireland and the way it has happened, and it had to change, and the same sex marriage vote too.
“It was not just about people in love who wanted to get married it was about civil liberties and about telling the Church we’ll come to you if we need you but get out of our bedrooms. Dublin is a true European City now.”
• The charismatic Irish Mythen will be at the Irish Cultural Centre (ICC) on Sunday 16 September for her premiere appearance in London. She’s great, don’t miss her.
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