Steph Geremia told David Hennessy about her new album which after playing with big names like Eddi Reader, the Alan Kelly Gang, The Chieftains and Lúnasa, sees her sing on a solo album for the first time.
Well known as a flute player who has played with The Chieftains, Lúnasa and even more so with both the Alan Kelly Gang and Eddi Reader, Steph Geremia released her first solo album to feature her singing this year.
If Tomorrow is her third solo album.
Produced by renowned Scottish fiddle player John McCusker, Eddi Reader lends backing vocals to more than half of the 11 tracks.
Other contributors include Alan Kelly, Kris Drever, Phil Cunningham, Donald Shaw, Mike McGoldrick and John Doyle.
Steph launches the album at the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith this weekend.
Steph told The Irish World: “I can’t wait.
“It’s my first time performing there so I’m really looking forward to it.
“I love London.
“I think it’s one of my favourite cities.
“It’s so nice to come over and be able to take in the vibe.”
There will be a tribute to the late Shane MacGowan whose death was announced just last week as a track on Steph’s album was written for the Pogues.
“We do a version of Navigator (from Rum, Sodomy and the Lash) which is written by Phil Gaston for the Pogues.
“Of course, the Pogues recorded it first so it’s kind of a special one.
“I’m not looking forward to singing it but certainly will be singing that for Shane.
“I think it will be poignant.
“We have to honour our heroes that have inspired us for sure, and London is in mourning.
“And it’s a beautiful song.
“I love that song, Navigator.
“It’s about the navvies.
“I always think it’s like a forgotten generation of men that left and just went over and did terribly hard work and drank their wages in whiskey and maybe didn’t have families however are immortalized in the system of transport in the UK so remembered in a different way.”
And in the song too..
“And in the song, yeah.”
The album came together in a difficult time for you, didn’t it in that your partner Alan Kelly was not well. Thankfully he is back gigging again now but it looked like that might not have been the case…
“Yeah, I think when I was finalising the material, we were going through a particularly difficult time and it was coming to terms with potentially saying goodbye to somebody that you certainly weren’t expecting to have to say goodbye to.
“I think that definitely affected my final selection.
“I think a lot of the music and a lot of the sentiment is about that, it’s very personal to me.
“It’s very much about love and feelings of longing, loss, all of that.
“But I hope that the album doesn’t feel depressing or sad and I hope that it’s more uplifting.
“Even though I’ve only written one of the songs on the album, it feels very personal to me because of that.
“One of the last songs I picked was I’ll Remember How You Loved Me.
“At that point, those songs were really calling out to me to be on the album.”
Is it difficult to sing them then? Is it going back to that dark time?
“Not too much.
“You might have your days, your moments a particular song might kind of get you.
“But generally, it’s okay.
“I think it’s a good thing if you can still feel the emotion behind it when you’re performing just as long as you can hold it together.”
You’ve done so much playing with Eddi Reader and the Alan Kelly Gang.
Was singing on your own album always on the cards or something you were inspired to do more recently?
“Back in 2008 or so I released my first solo album, The Open Road but it was flute.
“I would have been better known as a flute player and then obviously working with the Gang, live shows would have always been singing and fluting, so it’s kind of a long time coming.
“Apparently it’s a bold move, I’ve already been told, to just come out with a full vocal album.
“I’m not sure why (I didn’t do it before).
“I think it’s just between everything, the Gang stuff kept me busy for a good 10 years, that sort of took my focus and I was singing and recording as a singer with that, but it took me a while.
“I think when it came around to doing my second solo album, Up She Flew in 2017, I was like, ‘I have to keep the flute players happy’.
“But at that point I said, ‘The next one is going to be singing’.
“So that was that.
“And then of course, with COVID, it sort of took a while to get it finished.
“But yeah, really exciting. It’s a new chapter.”
You’ll do more of it?
“I’m already thinking about the next one. It might be a combination now of flute and vocals, but definitely more singing for sure.
“We’re doing London on 9 December, which is amazing, and then it’ll be over at Celtic Connections in January.
“So looking forward to both of those immensely.
“The last time I was there was sort of just before COVID hit.
“It was 2019 and I had a solo show myself with my lineup and then I was also with the Eddi Reader band that year as well, but I haven’t been back since so it’s good to get back for sure.”
You have played with The Chieftains, Lunasa, Eddi Reader, etc.
How did they all come about? Which came first?
“The first one was actually The Chieftains back in 2005 or 2006 or something like that.
“I was in UL, University of Limerick, at the time doing a masters in Irish music performance and I was asked on board with a band that were sort of special guests of The Chieftains so we got to tour the US for three weeks.
“That was an incredible highlight for me because my musical hero is Matt Malloy, who of course plays with The Chieftains.
“I was probably a giggling little girl in awe for two of the three weeks but also just utterly inspired by that and inspired by him to this day.
“They say ‘don’t meet your heroes’, and I say, ‘Unless it’s Matt Molloy and then you’re fine’. He’s a gentleman.
“Paddy (Moloney) was amazing. He was just like this little ball of energy.
“He was incredible.
“Yeah, what an inspiration. Incredible, incredible man.
“They were so sweet.
“To this day whenever I meet Matt, he’ll always congratulate me on the music they were just such gentlemen and it was a really lovely environment to be in.
“Same with Eddie Reader now.
“She’s like mother hen, you know?
“So that was the first big one and that was amazing. An amazing experience to be able to stand side of stage and kind of watch him doing what he does every night is a good learning experience.
“And then after that started working with Alan Kelly and with the Alan Kelly Gang and then we started to collaborate with Eddi Reader so that all kind of has been going on the last at least 10 years with Eddi Reader.
“We kind of decided to do a one off collaboration where we brought her in as a special guest and it was just great fun. And it sort of just became a kind of a family vibe and so we’ve continued to do it for about 13 years.
“I did a short stint kind of officially in her band as well where I was asked in to actually cover all the brass parts.
“I’m not a brass player but I did it.
“I was singing backing vocals and playing saxophone and flutes and whistles and all that, and that was good fun.
“And probably the more recent one then was Lunasa and that was an amazing highlight.
“I was called in to cover for their flute player, the amazing Kevin Crawford who couldn’t travel at the time.
“That was very exciting. I had five days to learn the entire show off and it was great.
“It was a good challenge and great fun.
“That’s been amazing. It’s always been amazing just to stand on stage with her and watch her do her thing.
“She’s an incredible musician and performer.
“I did a stint where I was officially touring in her band, which was great fun.
“And then of course when I was making this album she was like, ‘I’m coming and singing on it’.
“And I was like, ‘Yep, brilliant. You can sing on whatever you want’.”
Doesn’t she sing on half the tracks on the album, if not more? “She sings on a lot.
“I just kept sending her more.
“I was like, ‘Whatever you want. Sing away’.
“She’s on about five singing beautiful harmonies and she’s really featured on two of them at least.
“Yeah, she’s amazing.
“But she kind of started as a backing vocalist so she still loves doing that as much as being the star that she obviously is.
“Yeah, she’s great.
“She was very good to me to do that for sure.”
Eddi Reader won’t join Steph at the ICC but she will have Alan Kelly, John McCusker and Aaron Jones.
“I was working on the album for a good year and COVID hit and so it meant a lot of working at home with my regular musician Aaron Jones who is also featured on the album.
“He’s always part of my touring lineup, and we were trying to throw ideas back and forth over the seas.
“It was great to be able to do that but also a slow process and then at some point I decided I needed to bring in somebody and John (McCusker) was the perfect person because he would want to bring in the same people like Ian Carr and Kris Drever and so he was the perfect fit for me.
“I thought he was going to bring to the album what it was lacking, and he did that without question.
“We ended up recording it actually in the home studio of Phil Cunningham, the amazing Scottish piano accordionist so then he ended up on a few tracks and that was an absolute thrill as well.
“I had the two best piano accordionists in the world, one from Ireland, one from Scotland, so spoiled rotten really.”
Steph has just released the track Garden Valley as a single. It follows the singles Blue is the Colour of Lonesome, Inis Díomáin and Galway’s Sweet Bay.
“It’s a Dougie MacLean song, and it’s actually one of my favourites to sing, I love the song so much. I love the melody, and it’s about the Highland Clearances where they forced people off the land in Scotland, rehoused them in cities because they realised they could make more money having sheep on the land than people.
“It’s just one of those that just feels very poignant and very relevant at the minute with everything going on in the world and people being displaced and forced out of their homes so it’s one that I do love singing.
“It’s one I think means a lot to me also from another perspective of someone that’s kind of made a lot of homes in different places and lived different places, I understand that feeling of displacement or that feeling of being somewhere and longing for somewhere else, you know?”
Tell us about your background. You were born in New York and then moved to Galway when you were young, is that right?
“Yes. Well, I first moved back to Sligo and then I’ve been down in Galway the last 16 years or so.
“It definitely feels like home but I’m sort of one of these people. I’ll sort of be a blow-in no matter where I go, but it allows you to be able to go many, many places and sort of have a lot of different places you can feel are home or connected to.
“But yes, born in New York in a very Irish/ Italian community and so I would have first started my music there.
“But really, you know, when I moved back, I’ve always been in the West, the northwest of Ireland so that would be really home base and what feels like home and musically what’s home.”
Ireland is definitely home for you but is New York also home in a way?
“No, not at all.
“There was a certain point when I found myself going back to the States, usually for work, and it would feel like a foreign place.”
The album includes Aird Uí Chuain which is in the Irish language but of course, you did not learn it in school. How did the language come to you?
“Actually back when I was doing my masters, I was singing a bit of Sean-nós or trying to and it was funny at that point.
“It wasn’t right for me because I felt like I had no connection with the language or with the lyrics as you’re singing them but when I was doing this, I literally set the challenge for myself.
“I wanted to kind of honour the language and kind of do one song in Irish, Aird Uí Chuain because the melody is just so beautiful and I love it so much.
“That helps me through it and then I sat with a friend, an Irish language speaker, and we sat together and she helped me with the pronunciation and just talked about the lyrics and just made sure I really understand what I’m singing when I’m singing it, so I still have a connection to it because that is quite an important thing for me to just feel some kind of connection with the words as you’re singing them.
“Yeah, it was a challenge.
“Actually that’s probably one of my second favourite songs to sing. I really love that one.”
Did you also do some playing with the late Séamus Begley?
“I knew Seamus.
“He was such a beautiful man and he was up here in Galway just about a year ago and we had a great night out, just up all night telling yarns and drinking whiskey and playing tunes.
“The memory popped up (on social media) where we were we’d spent the night kind of playing music and it was very sad to see it.
“He was such an incredible musician and lovely man.
“Big character, but quiet in other ways, kind of a quiet man. He wasn’t a big character in your face, he was very sweet.
“But big character in the music and what a singer. Oh my god. So beautiful.”
You have played with The Chieftains, Lunasa, Eddi Reader but does playing your own shows and music trump those experiences?
“All those are very proud moments and really amazing moments and highlights in your career.
“But I think at the end of the day, when I get to do my own stuff, that’s the highlight for me.
“When you get really, really wonderful gigs with good audiences, I think those are the highlight probably one of my own personal highlights was my gig at Celtic Connections last time I was there, it was just magic.”
Steph Geremia launches her album If Tomorrow at The Irish Cultural Centre on Saturday 9 December. She will be joined by John McCusker, Alan Kelly and Aaron Jones.
For tickets, click here.
The album is out now.
The single Garden Valley is out now.
For more information, click here.