London Irish fiddler James Patrick Gavin weaves music and voices to capture three generations and the sadness of emigration
By Michael J McDonagh
For generations the Holloway Road has been the home for all kinds of Irish Music from the Gresham Ballroom at one end to the Thatch at the other end at Highbury Corner. In between there were dozens of session pubs all providing a warm welcome for companionship, music song and dance, for so many who had emigrated from Ireland and were lonely in London.
Regrettably most of those music venues have now gone or have been converted for other uses but as I walked down the Holloway Road, with a sense of nostalgia, it seemed fitting that it was to be at The Lamb, a pub that still has regular traditional sessions, to meet James Patrick Gavin for the first time, to talk about his new album and concert.
The reason it seemed appropriate was that this talented Irish musician is from a new generation carrying on the tradition of those who had gone before him. James had not been forced to leave Ireland to find work, as his father and so many others had done but he was actually born in London and grew up steeped in the musical traditions of the Holloway Road, as a son of the Diaspora.
When he could easily have turned his hand to contemporary London’s pop and rock it is a credit to him and to the benefit of us all, that he has a deep respect for the music learned as a child from his heritage.
The torch has been passed on to musicians like him to make it a living tradition by re working and re-creating the music inspired by the homeland of his family.
Multi-instrumentalist James is a talented fiddle player and guitarist who explores the boundaries of traditional folk and on this atmospheric debut album, takes us back to his roots. Cleverly, he weaves together his music and spoken voices, evoking three generations of his own Irish family, as an accomplished atmospheric ode to identity.
Meeting James for the first time I asked him about his background and his relationship with the Holloway Road.
“I was born about half a mile up the road in the Whittington Hospital and grew up for half my life in the big estate opposite Waitrose in a big block of flats there, then the other half of my life I lived up the Archway Road near Highgate, so I have always been in this area.
“My father came over in the 80s from Fermanagh and my mother is from the Basque Country in Spain. My dad always played music and still plays. He plays guitar, harmonica and sings and also plays the bodhran so there was always all kinds of music around.
“My dad is probably the most frustrated musician around as he played in bands and would loved to have done more but he always had to have a proper job to put food on the table.
“He came over as a student to study in Leicester and then came down to London and was involved in opening up squats but worked on building sites to pay for his studies. He is now a solicitor but still plays music.
“There were loads of music pubs on the Holloway Road but most of them have gone now but we would go to the Mother Red Cap, and the Magnet, and the Crown further up, and later, of course, the Boogaloo.
“One of my earliest memories was being on my dad’s shoulders at the Fleadh watching and the Afro-Celt Sound System and the Popes were there so I was into Irish music from the start.
Where and when did you start play the fiddle?
“There was a community centre around the back of St Gabriel’s Church and I went to a music school the Meitheal Cheoil and the teachers were Karen Ryan and Kathy Walton. I did that from the age of twelve or thirteen and that was my formal introduction into playing Irish Music and being taught but I have been playing music since I was four or five”.
So why not Rock and Roll or Pop?
“When I was fourteen that’s what I did, playing bass in a rock band and that’s what I did at University studying guitar at the Institute of Contemporary Music in Kilburn, a small conservatoire that does jazz and other music but I’d always played Irish music and to be honest it was that that funded my studies by doing sessions”.
As an Irish fiddler you have a very famous namesake, are you any relation to Frankie Gavin of De Dannan?
“Frankie Gavin is a great fiddle player and we went to see him with my dad when he played at a club at Stamford Bridge when the Olympics were on but he is no relation.
“My main influence was an American fiddle player called Liz Carroll, who is amazing, both her parents had come over from Ireland and she plays a lot with John Doyle and there is a trio with Mike McGoldrich. I had such an eclectic musical upbringing as we would have the Dubliners and the Pogues but Jimi Hendrix and also bands like . Mike McGoldrich is an influence and I’m a big fan of Dick Gaughan too.”
This impressive album is not just a collection of songs and tunes but is more a concept album which tells a story from beginning to end with spoken word elements intercut with the music. His grandmother’s recollections from her small cottage, Standing Stone in Fermanagh, fade in and out with the songs, creating a sensitive emotional mood.
This of course is because James has clearly been inspired to create his music inspired by that rural environment back home and by the family recollections.
With James based in London he has also mixed in to good effect the sounds of birdsong recorded in Cavan Carragh in contrast to the sound of traffic on the Holloway Road, all going to make this album a musical love letter from James to his family and Ireland.
“The idea of the album is a tale of migration over three generations with it starting off at my granny’s house with my grandmother talking about her life and my grandfather and it progresses then with the leaving home and coming to London.
“They are all country bumpkins basically, with my father coming here and then the new generation like me, born here. It’s a new generation that is completely different that grow up as London Irish in a kind of cultural purgatory with questions over their identity.
“You have an identity crisis as when you go over to Ireland to visit the family – you are not actually Irish but here in London amongst the Irish community you are sort of half Irish and half London because we grow up without an Irish accent.
“There is an historical amnesia as we do bridge two worlds and that is the theme I am trying to explore on this album. It’s is a story that needs to be told.
“The story of the Irish over here and born over here with roots back in Ireland ”
How did you come to make it and when did you decided to use narration?
“The whole album took two or three years, my dad kept on at me to make an album but I kept saying it will come it will come and I was making demos in my shed at home and it kind of organically came together.
“I was making a kind of soundscape with tunes and songs and I wanted it to be a concept album.
“I love those concept albums from the ‘70s and albums with stories and a narrative.
“My granny in Ireland got quite ill so I suppose it came from spending a lot of time with her then I started to record her surreptitiously and there were some serendipitous moments with her, which I kept on the album but I did manage to get her to sit down and do one interview.
“I could then ask her some questions but she was not very keen on that. The spoken word on it really lends itself to the story and I made it as an album that should be listened to all the way through and the book that goes with it tells the story. In a kind a way I saw it as a film in some way.
“One of my inspirations was Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks in the way that he creates an atmosphere and that was in my mind.”
How did you come to select the songs and how many are your own?
“Part of the concept was to work with people who I had worked with over about ten years or more so most of the tunes except one tune are trad and the rest is written by myself, that’s the instrumental tunes.
“Two of the songs are written by my dad, one song is traditional, The Lark in The Clear Air and one song is a cover, which is a Euan McColl song that I had first heard Jed singing but which he had never recoded.
“Basically it is all about places in the story and the narrative and when I was making all these demos we brought it all to work together.”
James will launch this debut ‘concept’ album Chewing The Fat with a special concert on his home patch at the Union Chapel in Islington on Monday 5 February. I asked him if he was going to include the spoken word evocations in the concert and maybe some visuals.
“I’m trying to work that out so I can trigger my granny’s audio from a loop station. The plan is to use back projections of some of the things I filmed at my grandmother’s house in Fermanagh but the problem is getting the balance between visuals and music and to avoid the visuals being too much of a distraction from what is happening on stage, so the audience does not end up staring at a screen all evening.
“But I am trying to set the mood so that it becomes an immersive experience.
“I’ve been working with a visual artist Colm Clarke and the way I am heading is to make it more of a special show rather than just a concert so it becomes a reflection of that family story.
“Then perhaps I’ll take it around Ireland first before touring it here. That’s what I want to do but the problem is getting ten musicians on the road with the visuals and I may have to narrow it down a bit to a skeleton crew or to try to get the funding together to do it.
“My priority now is the Union Chapel gig, which is such a special concert for me. It is such a lovely venue, the best acoustic venue and the location in Highbury is so central to the story.”
At that launch in the Union Chapel James will be accompanied by an award winning group of artistes who feature on the album, including singers J Eoin, Seamus Gavin, and Jez Hellard as well as accordionist Tommie Black-Roff, bouzouki player and bodhran player Tad Sargent, flautist Orlaith McAuliffe, piper Dominic Henderson, guitarist Adrian Lever and banjo player Hugh O’Neil.
This celebrated band of some of the UK and Ireland’s finest folk musicians is a rare opportunity to hear the music of various bands from previous decades performing with the talent and music of London Irish James Patrick Gavin at what promises to be a very special evening.
Find out more and purchase tickets at https://unionchapel.org.uk