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Overnight success in ten years

Donegal two piece Without Willow told David Hennessy about their debut album, Moya Brennan putting them together, playing with big names like Mick Flannery and Declan O’ Rourke and the time Simon thought he couldn’t play in front of legendary banjo player Ron Block. 

Without Willow, the Donegal acoustic folk/singer-songwriting duo, have just released their debut album, Left Behind.

The album comes on the back of their single Lay Down Your Troubles.

The duo, made up of Karen Kelly on vocals and Simon McCafferty on guitar, launched the album with a gig at the esteemed Regional Cultural Centre Letterkenny on Friday 9 February.

Without Willow have already made waves in the music scene, opening for renowned artists such as Mick Flannery, Moya Brennan, and Declan O’Rourke.

Without Willow also performed at the Your Roots are Showing Folk conference in Dundalk in January.

How did you two start playing together?

Karen says: “We started playing together in 2014 so we’ve actually been playing together for ten years this year.

“I was playing individually and Simon was a guitar instrumentalist.

“We were down playing in Leo’s Tavern. I don’t know if you heard of it.

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“It’s well known for Moya Brennan and Clannad and all of them.

“Moya actually runs a music night called Club Beoir.

“We were both down playing at that and we both liked what the other person was doing.

“Someone suggested we might work together, and we’ve been doing that since.”

I realised you had played with Moya so she was a real catalyst in your forming…

Karen says: “Absolutely. Everything happens for a reason.

“She’s so supportive of original music and she’s been just great giving us the opportunity to do these things.”

Simon adds: “Yeah, she’s great at pushing you forward in those kinds of situations.”

The Irish World spoke to the duo the day before their album release and launch show in Letterkenny.

What are the emotions of being about to put your debut album out there?

Simon says: “I think it’s happiness and nervousness.

“Those are the two main ones but happiness over anything.”

“Show time,” Karen adds in an exaggerated showbiz tone.

“We released a four track EP in 2017 but we’ve been kind of just kind of tipping away at this album now for the last maybe two years, we wrote a lot of it in lockdown so it’s nice to finally have something to show for all the hard work.”

Your most recent single was Lay Down Your Troubles, where did that song come from?

Karen says: “We actually wrote that a couple of years ago now.

“It’s just about being there for people through tough times and just allowing yourself to be vulnerable and ask for help if you need it.

“I think it was just a nice message.

“We released it last month in January and it’s kind of a bleak time of year so I thought it was nice to have that kind of song out and give people a bit of hope.”

The album also includes the track The Heather Field that the duo released five years ago.

Karen says: “We had that on our EP back in 2017 actually, but we actually we got it remixed and remastered for the album as well.

Simon adds: “It just fitted in well with the album so it kind of made sense to kind of just bring it in there.”

Karen continues: “Yes, we love that song and it would be weird to have our album without having that song.

“It’s one of our more popular songs.”

You get described as acoustic folk and other things, how would you describe your sound? “We keep asking ourselves that,” Simon says.

Karen explains: “When we’re playing live and it’s just the two of us, it would be kind of acoustic-y folk singer songwriter, but then on the actual album itself, we have different people playing on it. We have cello and dobro and drums so it gives it that kind of slight country- ish Americana sound.

“But you have to listen to it to find out.”

Karen was qualified in nursing before she pursued music.

“I graduated in 2011 and a month later, I just applied for a music course in Derry.

“So I just started doing music straightaway.

“I was like, ‘I’ll do the sensible thing first and then go do my music.”

Was your heart never in nursing then?

“I did enjoy nursing.

“I wouldn’t rule out going back to it but music was something I always kind of wanted to do in the back of my mind.

“I kind of thought I could maybe combine the nursing with music and maybe do music therapy or something.

“You never know what might happen.”

Did you do anything before, Simon or was it always music for you?

“The course that she did in Derry doing music, I was there two years before you.

“I did my two years of that and then I just started playing music.

“It wasn’t until the lockdown hit when we kind of lost out on gigs that my partner was like, ‘You should maybe just have a backup’.

“I ended up first trying to do coding which was a terrible idea because it’s so hard.

“I lasted about a year of that and then my partner’s a graphic designer so she was like, ‘Would you try graphic design’.

“I was like, ‘Fair enough’.

“I’m actually just in my second year of it now but that’s kind of more just a backup, music is the forefront.”

Without Willow have played as far away as Canada and Germany.

How did you come to play in Canada?

Simon says: “There was a Celt festival, Almonte Celtfest.

“There was a couple that used to live over here that sent us a message asking us would we like to take part in it and then they were gonna help us out with a few gigs.

“So we were just like, ‘Yes!’

“We were over there for about 11 days kind of gigging and then kind of enjoying the sights and everything as well.

“We had an amazing time over there.

“It was wonderful.”

You have also played in Germany..

Simon says: “Yeah, we’ve been in Germany twice now.

“The first time we went over we did one night in a place called Rudolstadt, which is it’s kind of connected to Letterkenny there.

“And then the next day we were down in Frankfurt doing a festival there as well.

“And then the second time we played over Paddies weekend over there as well.”

You’ve also had great experiences of sharing stages with big names. You played with Mick Flannery..

Karen says: “Yeah, we opened for him in 2017.

“It was incredible. We’re huge fans of his so it was just a dream come true.”

Simon adds: “He was lovely to meet. Nice guy.”

You also opened for Delcan O’Rourke..

Karen says: “He was coming to the Grainan Theatre in Letterkenny.

“This is around the time we got together so I had a support slot for him in 2014 and then me and Simon had just started playing together.

“So we both played that night.

“That was our first big original gig, opening for Declan O’Rourke.

“First proper gig, we were like, ‘Woohoo’.

“Then now we opened for him again a couple of years later.”

Simon adds: “He’s so sound. Just a great person to be around.”

Karen adds: “He did say he enjoyed the music and was encouraging.”

You have also played with someone we interviewed not so long ago, Clare Island singer- songwriter Niall McCabe.

Simon says: “He’s lovely and he’s incredible as well.

“We were at a conference there in the middle of January and he was down at that as well, so we got to catch up with him which was lovely.”

You’re talking about Your Roots are Showing. Didn’t you Simon also get to play with Ron Block which was a big deal for you as fans of Alison Krauss and Union Station..

Simon says: “Yeah, that was massive.

“He came over to the table because he knows Niall.

“I think they had sat up the night before to like four in the morning drinking and jamming and then we met him the next day.

“He said to Niall did he want to play a few songs, and then he looked at me and he was like, ‘Do you play guitar?’

“And I was like, ‘Yes’.

“He’s like, ‘Do you want to?’

“And I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can play in front of you’.

“But he says, ‘Of course you can’.

“And I was like, ‘Okay’.

“So we did that then so we actually played one of Alison Krauss & Union station’s songs The Lucky One which was actually insane.”

So you were nervous but it was fine..

“Surprisingly, it was fine.

“Because I play that style a lot anyway, it kind of worked out. My hands worked.”

The album also features the late, great Ted Ponsonby, whose distinctive dobro playing leaves an indelible mark on their music.

Ted had played with big names such as Van Morrison, Frances Black, Kieran Goss, Tommy Fleming Dolores and Sean Keane, The Henry Girls, Arty McGlynn and Maura O’Connell.

Tragically, Ted Ponsonby passed away suddenly in September 2023.

Simon says: “It was absolutely wonderful to have the chance to actually have him, more of an honour than anything to have him play on our music.

“They had a night for him in Letterkenny, a big event and there was no seats left. It was literally jammed.

“It was just bands playing and telling stories and everything.

“He was definitely well known.

“We’d mentioned when we were chatting to Ron Block, he took our CD and we mentioned Ted and he was like, ‘Oh yeah’, I think they’d met and played together.

“He’s definitely well known across all those genres.”

What has it been like to see the buzz building around you with airplay on RTE and BBC as well as other outlets getting behind you?

Karen says: “Eve Blair Show on BBC Radio Ulster made us album of the week which was amazing.

“It’s a great feeling when you’ve kind of been working at something for this long.”

Simon adds: “It shows that you’re doing something right.”

Obviously you’re getting ready to launch your album but what has been your highlight of the live stuff you have done so far?

Karen asks: “What would you say, Simon? The EP launch?”

Simon says: “That was a massive one.

“That is probably one of the biggest ones.

“The last gig that we did in Canada was at a winery in the countryside and the guitar that I had brought over there was a Mexican Martin, but when it came to the heat, it just couldn’t deal with it and all the strings were buzzing.

“The owner was just like, ‘Oh, I’ve got a guitar if you want to borrow it’, and it turned out it was a Martin D28, so I got to play one of those dream guitars to play.

“And it was sold out.

“Everything was wonderful about that gig. That was lovely.”

Karen adds: “There’s been a lot but the EP launch was cool.

“Ted was playing with us and it was actually the last time my dad saw us play live because he passed away a couple of months later.”

Simon adds: “There was a wonderful vibe around as well.

“That’s the pinnacle so far.”

I get the feeling it won’t be another ten years for your next album, what’s next for you?

“Good question,” Karen says.

“We’d love to do a couple of shows around Ireland and then hopefully the UK at some point, and then get back in the studio as well.

“Hopefully it will not take us as long next time to get the album out.

“We were kind of just tipping away for the last two years just booking a day when we could.”

Simon adds: “We’re  kind of more focused this time.”

Left Behind is out now.

For more information, click here.

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