Tradition – with a twist

Shelley Marsden catches up with quiet, gently witty fiddle master Martin Hayes, poised to release a new album as centre point of trad ‘supergroup’ The Gloaming 
 Martin Hayes, with long-time collaborator guitarist Dennis Cahill, sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird (Afro Celt Sound System), hardanger innovator Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman) create memorable, yearning melodies with a progessive style.
The fiddle master from County Clare is the musical centre of The Gloaming – the player sits centre stage at their concerts, while the ethereal voice of Iarla Ó Lionáird, whose vocals can be heard on Hotel Rwanda and Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, envelops it.
The Gloaming are charged by traditions of Irish music, but they are no nostalgia trip, nor are they willfully contemporary. As Hayes says, they are “doing what they do”, and people like it.
The album cover
Of Martin’s compadres, the furthest removed from the Celtic mix is Thomas Bartlett, a New York-based American pianist who has worked with artists like The National, Glen Hansard and Antony and the Johnsons.
Martin says picking their name (gloaming represents the time in the evening after sunset when there is still light) was the hardest part of being in the group. Making the music, which started out as a question from Iarla to Martin about ‘doing something’ together, was a doddle.
“Then I thought mmm, maybe Iarla, Dennis and myself could do something in the States. At that time I’d been hanging out and jamming with Thomas Bartlett a bit in New York, and I mentioned this great piano player to Iorla. Thomas agreed to join us, but it felt out of balance with the tune-playing a bit, and I asked Caomhin to come on board. Before you know it, there was a band.”
How Thomas and Martin met is a fascinating tale in itself. In the early 90s, Martin was touring Ireland with Steve Cooney. Thomas, who was ten at the time, was on vacation with his parents when he came to one of their gigs. He was so enamoured with Martin’s fiddle playing that he convinced his folks to follow him around the country for the rest of the tour – and their holiday.
“I’d forgotten all about it and two years later, we got a call from Vermont to see if we were playing there”, explains Martin. “We said no, but if you know someone that would put a gig on, we would. So a few emails went back and forth, we got a venue and date, and the next one said ‘I’ll have to ask my mom about that’ – and we realised we’d been booked by a 12 year old Thomas Bartlett”!
Even then, recalls Martin, who spent that weekend in the family’s home in Vermont, it was clear Thomas was a great little musician, and the pair have remained friends since.
Thomas for his part isn’t shy about praising the fiddler: “I remember the first time I heard Martin play, and there was something that happened to my body that I hadn’t experienced before, where I felt like my heart would expand and contract with the way he was playing.”
Indie-rock musician Thomas was the biggest impetus for pushing the musical boundaries, but it was also important that he had a founding in Irish music, says Hayes.
“We knew he’d be the perfect candidate for pushing things forward in a certain way. And then, what Iorla and Caoimhin both do is traditional music that moves in a contemporary direction, their styles are broad.”
As for Dennis Cahill Martin, laughing,says he “kinda came with the deal”.
Peter Gabriel has said The Gloaming “created their own genre” butMartin humbly dismisses the extravagant claim, arguing that they never had such a specific aim. In early 2011, when they found themselves sitting in a circle in a Midlands studio, they looked at each other wondering what the hell they were going to do next.

Says Martin: “We’re not thinking in terms of creating something new or abandoning something old; it’s just coming out the way it’s coming out. The idea was that everybody could be themselves, whatever that ended up being.
“It started with me messing about with a reel, then everybody became free enough to join in. No one person directs here. Everyone offers an opinion, but it has a life of its own, it moves along…The main thing is we are musically compatible, there’s a commonality of taste.”
For those that have seen these guys on stage, it’s a fluid relationship, each musician free to create on the spot. But at the beginning it must have been risky. Were they worried their experiment wouldn’t work? They booked a tour first before they were solid as a band, according to Martin.
He says: “Our first gig was at the National Concert Hall in Dublin and we’d never played a note until that concert was half sold. It could have been a nonsense, that thought did cross my mind. We managed to create expectations before we created music, so it was risky, you may be sure of it. But sometimes a bit of pressure is good for the soul.”
Haunting and emotionally charged, their self’-titled debut album is released at the end of this month. Its breakdown of form, its exposition of the fundamentals with a lick of modernity creates a refreshing but familiar sound.
Take the stripped-back fiddle on track eight, a new take on the irritatingly ubiquitous TheSailor’s Bonnet. His treatment is one he’s been using in his fiddle classes for a while, in order to show pupils the quality of each phrase and melody and how they’re connected to each other.
“It’s an old and very common tune that people including myself up to a point had become very tired of”, he says. “It was a reminder that the most common tunes often have an incredibly beautiful structure. You change something small to show how good the tune really is.”
The centerpiece, their statement of intent, is the 16-minute instrumental Open Set, a medley building up layer by layer, that allows each member in turn to shine. It’s the track which spectacularly opened their first concert two years ago (“we just laid it all out there”).
There are some live dates coming up, and as each musician has  two, three of their own projects on the go, it’s clear they are in this out of passion.
Says Martin“That’s a certainty, the only one… I can feel a lot of hunger in The Gloaming to explore more things. We’re only started, really. We’re working off a week-long rehearsal a couple of years ago. That was just the first shot – there’s more to come.”
‘The Gloaming’ (Real World Records) is out on Jan 20. The UK/Ireland tour begins on Jan 22 at Glasgow City Hall and includes London’s Union Chapel on Jan 24.

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