Heidi Talbot, formerly of Cherish the Ladies, talks to the Irish World’s Michael McDonagh about a singing career that has taken her from Kildare to New York, across the US, to the White House in Washington, around the world, before briefly settling in Galway, and, currently, Scotland.
One of the highlights of the 52nd Cambridge Folk Festival this summer was a solo performance by Kildare born Heidi Talbot, who is known for working with Cherish The Ladies in America or from her numerous folk awards. Described by The Sunday Times as ‘Simply Vocal Heaven’.
In her soft Irish accent she told me how she grew up in Kill, Co Kildare in the house, where the legendary Uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn once lived, with music all around. She started performing as a child singing at weddings, where he mother played the piano then in her early teens she would sing at sessions in the famous Old House Pub. On leaving school and not knowing what to do she and her brother, like so many before, decided to go to America to see what it offered.
Unknown to Heidi her mother had seen and advertisement in an Irish paper looking for a girl singer to join a wedding band in New York and had applied on behalf of her daughter. On the very day they were on the plane to the USA the American band manager contacted the mother to say there was a gig in the Bronx that night and he just loved Heidi’s voice from the tape the mother had sent.
Phoning home to say they had arrived safely their mother told them about the band audition that night and so on the day she arrived on the other side of the world she went to the gig and ended up being in the American Wedding Band for two years. This was a great experience and from there she joined the popular vocal group Cherish The Ladies touring with them around the world and even performing at the White House.
Whilst living in America Heidi missed home so eventually she left and bought a house in Corofin in Co Galway and tried commuting to New York for a year. Now she lives in Scotland with her husband and musical partner the celebrated fiddle player John McCusker, who she met in Galway. He has now impeccably produced this fifth reflective album for her.
Rooted firmly in the acoustic folk idiom the music crosses ages and musical styles from traditional folk to Americana, with a nod in the direction of ‘pop’. Heidi has a beautiful voice and is backed by an array of very talented players, who accompany the songs by her and her co-writers.
John too has Irish roots from his Irish mother, who encouraged him to play the fiddle. With a fine folk pedigree from his previous work he has a reputation for crossing musical boundaries with his repertoire and collaborations so with Heidi they all make a great team. The title of the album Here We Go 1,2,3, takes the idea of jumping off. From quiet skips to giant leaps and taking a chance as much has changed in Heidi’s life, since she moved countries got a new life and family with her husband and is now working with a new group of musicians in their own new studio.
“It’s about taking a chance. I’ve written eight out of the 10 songs on this album in some context, whether it’s the lyrics or the music – that’s the most I’ve ever contributed. And it’s quite personal. A lot has happened since my last album. We’ve built a recording studio, and started a label, and I’ve got a different band. I’ve had a second daughter. I’ve lost my mum. So, it feels like – okay, get ready to jump. We all need someone to catch us.”
“The album was written over a couple of years,” Talbot says. “I stopped touring, stopped recording, took some time after having another baby, and sorted everything out in my head a little bit.”
One of the most haunting and poignant songs on the album is Song For Rose (Will You Remember Me?) triggered by the emotional turmoil we can all identify with when one of our parents is unwell. It sensitively resonates the comforting and restorative powers of music. With the loss of a parent inspiring a song lyric there could be a danger of it being maudlin or dark and sad but Heidi has made it gently uplifting, especially as she ends it with a familiar lullaby sung by a child to reflect birth and re-birth and her deep sense of family. The child is in fact her own little girl, which makes it very special.
“I wrote that about the time when my mum was sick, and you know what’s going to happen, but you’d do anything to change it – so you make all these sorts of deals, with God or whoever you believe in, to have this not happen,” Talbot explains. “I did all my crying while I was writing it, so now I can sing it. And talk about it. That helped a lot… .and that’s my little girl singing at the end. When we played her it back she was like – I can’t hear me! Turn me up!”
One of my personal favourites on the CD is Chelsea Piers, a torch song (co-written with Duke Special and inspired by The Pogues) from a time when Heidi was not so settled when living in New York staying up late in that steamy busy city and dreaming of home. Her sense of family and home is reinforced by the album having been recorded in Talbot and McCusker’s self-built studio, housed in a converted eighteenth-century bothy next to where they live in the Scottish Borders.
“Recording the album in our own studio was amazing,” Talbot says. “You’re in your own environment, you’re comfortable, you’ve got all the time you need, and the kids can come over. It feels like everyone can be a part of it.”
Everyone, on this occasion, means Talbot (voice, ukulele) and producer Mc- Cusker (violin, cittern, whistles, harmonium) – plus Innes White (guitar, mandolin), James Lindsay (double bass), James Mckintosh (drums, percussion), Megan Henderson (piano, harmonium), Toby Shippey (trumpet), Andy Seward (banjo), Donald Shaw (harmonium, Wurlitzer, accordion), the Manchester legend Michael McGoldrick (Uilleann pipes, whistles), Toby Shaer (whistle), Adam Holmes (vocals), Louis Abbott (vocals, electric guitar), Su-a Lee (Cello) and Sorren Maclean (backing vocals, electric guitar).
A barnful, and then some. If you get a chance do catch one of Heidi’s concerts and if you like your music with a delicate acoustic feel underscoring an ‘exquisite’ Irish voice then check out Heidi Talbot.
Here ‘We Go 1,2,3 was released last week on Navigator Records.