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A voice for good

Éabha McMahon, formerly of Celtic Woman, told David Hennessy about her new album, her new moniker Ava and how charity campaigner Christina Noble inspired her to pursue music.

Éabha McMahon from Dublin has toured the world and performed for world leaders with the Grammy-nominated Celtic Woman and before that the world-renowned choral ensemble Anúna.

Éabha joined Celtic Woman in 2015, replacing Lisa Lambe. In her time with the world famous collective, she recorded five albums and performed sell out concerts in 20 countries across 6 continents. The group were also number one on both Billboard’s World Music Chart and Classical Chart and received a Grammy nomination.

Now Éabha is going it alone. It was early last year that she announced she was leaving the all-female collective to pursue a solo career. When the pandemic hit, she spent the year writing and recording her debut album.

Released under the name Ava, Wildflower reflects on prescient themes like family, loss, missing loved ones, equality and the environment.

Éabha told The Irish World: “I decided that 2020 was going to be the year of writing my solo album.
“That was always my plan, to actually step away from the tour.

“Then the pandemic struck and I kind of just got my head down and decided, ‘Okay, I’m going to really make the most of this time to get the best writing out of me’.

“We were living in the west of Ireland, Galway, for the year. My husband is from there. And I just wrote every single day, took big, long walks and really just dedicated the time to making this album.

“Obviously when I was living in Galway, my family were in Dublin so there were about four or five months where we didn’t see each other and I had been away for many years and the whole reason for coming home was to see family.

“But I would meeting random strangers on my walks every day and talk to them and their experience with loss and love and finding connection again through times of loneliness.

“Every single cloud has a silver lining and obviously there’s been so much devastation this year but a lot of people have reconnected with loved ones or found time for themselves again this year.”

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The title track of the album comes from how Éabha’s grandmother would show her dried flowers that were delicately kept between two sheets of paper in an old book telling her the flowers represented the passing of time, the beauty of nature and the love between mother and daughter.

“Wildflower is about my grandmother. We’re best mates always.

“When we were younger, I suppose her way of saying ‘I love you’ to me was to pick wildflowers together, dry them out and collect them in a book. It was a tradition that came from her mother.

“We(Irish)’re not great at expressing ourselves sometimes and saying the words, ‘I love you’ so that was her mother’s way of telling her, ‘You’re my most precious thing and I am yours’.

“And when her mother passed away, she found all of these books she didn’t realise her mother was collecting for her for years without her knowing. Every book she would go through throughout the years would be a reminder of her mum. It’s just something I thought was so beautiful, that story.

“I think every song tells a massive story but this one is a reminder of family, tradition, our way of showing each other how we feel.

“This year we had a tough old winter and at one point I remember thinking, ‘God, this is really hard on people. We’re all stuck inside, people are alone, it’s raining, it’s grey outside’.

“I wrote a song called Wildflower to remind people that they’re the first signs of spring. You know when you see that first bluebell appearing that better days are coming. You know that brighter days are on the horizon.”

The song Call My Name was inspired by Éabha’s parents and her father in particular.

“They’re both my biggest rocks. My family are so important to me. There’s a song dedicated to nearly everybody but Call My Name is for my dad. He’s one of those dads. Growing up there was never a time when I would pick up the phone and he wouldn’t answer. He’s always there. There’s no judgement. I could tell him anything, the same with my mum. I’m very lucky with that. They’re my friends as well as my parents.”

Loud is Éabha’s call to action for the environment. She wrote the lyrics in Australia when the country was struggling with bush fires. It broke her heart to see the country burning in front of her and it inspired her to write a song that might urge people to take care of the world that we live in.

“It was a holiday that we had planned our whole lives. My whole family had said, ‘One day we’ll go to Australia together’. So we actually did it. We went and there were these horrific bushfires, you probably remember, but they couldn’t get control over them.

“When we arrived the sky was a yellowy colour. It wasn’t the normal colour at all and you could smell smoke.

“I remember being really shocked that it wasn’t all over the news. I was asking my friends at home, ‘Have you heard about this?’ They were like, ‘Not really. they kind of mentioned it last week’.

“But the place was on fire and it wasn’t stopping. It highlighted to me how much I haven’t been thinking about the environment enough.

“Loud is all about Mother Nature screaming, shouting at us to listen and the only way we’ll listen is by damaging things that we have.

“It was alarming to see and not see it being talked about in the media. It was like, ‘This is such a big deal, why is the world screaming and shouting?’

“I couldn’t understand why people were just going about normal life when this whole place was on fire.

“Heartbeats is all about humanity and the opening line of the chorus is, ‘We are just heartbeats of time’.

“That’s all, there’s nothing that differentiates us. We are heartbeats of a time and the fact that anybody could live in a world where they might agree with or stand for racism: I just can’t understand. My words are always trying to promote unity and compassion and I suppose universal love for each other as human beings.

“You never want to be preachy about it but it’s so important to say we’re all just human beings, be kind to each other.

“This year I’ve noticed kindness and compassion in people. It’s nearly like for the first time in ages we’ve all had to slow down and really think about what’s important.

“What really has gotten us through this year is community and compassion for each other and human connection. Things don’t really matter at all. When it comes to something like a pandemic, it’s keeping your family and your friends safe and being kind to your neighbours.”

A native Irish speaker, Éabha McMahon includes a song as Gaeilge but in addition to Seas Suas the language also features on other tracks in backing tracks.

“My mum is really, really passionate about the Irish language so we went to the Gaelscoil. We did our primary school and pretty much all our extra-curricular through Irish.

“We spoke Irish at home and then I went on to do my degree in Irish as well.

“It’s definitely a huge part of me and I feel passionate about keeping the language alive but also introducing new people to it and finding ways to do that through music, maybe allowing it to be a little bit more accessible.

“The one fully Irish language song is Seas Suas. It’s a lullaby for those who are far away. I wrote that poem years ago when I was actually away but I felt this year was really appropriate to put it to music.

“The backing vocals in some of the other songs have the Irish language in them. My idea behind that was to merge traditional music with more contemporary music and world music and to breathe new life into certain styles that you might find only in certain parts of Ireland and to bring those to the world stage.”

Éabha began her singing career at the age of 9 when she was chosen by Veritas to record an album for Beo go Deo, a children’s book.

She then began singing in the sean nós style even being taught by Moya Brennan of Clannad.

Celtic Woman days

From an early age, Éabha was a regular competitor at Ireland’s Fleadh and was crowned the Leinster champion four times. She was also a runner-up in the All Ireland Fleadh. At age fifteen, she won the under-18, Oireachtais na héireann final.

At age sixteen she was invited to join Anúna, the acclaimed Irish choral group. who first came to world attention as part of the original Riverdance show and whose illustrious past members also include Hozier, Eurovision winner Eimear Quinn, Julie Feeney and other Celtic Women like Orla Fallon, Lynn Hilary, Deirdre Shannon, Méav and Tara McNeill.

Éabha became a prominent soloist during her time with Anúna.

“Where I learned so, so much was Anúna. I joined it so young. I had only just turned 16 on my first tour, my first PBS special my dad actually had to come over because I was too young to tour. I was surrounded by adults all the time and just to be around so many incredible singers from all over the world not just Irish and most of them being trained at university level, that was really remarkable. I think that’s where I learned a lot of my craft. I was just in third year of school or something.

“Music is something that is so natural to us and I think a lot of the time when you get into touring, you can forget that very easily. You can get bogged down in the technique side of things and bogged down in our ego and stuff like that but I always think back to Anúna and just the feeling of singing. I always go to that place now whenever I start to sing and it keeps me really grounded and it keeps me really connected with the audience as well.”

However, while she always knew music was important to her it was another career that she had in mind for herself altogether.

Éabha completed a Human Rights Degree at NUI Galway and spent time in Vietnam and Mongolia working with the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation, an organisation that she is still works with to this day.

Christina Noble from Dublin created the foundation to care for homeless children in Vietnam and Mongolia.

“That was very much where I thought my life was headed career-wise. I was always writing music on the side and singing but my career and my mind was, ‘I’m going to work with people’.

“I was working with women and children. That was my passion.

“Then I remember being in Mongolia. We were actually in a shop that sold kettles which was kind of random. I was with Christina. She said, ‘Sing me a song, Abbie’. She calls me Abbie.

“I was like, ‘No, we’re in a kettle shop. I’m not singing a song’.

Christina Noble

“And she was like, ‘Go on, sing a song’. And she started singing, ‘By a lonely prison wall…’ So I started singing with her and people were looking at us going, ‘What are they doing?’ And the next thing she stopped and I kept going and at the end she took my hand and she said, ‘You have to go off and do the music because you’ll say so much with your voice, you will say so much more with your singing voice’.

“So that was really a great inspiration to me to knuckle down and go for the music and I was very lucky to have a lot of people like Christina around me that were really inspirational.

“Christina will still call me to say, ‘Hey Abbie, send me on the latest single or the latest song’. Any time we go anywhere it’s like, ‘Come on Éabha, sing a song. I still work with the Christina Noble Children’s Founation whenever I can.

“They’re absolutely remarkable. I was only 21 when I went to Vietnam. I was meant to go for three months and I just didn’t get on the flight to come home. My mother was like, ‘Get home’. But I stayed on. I was so in love with the place. I actually could see myself living there and I met so many fabulous people in the foundation and all the kids were just remarkable young people.

“Because I’m still involved with the foundation, I’ve seen so many of those kids I was volunteering with going on to university. Just the last day I was on my instagram and one of them said to me, ‘I’ve just finished my degree in environmental science’. It’s amazing to see the work that Christina does and to see it followed through. All these kids are now living really amazing lives.

“Living in Vietnam, I actually think I learned about who I am. That person is still in me and that’s the person that I never want to forget.

“Just seeing the amazing work that they do and where every single cent goes, I’m so proud that that’s part of my life. It’s equally as important to me as the music and I really try with all of my songs to send that message of equality and of hope and unity out there. I hope that some day I’ll get to sing them live and someone might hear and be inspired to go and help a charity, even that I might be singing to somebody in an auditorium that doesn’t believe in equality and might hear in my song might slightly think differently. That’s my hope. That I can use my voice for good.

“Being surrounded by Anúna, I saw that music was a possibility as a career- a scary one because you’re not guaranteed anything with music. You’re not guaranteed a stable career but I suppose as I got older the inspiration just took over and I decided to go for it. I’m glad I did.”

Éabha in her time with Cetlic Woman.

Was it sad to leave Celtic Woman after her years in the group? “Of course. I have made friends for life in Celtic Woman. Mairead Carlin was one of my bridesmaids and I speak to everybody still all the time. Your tour family will always be like a second family.

“I had such a great time. It was such a great experience and I learned so much but I knew in 2019 this wave of creativity was coming over me and I was like, ‘This is it’. That was the plan but obviously the plan was not for the pandemic to happen, but nobody planned that.”

Éabha has decided to go with the easier phonetic spelling of her name as a stage name but is keen to add she is not relinquishing her name.

“My name is Éabha and that will always be my name but after years of touring and stuff, I just notice it seems to be so hard in different places when you’re going all over the world to pronounce it.

“What I have now is Ava as my stage name and then in faint writing you’ll still see my Irish name behind it.”
Has the name’s pronounciation always been hard for people? “Even in school, it’s always been, ‘Is it Abba? Is it Eabba?’

“But I do love my name and I’m honestly so passonate about Irish names because I think they’re really, really beautiful.”

The album Wildflower is out now.

For more information, click here.

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