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Banjo brothers in arms

Coleraine trad musician Damien O’Kane told David Hennessy about his new album, a collaboration with American bluegrass banjo player Ron Block, a winner of 14 Grammy Awards and member of Alison Krauss and Union Station.

They formed a formidable transatlantic banjo partnership on their 2018 album Banjophony.

This week Damien O’Kane and Ron Block return with their acclaimed second album, Banjophonics.

Damien O’Kane from Coleraine and Ron Block from California are widely regarded as two of the greatest exponents of the banjo.

O’Kane has been nominated for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Best Album for his 2015 album Areas of High Traffic.

He would follow this with 2017’s Avenging and Bright. He has performed with Flook  and also as a duo with Shona Kipling but more than anyone else with folk star Kate Rusby who he is also married to.

Ron Block is best known as a member of the bluegrass band, Alison Krauss & Union Station.

When O’Kane and Block joined forces on their first album back in 2018, it was chosen as one of The Guardian’s albums of the month.

Their new album has also been acclaimed.

Mark Radcliffe of BBC Radio 2 described Banjophonics as, ‘Banjo music like no other’.

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Folk singer Ralph McTell said he was ‘was utterly blown away by these guys’.

American bluegrass singer Ricky Skaggs said: ‘Anyone that likes Irish and American roots music will love this record’.

Referred to as ‘banjo brothers-in-arms’, Coleraine’s Damien O’Kane told The Irish World there was always going to be a second album of Irish-U.S. fusion from his duo with Ron.

Damien told The Irish World: “Ron and I were already talking about doing this one even before we had finished the last one.

“Our approaches to the instrument are so different.

“Obviously he’s bluegrass, five-string fingerstyle. I’m Irish banjo, four-string plectrum style.

“We didn’t want to just sit down and go, ‘Right, I’ll play an Irish tune, and you kind of do a bluegrass thing on it’. Or, ‘You play a bluegrass tune and I’ll try and..’

“It was really thought out, everything that we’ve done so far.

“We’ve tried to kind of mould the two different cultures together so that you can clearly hear, ‘Right, there’s Ron and there’s Damien’.

“But that they both work together.

“Somebody once made a joke to Ron, because it’s two banjos, ‘Do you do Duelling Banjos?’

“And Ron said, ‘Well, no. Actually, we prefer to do Co-operating Banjos’.

“When we did the first album, we really felt that we had achieved something that was quite different but also we felt that there was more to build on. We had only really touched the surface.

“So with the second album, Banjophonics, I think we’ve kind of pushed ourselves a little bit more.”

More experimental than its predecessor, Banjophonics aims to display  the extent of the versatility of the humble banjo.

“What’s different about this second album is we’ve pushed it sonically.

“We both have a really wide eclectic taste in music.

“Ron’s massively into blues and rock and when you listen to his playing, bending strings- It’s nearly like he’s playing electric guitar sometimes.

“I grew up mainly listening to traditional music but I used to listen to all sorts: U2, Coldplay, Oasis, all kinds of stuff.

“I think we’ve both gathered all these influences and thrown them into the mix and quite a lot of it has come out in this album, I think.

“Yes, we’re not playing big rock guitars or anything but it’s not by any means a gentle banjo album.

“When we first started working together one of our aims was to actually show people that the banjo can actually be a subtle instrument.

“It’s like that duelling banjos thing.

“You think of the banjo as a fast, frenetic, a tacky instrument.

“But it can be an incredibly subtle instrument as well.”

Although Damien and Ron’s first album arrived in 2018, they had been speaking about the project for many years before that.

“Ron and I first met way back in 2011. My wife Kate and I, we’ve always been massive fans of Alison Krauss.

“I have to admit, I think my wife prefers the five string banjo to the four string.

“And that’s something I’ve just had to come to terms with.

“Alison Krauss was playing The Manchester Apollo. We went to see it.

“Ron knew we were coming and he invited us backstage after the show to come meet him.

“So we went backstage, had a drink, had a lovely chat and we just had an instant- It sounds a little corny, somehow, but just had an instant connection with him.

“He’s just such a down to earth genuine soul. He is just completely at peace with the world and with everything around him.

“An incredible guy to be around if you’re feeling a bit stressed, actually.

“We just had an instant connection.

“Kate invited him over in 2012 to come and record with us.

“After that, Ron and I started discussing, ‘We’ve both got really different banjo styles, wouldn’t it be really interesting to make some music together?’

“So we did eventually get around to it and in 2014 we recorded a track when he was over on tour here and then we didn’t meet again until 2018.

“That’s when we started actually properly recording Banjophony.

“It’s been a really, really exciting journey.

“There’s nearly a little bit of telepathy between the both of us.

“We’re both writing tunes with the other person in mind.

“I’m writing stuff and I’m like, ‘Ron will be amazing. He will probably do this…’

“Ron’s the same. He’s writing stuff going on, ‘Damien will…’

“So there’s a real kind of camaraderie there. And it’s the same when we play live on stage, it’s never the same.”

Ron Block has won 14 Grammy Awards, 6 International Bluegrass Music Awards, a Country Music Association Award and a Gospel Music Association Dove Award.

“Yeah, he’s got 14 more Grammys than me,” Damien laughs.

“He has all those Grammys. He’s got Bluegrass awards, he has been playing with Alison Krauss since 1991 but there is not even a hint of ego.

“Ron just loves playing music. He loves people. He loves his family, a bit like myself.

“And we just get on so well. ‘Banjo Brothers in arms’, we’ve been called.”

Damien and Ron are joined on Banjophonics by a stellar supporting cast of musicians including US mandolin star Sierra Hull, Manchester- born folk star Michael McGoldrick and, of course, Damien’s wife Kate Rusby on backing vocals.

“Yeah, it was fabulous.

“I mean, Sierra Hull.

“Whenever we recorded the main body of our first album, Banjophony, Ron was over on tour in the UK with Sierra Hall, they were over touring as a duo.

“We recorded that album and most of the second album at Pure studios, our own studio in Yorkshire.

“So we were sitting upstairs in the studio, and we started rehearsing tracks on the album.

“And Sierra Hull was in the house- The house is attached to the studio.

“And I turned around at one point and said, ‘This is a bit crazy. Sierra Hull’s downstairs. Should we invite her up to have a bit of a jam with us?’

“And Ron was like, ‘Oh, I’m sure she’d love that’.

“And so Sierra actually came up, and it was incredible.”

Sierra Hull’s debut vocal album Secrets would make it to number two in the Billboard Top Bluegrass Albums chart in 2008, when she was still only 16.

She has released three more albums since, all making the top five with her last two making it to number one.

“What Sierra brought to those sessions was just off the scale good.

“She’s probably one of the best musicians I’ve ever sat near.

“She is absolutely incredible and her career is just going up and up at the minute, which is thoroughly deserved.

“We love having her on our music.

“And she thankfully said yes to this album.

“And of course Mike’s another monster musician. I’m good friends with Mike.

“Mike’s actually guesting on a few gigs with us on this tour, so that’ll be great.”

Damien and Mike have a long working relationship due to Mike being a member of Kate Rusby’s band for a time. Incidentally both were in Flook but at different times.

“Mike just always brings something extra special to the table. He is just incredible. That’s why he’s playing with Mark Knopfler.”

Damien says he has never forgiven Ron for something he just mentioned earlier. That is that his wife Kate Rusby invited Ron from America to play the banjo on her album when he- Damien, her husband- plays the banjo!

“It goes back to that thing though of what I was discussing earlier,  that thing of different banjo styles.

“The five string is just way more suited because of how you play it.

“It’s more of a rolling instrument.

“It’s fingerstyle so it’s much more suited to playing songs and especially Kate’s music, which quite a lot of the time can be quite melancholic or quite gentle, not all the time, but the five string banjo definitely lends itself better to playing with singers. That’s my excuse anyway.”

Of course Damien talks in jest.

And how could he be that sensitive? He himself turned down Kate, now his wife, the first time she looked for him to play with her.

Thankfully she asked a second time.

“That’s right. I was good friends with Kate’s brother way before I knew Kate actually.

“And Joe, her brother, contacted me around 2007 to see would I be up for playing on a Kate tour.

“I was with Flook at the time so I did say to Joe, ‘I’m actually busy, I’m doing this other thing’.

“It was a while after that actually, Kate needed a bit of banjo on a track that she was doing for a television program called Jam and Jerusalem.

“And they needed it done pretty quick- That’s probably why they didn’t ask Ron.

“So they asked me to come and record this little bit of banjo.

“So that was the first time I met Kate and we just got on really well.

“We kind of started texting each other and saying, ‘Oh, how’s it going?’

“And well one thing led to another and I started playing in her band and then we got married a couple of years after that.”

Damien and Ron set off on a 16-date gigs and festivals tour this Thursday 30 June.

An October tour of Ireland and Northern Ireland will follow.

Live performances have been missing for the last couple of years.

“It’s been quite difficult. I’m not gonna lie. It’s been difficult, touring stopped.

“Ron and I were supposed to finish this album actually back in April ‘20.

“But obviously that all got scuppered. And then musicians had to start thinking of different ways of earning an income so Ron started doing a lot more teaching.

“And of course I made an album with Kate in 2020, during the first lockdown, a covers album.

“So both of us were really busy that first year of lockdown, in 2020 and we kept saying, ‘Right, we need to finish that album’.

“And it got to 2021.

“It was like, ‘Right, we’re in January ‘21 now, shall we look at this album again?’

“So we were both kept busy throughout the whole pandemic but it just wasn’t the same because we weren’t on the road, we weren’t playing and that social interaction you get through music wasn’t there.”

Last weekend showed these times are behind us as Damien played Glastonbury with the Kate Rusby band sharing the stage with Imelda May and Orla Gartland.

“A huge part of why we love music is because you’re meeting people all the time: You’re on stage with the band, you’re having the craic so that was what I really missed throughout it all.

“We actually did a couple of live streams with Kate which were amazing and very well attended, but they were strange in that we were doing a gig at a venue and there was nobody there apart from cameramen.

“It’s been a very strange time and the other thing is unfortunately we’re in a time now where people are still quite frightened to come out and COVID’s kicking off again.

“We seem to be seeing quite a significant decrease in ticket sales. People are buying tickets late.

“So in that sense as well, it’s quite frightening because you go on tour and you’re not actually quite sure how it’s gonna do really.

“It was difficult over this last couple of years but actually what has come out of it, I believe, is a really happy album.

“It’s a very family influenced album as well.

“That’s something that we’ve touched on quite a lot doing some interviews about this album.

“Ron and I are both big family people and I thank my mam and dad regularly for giving myself and our whole family that opportunity of music when we were younger.

“Some of us took it on, some of us didn’t but thankfully I did take it on and Ron was the same.”

Indeed, the first track on the album Taxi Driver was inspired by Damien’s dad, Joe O’Kane – recognising the innumerable trips he made taking the O’Kane siblings to and from music lessons, football practice and nightclubs.

Not to be forgotten, O’Kane’s mum Colette also has a tune dedicated to her, in the Happy Sevens/Monster Rabbit set.

Damien moved to Newcastle for university in 2001 and never left England, now making his home in Yorkshire with his wife and two children.

“I used to go home a lot more when I was at uni, because I had the time.

“I still get back as much as I can.

“Most of my family are still living in Coleraine, some are in Portrush.

“It’s still very much my home. This is my second home, but I love it in Yorkshire because Yorkshire is so green.

“It’s so similar to home and the people are really similar to Irish people.

“It’s when you start going into the south of England, that’s when things change.

“London always amazes me. I mean, I’ve been to London so many times now.

“I quickly realized if you’re driving in London, you have to become a bit of a twat, it’s a completely different world.

“There’s no such thing as somebody letting you out.

“If you want to get to where you want to get to, you have to just be brutal about it because everybody else is being brutal.”

Damien says they were talking about album two before the first was even completed. Will there be more from the duo in the future? “I think they’re definitely will.

“We’ll definitely, definitely do more. There’s no doubt about that.”

Banjophonics is out 1 July.

Damien and Ron tour the UK from Thursday 30 June including a date at London’s Blackheath Halls on Sunday 3 July.

 For more information on Damien, click here.

For more information on Ron, click here.

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