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‘An ode to my mother’

Pauline Scanlon spoke to David Hennessy ahead of her gig at The Irish Cultural Centre this Saturday. She spoke about her latest album that contemplates issues like forced adoption, sexual abuse and gender disparity.

Kerry singer-songwriter Pauline Scanlon plays The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith this weekend.

The Irish Times have described Pauline’s voice as ‘a superb mix of china cup fragility and steely strength’.

She has built a traditional following but added enough contemporary style to attract a broader audience since her debut album Red Colour Sun in 2004.

She has also been known for being one half of Lumiere with fellow West Kerry singer, Éilís Kennedy

A singer with Sharon Shannon’s band for three years, Scanlon has also been well known as one half of celebrated singing duo Lumiere with Éilís Kennedy.

Lumiere would play London’s Barbican Theatre and New York’s Carnegie Hall.

She has also sung with Sinead O’Connor and frequently collaborated with John Spillane.

Pauline will be performing songs from her latest album, The Unquiet, which was released in April.

Produced by John Reynolds and featuring Damien Dempsey as a guest vocalist, The Unquiet deals with themes of female struggle, pain and empowerment.

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She describes it as an ode to her mother, Eileen who passed away ten years ago.

Pauline wanted to tell her mother’s story.

The album title comes from the song The Unquiet Grave, which features Dempsey.

She also wanted to sing about modern women and their lives through the medium of traditional song.

Pauline told The Irish World: “That’s why I made the album.

“I suppose I’ve been quite active in the women in music thing in terms of gender balance with an organization that I’m involved with called FairPlé here that work for things to be fair and equal in terms of dignity and respect in the arts.

“I suppose I felt that I really wanted to make a piece of work that was some way linked to that, but was also very personally linked to me, and then by proxy to the broader biosphere of women in Ireland.

“So what I did was look at the life of my late mother, Eileen.

“I broke her life down into ten themes or phases, experiences.

“And then I picked the traditional Irish song to correspond with each one.”

The songs discuss issues such as adoption, secrecy, abuse, and inter-generational shame as Pauline brings agency and meaning to the traditional songs symbolic of Eileen’s life.

“The songs are telling a story and making a point.

“I’ve been singing traditional songs all my life, but I suppose in many ways I kind of have struggled- I’ve managed to link them to my own life but not necessarily the society I live in.

“I felt it was really important for me to be able to have a body of work that I felt represented modern era women, from my perspective, and from my experiences.

“That was why I went this way.”

The song Felton Lonnin deals with a parents’ separation from their child, a painful chapter from Pauline’s mother’s life who found herself pregnant before marriage in the ‘70s and felt she had to give the child up.

“I actually made a documentary about the whole album called The Unquiet- Songs for My Mother for RTE, a radio documentary.

“And myself and my dad spoke on that.

“She gave a child up for adoption, but it was in the early 70s.

“As much as it was a choice, it was just the way things were at the time.”

Pauline and her father will feel a sense of unfinished business until they find out what happened to that child. And only then will Eileen have peace.

“We’re still looking.

“She never did (stop thinking about the child).

“She never did. Yeah, that was just a really big part of her life.

“So I hope  to round that circle someday.

“I did want it (the song) because obviously that was part of my life, or my mother’s life rather, so I wanted to address that.

“I searched high up and low down for the appropriate song, and it was Felton Lonnin.”

Pauline was moved to include the song for the line, ‘And bring to his mother some peace to her mind’.

“It said what I wanted it to say.

“It was the feeling in it more so than the narrative, I guess.

“The song is about a child who’s lost on a farm and I just felt that that the lyrics and the marriage of words and music was really, really symbolic of what I wanted to say.”

The album also deals with sexual violence.

Unfortunately this was also a part of Eileen’s story as she was abused as a young girl.

In the documentary Pauline’s father talks about how she faced her abuser years afterwards and also admits, while it was something she had to do, it did not do her any good.

“Yeah, it’s in a couple of them (the songs) actually.

“One is The Well Below The Valley-O, a very well known song.

“And the other one is The Two Magicians.

“Unfortunately, that’s a reoccurring thing for many, many women throughout their lives so I just wanted to touch on that as well.

“Unsurprisingly, there are many, many songs within the folk tradition about that actually, loads of them.

“But they’re seldom, if ever, sung from the woman’s perspective.

“There’s kind of a victim blaming that’s part and parcel of society and is part and parcel of those songs that is very evident.

“I wanted to kind of highlight that I guess.”

Sadly this is an issue that has been thrust into public discourse in recent times by murders like that of Sarah Everard, Sabina Ness and in Ireland Ashling Murphy.

Thinking aloud almost, The Irish World asks what can be done to make women safe? “It’s a good question, isn’t it?

“Another one I don’t have the answers for.

“I think more and more we need to direct all the questions away from women and towards perpetrators.

“And men, unfortunately, as most of them are committed by men on other men and women.

“We are all used to protecting ourselves and being careful and doing all those things and it doesn’t seem to make one iota of difference.

“So I guess the questions need to change or something.

“We’re asking the wrong questions, I think.”

As she mentions, Pauline is a founding member of FairPlé and is very vocal about the role of women in the arts.

Recent years have seen Irish Women in Harmony and the Why Not Her? Campaign drawing attention to gender bias in the Irish industry.

Are things changing on that front?

“No,” Pauline says without hesitation and almost before the question is finished being asked. “Absolutely not. It’s actually worse since the pandemic.

“We do kind of random scans- They are not random actually- of the folk and traditional festivals out there, of the line-ups based on publicly available information, and it’s hovering in and around 20% representation.

“So it’s not getting any better.”

Really, there’s been no movement even after so much talk about it the last few years? “Some people move and some festivals have moved.

“So there are people that do but overall, the picture is pretty grim still.

“It’s still really bad.”

Why does Pauline think this is? Is it as simple as unconscious bias or a boys’ club mentality? “It’s conscious and unconscious bias.

“It’s really hard to give an answer to that in a very short amount of time.

“The answer is I don’t know.

“I think a lot of it is conscious and unconscious bias.

“I think a lot of it is literally jobs for the boys, people looking out for their friends.

“I think that kind of feels to a lot of people like a very natural thing to do. And they don’t necessarily think that it’s having an effect.

“I don’t know, I don’t really have the answer to that.

“I think it’s kind of multi-tiered reasons and also solutions.

“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

“It is just a more difficult landscape for professional female musicians because the employment figures are dreadful, figures are dreadful for radio as well, for the plays that women get here in Ireland.

“I think women find it harder to stick at it because the gender pay gap, the opportunities aren’t there.

“I look around at the people that started out when I started out, that would be my age, and there’s only a couple of us left.

“Because it’s just harder.

“So I think the reasons are multi-layered and multi-faceted and there’s no easy answer for it, but I do think that it is a lot of laziness as well.”

Pauline was unprepared for the backlash she got when she started speaking about the issue.

“I continue to get backlash. I think a lot of us campaigners have been blacklisted by certain people and certain festivals.

“And, you know, they’ll hire more women, but it won’t be any of the women that brought up the issue.

“We have had a lot of backlash, a lot of very personal attacks on us, stuff on social media.

“That was four years ago now.

“I think maybe people are kind of starting to come around to the idea that it actually is an issue, because at the very start it was a real uphill struggle to get people to recognize it at all.

“We still come up against a lot of pushback, but we don’t really take it on board as much as we probably would have before.”

The Irish World is shocked that anyone campaigning for any kind of equality would provoke hate for it.

“I think people feel that folk and traditional music in Ireland is kind of sacrosanct and to criticize it in any way is almost to denigrate it.

“But I see that as fundamentally a kind of a problematic attitude, because I think that all cultures and all sub-cultures need to self-examine, because otherwise, you just have a culture that doesn’t listen to people.

“I don’t really think that’s a very positive thing, you know?”

In 2020, just before the pandemic hit, Pauline was playing her Bird on the Wire show which consisted of Leonard Cohen songs.

You could say this was another ode to Eileen as Pauline and her mother shared a love of Cohen.

“She loved Leonard Cohen.

“That was where my love of Leonard Cohen grew from actually, just listening to him as a child.

“I think that she’s been very conscious in my own subconscious for want of a better word for the last couple of years until I made this record.

“I felt like I had to kind of tell her story a bit.

“She has been kind of simmering away in my mind.

“She’s dead ten years but she’s been simmering away.

“I suppose it’s almost like an ode to her.”

Although it is heavy in places, The Unquiet is not an album free of joy.

“There is absolutely (joy in the album).”

For instance the single The Bird in the Bush is a traditional song of female sensuality.

“That’s a playful kind of song about female sexuality.

“Would you believe there aren’t too many (in the tradition)?

“They’re a rare enough one but I really do love that song.

“That’s a fun song and on the lighter end of it, there’s As I Roved Out.

“There’s Cé A Chuirfidh Tú Liom? which is about female friendships

“And there’s Sambó Éara which is a really light airy song about the innocence of childhood.

“Óró Sé Do Bheatha Bhaile is an anarchic anthem about female empowerment.

“So there’s light and shade on it, 50/50 really.”

Does Pauline feel the presence of her mother when singing these songs? “I think I used to until very recently.

“I think it feels a lot more restful now.

“I think I used to and maybe not in the most positive way.

“I felt like I suppose that she needed some kind of resolution or something.

“Yeah, I feel a lot more restful about it now.

“It feels great (to perform the songs), I have to say.

“It’s the first thing I’ve released since that dreaded C word, I hate even saying it now.

“But it is brilliant to be out performing the songs.”

Mentioning Covid, has it been a rough few years? “Yeah, it’s been rough. I won’t lie. It’s been really rough and our industry is far from  back to normal.

“I don’t know if it’ll ever be the same as it was before again.

“So we’re still kind of going through it a bit.

“We didn’t work and then we did work for a little bit and then it was a different version of our work.

“And then we had to adapt to all the online stuff.

“And so it’s been very tumultuous would be the word I’d use.

“And it’s definitely not back where it was yet.

“So we’re just kind of trying to navigate our way through and keep an eye on our mental health and our sense of value.

“Of course, everybody talks about not being able to perform, but I suppose it’s probably a less glamorous thing to talk about not being able to earn.

“That was a big factor.

“My husband plays music for a living as well so we had a double hit in this house.

“It got fairly tight there for a while.

“But we’re getting through it.”

Pauline will be joined for the show by Jos Kelly and Ted Kelly from the band Moxie, Nicola Joyce from The Whileaways and Eamon Murray from Beoga who is also her husband.

“We’re really, really looking forward to it. It’s going to be great. We’re super excited.”

Pauline Scanlon plays The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith on Saturday 16 July.

To book, click here.

For more information on Pauline, click here.

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