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The pipes are calling

Leonard Barry told David Hennessy about his new album, what we learned working in homeless services and playing the massive stages when he was too young to appreciate it.

Leonard Barry is coming to the UK to tour his solo album Littoral.

His third solo album, Littoral comes a full ten years after the acclaimed New Road.

Produced by Michael McGoldrick, the album celebrates Leonard’s wealth of influences and knowledge as a master of the uilleann pipes.

The title reflects both his youth in the townland of Kilmoyley in North Kerry, and his current home on the Sligo coast, celebrating his journey as a musician with some of the many artists he has met on the way.

Leonard has been one of the most sought-after uilleann pipers for many years, sharing the stage with artists including Lisa O’Neill, Kevin Burke, Michael McGoldrick, Chris Stout, Catriona McKay, Daoiri Farrell and Cathy Jordan amongst a host of others.

Leonard’s last album New Road (2013) led to the formation of the band New Road with Seamie O’Dowd, Ricky Epping and Andy Morrow.

Leonard will be joined on the tour by revered musicians Andy Morrow and Seamie O’Dowd who also feature on the album.

Littoral also features the album’s producer Michael McGoldrick on flutes, Shane McGowan from Sligo on guitar, legendary fiddler Kevin Burke (The Bothy Band, Patrick Street), ‘cellist Alice Allen, and bouzouki from Michael Holmes of Dervish and Brian McDonagh.

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Are you looking forward to coming over here? “I am. I’m really looking forward to it because it must be nearly 20 years since I played in London.

“The last time I played in London was actually in the Cultural Centre in Hammersmith.

“It’s been a while coming.”

Like this album you have just released, was it ten, eleven years after your last one?

“Yeah, I like to spread them out. One a decade is probably enough of me, isn’t it?

“I was on tour in Austria with a gang of musicians.

“Michael McGoldrick, who’s a very old friend of mine. We kind of grew up together going to festivals over here and everywhere.

“We got talking about doing an album.

“I told him I wanted to do a solo album and I asked him would he be interested in producing it.

“And then of course, life goes on and then all of a sudden, the COVID lockdown hit, so I started working on it then.

“Because there was literally very little else to do at the time.

“I suppose in one way the lockdown suited me, it afforded me the time to put the album together.

“But we started working on it over that.

“I suppose the whole process really took about two or three years to put it together, on and off.

“I wanted to get my friends I’d spent a lot of time with over the years on it, and colleagues I’d spent a lot of time with over the years.

“I suppose the whole thought process behind the album was kind of mapping the journey of where I started music in Kerry where I’m from.

“Where I lived: I lived in Kilkenny, I lived in Dublin for 10 years where I worked with the Dublin Simon Community.

“Then when I left the Simon Community about 10 years ago, we moved up here (Sligo).

“So I suppose that was the start of another journey both for myself, my wife and daughter and musically.

“It was kind of tracing all that.

“That was kind of the idea behind it.

“For instance, there’s one track on the album, The Pipe on the Hob.

“That was actually the first track I ever heard on the pipes.

“My uncles were home from London and I had got a Walkman.

“One of them put in this cassette tape in, and it was the Bothy Band playing The Pipe on the Hob.

“And I still remember it.

“To this day, I remember it.

“I was about 14 and that was the start.

“That was it and I wanted to play them (the pipes).

“There’s tunes on it that I would have learned here over the last couple of years, so it’s kind of like tracking all that.

“And like I said: Because of the lockdown, I had plenty of time to think about it.”

Leonard was honoured to have Kevin Burke, renowned fiddle player with The Bothy Band, feature on the album.

“I spent my teenage years listening to Kevin Burke so to have him as a friend, colleague, and playing musician was a real honour.

“We’re lucky in traditional music in that sense, that our heroes are probably accessible as their heroes were to them.

“I suppose that’s part of the tradition really.”

You speak of hearing The Bothy Band when you were 14, was it always about the music?

“I suppose for me, yes.

“There wasn’t an awful lot of music in my family but there was a great love of music and we were always encouraged, but not pushed, you know?

“You go back around Castleisland and Sliabh Luachra areas, you had access to great musicians.

“There was great sessions and there was a great repertoire played.

“You were constantly learning tunes and to be honest, they might be tunes that weren’t really associated with piping because there wouldn’t be a strong tradition of piping down there.
“But I think that worked well for me as well because you’re developing different techniques.

“It’s interesting.

“Conal Ó Gráda the flute player used to call me ‘only the lonely’ because I was the only piper that he knew in Kerry at the time.

“There’s plenty down there now which is great to see.”

Why did you call it Littoral?

“Littoral means growing by the sea or your relationship to the sea.

“Where I’m from in North Kerry is a townland called Kilmoyley which is about four miles from Banna beach, so we grew up on the beach.

“During all the summers we were either on my uncle’s farm, on the GAA pitch or on the beach, it was one of the three.

“And where I live here now, I’m in Sligo town but I’m literally 50 yards from the sea.

“That’s how the name came about.”

You’ve worked with some incredible people such as Lisa O’Neill and someone we featured just last week Daoirí Farrell to name just two..

“I’ve always had an interest in working with different people.

“It’s kind of always what I’ve done.

“As well as that Lisa and Daoirí are brilliant, who wouldn’t want to work with them?

“They’re fabulous singers and I suppose they’re two of the leading lights in the folk revival at the moment and that in turn helps traditional musicians like myself because it raises awareness to a wider audience.

“Daoirí and Lisa are great. Shared some good times with them.”

Seamie O’Dowd

You have mentioned Mike McGoldrick, you grew up together playing the Fleadhs etc, didn’t you?

“Oh yeah, that’s the beauty of traditional music.

“You’re going to these festivals, you have friends from all corners of the world really.

“I suppose back when we were teenagers, the Manchester lads used to come over to Ireland an awful lot so you’d meet at Fleadhs and you’d meet at Willie Clancy week.

“Now you find there’s more young musicians from America coming over.

“That’s the beauty of it really.

“You go to a Fleadh or Willie Clancy, it was before the days of the mobile phone. So there was nothing arranged and that spontaneity of walking down the street and meeting someone and sort of saying, ‘Hey, do you fancy going here for a tune?’

“And friendships develop out of that.”

You’re coming over with Andy and Seamie, two great musicians. Was it around the time of your last album that you three came together?

“Yeah, the two boys played on my last solo album, New Road and that in turn led to the formation of a band New Road with Seamie, Andy and Rick Epping.

“Then we did a band album and we had some great times with that.

“I suppose I knew Seamie from coming up here for years so we played a fair bit together before I even got him on that album.

“Myself and Andy are playing together a long time, 20 years plus as well.

“I suppose it’s great to be able to work with them again and play the music that’s on the album as it is on the album really.

“I’m very, very lucky to have them.

“They’re great. That’s all you can say.

“Seamie has played with everyone really from Christy Moore to Dervish.

“His trio with Martin O’Connor and Cathal Hayden is brilliant.

“When they’re playing, it sounds like there’s about 10 musicians on the stage.”

You also spent time in London, how was it you ended up in Kilkenny?

“They were organising a festival in Thomastown and I literally went over there for a weekend and ended up staying eight or nine years.

“It was such a great time because there was a gang of us around together.

“We were all one age.

“There was a gang about five or six of us and Jeez we played five, six nights a week for years there.

“We were all in our 20s and it was just great fun.

“It was just a great time when there was loads and loads of music played.

“From my time in London, I always had an interest in working with the homeless services: When you see guys in London that are homeless and they haven’t been home in years.

“So then I went to college in Trinity and I did addiction studies.

“Then I was over in Australia then doing work experience and came back.

“I got a job at Dublin Simon Community and then I just said, ‘Okay, well, I can still play’.

“It was an itch I wanted to scratch.

“I had a wonderful ten years working with the homeless services across a wide range of services, everything from emergency accommodation to the outreach team in the street, to running a mobile needle exchange for drug users.

“My last job then was in a detox unit for street drinkers which was really, really interesting.

“That time came to an end.

“I suppose I probably got burnt out to be honest with you.

“It was just time to move on.

“Then I did the album New Road.

“And I thought, ‘Okay, well, I’ll give it six months and I’ll see what happens and if I need to go back to work, I need to go back to that job. I’ll apply for something and go back’.

“And luckily, I haven’t had to.

“It doesn’t bother me if I have to.

“I’ve had a great run of it but it’s been great and especially since COVID.

“I find there’s an appetite for music now. People missed it. I even notice with my own friends.

“You know the way you would have friends who would go, ‘Oh, I must go to that’, and they never go. Now they’re actually going. People make an effort because it means something and they missed it.

“Working with the Simon community, you learn a lot about yourself.

“And it’s very humbling because you are meeting some of the most resilient people in society, because how they survive amidst the chaos takes some serious resilience.”

What did you learn about yourself working in that area?

“When you’re dealing with a crisis, which you quite often are. how you react to that quite crisis influences where it goes: It could go south, it could go north. It could go bad, it could go good.
“You have to be calm, you have to listen to people.
“I suppose before that, I’d react a lot but in that job, you can’t just react.

“You have to look at the situation, you have to examine the situation.

“I think you learn that with experience.

“It definitely taught me to be more grateful for what I have because you’re looking at some people and you’re just going, ‘By the grace of God, that could be me come across hard times’.

“You’re only a couple of pay cheques away from being homeless if you’re in a certain situation.

“So you’re definitely more humbled, you’re more grateful.

“That was very rewarding and humbling.”

You say it was in London you got interested in that area. We have seen that ourselves with Irish people using soup kitchens etc but also too proud to go home..

“Exactly. I had friends working in the homeless services there and we used to go into certain shelters and play a bit of music for them every now and again.
“That really opened my eyes then.”

How long were you over in London? “I’d say initially, it was about 18 months but then I was over and back then for about a year, year and a half after that as well.

“I was doing a lot of travelling.

“I was in a band in Denmark as well and I used to come to Ireland quite a bit.

“There’s a Danish singer songwriter by the name of Allan Olsen.

“He’s kind of like the Danish Christy Moore.

“I did four albums with him between ‘93 and ‘97.

“That was fantastic. Jesus, we were playing the main stage at Roskilde and all these huge festivals.

“That was a magical experience really.

“I think I was too young at the time to take it all in.

“I didn’t realise how big it was until after.

“I’ve been very, very lucky.

“Music has been good to me, really good to me.

“It’s taken me all over the world. I’ve met some wonderful people.

“I’ve got to play with some wonderful musicians. I get to make a living from what I love doing.

“What more can you say? It is what it is and it’s great.”

The Irish Times described New Road as, ‘A trio of musicians who’ve parked their egos outside the door and let the music tell its own tales’.

I think that’s only half right though in that it is about the music but there aren’t egos there, are there?

“No, not really.

“It’s all about music really.

“I couldn’t be wasting my energy on all that ego stuff.

“I still have plenty to learn, that’s the thing.

“I still practice most days, nearly every day.

“I’m still learning.

“There’s a huge repertoire of tunes out there to be learned.

“I always have two or three new ones that I’m learning.

“So no, for us really, it’s just all about music and the friends and the people that you meet as well.”

What’s next? I guess you don’t have to worry about doing another album for at least another ten years? Or will the next one come along sooner?

“It might, I’ll see how we get on with this one first.

“We have the four days in England and then we have a few dates in Ireland as well then.

“Then it’s a series of festivals between Denmark, France, Spain, back in England at the Hartlepool Folk Festival in October.

“So it’s kind of little trips here and there.

“I don’t like going away doing massive long tours to be honest with you, so it’s busy enough, as busy as I want it to be.”

Leonard Barry, joined by Andy Morrow and Seamie O’Dowd, plays Firth Hall in Sheffield on Thursday 18 April, Folk on the Meadow in Belper on Friday 19 April, The Irish Cultural Centre in London on Saturday 20 April and Waterside Arts Centre on Sunday 21 April.   

For more information, click here.

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