Mairéid Sullivan, an Intimate Interview
by Ben Kettlewell, summer 1997
Singer, songwriter, poet, writer and student of history, Mairéid Sullivan (Mairéid rhymes with "parade") is the first of seven children born near Bantry Bay, County Cork, Ireland. She has lived in the US, Europe, Asia and Australia and now resides in Los Angeles. Her work is dedicated to researching and interpreting the gifts of Celtic culture, and to blending the evocative feeling and beauty of ancient Celtic melodies with new expressions of poetry and music. This interview takes place at wonderful point in Mairéid's illustrious career, while she is recording two new albums, and preparing for her next concert tour. After you read the interview, be sure and check out the review of her incredible album 'Dancer' on the Lyrebird label.
AMP: Mairéid, can you trace your musical background?
Mairéid: Well, Ben, I have been singing since I was about 5 years old. Since I am the first child in the family of seven children, I had the benefit of my mother's endowment of attention to the arts that she believed a little girl must develop. I learned traditional Irish dancing and singing at the earliest opportunities. I remember skipping down the road one day, around the age of five, and asking my mother if that was dancing and she said "Yes". It was a some time later that I "realized" skipping wasn't really dancing and I remember being so shocked that my mother had "lied" to me. That thought is implanted in my memory as a really serious issue to me. I remember thinking long and hard about it! But, whenever there was a community gathering in our little rural area in West Cork, I would get up and sing a song in that traditional way that children do. I watched people weep as I was singing. I have often wondered whether I am a singer because people wanted me to sing for them or because I wanted to sing. But, now I feel so glad that I can sing, it makes my life seem so simple. My impression of my audience's emotional experience, from my earliest memories, inspires me to go deep into the music when I am singing.
AMP: What was the first recording that made an impact on you? What were your early social influences?
Mairéid: You will probably be surprised to hear that Chet Atkins made the biggest impact on me! Really! We very rarely listened to recorded music, or even the radio, in Ireland. Our kitchen was a little center for conversation and music. But that was all traditional Irish music and Radio Luxenborg was my mother's commercial radio station. When I first came to America, to San Francisco, at the age of 11, I was exposed to the variety of contemporary radio and TV for the first time. I found American folk, country, bluegrass and blues music and I love it. My father didn't want me listening to it on the radio so I had to listen secretly! I was so impressed with Chet Atkins playing that his was the very first album I bought out of my babysitting money. I very rarely bought records then, most of my money was spent on books. I became very shy when I came to America and I spent most of my free time reading or drawing. But then, when I was a teenager, I discovered Jimmy Hendrix! I used to go to hear him whenever he played in San Francisco. I also loved to watch Janice Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, The Grateful Dead, etc. The whole San Francisco music scene in the late 60's was an inspiration for me. That was a new music innovation period and I was connected to the whole scene, though a little young at the time to do anything other than watch and listen. My best girlfriend's mother was a Beatnik, so, she really knew the ropes in San Francisco. We followed the music together and talked philosophy in her "heady"circle. I was deeply influenced by Alan Watts writings on Buddhism, Kalhil Gibran's 'The Prophet', "Your children are not your children, they are the sons and daughters of life longing for itself. Though they are with you they do not belong to you." This was my liberation mantra. I was also deeply challenged by Paramahansa Yogananda's "Autobiography of a Yogi"at that time. And, I was passionately involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement.
AMP: Lets discuss the creative process a bit, How do you write? What inspires you? Can you share with us the impetus that guides your creations?
Mairéid: I have only been writing poetry and songs since 1992! I became computer literate around the mid 80's and I found it so easy to write because I could instantly edit and play with writing. This opened up a flood of expression for me. But my song writing happens in all kinds of ways. I particularly like to collaborate with another musician since I don't play an instrument. Usually one of my music colleagues will bring me a piece of music and I will put a melody and words to it. I have an endless flow of melodies and when I have something to say I find the words come easily. I also write new words for some of the old traditional melodies that I love but cannot sing because the words aren't right for me. eg. "I'm drunk today and seldom sober. Come all ye young men and lay me down," lines from one of my favourite melodies, the song Carrigfergus. And, sometimes, I put my own melody to my words by myself! Sometimes, I will have a verse for a song flow through in one piece but then it may take a while before I know where the thought wants to go to complete the song. One of my latest songs started in 1993, "Danu's Land" and I just discovered what I wanted to say next, so I was able to finish it immediately when Cass brought me a great, new piece of music. Robert "Cass" McEntee, is my guitarist and my American colleague, with whom I have been writing and performing for two years. For another recent song, "Invisible Dancers", Cass brought me a beautiful piece he had just composed and the words just poured out as he was playing it. Before we got together that day I had been out on Malibu Beach and I had a cathartic experience. It was my first time on the cliffs by the ocean facing west since coming to America (having lived in Australia facing south and east for years) and I spent the afternoon smiling (my cheeks were sore at the end of the day from the smiling!) and remembering my life-long vision of myself standing, like a ship's masthead, on what I call the "prow of the land" on the south western tip of Ireland, facing the elements with the wind blowing through my hair. This vision came together with another vision that I had wanted to write a song about. The second vision is a recurring vision, which I have had for a few years now, about being surrounded by laughing angels and invisible dancers. So, when Cass and I met for our rehearsal, and he played his music, the whole thing just came together immediately in the most miraculous way. That is always wonderful. Other songs we write are more "constructed" over a few rehearsals. Songwriting is a deeply satisfying expression of my thoughts and feelings. I love writing with Cass because his style of playing rhythm on the 12-string guitar is, in many ways, similar to Bach's harpsichord playing in that the harpsichord has no sustain and, therefore, the music has to keep moving in a percussive style. Cass didn't grow up playing blues and rock-n-roll which emphasizes slides in the phrasing of notes. Cass' staccato style creates his own signature sound which allows other instruments to play freely around the arrangement. He isn't dictating a style for other instruments and so he allows the individuality of each part and the melody to stay in rhythmic motion. I find this to be very freeing for my own construction of melodies. I have seemingly endless room to experiment with the traditional use of grace notes and phrasing of my melodies.
AMP: How about your travels? Do they influence your music?
Mairéid: My travels have given me a familiarity with the planet and that is a good thing. I think of the world as a whole, consequently I am always fascinated by the sense of understanding and rapport I feel with people who have a completely different language and life experience from me, yet, we can feel so close and loving to each other. The quality and beauty of common human wisdom, which every culture aspires to, never ceases to amaze me. How this effects my music is probably in the way that it gives me confidence that the issues that are important to me are commonly important to all people. So, I feel that I am speaking to the world in my songs. I strive to protect this outlook from the cliches of politics and dogma so that I can keep out of the realm of opinion and argument. In the broadest sense, I don't want to argue or have to explain my own point of view. Songs need maximum freedom for interpretation otherwise there isn't enough play for the individual listener's imagination. I just want to be free to achieve the greatest liberation of my capacity for joy and nonjudgement in communicating through my music. Its different in my articles on Celtic culture, I find myself taking issue with certain perspectives on truth especially from the history of human practices in cruelty. I feel it is safe to talk about ancient history as a reflection of the possibilities for the present. There is where I like to have a good discussion on various issues because there is so much to be studied and thought about critically. These are issues which effect the world and we need to learn from history if we are going to strive to perfect our capacity for greatness as a species with infinite intelligence.
AMP: How did you connect with Donal Lunny, and all the wonderful musicians who performed on "Dancer"?
Mairéid: I have lived in Australia for a long time and I had been active as a performer and as a promoter/publicist in the performing arts professionally so I have a very broad knowledge of the music scene there. I just let my intuition guide me to the very best people when I was forming my own ensemble.
When it was time to plan the recording I just went for the #1 Producer in Ireland and he agreed to do it. I gave him a tape of our work and he told me that he thought we were playing "serious music". We had to wait a year for him to come to Australia to do the recording.
AMP: You seem to work very well together. Tell us about the months leading up to the recording.
Mairéid: The musicians I gathered around me are the best in their particular musical circles. They bring their individuality and mastery to the combined sound. We rehearsed twice a week for six months before we launched our first concert series. We rehearsed at my place and we were very civilized about it; a nice atmosphere with an open fire, candles and incense and good food at all times. We almost called the band "Maireid's Bistro"!! We recorded the rehearsals on good equipment and even had our first radio air play with recordings from our rehearsals. When we launched the band we played at the very best and most interesting places all over, so our audiences really enjoyed the venues as well. We never had to play in dives. We always sold out our concerts and we developed quite a good following for each concert series. We always had informative press releases which people enjoyed reading. And the media supported our innovations.
But, in the time we had to wait for Donal Lunny to come out to do the recording we did some really interesting musical experiments which have not been recorded. We basically had two separate ensembles with separate repertoire. We brought Michael Jordon, the drummer, into what became an experimental branch of the group because he had an idea for an improvisational treatment of traditional music which was very exciting for me to sing along with. (He is originally from Ireland, too, and is very nostalgic about it.) He and Gary Costello, my Bass player, are leading jazz musicians in Australia and they are great at contemporary improvisation. So, we took some of the most familiar Irish or Scottish songs and played them more slowly and swing-like, I was able to have great freedom for phrasing and grace notes, then for the instrumental they took the song out of its form and let it go completely till it became unrecognizable but really interesting improvisation, then they brought it back to its traditional form. This may sound strange in description but it was very exciting for me as a singer because it gave me so much freedom to go with the feeling of the music and to decorate the song with intricate grace notes, which I love singing. I hope to go back to that experiment some day. There is so much music to do when there are good players!
Anyway, the repertoire which was recorded on "Dancer" had been played-out for quite a time before we went into the studio. It had withstood the test of many performances and the arrangements were perfected, so, the recording went very quickly.
AMP: Before "Dancer" you were featured on a couple of best selling collections of Celtic music by Narada and HOS. How did all this come about?
Mairéid: Actually, it wasn't before "Dancer", it was before "Dancer" was released in the US. "Dancer" was released here a year after it was released in Australia. I had sent "Dancer" to Music Design to be reviewed for distribution in their US alternative markets. They passed it on to Narada Records, which is their parent company. Then Narada's A&R manager called me and told me that he thought "Dancer" was "timely" and that they wanted to create a compilation around it. That compilation became Celtic Voices - Women of Song which was on Billboards top 10 for 9 months. There were four women on it and it was Narada's first vocal album. I have three songs on that recording. This album opened many doors for me in the US and I have really enjoyed my relationship with Narada, they are very fine folks. There is another compilation which has also been very successful and that is Hearts of Space Records 'Celtic Twilight 3 Lullabies'. I have one song on that recording. Their Producer contacted me for that project and was also a pleasure to work with.
AMP: You are creating wonderfully innovative music, writing your own lyrics and music, as well as articles, prose and poetry, and you are performing. How are you finding your center? Is it through the feelings or the practice or both?.
Mairéid: I have a wonderful solitude and that is the key to my happiness. "The kingdom is within." Everything I do and feel is colored by my inner reality and that reality is created by a constant reflection on infinite intelligence. I keep my life as simple as possible. I also take good care of my health, drink plenty of water, get quality rest and exercise and stay away from the news and TV! And, most important, I have wonderful conversations with my friends. I read a lot, especially history books. I feel very good when I am on top of things and this makes me feel delighted and playful. As I am maturing, I feel much more confident about the source of my playfulness and my seriousness and I like to weave them together in endless knots of pleasure. I have the great good fortune of working with people I respect and love greatly. We work together in a wonderful spirit of excitement and fun and we love each other's music. We take care of each other in our intentions! We are happy working together so the music reflects this. So, to finally answer your question, we are putting the feeling into practice. The end result is living, original music and song/poetry.
AMP: You have performed throughout Australia on concert stages, theater and television and now your career seems to really be soaring here in the US. When you go on the road, do you perform solo, or with ensemble? What do you think of your audiences in live performance?
Mairéid: I tour in a variety of forms. I, sometimes, give workshops on Celtic culture where I talk a lot and answer questions and sing unaccompanied songs from my traditional collection. I give concerts with just my guitarist, Cass, and myself or with Cass and percussionist, Jim McGrath or, better still, with the whole group which also includes my cellist, Gerri Sutyak and melodic percussionist, Shannon Michael Terry.
As to my experience with audiences, I believe audiences are influenced by the venue. That is why I am so fussy about the venues I perform in. Our music is a communication and I must be able to see and talk 'telepathically' with my audience to get the two way exchange going. So, venues have to be "user friendly" places with good sound and atmosphere. I don't care where these places are, they can be a barn or a concert hall as long as everybody there is comfortable and the atmosphere is conducive to communication and, most important, they can hear the subtle nuances of the music. When all of this comes together there is the most sublime joy between the audience and musicians. I heard a quote from John Quincy Adams recently where he said somewhere that he and the founding fathers were working to create a world where their children could be doctors, scientists and politicians so that their children could be artists and musicians. The arts are truly a reminder to us all of our innate poetry, so, music is one of the ways to get back in touch with our natural inner beauty and joy.
AMP: You have been busy working on two new albums during the past month. Can tell us about them?
Mairéid: I am half way through my own new recording of mostly original songs, there are a few traditional songs which I always love to sing. It should be ready by the end of the year. I will follow that with another recording of traditional Celtic melodies with primitive percussion ancient Celtic tribal rhythms and the traditional voice, is the concept. I am doing the second recording so that people will have those lovely melodies to sing along with. So far, I plan to use my voice like a flute for that collection but I may sing some of the song lyrics too. I think people need to find the natural singer in themselves and humming these melodies is a lovely way to start. Most people don't learn the words of songs all the way through so they don't know whether they can sing. So, they can learn these timelessly beautiful melodies which can be sung endlessly just by themselves and later they can learn the words. The percussion is intended to give people a deep feeling to move with when they sing. The working title is "Sing Out".
I have also been learning songs for another project. I have had the honor of being invited to record, for spring release, an album of songs from "The Mystic Harp" recordings by Derek Bell, the Harper from the Chieftains. Derek has recorded the instrumental music and I will now record the song lyrics. The working title is "Memories of that Isle". These songs were written, in the Celtic style, by J. Donald Walters, who is also known as Swami Kriananda. He is the founder of Paramahansa Yogananda's Ananda Self Realization Fellowship at Ananda Village in Northern California. Derek has been a practitioner of Kria Yoga for 30 years and I have loved Yogananda since my early adolescence.
AMP: Could you tell our readers a little about your future plans?
Mairéid: I just plan to become better able to endure the ecstasy of joy! I was asked by an interviewer recently what I thought my life would be like when I am 80. The idea of living my lifetime all over again blows my mind. I think I must explode and dissipate into the stars! Or else I must gradually learn to manage the higher energy of bliss that I get from my contemplations. I am really enjoying this aspect of growing older. I couldn't live in a better time in history. My generation is in the majority and we are all intelligent and very well informed and we are taking charge of redefining the concept of age and health for the first time since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Plus, it is the first time in over a thousand years (in the west) that women and men can be friends and colleagues in a relatively equal society. The ramifications of this development have not really "sunk in", generally, yet. It is a great time we live in! I hope to be alert to the best ways to be open to infinite intelligence; so that I can find new ways to express joy and wisdom; so that my studies and reflections can find form in my writing, poetry and music. I want to continue to deepen my relationships. I want to continue to dance in myself and with other people. I want to champion unconditional love and joy with all of my authority! And I want to perform in concert more! So be it!
To find out more about Mairéid Sullivan, her music, her poetry, and her philosophical affirmations, please visit her website located at http://www.maireid.com
Interview by Ben Kettlewell