A Celtic Journey: Dialogue with Mairéid Sullivan
The Making of "For Love's Caress - a Celtic journey"
Interview with Jai Warner
MS: My journey is the unfolding of my own sense of self, my life, with my companion musicians and our audiences. I use the framework of ancient Celtic cultural values as my model because this is the only historic cultural precedent I have found, thus far, in my hunt for philosophil treasure that promotes the concept of "Personal Sovereignty" as central to a successful life's journey for every human being. My aim is to connect with other people of like mind in the most perfect way that I can. I see my life as a journey, discovering how to live with joy. Each meeting with another person is like a destination. Every day of my journey brings me to unknown territory where my perceptions are challenged. The truth is no one can know another person except through the filter of their own self. But the most fascinating truth is that each person we connect with gives us a different experience of ourselves, too. Each relationship has its own story!
This way of life has very little to do with the place I am physically in. It is more to do with the imagination. And the sky is the limit when it comes to the imagination. We are really travelers in the imagination and our thoughts and feelings are our landing places. The Celts openly lived this philosophy before their culture was taken into hiding. I love the challenge of living this philosophy in the open.
JW: The album is very different in many ways from Dancer, with your Australian band. Was this intentional because of having to work with new musicians, or a redirection of your creative muse?
MS: In a way it is both. First, I set out to develop my relationship with my colleagues in that I want each musician I work with to gain something wonderful from the artistic collaboration. Each member of this ensemble has something unique to give and take within the group. Heightened creative engagement in the music enhances the capacity of each contributor. In other words, if everyone involved loves working with each other then we really can create something wonderful and original together. The degree to which we respect and are inspired by each other has a direct expression in the music we create. And our audience knows this.
The second part of the answer is that I came to the US for three months originally. I intended to return to Australia after I set up my distribution in the US. But it took me 9 months to get distribution because I am a single artist label. (Most mainstream distributors don't want to bother with the uncertain survival capacity and all the administration that is associated with what they call Independent Single-Artist Labels.) So, to cut a long story short, I started to work on song writing as an interim creative arrangement, not thinking that performances would come out of it. I soon began to meet musicians here in Los Angeles and I set out to find musicians who played different instruments from my Australian group to join me in the music. I did this because I feel a strong fidelity to my Australian colleagues and I don't want to replace any of them with new instrumentalists mainly because they are so brilliant that it would be very hard to find better musicians anywhere in the world. So, now I work with a completely different group of gifted musicians here in the US. I love the new melodic environment that this new group creates. I dream of bringing the two groups together someday.
JW: Several of the original songs on the album are written with your rhythm guitarist Cass McEntee. How did you meet, and what brought about this collaboration?
MS: Cass is the first musician I met in America. Our meeting was very unusual, to say the least. When I first arrived, I stayed with my sister, Carmel, and her husband and little boy, in the Hollywood Hills. Everyday I carried my "office", in my backpack, on a 55 minute walk down the hill to my other sister, Viva's house (Genevieve), where I used the computer and telephone to manage my little label. I would leave her house at 4:45 every afternoon and head back up the hill. One day I was walking back and about one block away I saw a couple of fellows sitting in the sunshine on their front step, one of them playing guitar. As I came closer I realized that he played a 12 string rhythm guitar and he played well. I crossed the street and asked if I could listen for awhile. He then gave me a little performance and I said I was looking for a rhythm guitarist to write songs with. I gave him my CD and when we spoke on the telephone later he said he loved my kind of music. So we set up our first meeting. Our first song from our first song writing session is "I Am a Rock". The wonderful thing about working with Cass is that he has a great sense of rhythmic musical structure and I have complete freedom to write all the words and melody. He is completely encouraging of my little poetic expressions and efforts with melodic experimentation and he has the great gift of diplomacy when ever he is confronted with my passion over all sorts of issues. We have a grand time working together.
JW: How did you meet the rest of the band?
MS: I met Jim McGrath next, at an Irish friend's house for dinner. Jim is a world renowned Percussionist with several recordings to his name and he runs his own record label which promotes other Percussionists, http://www.talkingdrumrecords.com. I kept pestering him until he returned my calls and agreed to come and listen to the songs. We talked about what we hoped to achieve musically. He gave the impression that he liked the music and the camaraderie and he started playing percussion with us on our concert tours.
So, we were a trio of 12 string rhythm guitar and percussion for a little while before I met Shannon and Gerri.
Shannon Michael Terry is a Melodic Percussionist and microtonal composer who plays the Mbira, Shruti Box and creates magnificent Vocal Drones.
Then Gerri Sutyak began performing with us. Gerri is an outstanding Cellist. She is a soloist with leading orchestras. She tours and records with contemporary artists such as Nigel Kennedy, Donovan and Lilly Hayden.
I met Donelle Page when she loaned her harp to Derek Bell, the Harper from the Chieftains, for our concert at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, south of San Francisco. Donelle plays Harp, Keyboards and Bass. She performs with all the leading orchestras in the greater San Francisco area, including the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, as well as in smaller contemporary music groups and as a soloist. We became fast friends and I invited her to join us in one of our concerts. She picked up the music so quickly that we were amazed.
Then Ben Kettlewell came on the scene as a complete surprise, from a very different musical world. Ben plays Acoustic guitar, Electric guitar and Kurzweil Keyboard. He plays Jazz, Blues, Fusion and Ambient styles of music. He has three recordings of his compositions on the English label, Electronic Dreams.
Eric Rigler plays Uilleann Pipes and Whistles. Eric is one of the most sought after pipers in the world. With his own band, movie scores like the recent "Titanic" and "Braveheart" and dozens of recording sessions with other groups, it is a wonderful feeling to have Eric's music on the album. He lives close by, here in Southern California. We hope that he will be able to perform in concert with us in the future when he can fit us into his busy performing and recording schedule.
And, last but certainly not least, my gifted brother-in-law, Anderzej Wolczynski, plays accordion with us when we play locally.
We have three special guest artists on the recording.
The world renowned traditional Violinist from the west of Ireland, Martin Hayes, who now lives in Seattle, WA.
My sister, Viva, (Genevieve Sullivan-Wolczynski) and my mother, Mary Sullivan, gave us a special vocal performance on "Anam Cara".
JW: There is a wide scope in the material on the album, yet it all seems to fit together seamlessly. For example, one of the original songs "I Don't Want to Hide", sounds like it could fit into a Quentin Tarantino film, with the cabaret accordion and the angular guitar tones reminiscent of Daniel Lanois' soundtracks, but it works well in context with the other songs. The album flows effortlessly from traditional ballads with guitar, voice and harp to incredibly orchestrated pieces like "Rapture" and "Recurring Dream". How did you develop the concept for combining such diverse elements into a cohesive musical story?
MS: The arrangement of instruments is meant to serve the atmosphere and meaning of the song. This combination of instruments offers us tremendous scope for orchestration and development of musical atmosphere. We have lot's of freedom for improvisation, and that's how we build the music. We make everything up as we go until we find the perfect sound for the song.
JW: One would never imagine that a duo of electric guitar and classical harp would sound warm and full by themselves. I notice that you used this duet of instruments as accompaniment on most of the traditional pieces. How did this style of arranging come about?
MS: That is another magical story. When Donelle came down from San Francisco to record with us on the original songs, she set her Harp up in the living room, which has very high ceilings and a wonderful hall sound. I was about to prepare dinner when she began to tune the harp. Ben began to accompany her casually on the electric guitar and they sounded wonderful together. They had an instant musical rapport. After dinner I took out some traditional songs that I have always loved but have only sung unaccompanied, a'Capella, because most instrumentation make them sound rigid, when I like to sing them in a flowing, traditional Slow Air, rubato style. Donelle was enraptured by Ben's ability to anticipate her musical improvisations and the tone his electric guitar sustain against her plucked Harp. She said she had never thought of combining harp and electric guitar before. We decided to choose traditional songs that could be set in a minimum of instrumentation so that the two opposing instrumental sounds could be heard as clearly as possible. I feel that these beautiful old songs should be performed as simply as possible. I really love hearing one of the oldest instruments, the Harp, played with one of the newest, the Electric Guitar.
JW: The musicianship of your band is outstanding. The strings and harp sound like seasoned world class orchestra pros. How do you work out chart arrangements with Gerri and Donelle?
MS: All of the musicians are world class players and they are improvisers. They listen to each other and improvise harmonies until they find the perfect combination of voices and then they keep that structure as the foundation of each performance. Gerri and Donelle are both seasoned world class orchestra pros!
JW: I noticed that percussionist, Jim McGrath, who has his own label, Talking Drum Records, contributed a lot of incredible percussion, and engineered most of the tracks on the album. How did he come to record the instruments for your recording?
MS: Jim has recorded three albums of his percussive compositions. He has an excellent ear for finding the focus of a sound and he knows how to capture it on recording. He has his own studio, so when I asked him to co-produce the recording, with Cass, we decided to use his studio. He has done an excellent job in capturing the acoustic quality of each instrument on this recording. I feel very fortunate to have been able to have his help with this project. It's another part of the stream of miracles.
JW: In the lyrics of some of the songs, and in the excerpt from one of your poems on the back cover, one senses a longing for the rural setting of your childhood, and a sense of personal loss, but a self reassurance that those things, those people, are still there with you inside,....to paraphrase from your poem "But I've always known I would never forget them. They're part of me still, and so will remain". Did the poetry that inspired the creation of these songs come from those memories?
MS: Of course they did! I carry these memories around with me all the time -- memories of my childhood in Ireland make up my greater picture of reality. I get tremendous pleasure from those memories of my childhood, as a free little adventurer in the country side with my mighty band of brothers and sisters and cousins and friends.
JW: How do you go about setting these poems to music?
MS: If I am collaborating with a musician I usually have a part of the music presented to me and that conjures up a picture which suits one of my poems or I will be inspired to write a new poem to fit the music. Either way, the phrasing of the words shape the melody which is shaped to the music. Every song creates its own shape which comes from the intertwining of rhythm, melody, meaning of the song and the personality of the composers. What had been a poem structure has to be changed to a song structure.
JW: Perhaps the only similarity between this album and your last solo album, Dancer , is the arrangement on Waly Waly from Dancer, and Eileen Aroon on For Love's Caress. Both pieces are traditional Celtic ballads, but you've added bottleneck dobro style guitar to give them a bluesy feel which seems to work great. How did you get the notion to do a blues arrangement for a simple ballad?
MS: These songs express sorrow or regret. They are magnificent old Blues songs; lamentations, love songs, deep mourning and grieving over the trials and tribulations of everyday life. They reach deep into our feelings and stir reciprocal feelings of compassion and love.
JW: While most Celtic releases I've seen lately have pastoral scenes on the cover, or tartans, or clan badges and kilts etc., you have a simple portrait of yourself with the Milky Way, the Southern Cross, and the endless universe behind you. How does the cover art tie into the album concept?
MS: Ancient travelers followed the stars in their navigation of the planet. This is a metaphor for me. I love to open my arms and heart to all that I can feel and know. I perceive no limit to the vast intelligence that we are all part of.
JW: People have been anxiously waiting for this album for quite a while. Will they be able to order it, or find out where to get it from your website?
JW: Now that For Love's Caress is complete, what are your next plans?
MS: I have a passionate love for the old songs and a fascination for the songs that have come out of the American cultural fusion. So, I am finally going to record a collection of songs to be titled "From the Lament to the Blues". It will be a collection of songs going back to the 12th century and forward in time to modern blues, jazz and rock-n-roll.
JW: Where do you envision the journey leading you?
MS: From strength to strength.
Interview by Jai Warner