Muireann is very well known here in Ireland, both on TV and radio. We thought it might be nice for our global audience to learn more about her: her background, her love of the Irish language and her wonderful new album. Muireann teaches two singing courses here on OAIM; we’re honoured to have her, a tradition bearer, on our team and can’t impress enough on our subscribers how lucky they are to have access to someone of her caliber to learn sean nós, traditional Irish singing, from. They simply couldn’t do better!
We hope you enjoy the interview.
You mention on your website how your childhood in West Kerry was highly influential on your development as a musician. Could you tell us about your youth? What was it like to grow up with Irish as your first language?
I had a pretty idyllic time growing up in West Kerry. I was surrounded by culture – Corca Dhuibhe is rich in music, language, history, literature and, of course, is an exceptionally beautiful place. It has a very interesting mix of people as it attracts a lot of artists and creatives, and our native culture is still very strong here – so I feel I had the best of both worlds in terms of what I was exposed to. Irish was my first language, I never thought about it as a child, apart from the fact that I knew there weren’t that many of us who spoke it, as when I left the Gaeltacht I was a source of curiosity to some. I am hugely grateful to be able to live here now and raise my own girls through Irish and immerse them in our culture.
As an Irish speaker, could you describe the importance of the Irish language on your singing in terms of style and repertoire?
The first songs I learned were in Irish. Everyone around here sings, everyone has a song. So it was hugely influential to me to hear the stories of this place from long ago, to connect with the people who sang them, and to learn through osmosis the regional style of singing. When you’re young you soak these things in without realising it. It’s something I love sharing with people and passing along. I prefer singing in Irish as I feel it is a very melodic language, and it contains lots of open and long vowels, perfect for singing.
Considering you are both a singer and instrumentalist, what is your approach to playing slow airs? Are the melody and the words intimately connected?
For me they are. If the air has words, I can’t help but sing them in my head as I play. So I think in that way I play them in a very ‘singerly’ fashion, following the phrasing of the words, even changing them verse by verse.
At the end of the day, if I can share a little of the beauty of our culture, and make someone’s day a little better, I’m really happy.Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
Are there any sean nós singers that you think every aspiring singer in the Irish tradition should listen to and why?
My goodness, there are so many but I think it’s probably a good idea to listen to as many regional styles as possible as to get a handle on the differences between them, as they are all very different beasts. Then it might be a good idea to focus on one or two singers from one area for a time, otherwise it can be quite overwhelming. Raidio na Gaeltachta is a great resource to hear sean nós and to decide what singers you like.
You’ve toured a lot internationally with the band Danú and as a solo artist. What is it like to share Irish traditional music with audiences in all corners of the world?
It’s a huge privilege and my favourite thing to do. I’m so proud of our music and language. It feels like a gift.
Your latest album “Róisín ReImagined” was recorded with the Irish Chamber Orchestra and features classic sean nós songs arranged by a number of Irish composers. Can you describe this experience and how different it was from a more traditional approach of sean nós songs?
Róisín ReImagined was a dream come true for me. It was a hugely collaborative experience involving many different people. Working with the talented Irish Chamber Orchestra and with our arrangers and soloists really pushed me creatively and as a vocalist, which was what I wanted. I felt it was the right time in my career to take a few risks, to see what might happen. Obviously sean nós is more often a solitary experience, but being a musician as well, and with my time in bands and ensembles I was keen to explore what we could achieve with an orchestra, and I wanted to explore it through other people’s fresh eyes.
You have also participated in projects that explored other genres, such as the electronica duo “Aeons” with Pádraig Rynne. How do you find a balance between innovation and tradition?
To be honest, I didn’t consider I was balancing anything. I was just writing new songs. Because they happen to be in Irish I think people felt they had an element of traditional singing in them. I’ve grown up in such an open minded place musically, I try not to be constrained by ideas of genre or tradition. People around here don’t call it sean nós, they just call it singing!
Beside your performing career you have also worked extensively as TV and radio presenter. Does it help you as a performer as well or do you consider it an entirely different activity?
It definitely helps. I am listening to hundreds of tracks every week. Of course it will influence you. And when I couldn’t perform myself during COVID, I found it to be hugely therapeutic to be able to curate shows and share other people’s music.
What is the importance of teaching for you as tradition bearer? Is there anything specific you try to pass on to your students?
I try to pass on the pleasure of music, the sense of community it conveys, and the connection it gives you to place and history.
And finally, what has been your learning journey like, from a young child growing up in West Kerry to performing internationally?
It’s been quite the journey. None of it was planned but now that I look back it feels like it was meant to be. I’ve worked very hard, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I’m very at peace with my place in the world now musically. I don’t worry about being perfect, or being everyone’s cup of tea. At the end of the day, if I can share a little of the beauty of our culture, and make someone’s day a little better, I’m really happy.