The Living Tradition
SEAN KEANE - The
Man That He Is
Now and again, a singer arrives on the scene, seemingly from nowhere - and rocks the world of music on its heels. Sean Keane has achieved something like that, even in Ireland where great singers are plentiful. Slightly breathlessly, perhaps, one commentator has apparently even described him as 'the most important find of the 1990's'.
That assessment might well be true, but of course, the man didn't come from nowhere. Nor did the very characteristic voice. For he, and it, have already served several apprenticeships
"I've been disguised as a member of many bands," he laughs. "I've actually been singing all my life, it's been second nature to me. I grew up in a house full of music, the youngest of seven, but aunts and uncles, and both my parents could all sing, play or make musical instruments. I suppose what gave me the hunger for performance was Fleadh Ceoil competition singing. I won my first All-Ireland when I was about seven or eight, and then thirteen more in succession 'til I was about fifteen. I was also playing in a ceilidh band with my aunts and uncles and my father. I moved to England later, my first attempt at a semi-professional band being with Shegui, in London in 1979-81. We did one album, "Round The World For Sport", and toured the UK and Holland, a booming place for traditional music then."
Returning to Ireland, he joined Reel Union, which included sister Dolores and John Faulkener. He'd got the performing bug and the band toured Ireland and the States for a marathon five months, although the financial rewards were slim. "It didn't work according to plan, and we came back with less than we went out with. This wasn't too bad, we still got to see more of the USA than most Americans do during our frequent time off. It basically finished the band, though; five months stuck together touring is a long time. Then I joined an eight-piece band called Arcady, including Sharon Shannon and Frances Black. But after about a year and a half I decided it wasn't for me, because I was singing and Frances was singing, and a band that big was expensive and difficult to make work. So, I simply decided I had songs I wanted to sing and record, and various sorts of music that I wanted to explore in a smaller outfit. Because of that, I left Arcady just as they were recording their album."
His first solo album, "All Heart, No Roses", comprised songs he'd sung down the years. Many were traditional, but not all; then as now, despite his traditional roots, he didn't want to be known solely as a traditional singer.
"I enjoy any kind of song that moves me, like 'May Morning Dew', for the beautiful imagery that it's brought to me throughout my life. At home, the emphasis was always on the traditional because you'd regularly get musicians calling, people like Len Graham or Joe Holmes, from the North of Ireland. They'd spend a week or two working at the hay, and spending each night exchanging tunes and songs. There were many people like that, but also you'd get singers coming through playing guitar and singing songs. That was new to me, watching people accompany themselves for, you know, contemporary songs."
His family had catholic tastes: Jim Reeves could go down as well as a big ballad. But the first song he ever tried learning wasn't Country. It was 'The Boston Burglar', when he was just six. He went on from there to Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem. "These two men," he says, "just blew me away when I saw them." He's remained a Liam Clancy fan, remembering that first time as an eight year old, how they presented songs, how they could change the emotions of the audience, seemingly at will.
He admired older unaccompanied singers, likewise, such as the late Geordie Hannah from Fermanagh, and Mick Flynn from Miltown Malbay. "There were others, too," he recalls, "like Tom Phaidín, who I heard at sessions when I was a child. You'd be sitting down listening to those people, and you'd feel the emotion and you'd feel the energy, and 'twas just great. Some of the best singers never took it up professionally. Within my own family, Pat my older brother has a fabulous voice. All my brothers and sisters are good singers, but they only do it when there's a party on or a bit of fun; but on the instruments it's only Noel, Dolores and myself who took them up."
Discovering Liam Clancy and Geordie Hannah, though, was only part of the process. He agrees with what Artie McGlynn said to him once: "rather than discovering music, music discovers you!" "It's true," he says, "I never set out to be an entertainer or a singer, music just took me along and now here I am."
The actual songs that he sings nowadays come from all sorts of sources. People send him what they've penned, for a start. "I've got a box full of cassettes," he explains, "songs that people think I might like. Some I do. The box is added to constantly. But I also sing songs I've known for years. 'When I Dream' is one. I heard Crystal Gayle do it, last year, often, during the tour in the States, going along in the van. It was a song I'd loved doing, although only at parties, never on stage. But when I was doing the album, I'd just met its writer, Sandy Mason, so I just decided to do it. 'Blue Green Bangle' by Johnny Mulhearn is another good one - with a real ring of truth about it. Then there's 'Writing On The Wall' by Mick Hanley, I like that, a hard-hitting song from a great writer."
"Not everything works, of course," he continues. "I test songs out. I might pick one up, might roughly get a verse of it and then I'd see if I could sing it just my own way. The best way of doing that is out in the garden or driving along in the car. It might start coming every so often and you'd find yourself humming or whistling bits of it. Then suddenly you'd find you're comfortable with it and you might be singing it totally differently. I don't go back to the source, I just do it my own way. I'd rather form songs to my style of singing than the other way around, and a lot of it's subconscious. Keeping on top of material coming in every day is difficult. I can't sit down and say "well, today I'll go through my box!" If there were only five songs per tape, by the end of the second tape I wouldn't know what I'd be hearing, it would just make no sense any more."
Songs that he takes from other performers have to eventually become part of him. Yet such songs, he acknowledges, start their lives as the distinctive creations of very distinctive performers. Dick Gaughan's 'Sail On' is an example, so is Sliabh Notes' 'The People Of West Cork And Kerry'. How does he make pieces like that his own?
"It comes about because of what the song does for me when I sing it. That's the foundation of the whole thing - if I was there struggling with a song, you'd hear me struggling. 'Sail On' is a fabulous song but difficult. I was talking to Dick about it a few months ago. I said that I'd got it recorded, but said "I don't know if you'll be happy with it, as it's a divil to sing" and he said "I've never done it live since the day I recorded it, so good luck, pal." The other I changed to 'West Cork to Derry', because I see it like myself, an emigrant coming home. So, in 'West Cork to Derry' it's the people of Ireland I'm talking about. You see, I know some great people in West Cork and Kerry, but some great ones in Derry and Belfast too."
He sings only what he likes: "Oh yes, I totally control the material. There's nobody can tell me to sing something I don't want to, 'cos it just wouldn't work. If someone said "Here, Sean, you'll have a world Number One hit with this song", but I knew I'd have to sing it forever more, I'd have to think about it. If I thought a song was rubbish, I just couldn't sing it." He has, he says, no intention of moving into the lucrative pop-style market, therefore.
"Its a question of music," he argues, "but, it's about audiences too. I reach a wide group. It's great, our audiences are right across the board, for age, social backgrounds and so on. I get kids coming along that are five or six, dragging their parents in 'cos they've heard something. It's good attracting people because they've heard me doing 'Blackbird', or 'No Stranger', or other songs that they wouldn't associate with traditional music. Their reactions to the unaccompanied songs at the end of the concert generally show that they're the ones making the impact, so I love doing that. I think: when I was a young fella, it never was cool to be involved in traditional music, and here I am now singing my traditional songs to people who would've regarded them as rubbish."
As a performer, he's very intuitive. He's said to be able to sense audience 'chemistry' so accurately that he'll replace a planned number with another one at the very last minute if it feels the right thing to do.
This could represent something of a challenge for a backing band, of course "Well, it's a joke with them. When I'm on stage, it's my favourite place. I've spent all my life singing to audiences, from a couple of people at a fireside, to a crowd. Whatever the circumstances, there are people and you're getting a reaction and you're looking at it, and you're getting as much feeling from them as you're giving out in the songs. Every night is different, and I like it to be. I don't ever rehearse introductions; I tell the story of the songs, but all the rest I like to come just as it will, which I think makes every gig unique. Three songs in, someone might say something, or I see something that'll make me think "we won't do that one, we'll do this instead", so the lads don't write out set lists now. That makes it individual, for the people who are there, and the humour of the crowd and your own frame of mind all play into that. I reckon I'm only half of a gig, the other half is the audience."
His approach to doing recordings is similar. He doesn't have all his tracks selected before entering the studio. Usually, he says, the albums are built around a few key songs, then others are interwoven to create a rounded picture, giving varied tempos, moods and colours. He's even decided to record a song, told the songwriter it'll be on the album - but another song has come along which has meant more to him, and he's gone with that instead. He recalls one songwriter call him afterwards and say "I know what happens in studios, but maybe next time for my song ?"
Where he goes in the future is perhaps an issue. He has no 'game plan', he says. But there's clearly been a change of image from the early album covers ("the first one, the picture of me, was from an instamatic camera. The Americans replaced it with something that looked like a lump of seaweed"). Now, he's maybe more sharp-suited dude than laid-back Galwayman.
"It's not an image thing," he says. "Really, for a new album cover I couldn't care if it was just brown paper. Honestly, I know nothing about marketing. If there's a camera shoot organised, I go along and at the end of a day you have a table with, say, two hundred photos and they say "pick your cover". On the last album, we picked the sleeve twice, two photographs. Each time the record company wasn't happy with them, so I said "Just pick what you know works. You know what looks good on a shop shelf, I don't. I can tell you what works on the CD, but you'd be better to pick the cover." But I suppose I shouldn't be doing that because, at the end of the day, it is my image."
It's reassuring that he has no intention of being packaged, however. With that voice he could go anywhere, and he's constantly trying new ideas. He's dabbled in Country music, for instance, albeit that a major cause of that is Dolly Parton, whom he admires enormously: "She's great, a very honest singer, very traditional. Her ornamentation in a song, and even the way she approaches a song, would be very similar to the way I would do it. She decorates and hangs notes beautifully, she's just so good." Yet, he's equally taken with Irish traditional; Sliabh Notes' 'Gleanntán' is an album he listens to a lot, as an example.
"There's no game plan," he repeats, in conclusion. "It's just all about music, isn't it? You can't rush these things. Take me and traditional music, for instance. People ask me when I'm going to do a purely traditional recording, but I always give the same answer - "When I'm good and ready!"
by Hector Christie
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