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Iarla O'Lionair Banner Image

Iarla O'Lionáird grew up and learned his craft in the musical heartland of Cúil Aodha in the West Cork Gaeltacht in Ireland where he established himself both as a masterful exponent of Sean Nós Song and as a pioneer in its renewal and development.

Always an artist on his own journey O'Lionáird signed to Real World label in the mid 1990’s making many ground breaking recordings with the multi million selling and Grammy-nominated Afro Celt Sound System. Solo albums Seven Steps to Mercy (1997, produced by Michael Brook) and Invisible Fields (2005) brought widespread acclaim confirming O’Lionáird as one of contemporary music’s most ambitious singers and recording artists.

O'Lionáird has always been a collaborator and an artist seeking new fields of engagement. From his collaborations with Peter Gabriel on Ovo, this has taken an increasingly classical form. His song-cycle with Gavin Bryars, Anail De (The Breath of God) reflects a deep artistic collaboration and friendship with the composer. Similarly he has worked extensively with acclaimed Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy and his group The Crash Ensemble. On ‘Foxlight’, his third solo album, Iarla has created a rich and mature work as producer Leo Abrahams returns O’Lionáird’s remarkable voice to the heart of the music.

In an interview for Society of Sound Iarla talks about the making of this album:

“Leo Abraham is the key song-writing collaborator. His guitar playing is lyrical and beautiful and restrained but at the same time quite adventurous – from a sonic point of view he’s ahead of the curve. When you’re making a record such as this you’re concerned about songs – that’s the form and shape. But there are other things as well – I’m often liable to start writing based on sound and texture – a voyage into sound as much as into songs. My work with Leo is another indicator of that – the pure experience of listening to sound, arranging sounds to create sometimes-unexpected effects and to generate response and emotion. Some tracks on this record are much more about the sound field – particularly the song ‘Stay’ – a song about my father and me as a very young boy. Jon Hopkins’s contribution is the backbone, the skeleton – it’s as much about the sequence of the sonic events as anything else."

"The lyrical content of the song is condensed – it’s collapsed into one world almost – the word ‘stay’. Not a hell of a lot of word to be given the duty of carrying the whole message! But that then puts you into a position where you’re creating something that is so dependent upon every next droplet of music - the arrangement of microscopic tonal events that somehow reach your heart. I always look forward to mixing – we have been working in London and I couldn’t wait to get into the studio at Real World. What we are trying to do is the iteration, the final burnishing. There’s a sort of dark magic to mixing – foreground shifts and its all very subjective but at the same time you know when its right and if you’re lucky you know when there’s enough done.”

Producer and guitarist Leo Abrahams discusses the recording process:

“I had an idea about how I wanted to frame Iarla’s voice; quite different to the way it had been done before. One of the things in art that I am really interested in is ambiguity and for me there was a lot of ambiguity in working with Iarla because I didn’t understand what he was singing about! But nevertheless he is capable of communicating so much without using text that the majority of his listeners can understand…but it’s a thing that can be obscured by too much production or too many mysterious sounds.

I have a small recording studio in East London with a little live room and a little control room. Although it’s a digital studio it has lots of nice analogue warm-sounding equipment in it. But the room doesn’t have a huge amount of character – it doesn’t sound echoy like a church or exciting like a stone garage…it’s quite dead. So that gave us a lot of control of what spaces we wanted to place the sounds in – we wanted the strings to sound like they’re in a church but we’d like the vocal to sound like its right next to your ear. It’s a very intimate sounding album that we’ve come out with. Rather than have a lot of things covered in reverb, there are a lot things that are very dry and maybe one thing that sounds distant to give it more space.

What I like in records is contrast. I like some sounds that are very ‘expensive’ or ‘pure’ sounding and other sounds that are tiny or sort of ‘wrong’. So a lot of the piano is recorded with contact microphones that cost £ 5 each and then the vocal with an £ 8 000 microphone! Somehow that gives a distance between all the other elements that I think exaggerates their differences and makes everything sound deeper.

One of the thing I’ve been exploring as a guitar player for a long time is creating ‘soundscapes’ – basically ambient music using analogue sources. Even with analogue synthesisers you’re triggering something – pressing down a plastic key and triggering some kind of circuit event. If you are controlling very complicated sounds with a guitar string I find you can get a sort of expressiveness or a fault within that which balances our the ‘coldness’ of the digital part. So most of the ambient sounds on the record have a very analogue and physical source - whether that’s Jon Hopkin’s contributions with piano or Leafcutter John using accordions or glockenspiels or me using guitars.”

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