Downpatrick singer Brigid O'Neill adds a touch of Nashville to her debut album
Co Down woman Brigid O'Neill, whose debut album has just been released, tells Gail Bell how music was always in her soul – although it took a self-discovery weekend in Rathlin Island to reveal a natural talent for songwriting
WITH a long career dedicated to nature conservation, it was somehow appropriate that Co Down singer-songwriter Brigid O'Neill should have her life-changing musical epiphany on the remote and unspoilt terrain of Rathlin Island.
Admittedly, it was a rather delayed bolt of lightening, arriving when the mother of teenage twins (a girl and a boy, now aged 17) was in her mid-40s, but when it struck, it hit hard and, in many ways, she is still reverberating from the aftershocks today.
Catapulted from work as a nine-to-five civil servant with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency on to the folk-jazz-blues stage as an exciting new writer of original, heartwrenching music – and with a voice to match – life has never quite been the same for O'Neill who lives with husband, Northern Ireland's outgoing director of public prosecutions Barra McCrory, in Quoile Nature Reserve outside Downpatrick.
It is just over five years ago that the now full-time singer-songwriter attended the Rathlin Island writing weekend, but it seems a lifetime ago for O'Neill who launched her debut album Touchstone earlier this month in Belfast.
It marked the beginning of a "manic" schedule, with further concerts planned for Dungannon, Derry, Portstewart and Downpatrick before the mini-tour culminates at The Grand Social, Dublin, in November.
Produced by acclaimed Belfast singer-songwriter Gareth Dunlop and recorded in Nashville, the long-awaited album features 10 original songs in the distinctive O'Neill vocals which have been described by BBC broadcaster and Irish news columnist Ralph McLean as a voice "that can break your heart at 30 paces".
For the woman herself, while she's flattered by the many compliments generously piling up from various artistic quarters, there remains a grounded commitment to the job at hand – writing emotively about life's experiences, real or imagined, and "connecting with the audience" on an almost mystical level.
"I left my job, working on environmental policies, last year, to concentrate on writing and performing full-time, but music has always been part of my identity and I have always relied on it on every turn of life, whether for joy or solace," she reveals. "When I was a child, I would watch my mother sing at family weddings and think, 'That looks good', but I didn't realise the pure euphoria of performing myself until much later.
"For me, there is very little, in terms of material things, that can come close to the feeling of being in a really good session and feeling in perfect rhythm with your audience, the atmosphere around you."
Despite having always sung "in an informal way" – she was regularly "dragged up" to perform at family parties while growing up – it wasn't until she was in her 30s that O'Neill started to play guitar seriously, progressing to singing at various low-key gatherings and gigs before wowing audiences across Ireland and beyond and supporting established singers such as Eddi Reader and Frances Black.
"It wasn't until that writing weekend, organised by Ballycastle Writing Group, on Rathlin, though, that I discovered the real power of songwriting and singing my own words," she reflects. "The first song I ever wrote was on that weekend when one of the tutors was traditional Irish folk singer and songwriter, Briege Murphy, who was really encouraging.
"I remember we were put into groups and the guy I was with just wanted to make his fortune by writing a Christmas song. It took me totally by surprise how easily the lyrics came to me and it was even more of a surprise when everyone loved it. That inspired me to learn more, so I later enrolled for a writing course at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast.
"People think my songs are autobiographical, but, while I draw a lot on my own experiences, I also inhabit the personalities of other people, just like a writer of novels, I suppose. I imagine how I would feel in other people's shoes, in certain situations and circumstances.
"One song emerged from a series of misunderstandings after I sent a text to the wrong person, so creativity can come from unusual sources at times.
"Inspiration also comes from the landscape around me and what's happening across the world – as in the song Refugees, for instance – but I think I'm most at home singing songs like Iron in Your Fire which is really bluesy. I want to do more like that."
Now aged "around 50", O'Neill, who picked up the Arts Council NI Artist Career Enhancement Award last year and was also nominated for Ireland's Acoustic Yard 'Blues and Roots Music Radio Songwriter of the Year' award, travelled to Nashville to hone her skills alongside Grammy award-winning songwriters.
"The award from the Arts Council was to enhance your career and experiencing Nashville definitely enhanced mine," O'Neill adds. "The highlight was singing songs from my EP, Arrivals and Departures, at the iconic Bluebird Café, which was an experience I will never forget," she says, in reference to performing at the intimate Nashville venue whose stage has been graced by artists including Guy Clark, Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift.
"The album Touchstone was mastered in Nashville with some tracks co-written with Gareth [Dunlop] and Thomm Jutz – guitarist to Nancy Griffith – so, you could say, I was in good company."
Influences are derived from eclectic sources, with roots in traditional folk and modern jazz and blues, but easily crossing over to the free-flowing sounds of Northern Ireland's Foy Vance or America's Paul Simon– "and, my guilty secret, The Eagles".
"I love listening to mainstream Americana music, so, when I started writing myself, all those different influences all converged," O'Neill says. "Also, with working over 25 years in nature conservation and writing policies to protect the beautiful Mourne Mountains, the landscape seems to creep into my songs, almost unconsciously.
"You need to create space away from busy routines to have proper clarity for honest song-writing, so I make regular dates with myself and force myself to sit down quietly somewhere and reflect on the highs and lows of everyday life – the things that strike a chord with all of us.
"Luckily, Barra and the children share my passion for music and I think Barra must be my biggest fan. He has been really supportive and encouraged me to venture out full-time in singing and songwriting when I felt the time was right.
"He plays the Irish bouzouki himself and the twins are involved in traditional Irish music, so playing and singing together is something of a family hobby – and hugely enjoyable."
:: Further Brigid O'Neill Touchstone events are at Ranfurly House, Dungannon (September 30); The Glassworks, Derry (October 13); Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart (October 20); Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick (November 10) and The Grand Social, Dublin, November 15. Tickets and information at www.brigidoneill.com