Arts

Clannad's Moya Brennan talks about music, painting and the beauty of Donegal

As singer and songwriter Moya Brennan launches new album Timeless back in the Donegal pub where her musical career first took off, she tells Gail Bell why music, faith and family – and now a little painting – help keep life in perfect harmony

The 'ethereal' Moya Brennan, first lady of Celtic music, performs at the Fidder's Green Festival in Rostrevor later this month
Gail Bell

TOURING is definitely getting harder for the first lady of Celtic music, Moya Brennan, but the woman known simply as the voice of Clannad is not ready to give up life on the road with her harp just yet.

She is about to go – literally – back to her roots in Leo's Tavern, Co Donegal, to launch new album, Timeless, with musical collaborator Cormac de Barra, before performing at the Fiddler's Green Festival in Rostrevor this month with Clannad and (as a solo artist) at poet Paul Muldoon's 'Picnic' at The Mac in August.

Then there is another date in the north – at the Abundant Grace Church in Belfast as part of the New Lodge Summer Festival – before a 'Concert in the Dark' for the Christian Blind Mission (of which she is a patron) at Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin in October.

After that, a new tour kicks off, taking the 66-year-old singer, songwriter, harpist and philanthropist across Britain and Belgium before a final date in the Netherlands next April.

It sounds exhausting for someone half her age, but Brennan, who performed with her siblings in the famous family band since school days, believes every bland, forgettable hotel room is more than worth the reward of "two hours on stage" each night.

"Touring is always difficult because you really are living out of a suitcase," she says in the lyrical, storytelling tones that engage off-stage as well as on.

"Putting on the make-up, tuning the harp, having quick showers in different hotel rooms... it's all worth it just for those two hours with the audience when everything else fades away."

Undoubtedly, good genes help and for a long time the Grammy-award-winning performer borrowed the beauty regime of her soon-to-be 89-year-old mother who swears by Pond's cold cream and "still looks like she's in her 70s".

"I have stopped the Pond's cold cream these days," Brennan says, laughing down the line. "The wife of my brother – who now owns Leo's Tavern – has this amazing beauty clinic close to where I stay and I have loads of different facials and lots of lovely things done there.

"Donegal is where I love to chill out, in all kinds of weather; there really isn't anywhere in the world like it. It is also the place where I love to paint and I'm getting into that a lot more now. I'm using acrylics at the moment, but I am still finding my niche, as they say.

"Painting is a little like songwriting, I think: the more you you get into it, the more you 'find' yourself. For my last album [Canvas], I did all the artwork myself. I wish had more time to spend in Donegal and more time to paint."

Home these days is both Dublin and her beloved Co Donegal, close to where she grew up in Gweedore and not far from Leo's Tavern where she and siblings honed their craft on the open stage of their late father's pub.

Like famous sister Enya, her voice has had many worthy superlatives excitedly tossed at it over the years – 'ethereal', 'evocative', 'haunting' – with Bono raising the bar still further, describing the Brennan vocal as "one of the greatest the human ear has ever experienced".

And while her most recent "Celtic fusion" albums reveals modern influences – courtesy of daughter Aisling (26), and son Paul (24), who play in her band and collaborated on the 2017 Canvas solo album – it was the old Gaelic harmonies of Clannad that first catapulted her into the mainstream after they caught the ear of producers of Yorkshire Television's Belfast-set drama series Harry's Game.

"It wasn't overnight success, or anything, as we had already produced six albums – mainly in Irish," Brennan recalls. "But, our lives dramatically changed when the guy who wrote Harry's Game, Gerard Seymour, heard our sixth album, Fuaim, and asked us to write something for the programme.

"We didn't write the theme tune to Harry's Game to be in the charts or anything, but after we recorded it, we went off to Germany on a tour and then had to suddenly fly back to sing on Top of the Pops. It was surreal, really, the way it happened, as there we were with an international hit, when, for a long time, people thought we were totally mad collecting old Gaelic songs and singing in Irish."

But life in the fast lane took its toll and Brennan, destined to be teacher before Clannad, found fame at the Letterkenny Folk Festival in 1970, became immersed in the "wild party scene" where drink and drugs were always part of the post-performance entertainment.

She candidly documents those times – as well as the time she travelled to London for an abortion at 18 – in her memoir The Other Side of The Rainbow (published in 2000), giving husband Tim Jarvis, former photographer and now her manager, all the credit for "grounding" her and redirecting her towards her faith.

"Writing that book was the hardest thing I have ever done and I would never, ever do it again," she vows, "although, I did receive many letters from people all over the world who got encouragement from it – and it was also a kind of therapy for me.

"Being in the music business, you can easily get sucked into that side of things because there's a party every night. And just because I was in a folk band, it wasn't any different.

"I had been praying for guidance – I certainly wasn't praying for a husband – but, you know, I really believe that God put Tim in my path. He was a Christian and the two of us found a kind of common ground in the middle, even though he was from Cambridge and a Protestant and I'm from Donegal and a Catholic."

Faith remains Brennan's bedrock and, in terms of the abortion, she says she dealt with it through her Christianity.

"You think you can do something like that and just forget about it and wipe it out of your head – but you can't," she says. "It does affect you and it did me for many years. I lost a little bit of respect for myself, but feeling I was forgiven was a big thing.

"We all need spiritual guidance and I'm proud to say that. Having God in my life is of huge importance to me and I always feel that people who don't have spirituality must feel a bit empty. I don't know, but I can't imagine what it's like without it."

Brennan and Jarvis – who met during a photo shoot for a music magazine – will be married 29 this years this August and music remains very much a family affair.

"You know, when I was on the other side of the world, travelling with Clannad, I missed so many school events, dental appointments and even some birthdays," admits the singer.

"Now I am making up for lost time. I had such fun in the studio working on Canvas with Aisling and Paul; it was a time full of laughter, joy and healing.

"I can't wait to lock myself away with them again – but now, it's a more a case of, if they have time for me..."

:: More on the Fiddler's Green Festival, Rostrevor, at fiddlersgreenfestival.eu

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