Trad: Uileann piper Cillian Vallely on Springsteen and The Raven's Rock

Armagh uileann piper Cillian Vallely has played with artists from Mary Chapin-Carpenter to Bruce Springsteen but on his new solo album is about being "true to what I like"
Armagh uileann piper Cillian Vallely has played with artists from Mary Chapin-Carpenter to Bruce Springsteen but on his new solo album is about being "true to what I like"

PIPER Cillian Vallely ticks all the boxes when it comes to the checklist of traits needed to be considered a 21st century traditional musician A-lister.

The Armagh man is a superb musician who not only has great technique and style but who has a deep understanding of the roots and emotions of the music he plays.

But Vallely isn’t afraid to dabble in the dark arts of fusion, whether it was the Celtic Jazz Collective or with pianist/composer Michael Ó Súilleabháin or with his siblings, Niall and Caoimhín.

He has played with well-known artists from other genres, Natalie Merchant, Mary Chapin-Carpenter and most famously with Bruce Springsteen on his 2014 album High Hopes.

He is comfortable playing with the band he has been in for the past 17 years, Lúnasa, in a concert hall or in a bar session in his adopted home city, New York.

And he wears a pony tail.

As I say, Vallely ticks all the boxes and this month he is particularly busy with the launch of a new solo album, and a tour with the rest of the Lúnasa boys,

He is one of the musical Vallely dynasty and I asked him if he was ever going to escape being a musician given the extraordinary parents he had in Brian and Eithne, founders of the Armagh Pipers Club.

“Well, to be honest, I was more into sport when I was growing up, but then again that was always a big part of the family too,” says Vallely, whose father Brian, as well as being an artist and musician, was also heavily involved with the National Athletics and Cycling Association of Ireland.

“I played the music since I was young, I’m sure I had a whistle in my hand since I was about two but I wasn’t really mad into it until I was 17 or 18 and even then I never thought of it as a career. All of us in the family would have played the pipes but I was the only one who stuck with them. They can be a frustrating instrument and temperamental at times.”

It was when he went to Boston that Vallely honed the rhythmic, flowing style of Paddy Keenan and Johnny Doran that has made him one of the best-known pipers in the world. He’d gone to America looking for summer work but ended up playing gigs six nights a week.

“I loved the idea that playing music could be a job,” he reflects. “In the beginning they were just sessions in pubs but then I was offered concert gigs and tours and I loved the travel aspect to it but in the beginning it was just about playing the music.”

Vallely admits that most of what he's done has been on the conservative side of things – not a bad thing when it is played with such style and panache – but traditional music, like jazz, can take many forms without borrowing from anywhere else, with everything from solo unaccompanied playing to large groups and complicated arrangements.

However, it is the unique sound of the uilleann pipes that attracts people from across the musical spectrum and that certainly includes Bruce Springsteen who asked Vallely to play pipes and whistles on the track This is Your Sword from High Hopes.

“Bruce had already done records with an old-timey feel to them using a lot of bluegrass musicians and he undoubtedly listens to and is very much into folk music. When [musicians such as Springsteen] have people like myself [playing] on their own stuff, they feel the sound of the pipes brings them something very different to a rock track."

However, with The Raven’s Rock, Vallely’s new solo album, it’s not about rock stars or pleasing someone else; this is an album that says "This is me, this is the music I like and this is how I play it", he says.

“Well. I’ve done a lot of albums – seven with Lúnasa and a couple of duet albums and I’ve played cameo roles on loads of other people’s albums. But with the new solo album, I wanted to be true to what I like, to make album that I would want to listen to."

Gathering together a great band of hand-picked musicians, Vallely excels in a symphonic blend of pipes, guitar. piano and bodhrán on reels, jigs, and a march while also treating us to a slow air or two. The Raven's Rock, he believes represents, what he's about as a musician.

However, the next time we see Cillian Vallely will be as part of Lúnasa, a band celebrating 20 years on the road this year, although he himself didn't join until 1999.

They're already lined up for 16 different festivals worldwide this summer but they are appearing at the Duncairn Arts Centre in north Belfast on Thursday June 23 (theduncairn.com)

:: Cillian Vallely's new album The Raven's Rock is out now.