I grew up surrounded by music says Cavan singer Lisa O'Neill

There's music in everything for Co Cavan woman Lisa O'Neill, whose new album Potholes In The Sky touches on themes from love to the wife of Brian Boru

"We all have a unique take on life – I just have the outlet to sing it," says Lisa O'Neill
Robert McMillen

LISA O'Neill's music reminds me of a view I once had from the window of my room at the Killyhevlin Hotel in Enniskillen. From that vantage point, in the early evening, I could see Lough Erne stretch away into the distance and blackbirds flying over bare autumnal trees. It all seemed so primeval yet here I was in the present day.

That's the way Lisa O'Neill's music comes across to me: primeval but modern –timeless, in fact. That goes especially for Potholes in the Sky, the Cavan woman's third new album, wherein the subjects she sings about can range from love, to an Irish queen who lived 1,000 year ago.

Lisa grew up in the village of Ballyhaise in Co Cavan, 4.3 miles from Cavan town or a 15-minute drive to the border. I ask her if she fitted the cliché of the rural child who played in the fields and lived in their imaginations.

“It's true that I live very much in my head but some of my siblings don't and we grew up in the same house, never mind the same village, the same environment with the same parents. We all have a unique take on life. I just have the outlet to sing it,” she explains.

However, the real world of Lisa grew up was filled with music. She'd listen to music on the radio or on the record player and even to TV adverts which she had a knack for remembering and rhyming.

She started playing the whistle when she was seven years old in the local marching band and stayed there for seven years until she took up the guitar and started to sing and write her own songs. She went to College of Further Education in Ballyfermot to study music – and learned that studying it was not the way to go.

“I don't want to sound too negative and I made a lot of good musical friends but I think you can just go out there and just play and listen and feel. I do think it was a great course and it's great that it's there but wasn't for me. I shied away from exams but I knew I was good at my music and that I didn't need to be trained, that I would have to find it myself, ” she says.

The self that Lisa has found is happy to call herself a folk singer “because folk songs are stories of the people or for the people. It can be a story from the past or something I come up with myself. It's my version of what happened, it's a story that's a folk song, isn't it?"

Lisa's father, Bud, was a great influence on her. He was a musician himself and he would say that apart from his wife and kids, music was the most wonderful thing he'd come across in his life and that never changed.

“Myself, I was influenced by American country singers like Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash up to a certain age and then The Beatles – and Queen! We loved Queen. There was always the same records played time and time again and I think that was good for my kind of mind.

“I always attended traditional music festivals, not really playing it but soaking it up and I don't know if it comes through in my music or in the rhythm of my body or whatever. And later still, my tastes got a bit darker and I got into Nick Cave and Bonny Prince Billy. Now however, I am listening to a lot of [Margaret] Barry. She was a very interesting woman.”

But again, music is everywhere for Lisa.

“I am very inspired by the land, by trees and birds and there is music in there as well. There is music in the wind, in the leaves in the forest, it's an ancient music,” she says.

Her own songs come from a different experience.

“When you have a tiny change in perspective, it opens up the mind and that often comes through me in the poetic or a musical sense,” she says. “It could be the seed of an idea that has been there for a while, maybe a couple of years sometimes and I might go round it in my head and shape it and colour imagery like a small cartoon maybe and they live in my imagination, a few at a time. And often when I am sleeping alone, they'll burst open in my dreams which is pretty amazing.

“Or they'll open to me when I'm cooking or when I'm in the garden or when I'm running, any time when I am doing something meditative. Washing the dishes is another good one when the conscious gets pushed aside and the subconscious starts to work and the song starts to write itself almost."

Having said that, Gormlaith's Greiving one of the songs on Potholes in the Sky came about because of a challenge. At a party one evening, Declan O'Rourke and Lisa gave each other a challenge – each of them had to write a song to be sung to the other within four months.

“I asked Declan to write a song about the thousands of women who were sent to Australia in the 1840s and he asked me to write a song about the Battle of Clontarf because it was the 1,000 year anniversary at the time.” Lisa explains.

“Now I wasn't in the least bit interested in the Battle of Clontarf or in Brian Boru. I didn't find him interesting but I did find his wife, Gormlaith, intriguing so I wrote a song about her which was difficult because I could find very little information about her, and she wasn't liked because she was powerful. All I tried to do was to shine a light on Gormlaith's life and on women's lives in Ireland a thousand years ago,” she says.

:: For her gig in the Heaney homeplace on May 5, Lisa will be playing solo, which will be perfect for the intimate atmosphere at the Helicon.

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