Trad/roots: John McSherry's alive and well and Kickstarting an olllam album

The lack of gigs and income means deep frustration for musicians but many, including John McSherry are working away at exciting projects they hope can be brought to fruition before long

John McSherry, front right, performing with the olllam
Robert McMillen

Have you ever thought that, because you haven’t seen or heard from someone for a long while, that something bad might have happened to them? And then they appear bright and breezy and full of the joys of spring?

Well, that’s the way it is with musicians in particular, especially during this coronavirus pandemic when they should be releasing albums or playing in sessions or going on tours but they are nowhere to be seen.

I was thinking about the brilliant Belfast piper John McSherry and wondering what he was up to when all of a sudden I got a message from him about an upcoming album from one of his more experimental bands, the olllam.

READ MORE: Tim Minchin: Make your songs sound as good as you can – why overthink it?

Not only is John alive and well but he has a couple of great projects lined up for when the current health crisis abates enough to allow musicians to fulfil their raison d’être – to entertain us.

“What have you been up to these past couple months?” was the obvious first question in our Zoom call last week.

“Not much,” was John’s obvious first answer, although under intense interrogation, this turns out not to be true.

“I’m launching a Patreon page in September which will offer tutorials, online videos rather than gigs because, sadly, that’s they way things are going at the minute, but we’ll just have to see how that goes.”

The definite news, however, is that after a gap of eight years we are going to hear a new album from the olllam, something the band members had always been planning but due to the fact that they live in different parts of the world and had so many other commitments, never found the time to do – until now.

“We did an Irish tour in 2018 and it went so fantastically well that we all got an incredible buzz and decided to roll the sleeves up and go ahead and do it,” John said.

That’s great news for the fans who love the unique lush Celtic sound of the olllam that is augmented with electronica, pop, rock and jazz. Each member brings something unique to the band, as John explained.

“I’ve known Tyler Duncan since 1997/8 when he was a big fan of Lúnasa with whom I was playing at the time. He was playing pipes and whistles but then he ventured into the jazz world and met up with another bunch of great musicians so you could say he brought the trad element through the jazz 'university' and that’s what he brings to the olllam.

“We have Mike Shimmin on drums who can recognise every rhythm there is going and Joe Dart on bass. Joe plays with a world-renowned funk band called Vulfpeck but he just slipped into playing Irish music like a hand into a glove. He just loves Irish music,” said John.

Belfast piper John McSherry

The last time I saw the olllam, I couldn’t take my eyes of Joe, he is such a brilliant musician who clearly loves what he does, but this time around the band will be augmented by two new members, Sean O Meara on guitar and Joe Hettinga on keys.

But with drums and keyboards and electric guitar and bass, is it hard for a piper like John to make himself heard? How do the dynamics of the band work?

“Well funny enough, we were supposed to be playing in Belfast this very week but of course it was cancelled. But we were planning to get ourselves new monitors and try out different types of stage set-ups for the pipes and whistles so they could hold their own in the rock set-up so that they wouldn’t be drowned out on stage,” explained John.

This year’s olllam gigs have been put into the diary for this time next year, but who knows?

And the whole paraphernalia of playing in the band and making an album – the technology, studio fees, session musicians and so on – have led to band to start up a Kickstarter campaign to help overcome the financial burden at a time when, without gigging, bands have very little income.

“Myself and Tyler had all the tunes written because he came over to Ireland in November and we spent two weeks non-stop writing new material. Then Tyler went back home to Ann Arbor and joined up with Mike Shimmin and they added the drums and the arrangements so really the album was in place and we were ready to go.

"We were all going to be in the studio at the same time to record that ‘live' feel to the album and Sean O’Meara and I had our tickets booked for the middle of March this year – two days before lockdown hit in and the flights were cancelled!” laughed John – ironically, of course.

That was what spurred the band to look to Kickstart to raise the funds to be able to record the album.

“My gigs have completely dried up because of Covid-19, and there’s nothing coming in but it’s the same for musicians everywhere,” John said.

To make a new album, there are production and engineering fees, studio hire in US, Britain and Ireland, session musician fees, mixing and mastering and all kinds of expenditure – while there is very little coming in.

Still John, as noted above, hasn't been twiddling his thumbs and has even more good news for fans of more traditional music.

“I’ve a new solo album coming out hopefully next year, all my own tunes which I’ve been recording down in Graham Henderson’s place in Drogheda,” he said.

“Graham of course plays keyboards with Moving Hearts and we’ve been working on the album for a couple of years but it seems to be coming to fruition now so hopefully we’ll have it finished in the next month or two with a view to releasing it next year.

“Then there’s going to be another album from Ulaid. That’s coming to the endgame too as we’ve all the recording done on that and finally, there’s a third album of strictly trad music with three pipers – myself, Tiarnán Ó Duinchinn and Calum Stewart, a brilliant Scottish piper who has been living in Brittany – and we’re joined by my brother Paul on guitar and again, that should be out next year,”

So there. There is going to be one hell of a musical explosion when this pandemic ends.

You can see the olllam’s Kickstarter page at

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