Trad/roots: Bróna McVittie's The Man in the Mountain an LP that grabs your attention
This week I'm recommending a fabulous new album by a Co Down singer, songwriter, composer who I hadn't previously heard of but who is most definitely on my radar now. Plus you might want to check out a Belfast-produced podcast series on some of the greats of Irish music
It happens less and less but there are those magic occasions when you hear a piece of music for the first time and you suddenly stop what you’re doing and just listen.
That’s what happened to me last week when I was busily working away on the laptop while listening to the latest edition of Folk Radio UK on Mixcloud. It was then I first heard Bróna McVittie’s haunting voice intermingling with harp and electronica as she sang her self-composed piece, Falling for Icarus.
I stopped typing, started listening intently and moved on to Spotify (I know, I know) where I found both of Bróna’s equally brilliant albums. But who was this Rostrevor-born harpist, singer, songwriter, composer that I hadn’t heard of?
No sooner was the question asked but I was speaking to Bróna herself – via Zoom – as she was preparing for then London launch of her new album, The Man in the Mountain.
While trad careers tend to follow a template, folk musicians follow a more circuitous route and so it was with Bróna.
“I lived in London and played in a number of bands there but around 2006 I borrowed a harp from a friend, Keith Beechey, and I just fell in love with the instrument,” she explains.
“Because Keith was also a maker of harps, I asked him to make me one that I could buy in instalments and he did. It was just a small harp to start with and later I asked him to make me a bigger one when I just had very basic technique which I learned from Keith. But because I already knew how to play the guitar and a few other instruments, I kind of taught myself, as well as going to workshops with the likes of Michael Rooney and Laoise Kelly, proper Irish harpers, although that’s not really what I do. I usually play the harp to accompany my vocal,” she explains.
So the classes-Comaltas-competition thing didn’t feature in Bróna’s musical journey.
“I want to a state school in Newry and the only instruments available there were woodwind instruments for some reason so my first instrument was actually the clarinet,” she recalls. “I played it for a couple of years and then took up the guitar and started to write songs.”
While in London, Bróna also took a great interest in electronica and followed a lot of purely electronica bands but at the same time “fell in love” with Beethoven. And so all these diverse elements played their part in the development of Bróna’s own sound in that she uses a lot of different textures in her compositions which have been captivating audiences throughout these islands.
While she might not be a typical Irish harpist, Bróna’s native place was obviously a source of inspiration for her, whether it is the natural landscape around us – as we heard in songs like Under the Pines about the Rostrevor Pine Forest – but also the poetry and the folklore of the area.
The new album is named after the 'sleeping giant' Fionn Mac Cumhaill who lies atop the Cooley Mountain and whose profile can be seen from atop Slieve Foy.
Her first album, We Are the Wildlife, was half recorded in Co Down and half in London, whereas The Man in the Mountain was recorded completely in Bróna’s “little home studio here in Rostrevor”.
She says she is just pleasing herself but she is certainly pleasing a lot of other people too. The Man in the Mountain is the Guardian Folk Album of the Month and the plaudits are flying in from all over the place, from the likes of Mojo and Uncut.
Apart from her own compositions, the LP also features two well-known traditional songs, Eileen Aroon and a stunning version of The Lark in the Clear Air, just when you thought it couldn’t be done any differently or any more beautifully.
:: You can find out more about Bróna at Brónamcvittie.corkbots.com
There's great news for traditional music fans as the Irish language and cultural centre An Droichead has this week released the first in a series of traditional music podcasts profiling some of trad's A-listers.
Hosted by yours truly, Ar Chúl an Cheoil/Behind the Music interviews some of traditional music’s foremost figures about the people they are and the music they play.
The podcasts explore their unique perspectives on the tradition, their influences and insights into their careers as musicians.
The first episode features legendary fiddle player Paddy Glackin (Bothy Band, LAPD) with subsequent interviews featuring, among others, piper, cellist and composer Neil Martin, Buncrana fiddler and academic Liz Doherty, and Lúnasa’s uilleann piper, Cillian Vallely.
For my own part, it was a privilege talking to such lovely people who have interesting things to say, not just about music but about life in general.
I found it very uplifting that the guests, after a lifetime of playing, teaching and recording music, are still as curious and inventive today as they were when they were teenagers.
I also think that the podcasts will appeal to everyone from the dyed-in-the-wool trad-head to youngsters taking their first steps into the magical world of Irish traditional music.
Through the different guests, we get a glimpse of the huge variety there is in traditional music, how the old music remains hale and hearty but how others are boldly taking it into the 21st century and beyond.
Speaking about the podcast series, An Droichead’s arts officer, Claire Kieran, said all at the centre were really excited to launch Ar Chúl an Cheoil.
“We hope that it provides a way for audiences to go behind the music they love and hear the unique perspectives of some of the amazing musicians we have had play in An Droichead over the years,” she says.
:: To listen to the podcast, with a new episode each Monday, go to apple.co/33EBvPY or search An Droichead or Ar Chúl an Cheoil on all podcast providers