Songbird Pauline Scanlon still ready to fly despite Belfast Cohen concert setback
Celebrated vocalist Pauline Scanlon may have had to pull back on her many musical projects during lockdown but she tells Gail Bell that her passion for women's equality in music, Leonard Cohen and her late mother's memory are keeping her focus on the future
FLUENT Irish speaker, women's activist and celebrated chanteuse Pauline Scanlon is reflecting on the big issues in life – lockdown and paying the bills, her latest project Mise 'gus Tusa, in memory of her mother, and, of course, her cancelled Belfast Bird on The Wire concert – when, just to prove you really don't know what else lies round the corner, her dog, Harry, bounds in and runs off with her shoe.
It is the second time our conversation has been interrupted – phone connections causing the first – but it is a moment of levity for Scanlon who, along with her fellow musicians, has been finding the restrictions tough, not least because she and Co Antrim-born musician husband Eamon Murray largely rely on live music performance for a living.
Sadly, for northern fans of the Co Kerry native – who as well as having enjoying a successful solo career, has collaborated with the likes of Andrea Corr and Sinead O'Connor – her Leonard Cohen-inspired Bird on the Wire event has been yet another coronavirus casualty from the hard-done-by entertainment sector.
Scanlon was due to sing with Galway-based trio Noriana Kennedy, Noelie McDonnell and Nicola Joyce, who make up the harmonious Whileaways, alongside fellow Bird on The Wire band members, including Beoga 'legend' from Toomebridge (and 'other half'), the aforementioned Murray (drums), Will Merrigan (bass) and Dave Clancy (keys) at the Whitla Hall this month, but the concert has now been put back until next spring.
However, all is not lost, with the sell-out show – performed across Ireland and Britain to rave reviews – being live-streamed from Cregg Castle in Galway early next month. It is, of course, second choice for the singer who thrives on the buzz of a live audience, but going online is, she concedes, "a step up from nothing at all".
"I've done a couple of online things and it's a different medium for an artist; certainly for a 'people person' like me," says Scanlon, who lived in Belfast for four years and still owns a house on the Ormeau Road. "Luckily, I live in a community in Galway, just north of the city, which is full of musicians and for the Bird on the Wire project – restrictions allowing – we have been able to get together in smaller groups and just continue to play – just to keep our heads straight.
"Lockdown has been hard and still is for musicians – my husband and I both play full-time professionally, so all of our paid work is just gone for the foreseeable future. It's been up and down, in terms of how we have been feeling and it's been very stressful, to be honest. We have a three year-old daughter [Kitty] so, while some people have used the free time to be creative with new work, I have been mostly worrying about the future and paying the bills."
Growing up listening to Cohen, his songs now feel like a lullaby to her late mother, Eileen, who was a massive fan, but the project actually took root when she was commissioned to sing from the late Canadian crooner's song book as a surprise element to a silver wedding anniversary celebration at the Irish National Entertainment Centre (INEC) in Killarney, Co Kerry, in 2018.
"The couple who own the centre were 25 years married and the husband asked me to sing a few Cohen songs as a surprise on the night for his wife," Scanlon recalls. "So, I put the band together for that one-off event initially, then people just got to hear about us and the word kind of spread and we kept being asked to do more Cohen gigs. It grew organically and took on a life of its own."
And, true to Cohen's enigmatic Bird on The Wire lyrics, the vocalist and songwriter who galvanized the Irish music scene with her debut album Red Colour Sun 15 years ago, has tried in her own way "to be free", whether by making her mark as a solo artist or in various collaborations such as Lumiere (with Éilís Kennedy), Atlantic Arc Orchestra (with Dónal Lunny), or with Irish-Maori fusion band, Motu Oileáin, who accompanied Irish president Michael D Higgins on his 2017 tour of New Zealand.
A sometime TV presenter for both BBC and TG4 – among several documentaries she presented was Ceol Ón gCroí, featuring songs of the 1916 uprising – she also describes herself as a proud feminist and is a founder member of Fair Plé, a movement directing gender balance within the traditional music scene.
"I started gigging in pubs when I was in my teens and I have never really stopped singing since then," she says, "but as a professional performer now for 20 years, I still work with 75 to 80 per cent men. I've been in lots of bands and been in a lot of collaborative projects with lots of women – I make it my business to do that – but in terms of billing and gender balance in festivals, and even within bands, there is still a lot of work to do.
"Shockingly, in terms of radio play, a gender disparity report recently published [conducted by music publicist and consultant, Linda Coogan Byrne] found the top five indigenous Irish acts played across every station in the country over a year ranged between 80 per cent and 100 per cent male. There is no legitimate reason for that."
Her own practical research carried out over two years on equality in music now complete, Scanlon wanted to create a "musical response", so decided to take the life of her mother, Eileen, for latest project, Mise 'gus Tusa (You an' I).
"My mother passed away eight years ago, so it's nice to be able to honour her in this way," she says. "I am breaking it all down into stages and attributing a traditional song to each stage of her life. It's kind of a memorial in music but also a collection of traditional songs reflective of the experiences of modern women, so that's where the idea came from.
"I collaborate with some of my favourite singers, including an amazing young singer from Co Tyrone called Loinnir McAliskey and Armagh singer-songwriter, Barry Kerr."
Clearly, Scanlon likes always to have a mixture of things on the go.
"I'm always in collaborative projects with people because I love singing with other singers; I love the harmony," reflects the talented vocalist who often gets mistaken for talented novelist, Patricia Scanlan – particularly in radio interviews.
"It often happens when I'm on the radio," she laughs. "People will say, 'Oh, Patricia this, or Patricia that' – it happens all the time, but I don't mind in the least being called 'Patirica'. It keeps me on my toes and reminds me who I am.
"I always try to have variation in what I do because I think if I was just to stick to my own solo work and not branch out with other people, I would get bored of myself. It's not that I get bored easily, it's just that I like to stay excited about music."
:: Pauline Scanlon and The Whileaways will perform their online Bird on The Wire concert, celebrating some of Leonard Cohen's best loved songs, live from Cregg Castle, Galway, on Wednesday, October 7. Tickets from €10 at birdonthewire.ie