Trad/roots: Luka Bloom on his first instrumental album Out of the Blue
Though it hasn't always felt like it to him, the pandemic has proven to be a period of creativity for Luka Bloom. He talks about Co Down guitars, loss and ageing, and what prompted him to make his first instrumental LP
NOT many of us would class producing three albums in the space of a year as “doing nothing” but that’s the way it feels for singer-songwriter, Luka Bloom, thanks of course to the pandemic.
“Live at the Roma came out in March 2020, Bittersweet Crimson came out in July 2020 and Out of the Blue, the latest, came out about a month ago, but it feels as if I’ve been on my a**e the whole time. When I’m not doing gigs, it feels as if I’m doing nothing,” he says with a shrug of the shoulders.
Bloom also made the decision when lockdown happened that he wasn’t going to do online gigs.
“The idea that it’s somehow normal of me to be sitting in my kitchen singing for 100-200 people, there’s a lie in that and I’m not buying it. I do miss the audiences and I do miss the gigs, but I’ve kind of let go of it,” he explains as if he were getting used to the idea that a childhood sweetheart had gone off and married the town’s hunk.
Still, there is solace in his beautiful surroundings in north Co Clare, daily swimming and/or cycling and of course, his guitar.
I ask Bloom if the guitar dictates his playing style or does he choose guitars to suit his style.
“That’s a very interesting question,” he says followed by a longish pause. “From the very beginning, my songwriting has been very much guided by the nature of the guitar I play.
“I would say, there are songs that I have written on a particular guitar that I wouldn’t have written had I been using a different one.
“About five years ago when I turned 60, I decided I needed to get myself a proper, grown-up guitar and for the first time I went up to that amazing institution in Co Down that is the George Lowden emporium, and I met the great man himself and he was incredibly helpful and insightful as I told him about the challenges I’d had with several guitars.
“I’d like a guitar that did more work than I did, I told him, and he has since made me two guitars. The second one is a Spanish-style cutaway guitar and it is the most beautiful instrument I’ve ever played. It’s the only one I’ve played on each off the three latest albums, including this most recent one which is purely instrumental.
“I don’t know if I would have made this album if I didn’t have this guitar. Every time I pick it up, I feel an invitation to create,” says Bloom. And so was born Out of the Blue, 11 tracks, six self-composed and five traditional, that he says wouldn’t have seen the light of day were it not for Covid.
“I had no intention, ever, of doing an instrumental album although people have been asking me to do one because they thought I was a good guitarist. I don’t agree with them but it’s nice of them to say so.
“I have always seen the guitar as an accompaniment to my songs and I thought that something extraordinary would have to happen to make me want to do one.
“Obviously, after my gigs were taken from me in 2020 and I decided not to do the online gigs, if I’m honest about it, the inception of this album was Steve Cooney’s album, Ceolta Ársa Clairsí, old Irish harp tunes played on the guitar.
“That album was my early lockdown go-to album. It nursed me through the first lockdown as I grieved the loss of four bloody tours and not knowing what in God’s name to do with myself. So I picked up Steve’s album and then I picked up the George Lowden and started to play,” he recalls.
The first tunes he learned were two by O’Carolan, Bridget Cruise followed by Eleanor Plunkett – although my favourite is The Mountains of Pomeroy, as inspired by Cathal Hayden – and then for further inspiration, Bloom met up with Peadar Ó Riada and Iarla Ó Lionaird.
“To hear Iarla singing Aisling Gheal is, every time he sings it, one of the greatest vocal performances you could imagine. It is so raw and so deep and so natural but no-one has ever played it on guitar, to my knowledge.
“So I started working on it and it took me about two months to get the intrinsic feeling of the song, it was a huge challenge, but I realised that listening to Peadar and Iarla that the playing of these… ballads, I suppose, was comforting to me in lockdown and giving me solace and peace in my mind.
“I found the playing of these tunes very healing and it was then, in the middle of last year, I began to think, it’s been great learning these old tunes and it has taken me to a new place with my guitar and my guitar playing so let’s see if I can create something.”
And so Bloom began composing his own instrumental material, starting off with the first track on the album, I Hear You, which he composed after the deaths of two friends, neither of whom died of Covid although the disease completely dictated their end-of-life experience, he says.
“It was scary and devastating and I thought of those two people as I wrote the piece and I actually feel that some of the feelings I had at that time is reflected in I Hear You.
"Then I thought, if this healing for me, if I do a good job and be emotionally honest about the true nature of this time, and all the vulnerability that there is in the world at this moment, if I can reflect that without adding words to it then it might be comforting to others as well,” he says.
“It’s like the way people can empathise with the blues. It’s because the singer of the blues is able to reflect the sadness that is being felt by the person who isn’t singing and that empathy causes everyone to feel better.
“That’s why I called this album Out of the Blue because it came out of my blues,” he admits.
I suggest that beauty and sorrow are two sides of the one coin and Bloom agrees. When he was younger, he didn’t want to be listening to sad songs, he wanted to be listening to rock and roll, to happy lyrics or angry lyrics and celebration.
“But actually, one of the joys of getting a little bit older, is that you can give yourself permission to sit with the stuff you ran away from when you were younger.
“A lot of the stuff that I ran away from dealt with feelings that I ran away from. Had I known when I was younger that you could sit with them, and be with them, that you might actually create something beautiful out of them.
“One of the things I like about getting older, is that you begin to realise that, if you can be at ease with your vulnerability and be honest about it, and be open about it, that there are diamonds in there.”
:: Out of the Blue is available from lukabloom.com