Trad/Roots: Clare Sands on travel, song and inspirational women

Clare Sands' eponymous album 'breathes to the rhythm of the earth'
Clare Sands' eponymous album 'breathes to the rhythm of the earth'

You could say that Clare Sands is one of those people who represents all of Ireland.

Born in Connacht, raised in Munster, recorded in Leinster and now living in Ulster, her songs and music reflect and renew the past and present, both in English and Irish..

"I was born in Galway, but I think I was only three or four months old when we moved back to Cork, but I do call myself the original Galway Girl," she smiles.

"But born and raised in Cork, and my mother is from a farming background in Co Wexford and my Dad coming from Newry, we're from everywhere, really."

And Clare's musical pedigree is equally wide and deep.

She can trace fiddlers and singers in the family going back six generations.

"On my mum's side, there are piano players and singers as well so I suppose my musical life was completely unavoidable and it does a strange thing to the body when you can feel that," she says.

Clare is connected to Colm and Tommy Sands and the rest of the Sands family and there would be family trips from Cork to Rostrevor where, no doubt, many's a song would be sung, a story told and a tune played by the older generation and by Clare and her cousins.

"I moved up to Belfast a few months go because I always wanted to base myself in this part of the country at some point and it feels the right time to come up and explore those roots," she explains.

Clare went to UCC and studied music and Italian but always knew she would end up making a living in music.

She's been playing professionally for about five or six years with lots of other different groups but she says it's only in the last year or two that she has actually realised, "OK, actually, this makes sense," and set out honing her craft.

Up to now, Clare has released two highly-regarded EPs, Tírdhreacha agus Fuaimdhreacha (Landscapes and Soundscapes) and The Basement Sessions, which she recorded in her basement in her home in Cork City.

Now she has released her debut album, the eponymous Clare Sands, which speaks of resilience and of solidarity, of friendship and kinship, and of the deep human need for connection.

It was born out of Clare's musical roots, her own innate musicality – she plays guitar, keyboards, cello, percussion and other instruments - but also of her love of travelling

I ask her if she gets sustenance from the music of different cultures.

"Definitely," is the quick reply.

"Every January for the past six or seven years I head off to somewhere far away, somewhere hot and sunny rather than hanging around these dark Co Antrim shores and it's brilliant to do that, to hear other musics and cultures.

"Last January, for instance, I was sitting in Bogotá in Colombia, drinking a cocktail and dancing salsa. I highly recommend it."

It's not for nothing that the first track on the album is called Chasing the Sun. Always accompanying Clare on her travels is her fiddle and her Dad's tape recorder; she takes it everywhere with her, to record whatever strikes her aural curiosity, some of which she incorporates into her own music.

"I constantly have the mini disc recorder with me and I'm always collecting so a lot of the album was built on personal experience but I love collecting different sounds or the stories of fishermen, for example," she explains.

"Sometimes it's not very obvious, it might just be a note or it might be a little rhythm or it might be a recording that I hear, stuff like that but it keeps it fresh and interesting.

"We live in a culturally rich but small island so it's great to experience other cultures and musics."

While some of the songs on Clare Sands were conceived on her hearing a story or a recording that she collected, others were written and composed just sitting with her guitar and putting down whatever came to mind and from the heart but it also depends on her different instruments. Behind her on the Zoom screen, I can see a cello, a bass and a drum, and hanging the wall is a fiddle.

There is also a great mix of spoken word on the album, from the Tommy Sands poem on Abair Liom Do Rúin to Seán, a Conamara fisherman in Iascaire Chonamara, and Manchan Magan on Lasair Lasta Fós while Bernadette McAliskey appears on Focail Feasa.

"I always loved poetry growing up and songs are poetry just set to music, so it made total sense for me to always have voices weaving in and out," says Clare.

There are also some great musicians on the album, including Fiachna Ó Braonáin, Steve Cooney and Susan O'Neill.

"Being able to work with heroes of mine and people that I've touched base with over the last year has been great but to have the opportunity then to say, 'Would you like to do this together?' has been brilliant, because they are all so inspiring and passionate about what they're doing and that always sits well with me," she says.

There is another star on the album – the sea.

Clare has long been an all-weather swimmer – long before it was cool – and the dramatic album cover illustrates that perfectly and the sound of the sea runs through the album.

Indeed there are a lot of lot of powerful women on the album, including Gráinne Mhaol, Countess Markiewicz and Margaret Barry and, as mentioned, the former MP and present day community worker, Bernadette Devlin.

So, is the album an homage to great woman.

"Yes, it's a theme that's running throughout the album and it's also because I'm the oldest of three sisters and my life has been surrounded by great women," she says.

"I remember looking at my mother and my grandmother and just thinking, how did they do the amount of things that they do in 10 minutes?

"If you just sit and watch your mother cooking sometimes and she's also on the phone or there's a child here or whatever, it's actually remarkable but for some reason, you only catch that when you're a wee bit older."

Clare Sands is an album that breathes to the rhythm of the earth, be it on the coasts of Conamara, Colombia or Cuba, and populates it with the voices of ordinary and extraordinary people but it is her own voice and sensibilities and cares that make the album so powerful, the personal becoming the universal.