Trad/Roots: Scullion still breaking new ground
WHEN you look at a lot of the milestones in Irish musical history, one name keeps popping up.
Singer-songwriter Philip King has been the creative force (with others) behind the seminal TV series Bringing it All Back Home about the musical reciprocity between Ireland and the lands its emigrants settled in; Other Voices, the hugely popular series set in St James' Church in Daingean Uí Chúis/Dingle, and, of course, the radio programme South Wind Blows.
And the musician/film-maker is still broadening his horizons with a new album for Scullion, the band he helped form back in 1975.
But what was his own pedigree, I asked him a few weeks back.
"Well, I grew up in Cork city which is a very singing city and very like Belfast in many ways. Songs and singers are important to me in the way that Will Ye Go Lassie Go and the McPeakes or the voice of Davy Hammond or the songs of Van Morrison ricochet around Belfast, it was the same thing in Cork city, and there was a variety of music," he tells me.
"There were people who sang the old ballads, there were people who sang the popular songs of the day, there was a sort of a Gilbert and Sullivan society, and that was a unique tenor sort of voice that had a sort of a self importance, that was alluring.
"And then of course, on the other side of the fence, there was Rory Gallagher, born in Ballyshannon but growing up in Cork city. He was a key figure really in opening the door and painting a portrait of a possibility of what things could be like, musically."
But it is the music of the people who left Ireland and took their songs and music with them that has informed a lot of what King has done during his career. He quotes a beautiful line from Moya Cannon's poem Carrying the Songs which says of emigrants, be they Irish or African: "Songs were their souls' currency, the pure metal of their hearts."
A phrase which always comes back to him is one from the Dublin song collector and singer Frank Harte, who said: "If you want to know the facts, consult the history books. If you want to know what it felt like, ask a singer."
This could be said of Scullion, whose original members were King, Tír na nÓg's Sonny Condell, Greg Boland and piper Jimmy O'Brien Moran, but as a band they could never be accused of profligacy, having released just nine albums including two collections in 43 years. It was always a question of quality rather than quantity with Scullion.
Was the early incarnation more of a traditional band than the more contemporary one it became later on, I ask King.
"I guess that's true," he muses.
"I mean, Jimmy O'Brien Moran played a lovely kind set of pipes from from Tramore in Co Waterford. But I suppose there was a cobbling together of what seemed to be like disparate elements. Greg Boland, our guitarist at that time was probably listening to Weather Report and to Chick Corea while Jimmy was into Seamus Ennis," he laughs.
"Sonny Condell was writing new songs and I was doing my thing, the album produced by PJ Curtis while the second was produced by the legendary John Martin, but the core of Scullion's music is about tradition, translation and transmission and sometimes the instrumentation and some modalities and tunes would be contemporary, but that's our core really, something of the warm personal gesture that is always shot through a folk song."
Forty-three years later and numerous musical paths trod, the latest Scullion album is Time Has Made a Change in Me, although King says he hasn't changed that much.
This year, the Corkman celebrated his 70th birthday but who was that young fella, Philip King back in 1975 when the first Scullion album came out?
"Well, the me of 1979 and the older man of now, there's an intact connection between one and the other in that music is the central focus of every aspect of my life," he says.
The band line-up has changed though, with Time Has Made a Change in Me featuring King, Condell and Robbie Overson.
Could we say that Time Has Made a Change in Me is something old, something new, something borrowed and something bluesy, I suggest?
"Yes, I think that's definitely true but the totality of the record is literally as important," he agrees.
"For example, No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross, which is written by Sufjan Stevens, is like a folk song, one he wrote as a requiem for his mother.
"I was very taken by the Carrie & Lowell album that he put out some years ago which I think is a very, very beautiful record.
"And we follow that with Short Life of Trouble, a song that has so many different manifestations around around the world.
"It's a country song, it's a blues song and then in the hands of Sam Amidon, who is one of those modern people who takes songs and turns them into something else.
"Sonny's new songs, particularly Smoke Rising, is a very powerful education of what it is to age and to look back on your life, and sometimes see some of the things that you did, and feel tinged with regret.
"I say regret because the life of musician is not an easy life. You're compelled to do it, it's what you do, but sometimes it can be difficult for other people and I think that's borne out in that song."
The new Scullion album is also replete with some fabulous guest artists including Crash Ensemble, Conor O'Brien (Villagers), and Saint Sister's Gemma Doherty.
Time Has Made a Change in Me emphasises the band's musical curiosity and like all of the band's records, it breaks new ground.