What does the Irish language have to do with the Beatles? If it hadn’t been for an unlikely stew of songs of pop music and songs learned in the Gaeltacht, singer and guitarist Dáithí Sproule might never have opened his heart to harmony and arranging.
Host Shannon Heaton’s conversation with Dáithí details a beautiful integration of Irish and Beatles songs, with a mandate of beauty, respect, and mindfulness.
Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Brian Benscoter, David Laveille, Parker Abercrombie, and Brad Anderson.
Episode 10-Cuppa Tea with Daithi Sproule
Derry-born Dáithí Sproule on beauty, respect, and mindfulness
This Irish Music Stories episode aired November 8, 2017
Speakers, in order of appearance
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories
>> Dáithí Sproule: Derry-born, Minnesota-based singer and guitarist, and one of the first to develop DADGAD tuning for Irish music. He has performed with numerous ensembles including Skara Brae, Altan, Trian
>>Shannon: Hi, it’s Shannon Heaton; and before I offer this Cuppa Tea chat, which will close the First Season of Irish Music Stories, I wanted to invite you to visit Irish Music Stories dot org.
There are links to past episodes and playlists of all the music featured …
AND there’s a donate button, if you can help with travel and production costs for SEASON TWO, which will air on February 13th.
And speaking of airs….
This is Irish Music Stories, the show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it…
[Music: “Cup of Tea” (reel), from Rehearsal
Artist: Shannon Heaton (flute), Matt Heaton (guitar) ]
… like Dáithí Sproule’s love of melodic airs.
>>Dáithí: So, I love beautiful melodies. I’m not going to sing a song unless it has a beautiful melody.
>>Shannon: Dáithí Sproule is a singer with a penchant for exquisite melodies. He’s also a guitarist, who has crafted some of the loveliest arrangements Irish music knows, including songs and tunes with Altan, Trian, Fingal, James Kelly & Paddy O’Brien, Tommy Peoples, Skara Brae, Peter Ostroushko and Laura MacKenzie.
He’s been busy.
But not too busy for a Cuppa Tea chat. And when we were both in Dallas, Texas last month, I had a chance to sit down and learn more about how Dáithí developed his style of singing and guitar playing.
[tea prep sound effect]
OK, we didn’t really have a cup of tea—we had wine. And we had that later in the day. But I’ll definitely recycle that tea sound effect for future cuppa tea chats in Season Two.
So for Dáithí, music started at home, in Derry.
>>Dáithí: So my mother sang a bit, you know, she sang around the house. And my great aunt, who lived with us, had been a famous singer in Derry, in light opera, the pantomime and so on. She was a great singer. So they would have always performed in the Feises. We all, as children, we were all entered into the Feis from the school.
Like 120 little boys all singing, one after the other with the adjudicators.
[Music:”Beidh Aonach Amárach,” from Best of Altan
Artist: Altan ]
And then you had the duets, and then you had the unison choir and you had the harmony choir. So, I did all those.
>>Shannon: So he liked the music. But it wasn’t ‘til his teens that it all came together. With pop music and with summers in the Gaeltacht village (Irish language speaking village) of Ranafast in Donegal.
>>Dáithí: When I was 9,10,11; I began to be conscious of songs that I liked singing from the radio, you know, pop songs. And then there was the early 60s, the Beatles. And I think a lot of people came to the Beatles because it was sexy or cool or something. But, I think, musical people were blown away by the music.
[Music: Song: “Blackbird,” Lon-dubh
Composer: Paul McCartney arr. Fowlis
Artist: Julie Fowlis ]
You know, you could hear. I didn’t know what a chord was. I didn’t know anything formally. And I could hear something was happening. What I was hearing was the chords and the harmony and so on, and the dynamism and the beauty of the songs and so on. So it just totally blew my head off.
And another strand was me going to Ranafast to the Gaeltacht from the age of 14. And staying, you know, these are summer Irish colleges for three and half weeks. It’s very,very, very strict.
>>Shannon: Would you stay with a family?
>>Dáithí: Fifteen or 20 little boys in one house and 35 little girls in another house. All the houses all over the neighborhood, scattered around, all jammed full of bunks. You could not speak a sentence of English or you’d be sent home in disgrace. So, it was very, very strict. But in the song classes, anyhow, we started learning these gorgeous songs, of course, which I loved.
>>Shannon: It was the beautiful songs—and the arrangements of those songs with guitar, with chords—that really grabbed Dáithí. The way the songs were being presented.
>>Dáithí: From the age of 14 or 15 I began playing the piano by ear to learn the chords. I wanted to learn chords. So, then by the time I was about 16 I began to think in the back of my mind, “If I got a guitar, I could play it. And when I was 17 in Ranafast, that place I went every year, my friend Jim McCluskey had a guitar. And he said, he’d give me the guitar and I, “Where is the F, where is the G, where is the Em? Well here we go.” So I instantly, I was playing the guitar, and then also, instantly, I was arranging these beautiful songs with chords. And that was also incredibly exciting.
So the final nail in my coffin that sent me irrevocably into this whole thing was, in my class, there was a guy called John Healy. But somebody said, “You know, Healy’s a great guitarist.” Alright, so I made the date to go up to Healy’s. And Healy had this amazing repertoire of songs in Irish and English. And Healy arranged them all for guitar. I might as well have been calling in to see the Beatles. It was just unbelievable.
So that was the end of the story, as it were, as far as what I was interested in. I loved these songs. I loved the arrangement of the songs. I loved traditional songs. In Irish and in English. I was also, in fact the seed was planted there. I’ve always loved American traditional songs, because we were hearing Joan Baez and some of the early Dylan and that was always completely natural to me.
>>Shannon: What about taking all these different kinds of ballad songs and sean nos songs and traditional songs and contemporary songs, and putting it all together? What does it become for you?
[ Air: “Johnny Seoighe,” (instrumental version of the song), from the Crow in the Sun, 2008
Artist: Dáithí Sproule ]
>>Dáithí: There’s no one traditional style. You see? That’s the whole thing. That’s one of the conundrums. You know, I think you get a style by listening to lots of stuff and then just singing. That’s what style is.
A really great singer can sing in their own style.
Dolly Parton could sing anything. And she’ll always just sing it like Dolly Parton. And yet it won’t sound wrong, you know, it’ll sound…
>>Shannon: Authentic to her.
>>Dáithí: It’ll sound authentic to her and authentic to the song. Respectful.
>>Shannon: Dáithí is respectful—of his fellow musicians, of all of us listening, of the people he got the songs from, and of the songs themselves.
>>Dáithí: Another thing I’ve been very interested in from the start was not trying to not distort the rhythm of the song. And of course, I have, like all guitarists, I’ve done that. Guitarists tend to even out the rhythm of songs.
>>Dáithí: They tend to immediately have a picking pattern. So, dadadada dadadada dadadada. And then in between the lines there’s that space where it goes, dadadada da dada, you know? I rebelled against that. So even if I have a steady rhythm, I try and phrase it not steady. But also more and more and more I prioritize the actual phrasing of the song. The phrasing is what’s so beautiful about the unaccompanied songs. So, I LOVE beautiful melodies.
>>Shannon: Yes, yes, and you have made beautiful melodies. So what’s that experience like, taking words and putting your own melody to them?
>>Dáithí: Well, it’s really sort of making a virtue of necessity. Because I’m quite verbal. I mean I can talk away. But I don’t feel comfortable, I’d love to be able to make up lyrics but I don’t think I can. I’m not comfortable doing that. I feel I can’t do it. So, therefore, but I love making up melodies. I know I can make up a melody.
>>Shannon: For example, take a song like the Lurgey Stream. Dáithí loved the words of this song. And meanwhile, he had written this other love song—he loved the melody of this one, but he didn’t really like the words that he’d come up with. Then he realized that the words for the Lurgey Stream fit. Well, they MOSTLY fit:
>>Dáithí: And in fact, the melody, sort of, didn’t completely FIT the Lurgey Stream. And that made it even more interesting.
[Music: Sings Lurgey Stream]
>>Dáithí: Something like that, oh! It’s a very guitarry thing too, there’s some nice chords in it.
>>Dáithí: So, if you take a different melody to the Lurgey Stream, Kevin Mitchell’s melody.
[sings first phrase- When to this country first I came, my mind from law was free].
Well that’s all very specific. It could be waltzy [sings]. Or if you imposed a different kind of rhythm on it, maybe something different but equally steadied out. Whereas I hear all these different subtleties of levels of stress and the speed of phrases. Where there is a long note and where there is a little fast run. I’m sure you know what I mean?
Tune: “Hometown Lullaby” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton
>> Shannon: I do.
>>Dáithí: In fact it’s very much like speech. And sometimes when I’m talking to, even accompanying tunes by the way, I approach them exactly the same way. I’d say to people, you know, if you just listen to the way I’m talking, there’ll be a space, and then there’d be an emphasis, then they’ll be this whole run of little words. That’s a plan for phrasing, if you want a plan. But ideally there’s a certain process. I encourage people not to do things mindlessly.
>>Shannon: So, mindfulness. And again, respect. Whether you already play Irish music, or you know very little about it, this feels like a universally lovely approach to any project.
>>Dáithí: I also feel a duty to the people I got the songs from, or the tradition I got the songs from. Even though I’m playing with a guitar. I don’t want the people I got it from to feel that I’ve ruined, you know, that I’ve ruined the song. So that’s part of my motivation for trying to be true to the ways, to the extent the way they did it. Their feeling for the phrasing really. For the feel of the song. If I got some song from somebody in Ranafast, or from somebody in Derry who sang it unaccompanied, I would hope that they would think, “Oh, yeah, that’s nice, he hasn’t wrecked my song.” You know? Or maybe, of course the ideal would be if they felt you’d made it a wee bit more beautiful with your accompaniment. Hopefully.
I’m very aware of special songs, you know. You might have a special song. That has a special feeling, a deep feeling.
>>Shannon: So what are some of your big special songs?
>>Dáithí: There’s one that I’ve done in many different ways too; Johnny Seoighe (Shoyguh—Irish for Joyce) or Johnny Shoyguh from Connemara. Johnny Seoighe was just a very, very interesting, very Connemara type of melody. And the Johnny Seoighe itself is this terrible story where a man is, um, a man is appealing to the man, Joyce. Joyce is the man in charge of giving out poor relief in this area. And of course this is probably the mid-1800’s, everybody is starving to death. And what he does first is he flatters this man to make him give help. It’s really for his wife and family. You know, “Oh, you’re the most wonderful man in the world, you’re the star of knowledge now so please help.” And he’s refused. Even the workhouses fill up. And they’re thrown out on the road, the family is thrown out onto the road. And then he’s really bitter and, obviously, angry. But there’s just this line in it that I just love where he says that what really he can’t understand, he just can’t even contemplate, how could a man be so cruel as to send his wife out onto the road, who is more beautiful than the morning star. And the words morning star are in English in it, you know
[ Music: “Johnny Seoige,” from Trian, 1992
Artist: Trian ]
>>Shannon: That’s the version of Johnny Shoyguh that Dáithí recorded with Trian, featuring fiddle player Liz Carroll and accordion player Billy McComiskey.
>>Shannon: What does it feel like to play this music for people?
>>Dáithí: I don’t think I’m one of those people who craves, you know, attention. When it’s going well and I’m in good form, I enjoy it like having a nice conversation. Like now, having a fun conversation. Nice people, and that’s what I’m doing. And then the actual songs, I’m sharing the feelings, the beauty, I think these are beautiful and I’m sharing that beauty. And the main feelings for me are of love and sorrow. That is what to me, that’s how I describe. There’s the beauty, there’s the love, and the sorrow. And you’re sharing this. And also I think of my analogy to you is that it’s like somebody who has people over to dinner. They’re really into cuisine and cooking and this is the best meal. Instead of giving the people a burger and fries or a lone steak, this is the most beautiful meal I can give you now. And I may not be doing it right, I might have messed it up, I may not be able to make it as beautiful as it needs to be. But that’s what I’m doing. And therefore, I suppose I have a confidence in that. That’s what I put my trust in and actually singing you or playing you something I think is beautiful. And I hope that you feel something in that. I think that’s what it’s about.
>>Shannon: (Thoughtful) Hmm.
>>Dáithí: Performance for me is in the moment. I don’t know how it is for other people. But when I walk off the stage, I’ve forgotten all about it. You know, I don’t sit back and think, “Oh, that was a great gig.” You know, for two minutes after the gig. The gig is over, it’s gone, I don’t even think about it. I think there are people who cherish the good gigs that they’ve had afterwards. And that’s great, actually, that’s wonderful. But I’m not like that. I do it, and it’s done. And I do love playing and you’ve been talking about the songs, so I suppose I’ve been thinking of it very egocentrically in my experience. But of course I do get to play with wonderful people. I love playing with these great musicians that I play with, with my friends. And that alone is great. You know? In fact, nothing else is really required if I’m playing with Liz and Billy, James, Randall, Altan, or any of the people I’ve played with. I’ve played with so many great people. That in itself is great, nothing else needs to be great.
[ Music: “Dark Haired Lass, Biddy from Muckross” (reels), from Blackwater, 1996
>>Shannon: On a stage or in a living room, you seem awfully relaxed. And the songs that you choose are quite lovely. What’s your secret?
>>Dáithí: Um, well, thank you but I think I’m being myself. I don’t like putting on an act onstage or offstage. I think when you’re giving people your genuine self and your genuine music you love, and then you get up and you are, kind of, honest and open and try and be aware of the people; I think that may look like relaxation or something, you know? As opposed to people, you know, I think sometimes performers, even people who have been performing for years are still trying, and they’re not quite being themselves. They don’t have the confidence to just be themselves, and they do things, and they talk in a way and move in a way that unconsciously, for the audience, makes the audience slightly nervous.
>>Dáithí: Seriously! I think that’s true. What do you think? You tell me.
>>Shannon: Haha! Maybe. Maybe. I like the idea of being totally okay to be yourself, thoroughly loving the songs and the tunes that you’re playing, and not thinking about the gig too much before or at all afterwards. Seems like a good cocktail.
>>Dáithí: Is that what you do?
>>Shannon: I think that I tend to fixate a little bit in advance—a little anxiety there. And, I think, afterwards, I tend to ruminate on the things that didn’t go terribly well. Um. But, you know, that idea of being yourself and sharing things that you really like. That appeals to me. I can identify with that.
>>Dáithí: Yeah, I think it’s a good plan! In my early 20s I wasn’t like that. I was more like what you were saying, only far worse, you know. I was miserable after every gig. You know the Skara Brae days I was miserable after. Because it didn’t seem to work out the way I wanted. [I was … nerves] And I was incredibly nervous. It was terrible. And at some stage that just went away. I think when I became an accompanist of tune players, I think that really helped. You know, I felt…
>>Shannon: You were playing a role?
>>Dáithí: Yes, I felt I was doing a pretty good job. And they were happy to have me there. And then it wasn’t about me. It was about them. And I got to play with a lot of great people. And maybe I did get more comfortable in myself in that phase. Maybe I, in many ways, became oblivious to how people were judging me. Because it’s not really helpful to think about how people… I mean, I didn’t deliberately do that but thinking about that now and talking about it I realize that I just forget, it doesn’t occur to me to start wondering what people think of me while I’m doing it. Do you understand? I’m just doing my best. If nobody tells me that it was so terrible or that I was all out of tune, I don’t know. And I’m perfectly happy!
>>Shannon: So, when Dáithí is backing up instrumentalists playing tunes, it’s not all about riding that groove wave that John Doyle, Matt Heaton, and Keith Murphy alluded to in the Irish Music Stories episode, “The Backer.” (And by the way, those three amazing guitarists also make beautiful arrangements of songs, and are incredibly sensitive of beautiful sung melodies.)
But Dáithí’s accompaniment style really traces the MELODIC threads of the instrumental tunes, in a very song-y way. It’s a distinct approach that I didn’t really explore in the Backer episode. Good thing Season Two is on the horizon.
>>Dáithí: The people I’ve played with have just been fantastic. I’ve been unbelievably lucky. And a lot of them are into songs too. Like you say Liz and Billy—are really into the songs; which is great, singing and support it a lot, and unquestionably, and do interesting things. Which is great. And no matter what, I don’t ever remember them saying, eh, I don’t know about that song. They’ll have a go at everything. That’s unconditional acceptance. That makes you feel very comfortable. James has been the same, too.
>>Shannon: And Randall.
>>Dáithí: And Randall’s great. He’s really, really into the songs. Gorgeous.
>>Shannon: The arrangements are beautiful.
>> And he can’t play anything that isn’t tasteful. Taste is another one. You have to do a series of 10 podcasts on taste!
>>Shannon: On taste! I could do 10 podcasts on Grapefruit Moon. We love that one.
[ Music: “Grapefruit Moon,” from Overland, 2004
Composer: Tom Waits
Artist: Randal Bays & Daithi Sproule ]
>>Dáithí: That would be an example of a special song for me. That kind of says it all. Everything about it is lovely. But I really, really love the thing where it says, “Well I’ll smoke my cigarettes and strive for purity.” I just think that is the most fantastic thing. Because I presume we’re all about the same. We spend so much of our energy trying to get our lives together, to be good enough, or clean up our act, or whatever it is, we’re always trying and we always have our list and our plan. It’s just so true, it’s wonderful.
[Music: cigarette verse of Grapefruit Moon
>>Shannon: That was Dáithí with fiddle player and guitarist Randal Bays, from their lovely album Overland.
[Music: “My Dearest Dear,” from Trian
Composer: Melody by Terry Woods, traditional words
Artist: Trian feat Dáithí Sproule ]
I can’t think of a lovelier, more perfect way to close this season of Irish Music Stories, than this conversation about beauty, respect, and mindfulness.
Well, thanks for chatting!
>>Dáithí: You’re very welcome. It was fun. I say, I felt a bit jumbly…
>>Shannon: It was perfect!
My deep thanks to Dáithí Sproll for the great conversation. And to all of you for tuning in!
This episode of Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton, with generous support this month from Brian Benscoter, Seamus Connolly, David Laveille, Parker Abercrombie, and Brad Anderson.
Thank you for your donations. Thank you for reaching out and encouraging this project—and me! I’m so lucky to pull these Irish music stories together, and donations help me share this show with everybody.
[Music: The Stage; the Western,” from Traditional Music of Ireland, 1995
Artist: James Kelly, Paddy O’Brien & Daithi Sproule ]
I’ll be traveling around this winter, gathering more stories. And I’ll be back with more Irish Music Stories on February 13th.
If you’d like to learn more about the music in this episode—or if you can kick in with a show of support—or if this is your FIRST episode, and you want more, please head to IrishMusicStories.org. Thanks so much for listening, everybody!
>> Shannon: OK, let’s try the cuppa tea sound effect again
OUTTAKE of Matt/Shan making tea in the kitchen.
Episode guests in order of appearance