Niamh Parsons - singing from the heart of he tradition
Niamh Parsons knows her place. For the past few weeks, as Dubliners have shivered and slithered through the winter in much the same manner as we’ve done over here, Parsons has been chief fetcher and carrier, keeping her elderly mother and her sister, a victim of the ‘fractures epidemic’ caused by the snow and ice, supplied with essentials from her car boot.
Normally life on the road means something different. As one of the pantheon of great singers to have arrived on the Irish folk scene over the past thirty years – she knows her place here, too: fourth to launch a career after Mary Black, Dolores Keane and Maura O’Connell - Parsons gets around.
Europe and America are particularly strong markets for her wonderfully clear, emotionally engaging singing. Scotland hasn’t been on her itinerary, she says, “for years and years and years” but that’s about to change as she prepares to join the annual celebration of the late Jimmy McHugh in Glasgow next month.
Parsons is yet another prominent Irish music personage – previous guests at these concerts have included master fiddler Paddy Glackin and the Paganini of the tin whistle, Mary Bergin – who have been touched, nourished or in some way encouraged by the McHugh family, whose patriarch was, as Glackin put it, a beacon for Irish music in Glasgow.
“I’m more of an age with Jimmy’s sons, Martin and Brendan, but I remember Jimmy well because he was always so generous,” she says. “Singers aren’t always given the best deal at informal sessions – in fact, sometimes we’re tolerated, at best – but Jimmy always had a sense of what would be enjoyable, what would add something to the evening. And when he was overseeing a session, as he often did in Ireland, and if I was there, he’d always look over at me and say, ‘I think it’s time for a song’ and that would be my chance to sing.”
In those days Parsons was a singer in her spare time, using the salary she earned working in insurance in Dublin to fund her trips to festivals all over Ireland. A comparatively late-starter, certainly in relation to the young musicians who proliferate in traditional music today, she was twenty-six when she joined her first semi-pro band, Killera, and – she lowers her voice to a whisper – thirty-two when she turned fully professional.
“I’d never given a career in music any thought, really,” she says. “My father was a lovely singer and we sang as a family, especially in the car on long journeys. We knew loads of traditional songs but when I was growing up, in the 1960s, traditional music wasn’t popular the way it is now. My parents used to take my sister, Anne, and myself to hear people like The Johnstons, with Paul Brady, and Anne Mulqueen, and Matt Molloy and Liam O’Flynn, who went on to join the Bothy Band, would come back to our place for supper. I can remember lying in bed listening to these great sessions going on downstairs but music was something we did simply for enjoyment.”
She didn’t sing in public until she was twenty-one. There was a folk group at her church and she joined them, eventually becoming their leader, and when she began to view the congregation as her audience and the altar was in danger of becoming a stage, she thought maybe it was time to separate the music from the mass. Around the same time, Gerry ‘Banjo’ O’Connor, who would later recommend her to the nascent but soon to be hugely popular Arcady, recommended that the band Killera try her out. She got the gig but they all had day jobs and Parsons remained semi-pro until 1989, the beginning of a momentous year.
“That was when my life turned round completely,” she says. “I met a bass player and within the space of about ten months I’d fallen in love, got married, become pregnant – all in the right order: we were quick but we were decent – and found myself with a band, the Loose Connections, which was my husband’s band really. Oh, and I also moved to Belfast and because I was living there, Gerry Banjo put me up for the gig with Arcady. So I was singing with two pro bands at the same time and going off to America, where Arcady became popular very quickly.”
Singing with Arcady also led to her signing with an American record company, an arrangement that began well but wound up with Parsons making five albums instead of the contractually agreed four and being sent a bill after the fifth album that she’s still paying off. The albums, suffering at times from over-production, weren’t always to her liking either.
“For me, it’s all about the song,” she says. “The songs themselves are more important than listening to my voice, so anything that gets in the way of what the song’s actually saying is superfluous. That’s why I enjoy working with my musical partner, Graham Dunne, who’s been my guitarist-accompanist for eleven years now. He’s a sound engineer, too, and he has great ears, so I have to be at my best all the time when I’m working with him. He really keeps me on my toes.”
As someone who sees herself as a tradition-bearer rather than a singing star, she’s always on the look-out for songs and when she’s at home in Dublin she’s a regular at the Gael-Linn singers club, which she describes as “three or four hours of dirges.”
“That probably sounds like hell on earth to people who don’t go or who don’t know what goes on there,” she says. “But it’s a great source of songs. Sometimes you can know a song for years and years and never find a reason for singing it until it suddenly jumps out at you. You might have to wait until the time’s right – or you might wait and the time passes before you realise it. But the songs I sing all live inside me. I’ll have worked on them, often for a long, long time, and I know the emotions they stir so that when I sing to people I can help them to laugh a bit and cry a bit and, I hope, generally leave them feeling better.”
From The Herald, December 30, 2010.