Interview: Cork Folk Festival headliner Andy Irvine on the road again

Monday, September 25, 2017

At 75, Cork Folk Festival headliner Andy Irvine still gets a buzz out of touring and playing his music, writes Joe Dermody.

Andy Irvine plays Triskel in Cork on Thursday night.

FOREVER the musician’s musician, Andy Irvine also has the somewhat unusual good fortune to be almost universally loved by audiences.

Expect a warm reception this Thursday when he headlines a night in Triskel Christchurch as part of this year’s Cork Folk Festival. His show follows the impressive opening act of Maighread and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, the famed sisters of the Bothy Band and Skara Brae.

“Hardly an opening act, more like a double bill,” Andy jokingly corrects me. Fair point.

Given his unique vocal style, you might expect the mention of Andy Irvine’s name to polarise opinion. Not at all.

In fact, if he were on Facebook, he’d break the ‘Like’ counter. When I tell people I’ve interviewed the London-born singer, literally everyone I speak to says they love Andy. Quickly followed by ‘What’s he like?’

As it turns out, he’s very chilled. I was running late for the interview, stuck in traffic, so I texted to seek a 15-minute delay. He texts back: “No problem, Joe!”

When I land, I begin with an apology. He stops me: “You weren’t interrupting anything. I was only out doing a bit of gardening.”

At 75, the gardening helps keep him fit, he says. And he is very fit. Mind you, he has been on his feet a long time. He began touring with Sweeney’s Men in 1965.

He still does shows all over the world, and he regularly gigs with Mozaik, Patrick Street and Paul Brady. Does he still love it as much as ever?

“I have always enjoyed it,” he says. “When I started out, I had no idea that I’d make a living out of music. I can’t think of a single time when I said to myself ‘I hate this’.

“I have said yes to so many gigs over the years. At this time of the year, I’d usually be going to Germany, usually in November, but I’m not this year. I am doing a show in Argentina in December; there’s a great folk club there that I really like. I’m also a big hit in Patagonia.”

It’s not just for his name that Irvine is big in the Andes. He brings a lot of travel and cultural depth to the way he plays mandolin; mandola; bouzouki; hurdy-gurdy; guitar-bodied bouzouki. His sound connects with people in so many cultures.

Irvine formed the legendary Planxty with Christy Moore, Donal Lunny and Liam O’Flynn in 1982. The band’s epic all-too-brief reunion was captured on a great DVD of their 2004 Vicar Street performances. Any chance of further reunions?

“No one has mentioned it. It’s too bad that it hasn’t happened again. I really enjoyed that. We were better than we had ever been, as energetic as we were as young men, and

musically we were more mature.

“Vicar Street is a lovely place to play, like a big folk club. I also really like the Triskel. I played there a good few times, including a Sweeney’s Men reunion. It feels like a concert venue.”

Last year’s 40th reunion shows with Paul Brady were also a big

success, featuring appearances by Donal Lunny and Kevin Burke. Any more of those on the horizon?

“We are thinking of doing something again next year, but we’re not sure. You can hardly celebrate your 41st or 42nd anniversary. Paul is such a great writer, and it’s good to mix styles. Paul’s main line is a different line to mine. He’s a bit rockier than I am.”

While on the subject of revivals, any chance of Andy reviving his acting career? He appeared in several Abbey productions, had a small role in the film Room At The Top (1959). Then, from about the ages of 8-14, he was a child star in RTÉ’s soap opera Tolka Row.

“I was a great child actor, but then I lost the desire. I did a lot of TV. I was in Tolka Row until 1963, and it was around this time that I started my music career. We were all playing in clubs before we played together. Sweeney’s Men was our first band.

“Then I had a desire to travel. In 1968, I headed to Eastern Europe. I learned a lot of new instruments and new rhythms.

“When I came back to Ireland, other people also started playing those rhythms. I suppose that’s what I brought to folk music.”

That’s a fairly modest account of Andy’s role in the way that Irish folk music broadened and evolved in the 1970s and into the 1980s.

The reality is that he is among the henchmen of choice for all the big names of the folk circuit, not just in Ireland but all over the globe.

I try to confirm one old tale of how the ballad of ‘Little Musgrave’ came into being. One version of the tale goes that Christy Moore found some old lyrics in a library, but no tune; Andy put a tune to it, and it became an all-time favourite for many.

“Whatever Christy said is fine by me. Let the legend stand; I wouldn’t want to be the one to knock it down,” says Andy politely, but firmly.

No guff, no showbiz blarney, nothing but the music. There’s a good reason Andy Irvine remains one of the most celebrated and loved of Ireland’s folk stars, both with the musicians and the fans.

Andy Irvine plays Triskel Christchurch in Cork on Thursday as part of Cork Folk Festival. Also on the bill for the gig are Also Maighread and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill.


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Archive: 2005 – Interview with Thistle Radio

As a multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter, Andy Irvine has been a part of some of the most influential Irish music recordings and a member of Sweeney’s Men, Planxty, Moving Hearts and Patrick Street.

(This interview was recorded in Perthshire in 2005)

I’ve met with Andy Irvine and we’re sitting, on a lovely, sunny morning, overlooking the banks of the River Tay. And it’s just a great opportunity to stop for a moment with you on your travels and talk a little bit about what you’ve been doing all these years. So thanks for taking the time to meet up with me.

A great pleasure, great pleasure Fiona.

When I think back on your journey and I think of Sweeney’s Men and up through the years with Planxty, and on with Patrick Street and all through that your solo work, it’s been a long road, and a long journey. What leads you on?

Oh, well that’s a difficult one really. I’m trying not to be lead on quite as much in future. I haven’t started my new regime yet, but, I don’t know, I kind of complain all the time and say ‘Oh, I’m not going to do this. I’m going to cut down on my touring etc.’ and I never do. Maybe I can’t say no. ‘I’m just a boy who can’t say no,’ or maybe it’s just that I love it, you know. Also it’s my life, it’s the way it is, so what else would you be doing?

Yes, I suppose it does become a lifestyle, doesn’t it, being on the road. And maybe the more you do it, the longer you’ve been doing it, in some ways the easier it gets. You know what it takes to get up and go, you know what’s needed, you know how long it takes to get you from A to B to C to Y to Z. And you become an old hand and that’s an asset for someone who travels as much as you do.

I think that’s true. I learned the ropes many, many years ago but there are still new things happen to you but it’s a bit like asking a bank manager why he continues to be a bank manager. It’s my life and my job and I can’t imagine any other. You know, sometimes at the end of a long tour, I think ‘Thank God I’m going home’ and if I have any length of time at home I get really kind of itchy and bad tempered and kind of look forward to the next moment when I’m hitting the road again.

Even people who are not deeply familiar with Irish music or Celtic music in general, will have heard of Planxty and anyone will be able to tell you of the tremendous influence the band has had on the course of this music. And when you think of the original members of Planxty — yourself Andy Irvine, Donal Lunny, Christy Moore, Liam O’Flynn — as well as the legacy of the band, the individuals have gone on to make quite an impression upon the music. When you listen to Irish music today, or as you’ve been listening to it evolving through this time, are you able to measure the impression that all these individuals have had on the shape and form and direction of the music?

I’m not really able to. When I listen to modern young bands I’m always quite interested if they say in an interview ‘We were much influenced by Planxty,’ because I do sometimes hear it. But not really, maybe I just don’t listen to it. There are things, like for instance the style of bouzouki playing that Donal introduced, I think is very much copied today. And you can usually hear one of the big instrumentalists in the fiddle playing or the uilleann pipe playing, but you’d expect that. It’s the more subtle influences, if they are there, they elude me. But it was a great time and you never know, we might do something again. Certainly that era, which Planxty was a part of, re-awakened an interest in Irish music and it could be said I suppose… before that there was the ballad boom in Ireland and there were various kind of little jostlings with the tradition, and the tradition being popular. But it wasn’t quite the tradition, like Sweeney’s Men for instance, didn’t play that many traditional dance tunes. So I think Planxty and its era could be said to be the kind of part of the beginning of the re-awakening of Ireland and by extension Scotland to traditional music.

Now you took an early detour, on your long journey, to Eastern Europe and in particular into the musical traditions of the Balkans. And that’s something that has had a lasting impact upon your music through the years and also upon Irish music in a broader sense. What draws you to those musical traditions? It’s been a lifelong love of yours.

Hmm… I think the rhythms were the main things. Playing music in odd time signatures is something which I still don’t get tired of, you know. My latest piece is a song put in to 5:8 and I just love those rhythms. Somebody once said of me that my natural time signature was 7:8 or 7 beats to the bar, and in order to play in 4:4, I just had to add one more, so there’s a deal of truth in that. I’m not all that happy with 4:4 or 3:4. I mean all the songs that I wrote that were essentially in 3:4, none of them maintains the 3:4 rhythm throughout. They have extra beats and drop a beat somewhere. I don’t know why, I just, maybe I have an odd sense of rhythm.

Yes, you could sprain your ankle dancing to some of those dance tunes. But when you brought some of these tunes into Planxty and other of the bands that you’ve worked in, it gave the music a kind of an exotic flavour and moved peoples’ expectations beyond the usual reels and jigs. And that’s been good for the music too.

Well I think there’s an excitement to playing in these rhythms and I think people realise that. I mean, back towards the end of Planxty in, whenever it was 1981, ’82, we played this tune called Smeceno Horo which is in 9:16 basically but it has bars in 15, 16 and it was the biggest number we played. And it became logical to finish with it which we never did actually because it seemed to be kind of selling ourselves a little bit to finish with a Bulgarian tune when we were playing Irish music. But if you listen carefully to the piece of music Bill Whelan wrote which is called Riverdance, (I think it’s called Riverdance, it was the initial piece he wrote), it has bars of 11:16 in it. And people didn’t realise this, but it still excited their blood. So, I mean, I think that was very clever of him to write a piece in a normal time signature but go in to these bars of Bulgarian rhythm which were just not too much to take peoples’ eye off the ball, but enough to make them go ‘Oh yeah, wow, what’s going on here!’ When we made that album “East Wind,” Bill Whelan, Davy Spillane and myself, with other people, and it did not find its niche. It was music that people would look at. They’d pick it up and say ‘Oh, here’s one, I haven’t seen this’ and then it would say ‘Balkan Music’ and they’d go ‘Oh, Balkan Music, no, I don’t think so.’ So it didn’t sell, it was really a musicians’ album, musicians loved it and everybody else didn’t buy it. And I’m sure they didn’t buy it either! Anyway, and of course the next thing was ‘Riverdance’ which sold out everything. I mean, God that sounds awful, which sold all its stock. And it’s certain to me that ‘East Wind’ had an influence on Bill when he wrote that, which is great. I was sitting at home watching TV when Riverdance first came on the Eurovision Song Contest and I was as gob smacked as everybody else was. It was tremendous. But just the lack of sales of ‘East Wind’ and the multi-mega sales of Riverdance has always been a slightly sore point. But now I have a new band called Mozaik. Not the m-o-s-a-i-c version of 1985 but the M-o-z-a-i-k version, and it’s kind of exciting. I put the band together for a tour of Australia about a year ago and it was a huge success. We recorded a couple of gigs and we have a live album which is musically ready to go. It’s mixed and mastered and we look now for a record company which is something we all dread because we don’t have a clue, any of us, about record companies. I mean this is me, Donal Lunny, Bruce Molsky, Nikola Parov and Rens van der Zalm and between us we have a fair amount of experience of the world in general and the music world too, but record companies: not an idea. All I know about record companies is they rip you off. So I hope that we’ll be able to find a decent outfit and the album should be out in a couple of months I hope. (Mozaik’s Live from the Powerhouse since released on Compass Records.)

Although you’ve enjoyed and been a very important part of these collaborative efforts you are essentially a solo artist. Am I right?

You are right in a way. Even as a solo musician in a band I learned quite early on never to go in to a band rehearsal without knowing how to play, how to accompany the song yourself so that once the band wasn’t there you could still do it. And I love playing with bands; I love the interaction with other musicians. I even play as a duo with my old mate Rens van der Zalm, which I’m going to do in America next week. But essentially you’re right. Being solo, driving through the world, that’s how I see my heavenly state.


Archive: 2004 – Then and Now – Andy Irvine on Planxty

IT’S FITTING Planxty should return to Galway as part of its reunion tour. After all it was in Galway the legendary quartet of Dónal Lunny, Andy Irvine, Liam O’Flynn, and Christy Moore played their first major concert. ANDY IRVINE talks about Planxty’s reunion, blowing Donovan off the stage, and how history proved him wrong on ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy/Tabhair Dom Do Lámh’.

Galway Beginnings

Planxty will play three nights in the Radisson SAS Hotel on Monday December 6, Tuesday 7, and Wednesday 8. Planxty’s return to Galway shows things have come full circle for the band. Andy Irvine says Galway was the “starting off place for Planxty” in 1972, when they supported Donovan at the old Hangar Dancehall in Salthill.

“Planxty’s first major gig and big success was at the old Hangar supporting Donovan. We blew him off the stage!” Andy tells me, recalling the show. “It was the first gig of a short tour we did with Donovan. As I recall I was quite nervous as I had never seen such a lot of lights and microphones before. The soundman, who was Donovan’s brother-in-law, appeared to pay us scant attention – as you might expect, being the support.

“I concentrated hard behind my microphones, intent on playing the right notes and singing the right words! It was about 20 minutes into our 40 minute set that I realised something unusual was happening in the audience. My first thought was a fight had broken out. I had experienced such things in dancehalls before. I looked across the stage at the others who were all wreathed in smiles. Slowly, it dawned on me that the audience was reacting to us and the music. That was about the biggest buzz of my life! At the end of each number the audience went wild, and we collapsed into hysterical laughter at the unexpectedness of our success. If there is one occasion that stands out above the others during my time in Planxty, it would have to be that Hangar gig!”

The individual members of Planxty were all prominent on the Irish music scene. Lunny had been in Emmet Spiceland, Andy in Sweeney’s Men, Christy was a solo artist, and Liam O’Flynn was active in Irish trad. However it was when the four came together to work on Christy’s classic 1971 solo album Prosperous, that the idea of starting a band arose.

By 1972 Planxty was in action and had recorded its eponymously titled debut (known to fans as ‘the black album’). However there was surprise among ‘purists’ that Liam O’Flynn had joined and at the time the band was described as “three hippies and a civil servant”. Did Ó Flynn find it difficult to fit in?

“Liam was, perhaps, quieter and more reserved generally, than we other three,” Andy says. “As the ‘traditional’ musician amongst us, I think he had a certain amount of criticism from some other traditional musicians to contend with. ‘What was he doing playing with a bunch of guitar and mandolin toting hippies?’ I’d say the fact that Seamus Ennis was a supporter of the band helped him through that. We all got on very well from the outset. Christy and Donal knew Liam from early days I think, and I knew him a bit from the Dublin trad music scene.”

Their detractors were soon silenced when Planxty showed what extraordinary musicians they were on albums like The Well Below The Valley and songs like ‘The Blacksmith’ which pushed the boundaries of what Irish music could achieve. However their most famous recording is ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy/Tabhair Dom Do Lámh’. How did the celebrated segue from one track to the other come about – was it deliberate or did it just happen in rehearsals?

“The segué for ‘Tabhair Dom Do Lámh’ came at the instigation of Christy,” Andy remembers. “It was at a rehearsal in my flat in Donnybrook for his album Prosperous in June 1971. I still have that rehearsal on tape. Christy wondered if it would be possible to marry the tune to the song. Donal came up with the key. At the time, I thought it was a bit facile and didn’t work that well. History has proved me wrong!”

The Reformation

Planxty’s 2004 reunion concerts have been an unqualified triumph (as testified on the excellent Live 2004 album) but it was not the first time the band got back together. “We re-formed once before in early 1979. That was only a little over three years since we had broken up,” Andy says. “This reformation is 21 years after the subsequent break up…We are all a lot older and wiser now! I think the success of our current incarnation has a lot to do with our musical and life experiences during those 20 odd years. Though it’s true that much of the material we played in January/ February this year was from the old days, nevertheless it felt very fresh and that freshness lasted for the entire run of the concerts.”

Andy says the audience reactions have exceeded all his expectations. “It was genuinely uplifting to go on stage each night that we played,” he says. “Sometimes it was as if the audience was nearly bursting with joy. A very moving experience.”

However Andy says the band has no immediate plans for anything post January 31 2005. “Planxty is a ‘one at a time’ band these days,” he says. “We will see how this next raft of gigs goes and then decide if there is to be anything further.”

Tickets for Planxty’s Galway shows are still available but are selling fast. They can be purchased only from Redlight Records on Shop Street and Eglinton Street.

by Kernan Andrews.

Galway advertiser. Date: 07-10-2004

photo by Mick King

source: [deadlink]

Archive: 2004 – Hotpress Interview with Planxty

Music/Interview: 27 Jul 2004
Colm O’Hare

The return of the fab four

Planxty’s rebirth was a dream come true for band and fans alike – and the good news is that there’s more to come.

Earlier this year trad/folk legends Planxty reconvened for a series of sell-out concerts at Dublin’s Vicar Street. It was first time that the original line-up of Christy Moore, Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine and Liam O’Flynn had appeared on a stage together in over 20 years (apart from a low-key appearance in Ennis the previous October.) The success of the shows exceeded all expectations and then some, with over 10,000 people attending. For those lucky enough to be there it was an unforgettable musical experience and a long overdue reminder of the debt owed to Planxty for the current healthy state of Irish music For those who missed out on the shows, all is not lost as they were recorded and filmed and are now available on CD and DVD while more gigs are planned in December.

Three-quarters of the band are on-hand here to discuss the whole experience. So how does it really feel to be a going concern again after all these years?

Donal Lunny: “Unbelievable. It’s far better than any one of us had expected. Our main misgiving before we got back together was, ‘Will the spark be there like it used to be?’ It turned out it was. We met up for rehearsals last October and did that tiny gig in Clare but that was just a toe in water to see how things would work out. We didn’t realise just how good Vicar Street would be.”

“ We proved that we could still capture that energy which is so much a part of being in a young band,” says Liam O’Flynn. “Not once during the twelve gigs did it feel like we were going through the motions or on automatic pilot

“What worried me initially was the thought that we might be playing to an audience of people of our own age because when you think about it, you’d need to be over 50 to have seen the band in their early days”, says Andy Irvine. “But it wasn’t like that at all. Leagues O’Toole’s documentary had put us in context for a younger generation so there was a good cross section of all ages at the shows.”

The band appeared to be extremely well rehearsed and stuck to a fairly rigid set-list for most of the shows. Clearly they had done a lot of preparation leading up to the gigs?

Donal Lunny: “Probably even more so than when we started. Christy complimented me on my punctuality, which wasn’t my best quality in the early days. Actually, if anybody drove the notion of us getting back together and doing it properly it was Christy.”

Andy Irvine: “We’d rehearsed quite a bit but you can rehearse until you’re blue in the face – when you get up on a stage it’s a different matter. The venue helped hugely – Vicar Street is the best gig of that size in town. I remember the first night before we went on and Christy was looking through the curtains at the audience and he said ‘Jaysus it’s like a big folk club out there.”

Liam O’Flynn: “It’s a lovely cross between a concert hall and a club. The welcome we got when we got out onstage just blew me away. It was unbelievable I think it’s great that a band can play music and get an audience like that.”

The audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive, as was the press coverage. Were they surprised at how much they seemed to be missed by everyone?

Donal Lunny: “The thing is the early audiences spanned every generation – there were kids, old aged pensioners, hippies, rockers but they were all lovely to us. The new audience was the same with people of all ages out there.”

Liam O’Flynn: “I think I heard one woman saying she’d die happy. People had come from Australia, America, and all over Europe specifically for the shows. We certainly didn’t expect that.”

Andy Irvine: “I thought a lot of the reviews didn’t reflect the audience reaction – one journalist called us four grumpy old men. But there was a man who was encountered in the toilet who wiped his eyes and said ‘Jesus Christ I’ll have to emigrate again!”

Donal Lunny: “Davy Hammond, that great man from Belfast, said to me ‘You’re putting people back in touch with their lives’. Part of it is nostalgia. The times that we were in existence before are like islands to people and music is one of the things that evokes memories.

Was it always the intention to record and film the reunion shows for subsequent release?

Donal Lunny: “I don’t remember there being any great urgency about recording them in the early stages. It probably would’ve made us too nervous knowing that we were taping the shows. But it made sense in the end. And we knew we were in good hands with Philip King. When it comes to filming something like this he is the best there is. He just knows how to record music without disturbing what’s happening onstage. In fact we didn’t even notice the cameras in the venue. It was all set up and we just got out there and did the gig.”

Andy Irvine: “There were cameras there? I don’t remember seeing any cameras at all.”

Others have been involved in Planxty over the years, including people like Bill Whelan or Paul Brady. Was there any suggestion that they would join them onstage for some of the shows?

Donal Lunny: “No, that never came up. It was the simplest thing to do it with just the four of us. There were practicalities of us getting back together and we didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew. What made it easier was the fact that the four of us got together on a social basis once a year for the last six or seven years, just to meet up and have the craic. It was out of that, that the notion of doing something came together.”

Liam O’Flynn: “I feel that most people regard the original Planxty line-up as the best. I know I do myself.”

What about the future? Are there any more gigs planned and is there a chance Planxty might record some new material?

Donal Lunny: “We have time set aside at the end of the year and the door is open but we’re not going to put ourselves under pressure.”

Liam O’Flynn: “It’s so easy to find yourself under pressure. If you open the door it comes flying through and a lot of people want a piece of you. Then suddenly other things take over and that’s the end of it.”

Andy Irvine: “We’ve no plans for an album but we’re not totally dismissing it. The whole attitude of the band is to take one step at a time. December is the next step. And we’ve put in motion the rehearsal of new material by then. A couple of the pieces are from the Planxty repertoire – things we haven’t recorded and there might be something new – who knows?”

PLANXTY LIVE 2004 CD, Video and DVD is out now on the Columbia label in Ireland and the UK.


Archive Interview: 2004 – ‘Guest of the week’ on the Mandozine

March 9, 2004

Andy Irvine has been hailed as “a tradition in himself.” Musician, singer and songwriter, Andy has maintained both personal integrity and highly individual performing skills throughout his 40-year career. From Sweeney’s Men in the mid sixties to the enormous success of Planxty in the 70s, to the Irish super group, Patrick Street, in the 80s, Andy has been a world music pioneer and icon for traditional music and musicians.

Irvine occupies a unique place in the musical world, plying his trade as archetypal troubadour, with a solo show and travelling lifestyle that reflects his lifelong influence, Woody Guthrie. Few others can equal his repertoire, Irish traditional songs, dexterous Balkan dance tunes, and a compelling canon of his own material that defies description.

In his two years with Sweeney’s Men, the group ignited an interest in traditional Irish music that survives to this day. Their successful singles, “Old Maid in the Garret” and “The Waxie’s Dargle” landed at the very top of the Irish Hit Parade.

Andy left the band in 1968, and made his first trip ‘way out yonder’, travelling by ‘the sunburnt thumb’ in Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia, earning his living as a street musician and absorbing the musical traditions of the Balkans. Returning to Ireland, Irvine united with Christy Moore, Donal Lunny and Liam O’Flynn to form Planxty, fanning the flames of Irish Traditional Music well into the next generation.

Planxty took a break in 1976 and Irvine worked and recorded with Paul Brady, making the classic album “Andy Irvine & Paul Brady”. After a brief time with De Dannan, he rejoined the reunited Planxty from 1979 until its breakup in 1983. . Andy’s his first solo album, “Rainy Sundays … Windy Dreams”, followed, as well as “Parallel Lines” a duo album with the great Scots troubadour, Dick Gaughan.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Andy formed Mosaic, a pan-European band that included Donal Lunny and Hungarian singer Marta Sebestyen. After one blissful summer travelling through Europe with this band, Andy returned to solo and duo work. This work soon grew into Patrick Street, featuring Kevin Burke (Bothy Band), Jackie Daly (De Danaan) and guitar maestro Arty McGlynn.

Patrick Street, originally billed as Legends of Irish Music – one of the few times such hoopla was accurate, recorded three albums from 1987 to 1990. Andy then recorded his second solo album, “Rude Awakening”, and created the hugely influential “East Wind”, an album of Balkan music, produced by Bill Whelan and featuring Davy Spillane on Uilleann Pipes. Patrick Street regrouped in 1993 with Kevin, Jackie, Andy, and Ged Foley. To date Patrick Street has released eight recordings, all on the Green Linnet label.

Early in 2002, Andy drafted some long-time musical friends and formed his “dream band” for a one-off tour of Australia. Calling themselves Mozaik, reminiscent of the earlier cross-genre group, Andy was joined by Donal Lunny, Dutch guitarist Rens van der Zalm, Hungarian bagpiper Nikola Parov and American fiddler Bruce Molsky. The response was so positive that they might well have another go at it.

October 2002 saw the release of Patrick Street’s Street Life, arguably their best ever. It showcases an ecumenical approach, while never letting go of the tradition that binds these amazing musicians, all at the very top of their game. Although an integral part of the finest Irish bands of our time, Andy Irvine continues along the road he set for himself so long ago – a vibrant career as a solo artist in the old style, a teller of stories and maker of music.


Q – Andy, I have loved your playing ever since I discovered it in the early ’80’s. I was fortunate to see a solo show of yours, many years back, and was astounded by the fact that you seem to have two brains – one for singing and one for playing. It’s the only explanation I can think of to see such rhythmic ambidexterity. Can you talk a little about rhythmic phrasing, from Irish music to Balkan, and perhaps a few tips for people wanting to break away from even meters and phrasing?

I’d also like to offer my sympathies on your having to deal with the issues of crossing the border as a non-US musician. I know it has been increasingly more difficult under the political conditions of this country, and that there have been some horrible and ridiculous trials for musicians!

A – Thanks. I always wanted to be a one man band! So I learned how to play one line and sing another. Takes a lot of practice. If you concentrate too hard on one or other of the lines, you’ll blow it. You need to be able to think about something else entirely..!

I’m afraid I have no tips for phrasing. Just do it! As for meters, you have to listen to odd time signatures carefully. Take 7/8. If it’s 2-2-3, it’s quite a good idea to think in half that time so instead of counting one, two, one, two, one, two, three, start by counting one, two, three and in half the time.

The US visa situation has always been a pain. I get so angry when I see US musicians parading their talents around Ireland, having had no problems at all. Unless things change, I’m calling a halt to mu US career next Spring after the second Mozaik tour. 


Q – Thanks for being CGOW. I have enjoyed your playing for many years now and it’s great to get the chance to ask some questions. The following is going to read a bit like an exam paper – but not all need be attempted!

Am I right in thinking that in the early part of your career you were playing a Gibson A-style but that, by Planxty, you had moved onto a Sobell? Presumably you find the Sobell preferable for Irish music – what characteristics make it so? Do you use the large or small bodied Sobell? Maple or rosewood? When you play less traditional material (eg on Rude Awakening) do you still use the Sobell or do you have another preference? What strings/gauges do you like to use? How well do you find mandolin holds up when played next to bellows blown pipes?

A – I started off, way back in the 50s with Italian mandolines which you could buy second-hand quite cheaply at that time. Johnny Moynihan gave me my first Gibson after my Italian mandolino had an accident at a Fleadh Cheoil in Boyle, Co. Roscommon in 1966. It was an A3. Nicest Gibson I ever saw! It was stolen from my car in Paris in 1978. I was devastated as it had been all over the Balkans with me in the late 60s. I played it in Planxty and another one, a Gibson A model. When Planxty came back in 1979, I played the A model and a Gibson Mandola H-1 that I had also acquired from Johnny Moynihan. I only got my first Sobell in about 1981. It was – and still is, his smaller body. It is two frets longer than a mandolin, based on the Gibson Mandola. It always seemed to me that a Gibson mandola sounded pretty crap with big thick strings on it and tuned CGDA, so, quite logically, I think, I put mandolin strings on it and tuned it down a tone. That’s what I do with my Sobell too.

Playing solo, I mainly play bouzouki these days. I play one made for me by Stefan Sobell about 12 years ago. It has a guitar-shaped body. On the mandolin I use D’Addario J74. On the bouzouki I use nickel wound 42, 32, 18(w), 12.

When I play tunes, I like to decorate notes the way I learned from Paul Brady – using the plectrum. It’s difficult and sometimes I just use my left hand.


Q – Do you have any favourite ways of ornamenting tunes? What sort of approach do you take to playing harmonies on reels, jigs and polkas? When accompanying songs, it sounds (on After the Break) as though you tend to play a chord at the start of a bar or phrase and then single notes for the rest of the bar (or phrase) – is that right? Do you tend to stick to the main chords or do you use altered or extended chords at all (the way some Shetland guitarists or the Easy Club have done).

A – No, I don’t think I play a chord and then single notes. It depends. These days I’m a little less complicated than I used to be. I’m more chord based but I like to favour notes that I’m not singing, so I change chord/inversion a lot! I use altered chords. Coloured chords I would call them. A lot of add 9s and 7ths sus 4. I also like to play “Lounge” chords. Major 7ths, 9ths Minor 7ths. I don’t play too many jazz chords or extended chords because the instrument only has four courses! I like this. If you play a 9th, you are only playing 1-5-7-9. Even a 13th can be a nice passing chord if it’s only 1-3-7-13. It’s hinting at chords instead of playing them full-blown.


Q – Do you use a pick-up in your mandolin? If so, which one? Do you use a pre-amp and/or any other electronics between the instrument and the board?

A – I use sunrise magnetic pick ups generally. On my Sobell mandolin, I have a magnetic pick up which is not great, so I use a condenser mic more with it. If I am travelling by car, I would bring a Mackie mixer and a Roland Guitar effects board. Small amounts of delay and sometimes chorus on the bouzouki.


Q – Have you any plans to play in Edinburgh?

A – Expect to be in Edinburgh in September. 


Q – Has Andy been collaborating with Paul Brady as of late?

A – No, Paul doesn’t often revisit his traditional music days. We did a series of concerts in Dublin in October 2002 with Donal Lunny, Liam O’Flynn, Paddy Glackin and Noel Hill which was great. We also played it in Glasgow at the Celtic Connections festival. No further plans, I’m afraid. 


Q – Your mandolin and bouzouki style sound so different to many other players. Can you tell me what makes your sound so different to many other players? Can you tell me something about your style of playing and your approach to waiting?

A – My playing sounds different because I didn’t copy anyone. I followed my own muse! My style of playing is the same for both instruments when I’m accompanying myself. Chord based, using harmonies and counterpoints within the chord, trying to play bass notes that I am not singing. I’m largely a down up down up player with a scratch lick and arpeggio thrown in!

Writing is also something which is hard to describe. I do it mainly when I’m driving a car. I just make it up!!


Q – You have so many highlights in your musical life so far, what is your personal highlight?

A – No, I can’t think of one highlight that would be head and shoulders above the rest. Travelling around Ireland in the red Sweeney van with Sweeney’s Men in the 1960s, Off on a blow in the Balkans in 68-69. Planxty at the Hangar in Galway in 1972, Planxty in Ennis and Vicar Street, Dublin this year, Mozaik in Canberra at Easter 2002. All great memories! So is my last gig in Whelans on Monday….


Q – You have achieved so much musically in your life. What is next for Andy Irvine?

A – Planxty will play 12 more gigs in Ireland at the end of the year. Mozaik are about to tour the States. Both bands have new live CDs coming out. It’s all happening for me! 


Q – When exactly did the jump from mandolin to bouzouki happen?

A – I didn’t play the bouzouki much in Planxty in the early days. I had a car crash in 1977 and spent three weeks in hospital in Dublin. When I came out, Diane Hamilton gave me a Bouzouki made by Andrew Manson. While I was recuperating, I got more and more into the bouzouki. Mind you, it was probably my main instrument before that. When did I first play “Plains of Kildare”? Probably about 1976. Somewhere around there… 


Q – Which of your recordings do you believe best represents your talents as a musician? I love the recent version of Arthur McBride available as an MP3 on your website – a great combination of driving bouzouki and voice (with a bit of harmonica, to boot).

A – I suppose I would have to say “Rain on the Roof” as it is the most solo thing I ever recorded. Or do you mean which song? I really don;’t know.


Q – Would you please tell us more about your new band, Mozaic? Is a CD yet available? How was the lineup of musicians chosen? I must confess I don’t know much about Nikola Parov or Rens van der Zalm. I am a fan of Bruce Molsky’s fiddling, and especially like his newly re-released “Warring Cats.” I’m looking forward to hearing his contributions.

A – Mozaik is a band that I dreamed up for a tour of Australia in March 2002. I wanted to tie in the three strands of folk music I have always loved best, Irish music, American Old-Time music and Balkan music. I was just lucky enough to be on good terms with some of the best musicians in these fields! And they said yes.

The CD which was recorded live in Brisbane, Australia is called “Live from the Powerhouse” and will be available on Compass records immenintly. In time for the tour which starts on 19th March, I hope.

Yeah, I’m a great fan of Bruce’s too. And I also loved his “Warring Cats” tape/CD. At the end of a Patrick Street tour in the US about 15 years ago, we went to his house after the last gig. he lived in Atlanta at the time. He played “I truly Understand” and I was totally blown away! As the night wore on and spirits rose to higher and higher degrees, I asked him to sing it again…and again…and again. I think he must have sung it about 12 times for me that night. I couldn’t get enough of it. 


Q – Could you tell us a bit about when you first used a bouzouki in Irish music, and what you think of the evolution of that instrument since then?

A – I used Johnny Moynihan’s bouzouki when we were in Sweeney’s Man. I played it on “Johnstone“. That was my bouzouki debut! It took quite a long time for me to fall in love with the instrument though. I bought one in Greece in 1969 and gave it to Donal Lunny in 1972.

I think it has evolved pretty well. Donal is probably the most responsible for that.


Q – Do you use a picking pattern for jigs? Which one, if so, and what do you like/dislike about it?

A – Down up down up. Would be happier if I had Paul Brady’s technique for such things….! 


Q – Andy, I have to say that your music has been a significant influence on my interests in music. My first listen to Patrick Street (Brackagh Hill & Forgotten Hero) as a 19-year old that drew me into Irish Music as an adult, which lead to “discovering” Planxty, The Bothy Band – just following the lines from you – and opening up a whole world of music that is now a very important part of my life. Anyhow, enough blather.

To start, I’m happy to hear that there is a new Planxty recording coming out!

A – Look for it this Summer! 


Q – Have you ever entertained the idea of an instrumental traditional Irish album?

A – No. I leave that to better players! 


Q – What are the personal influences in the Irish instrumental tradition?

A – I don’t really specialise in playing Reels and Jigs. As a mandolin player, I think Paul Brady was about the best I ever heard. He was an influence on my style. 


Q – Did you grow up playing Irish music etc…?

A – No, I started with Woody Guthrie, moved into Old Time American music and song and only then into Irish Music.


Q – Do you still take in the odd session? If so, what is your session instrument of choice?

A – I’m afraid I was never a great presence at sessions. If I find myself at a session, I am more inclined to sit and listen than join in, I always found it hard to hear myself as a mandolin player. And if I can’t hear what I’m playing, I can’t play! 


Q – It is clear from your music that you have certain interests in human rights and social justice. What are your involvements in such issues outside of music? I am a Union man. I am a card-carrying IWW. How do these influences affect your direction as a musician, your choice of songs etc…?

A – They affect my songwriting. I am most interested in writing songs about forgotten people who dedicated their lives to attempting to better the lot of the working people. 


Q – Your album with Dick Gaughan seems appropriate. I think that your material seems to have some “personal relevance” makes your music very genuine and shows a continued social relevance for traditional music as a whole.

A – Thanks! 


Q – ‘ Rain on the Roof ‘ is your best solo album to date, in my opinion. A wonderful mix of songs and Balkan tunes. Why did you decide to record it with only you, the bouzouki and the mic ?

A – A lot of people would ask me at concerts if I had an album that reflected my solo show and I would have to say No. So I decided to record one. There were also some songs that I had recorded over the years with bands that I was not totally happy with and it gave me a chance to record them again. 


Q – Do you have any plans to record more in this way in the future ?

A – Quite probably. What with the Mozaik CD coming out this week and the Planxty live CD in the Summer, I’m not sure that I will be putting out a solo CD till next year. Though I do fancy getting some old recordings together and putting out a retrospective! Might do that this Summer along with my Bouzouki book…. 


Q – It seems over the years you have played every variation of the mando family. Italian mandolins, flat back mandolins, mandolas, portuguese mandolas, waldzithers, greek bouzouki, flat back bouzouki, bass-bouzouki and even a guitar-shaped Bouzouki……………..( excepting your current guitar-shaped sobell ) what was your favorite and why? Would you record with a greek bouzouki, or portuguese mandola today?

A – I never realised till you listed them, how many different versions I have played! The Italian mandolin was superseded when I got my first Gibson. I don’t think I would ever go back to an Italian job. The Greek bouzouki is still a viable instrument for me. The Portuguese Guitarra had a convex fingerboard and I find it hard to imagine how I played that for so long. The Waldzither was a nice instrument. I’m probably happiest with my Sobell guitar-bouzouki.


Q – Have you played much with Octave strings on the bouzouki, or have you always used unison? What are the advantages or disadvantages to octave strings?

A – I quite liked the effect of octave strings on the Greek Bouzouki. However it would get on your nerves after a while! I have a Fylde guitar-bouzouki with octave strings. I rarely play it these days but it was lovely on things like Baneasa’s Green Glade. 


Q – Do you bring a hurdy-gurdy with you when you tour? What model do you play and often do you use it? Is there any chance you’ll make another “homemade” record like “Rain on the Roof” in the future?

A – I rarely play the Hurdy-Gurdy these days. My instrument was made by Peter Abnett in 1972. It had a perspex wheel and spring-loaded jacks, all of which totally bemused the H/G community in France and Germany! It’s a hard instrument to maintain. The number of times it has turned into a squalling howl in the middle of a slow song doesn’t bear thinking about.

I pick it up every now and again. I would like a new and better one but the price is high and doesn’t seem justifiable for me.

>> “I took a speed reading course and read “War & Peace” in twenty minutes. It’s about Russia.” — Woody Allen

Love that! Got a great laugh with the other lads in Mozaik here on the road in North Carolina…. 

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