That a controversial rock star and firebrand like Sinéad O’Connor should have decided to record an album of traditional Irish material is bound to surprise some listeners, despite her highly visible collaborations with the Chieftains (“The Long Black Veil,” “Tears Of Stone,”) and a famous rendition of the haunting “He Moved Through The Fair” (Gospel Oak EP, 1997). But, for anyone who has spent much time in Ireland, her seeming ambivalence is easily understood. On this long-embattled island, which may finally be on the verge of a lasting peace, 17th century atrocities are still treated like the morning news. Ruins of castles, monasteries and bronze-age burial sites coexist with busy B&B establishments, treacherous single-lane two-way roads and modern cities complete with every imaginable type of social unrest. Rebellious youths may sport obscene tattoos, body piercings and vocabularies that would make a sailor cringe, but even tough guys from the wrong side of town are not ashamed to sob into their Guinness over old-style ballads.
O’Connor’s latest release, Sean-Nós Nua (“New Old Songs”—Vanguard), is anything but an exercise in nostalgia. She is backed by some of the best traditional players in the business, including Sharon Shannon and Donal Lunny, but some tracks feature a hard backbeat and spooky electronica, while others hark back to ’70s folk-rock or wreath the singer’s voice in reverberant waves of echo. The unusual arrangements force the 13 classic folk tunes to bloom in fresh, unexpected contexts. Through it all, O’Connor is the unifying force; her vocals come across as consistently direct and fearless rather than remote, even when she is almost whispering.
Seated in a bright room in a midtown New York City hotel, O’Connor is an appealingly lovely sight, dressed in a beaded and embroidered brown silk tunic and trousers, with short dark hair and huge, long-lashed, guarded eyes. A delicately built, nervous woman in her mid-thirties, she gives in to periodic nicotine fits, thoughtfully burning incense in between. Obviously but shyly proud of her latest project, she confides, “There’s something transforming when you do songs that come from your own country. I felt that as a singer, songwriter and human being, this was something I really needed to do. I’ll probably make other records like this, but on this one, I wanted to do the songs I’d go mad if I didn’t sing!”
That much of the Irish folk canon speaks from a male perspective functioned as a creative springboard: “I think there are more songs than you would imagine that are from a woman’s point of view. I first heard ‘Peggy Gordon’ sung by a woman in mourning for her female lover who had broken up with her. That’s why I chose it, because normally that’s a song that men sing. They just bang it out quite gruffly. But hearing it in that context, there was a certain fragility about it.”
She explains that each of the tunes was picked for different but similarly personal reasons. “Another thing I like a