Lamond mixes it up: Cape Breton singer teams up with Beolach, Blue Engine for Storas, giving her Gaelic ballads a ‘here and now’ feel with progressive arrangements
By STEPHEN COOKE, Chronicle Herald
Slowly, but surely, listeners are learning that Cape Breton singer Mary Jane Lamond’s latest release Storas has hit store shelves.
It was a surprise to some when it surfaced on merchandise tables at the Celtic Feis festival held in Halifax in early June, in advance of its official launch, but now that it’s out the elfin Gaelic balladeer is keeping “as busy as I like to be” to get the word out about the haunting recording and its modern paean to ancient traditions.
“This isn’t pop music, for sure,” says Lamond, who has little fear of one of her records becoming dated within months of its release.
“The recording was done for a while, it took so long to get the rest of it done, or rather I took so long to get the rest of it done. My brother Bruce was in a record store in Brockville and just saw it there, and thought, ‘Hey! A new CD, I didn’t know . . .'”
Meeting for coffee in a window seat above the Blowers Street Paper Chase, Lamond is fresh from appearing at the St. John’s Folk Festival, now in its 29th year, where she was one of a handful of mainland guests. While Lamond spent much time marveling at the differences as well as similarities between Newfoundland and Cape Breton Celtic folk traditions, it was hard to not be drawn in by one of the festival’s main events, where a world record was set when roughly 1,000 accordions played at once.
“The security people were wearing these T-shirts – I guess they were prepared for anything that might happen – that said on the back, ‘Accordion Revolution Security Enforcement’,” laughs Lamond, noting the acronym the name spells out.
“I asked one of the guys who you’d have to kill to get one of those shirts, and he said it’d be more likely you’d get killed by one of 989 accordion players all wanting that shirt.”
There are no accordions on Storas, but there is a wide variety of acoustic textures supporting her clear, supple voice, including her own touring band – fiddler Wendy MacIsaac, guitarist Chris Corrigan, bassist Ed Woodsworth and percussionist Geoff Arsenault – members of the Cape Breton band Be˜lach, Blue Engine String Quartet, cellist Anne Bourne and Slainte Mhath/Barra MacNeils piper Ryan MacNeil.
In a way, Storas breaks Lamond’s pattern of alternating between straight traditional records like From the Land of the Trees and Gaelic Songs of Cape Breton, and more contemporary productions on Suas e! and Lan Duil. While Storas isn’t all tricked out with drum loops and synth pads, Lamond gives her Gaelic ballads a “here and now” feel with progressive arrangements.
“Lan Duil was basically a continuation of what I did on Suas e!,” she says. “But I didn’t want to do another completely traditional record either. A lot of this stems from performance, actually. I was feeling onstage that I didn’t want to have electric guitar or a full drumkit anymore, and I’d been feeling that way for a while. I went to sing at the Frog Island Folk Festival, outside of Detroit, and they didn’t want full band, so I went with Brian Bourne, and his Chapman Stick, and guitarist Chris Corrigan and Wendy MacIsaac on fiddle, and I thought it was going to be more difficult, but I realized that it wasn’t. I found I enjoyed having all that space that you have when it’s a little bit quieter.
“Staying away from the electric guitar and the traditional drumkit, you get away from falling into that pop sound, which is what I wanted. I still wanted to have arrangements, all that layering and different things, but I wanted it to be less ‘poppy’ and (on the CD) I wanted to work with the musicians I’d been touring with.”
Lamond’s current stage configuration works extremely well, as evidenced by her appearance at the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in July, with Arsenault on a percussion setup that relied more on hand drums than the usual sticks and kick drum for a sound that Lamond feels is “more earthy” and comes across as evocative without being overpowering on the CD.
Another strong presence on Storas is Halifax’s Blue Engine String Quartet, recorded at The Music Room for three tracks, with Lamond adding her vocals in Toronto with producer Philip Strong.
She’d previously worked with Blue Engine on the soundtrack to a Helen Creighton documentary, plus they both appeared on the Quartette Christmas Special, so a collaboration on record seemed almost inevitable.
“I was partially inspired by the CD Eddi Reader Sings Robert Burns, which was really beautiful with strings and acoustic guitar, and I just thought it was great,” says Lamond.
“I think what I did is a little different, but it’s the same sort of concept. I thought it was really nice.
“And I’ve always enjoyed singing with the symphony, I’ve always liked that texture. But I couldn’t really have a full symphony on there. I love the Blue Engine String Quartet though, they’re very open minded, and if your score isn’t exactly perfect, they’ll have suggestions on how to improve it. They’re not the least bit elitist.”
The involvement of globe-trotting quintet Beolach also seems like a natural choice, given that fiddler Wendy MacIsaac does double duty with both acts. It was picked to back up Bal na h-Aibhne Deas (Ball at Southwest Margaree), the portrayal of a Saturday night dance, and who better than the band whose Gaelic name translates as “lively youth”?
“Usually on every CD I have something like a milling frolic, or something that puts you in the place of Cape Breton,” Lamond explains. “I really wanted to work with Beolach, and this seemed like a really good choice of a song because it is about a party. It has that feel about it, and of course Beolach is very lively, so they went very well together.
“It’s not normally something I would choose to sing, I chose it more because it fit in with what they do because it’s about a party, and they always sound like they’re having one.”
Continuing her desire to bring the Gaelic language to a new audience, Lamond’s next endeavour is taking part in the Highland Village at Iona’s teen program Eilean nan ñg, designed to introduce young people to Cape Breton’s traditional culture. Then of course there’s the many activities of Celtic Colours, taking place around the Island Oct. 7 to 15. But something she’s really looking forward to is a boundary-busting instalment of CBC Radio’s OnStage featuring Lamond, Shahib Ali Khan and Kiran Ahluwalia (labour dispute permitting).
“We’re going to do a concert in December called East Meets East. So it’s going to be me with a fiddle player and a piper, plus two harmonium players and a sitar, so it should be really interesting. We actually start rehearsing in October.
“I’ve wanted to do something like this for a while. Kiran and I have talked about collaborating before, so maybe the next CD might be in more of a ‘world music’ vein. That’s my plan, do that or win the lottery and retire. One or the other,” she chuckles.