Solas finds solace in darkness
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Over six years, five albums and many tours, the five-piece Solas made its reputation as an Irish band putting a modern spin on traditional sounds and material.
Even through “The Hour Before Dawn,” the band’s 2000 CD, most of the material was traditional ? songs like “A Miner’s Life,” derived from the Welsh tradition, and the children’s ballad “Bonnie Mae”; two sets of Irish reels; the slow air “A Little Child” ? arrangements that tilted only slightly toward the modern.
And then came “The Edge of Silence,” the latest CD from Solas, released in February. Apart from the electric guitar played by original member Seamus Egan, and some keyboards by guest musicians, the instrumental foundation remained standard issue for Irish music: flutes and whistles, acoustic guitar and bouzouki, accordions. And the rhythms, vocals and arrangements are still recognizable as stemming from the Irish tradition.
But “The Edge of Silence” represents a marked departure from Solas’ roots. First is the material, none of which is taken from the Irish folk tradition. Instead, Solas put its Irish touch on songs by masters Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Nick Drake and Jessie Colin Young, and two songs by young German-American singer-songwriter Antje Duvekot, who has been opening shows for Solas.
The band wrote its own instrumental numbers rather than reach back to long-ago Ireland. Solas brought in producer Neil Dorfsman, whose credits include albums by Sting, Mark Knopfler, Bruce Hornsby and Paul McCartney, to work with Solas’ Egan. The result is an atmospheric sound, and a cycle of related songs, that brings Irish folk ideas further into the modern-pop realm.
“All the albums have progressed in baby steps,” said fiddler and vocalist Winifred Horan, who helped form Solas in 1996 and is, with Egan, one of two original members in the band. “But ‘The Edge of Silence’ is a giant step. The material we chose is more pertaining to today. We didn’t consciously decide not to do any Irish songs, but we wanted to pull in different material.”
The forward-looking production and the celebrated songwriters, however, are not what stands out most about “The Edge of Silence.” What defines the album ? in the sound, yes, but much more so in the lyrics ? is a pervasive darkness and embrace of the more frightening things in life.
“The Edge of Silence,” in fact, which continues Solas’ association with New Jersey’s Shanachie Records, opens with Jessie Colin Young’s “Darkness, Darkness.” The album closes with a somber take on Tom Waits’ “Georgia Lee,” a ballad of death that begins “Cold was the night, hard was the ground,” and includes the chilling chorus, “Why wasn’t God watching?/Why wasn’t God listening? Why wasn’t God there for Georgia Lee?”
In between those black bookends is more of the same: Nick Drake’s “Clothes of Sand,” and Antje Duvekot’s “Black Annis,” about child molestation, and “The Poisonjester’s Mask.” Dylan’s “Dignity” is the most ambivalent of the lot, though it is not exactly a beacon of hope. It is an ironic twist for a band whose name means “light.”
Horan says “The Edge of Silence” is not explicitly a reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11. It is, instead, a reflection of the mood that pervaded the band, its original home of New York City, and most of the rest of the world. The album was recorded in Woodstock’s Bearsville Studios, not far from New York City.
“It wasn’t a conscious thing,” said Horan, a native of Manhattan’s Lower West Side who grew up in the outer borough of Queens. “I think it reflects the current state of affairs in the world. It was recorded when the world went to shit. We weren’t feeling too good about anything.
“As musicians, our mood comes across in what we do. It wasn’t, ‘Hey, let’s get moody and dark.’ That’s the way we were feeling. We’re musicians, and this is how we get to express our mood and our disgust. We’re not politicians, so this is how we can express ourselves.”
Neither did Solas ? which includes Mick McAuley on accordion and low whistle, Deirdre Scanlan on vocals and Donal Clancy, son of famed Irish singer Liam Clancy of the Clancy Brothers, on guitar and bouzouki ? intentionally seek out the most morbid material from well-known songwriters.
“This is stuff we’ve always been listening to,” said Horan. “We’re huge Bob Dylan fans. We love Tom Waits. We thought, why can’t we incorporate that into what we do?”
While Horan acknowledges the huge leap that is “The Edge of Silence,” she also sees strong connections between the songs of Waits, Drake, et al. and the more solidly traditional material Solas has done in the past.
“Folk music all around the world has the same messages ? people write about love, death,” she said. “Why is it such a stretch for us to step outside the Irish world? Irish music has the same themes ? it’s music for the people and about the people.
“But the songs ? we didn’t want to play ‘Dignity’ the way Bob Dylan does. We wanted to incorporate it into what we do.”
As for the instrumental tunes that further mark “The Edge of Silence” as an Irish-music recording, the members of Solas wanted to stretch things as well. Instead of rearranging ancient melodies, they wrote.
Egan contributed the rhythmic “Who’s In the What Now” and instrumental preludes to two songs. Horan wrote the slow, noir-ish “Maybe in a Prayer” and she and Egan together composed the catchy “Charmy Chaplin.” Accordionist McAuley added the original “Beck Street.” And as with the cover songs, the original instrumentals on the whole add a downbeat tone to the album.
“We finally felt after five albums, let’s give it a chance,” said Horan. “We’re writers. Why not do that? When you write something yourself, you write what you’re feeling. And everybody was feeling dark.”
When Solas performs this week in Aspen, on Sunday at the Wheeler Opera House, audience members shouldn’t detect any drastically dour tone to the performance. Solas has incorporated several of the songs from “The edge of Silence” into their set, but only those that translate well into live performance. (Touring with Solas in the guitar slot is Eamon Mchelhom, from Ireland’s County Omagh.)
“To a degree, the shows are affected,” said Horan. We incorporated the material into our set ? it just works live. We were frightened initially ? ‘Is this going to be too far a stretch?’ But we see that it’s working. Some of the songs, like the Tom Waits song, are just so powerful. But not everything translates from the studio.”
Horan herself has been a musician in a continuous state of flux. Born to an Irish immigrant couple, including a father who played jazz trumpet and piano, Horan was given a strong immersion in the culture of her parent’s homeland. And that meant a lot of music.
“They had a desire for us to be exposed to the country where they came from,” said Horan, who took violin and piano lessons as a child. “They wanted us to know the culture.”
When it was time for college, Horan went for a different kind of culture. She attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, studying classical violin. For three summers, from 1985-87, Horan studied at the Aspen Music School, under Paul Kantor. She auditioned for orchestra positions, but soon realized her place was not in the classical music world.
“The more exposed I got to the classical world, I knew I wasn’t cut out for it,” she said. “It’s very competitive, everyone’s really highly strung. It’s so much pressure. I felt restricted. I love classical music, but I wasn’t cut out for that world.”
In 1996, living in New York, she met a handful of Irish musicians ? either from Ireland or, like her, the offspring of immigrants ? looking to put together a band.
“Seamus and I were living in New York, and all of us were playing in different ensembles,” said Horan, a one-time member of the female Irish ensemble Cherish the Ladies. “And everybody was leaving or breaking up, so we had the pieces of a band. We decided to throw this together.”
Solas was formed with no great ambitions. Horan says the original idea was to play a few gigs, with no ideas about recording. After those first performances, though, the ball was rolling.
In 1996, Solas released its first, self-titled album, and won the first of three consecutive Best Celtic Recording awards from the Association for Independent Music. The band has gone on to appear on “A Prairie Home Companion, ” NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “CNN World Beat.” The band recorded the music for the musical “Dancing on Dangerous Ground,” which had theatrical runs in New York and London.
Horan’s musical expression has not been limited to Solas. Two weeks ago saw the release of “Just One Wish,” Horan’s debut solo recording. An all-instrumental album that features most of Solas and was co-produced by Egan, “Just One Wish” allowed Horan to explore another side of Irish music.
As much as anything, it was a chance for Horan to make a CD all her own.
“I just really wanted to do one,” she said. “I’d been toying with it a few years, but the band’s been so busy. I’m proud of the fact that I wrote and recorded it. I didn’t have a real agenda. I just wanted to make an album.
“And I didn’t want it to be a Solas album. I’ve been in the band since the beginning, and it’s influenced me greatly. I wanted to stay away from what they did. It’s a lot lighter than ‘The Edge of Silence,’ an antidote if you will. It’s a fiddle album, but I wanted the compositions to let me be a player as well.”
Egan has long had a presence outside of Solas. He contributed compositions to the Edward Burns’ film “The Brothers McMullen,” including “I Will Remember You,” which became a hit for Sarah McLachlen. He also has three solo albums to his credit, and appeared on the soundtrack of “Dead Man Walking.”
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