Tír na nÓg set to star in Lunar Festival
Irish Folk legends Tír na nÓg are to be one of the star acts at this year’s Lunar Festival in June.
Formed in Dublin, in 1969 by Leo O’Kelly and Sonny Condell, they are often considered as one of the first progressive folk bands, being compared to artists like Nick Drake and the band Pentangle.
The Nick Drake connection is a poignant one as the seminal singer spent part of his life in Tanworth-in-Arden and is buried in the graveyard of the village church.
April Stoneman caught up with Leo O’Kelly to find out a bit more about a band that’s been going for nearly 45 years and why playing a festival in the spiritual home of seminal singer/songwriter Nick Drake will be an extra special experience.
How did the band start out and what was your inspiration?
Sonny and I met in my hometown, Carlow, in 1968, where he was playing a gig with his cousin, John Roberts. I was very impressed with them and their original songs…everyone else was playing covers. We met again a year later in Dublin, and they brought me to The Coffee Kitchen Folk Club, which became a regular for me. Inspiration was just in the air then…folk was meeting rock was meeting Eastern etc., so it was difficult not to be inspired.
The band has been going for a long time, what’s the secret of your longevity?
Respect for each other’s work and very different personalities, and personal space…in the almost 45 years we’ve been together we have never been out for a drink together…except when we’re on tour, or have ever had a telephone conversation which didn’t relate to Tír na nÓg. Apart from that we are the best of friends.
What is it about Irish folk music that has helped keep it alive and so vibrant?
I really don’t know….it’s catchy?
It’s a genre where there’s a strong reliance on familiarity and tried and tested songs and tunes, is it harder at all being musicians who write original material and have a very distinctive/alternative style?
It’s not harder for us…it’s like the difference between being a copy typist and a writer…except in cases of players of genius like Martin Hayes, Tommy Potts and others, who still get flak for being different.
How has the band sound and material evolved over the years?
It hasn’t changed…because it’s always different! We have never fallen into pigeonholes or categories, and have always allowed ourselves the freedom to turn on a sixpence.
How relevant of the prog folk, psych folk and space folk labels?
If other people feel more comfortable with that, it’s fine by us. In the end they’re all labels, but labels can be useful as well as restrictive.
Who are your influences/inspiration these days?
The last concerts I have seen were The Gloaming and Anna Calvi, both in Dublin. I find them both inspiring in very different ways…it’s all very powerful music. I don’t know who Sonny is listening to.
What’s the best concert you’ve done and where was it?
The Royal Albert Hall always comes to mind…we played there three times, and it is truly awesome in every sense of the word.
How do you stay fresh after more than 40 years of writing and performing?
Sonny has always written a lot, and I’m the opposite. We don’t just “make up” songs, and I wish other people wouldn’t either…it’s an art, not a craft, as a lot of people say it is. A craft is putting things together with a fixed end result…art is going into the unknown. Performing-wise, it’s always different anyway…we don’t have a set list, so we’re always receptive to surprises.
How do you feel about the resurgence of folk generally in recent years and has it increased interest in the band?
It’s lovely to return to Britain and see how vibrant the young folk scene is. We played with a young Birmingham duo, Ruth Angell & Sid Peacock, who we really enjoyed…beautiful music. In Ireland it seems to be mainly people just playing tunes faster and more unrelentingly, but what would we know about that?
What’s currently in the pipeline in terms of recording/touring etc?
Several UK tours coming up in May, June, September and October. We have a 4 track vinyl EP coming out end of May on London label, Fruits de Mer. These tracks will be augmented later to comprise a full album.
Do you have any unusual fans in unusual places – or to phrase it another way are there any obscure corners of the planet populated by Tír na nÓg fans – if so have you performed there?
We’ve performed pretty much everywhere between LA and Hong Kong…and gone down well everywhere…except LA!
How much fun was it touring with Jethro Tull and being thrust into the prog rock limelight of the early seventies.
A lot of fun…our wildest dreams! We more recently played again with Jethro Tull at the National Concert Hall Dublin after 40 years, and are on a worldwide “virtual tour” with Ian Anderson at the moment, where he has filmed some songs of ours to open his show.
You famously cover Free Ride by Nick Drake. How much of an inspiration was he and how do you feel about playing the Lunar Festival in his spiritual home, close to the place where he is buried.
We are both in love with Nick’s songs and playing, and are honoured to be playing at the festival inspired by his music. Free Ride was the only song of Nick’s to be covered in his lifetime, except for Millie Small’s version of Mayfair.
Had he not tragically died so young what do you think he could have gone on to achieve?
Who knows? His songs and his personal issues were so intertwined that it would be very difficult to imagine
The Lunar Festival takes place at the Umberslade Estate in Tanworth-in-Arden near Solihull from June 6-8 and is organised by the same team behind the Moseley Folk and Jazz & Blues Festivals.
Other acts on the bill include Tim Burgess, British Sea Power, Donovan, Temples, the Polyphonic Spree and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
Lunar has full weekend camping facilities, with a separate section for families, who also get free admission to Umberslade Children’s Farm.
To find out more about the line-up and programme or book tickets visit www.lunarfestival.co.uk.