For his third solo album - Foxlight - the acclaimed Irish singer Iarla O Lionaird delivers an impassioned and sublime set of personal songs, combining the twin urges to write more new material and yet also work with an intriguing set of collaborators.
O Lionaird began writing new songs, secluding himself in his home studio on Herdman's Hill in remote Kilkenny. Joined by guitarist and producer, Leo Abrahams, the album took shape as O Lionaird and Abrahams split their time between rural Ireland and Abrahams' own studio in Bow, East London.
These disparate settings and the varying tonality of the contributing artists make this a record that shimmers with versatility. Whilst rooted in certain traditions, it is also unclassifiable and refuses to be located in one genre or another. It's one of O Lionaird's most organic, naturalistic records to date. Instrumentation and layers are embedded in each song, but ultimately it's about Iarla's exquisite, sonically unique voice.
From his early days as a sean-nos singer, to his work as lead vocalist for Afro Celt Sound System and his collaborative and solo work, O Lionaird has always ploughed his own artistic furrow. His work is very connected to the totems of traditional Irish music - sean-nos, the Irish language, traditional instrumentation - but various projects have broadened his experience and understanding in the multi-faceted nature of music. Nurtured on childhood songs, the Celtic rhythms that underpin the Afro-Celt sound and collaborations with composers Gavin Bryars and Donnacha Dennehy, there is much more to O Lionaird's exceptional gift than merely being a sean-nos singer.
People ascribe a lot of things to me musically - Cuil Aodha, Sean-nos, traditional... all of those sacred cows. They're certainly there, but I've always been a journeyman. With this record, I wanted to do things I hadn't done before and that's also because my way of listening has changed, says O Leonard.
A host of diverse musicians contribute to these songs. Composer Jon Hopkins, strings duo Geese, folktronica innovator Leafcutter John and fiddle and hardanger player Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, helped provided the eclectic, epic sweep of these compositions. Central to the album's inception was producer Leo Abrahams. O Lionaird produced the last record himself, but this time around decided that singing, writing and expressing were his priority. He says, This time, I've tried to just experience the voice, I wanted to reach new levels of expression. Abrahams is a talented guitarist who has gravitated towards the production end of music. Having worked with Brian Eno, Paul Simon and Ed Harcourt, Abrahams brought a huge amount to bear on the record, according to O Lionaird. Iarla cites an acute observation Abrahams made on 'Eleanor Plunkett', which sums up the trust that lies in their working relationship.
The ensemble of musicians involved is just as intriguing, given their varied musical backgrounds and disciplines. Abrahams plays guitar on the songs, as does Neil McColl; Leafcutter John offered multi-textured electronics, while accomplished players, Sarah and Vince of Geese provided strings. Jon Hopkins' complex piano compositions feature heavily too. On 'Daybreak', Iarla is joined by a female singer, from a vocal tradition with a similar aural history to his own sean-nos. Sara Marielle Gaup of Norwegian act Adjagas is a Sami singer, expert at yoiking.
...Ó Lionáird breaks new creative ground with Foxlight...The result is not so much a fusion or synthesis as a melting pot of sublime pure- note singing, a charming sense of almost monastic oddness, and some of the most sky-kissing melodies you'll hear all year. Best Traditional Album. --Irish Times
...one of the greatest living practitioners of the sean-nós ("old-style") tradition of Celtic singing, returns with Foxlight...with its added emphasis on original material, is a gorgeous step forward for Ó Lionáird. --allmusic.com
He's blessed with a wonderfully expressive voice, and with the ability to sing in Gaelic like few others...each of its predecessors has been a gem and his interpretations of traditional Gaelic pieces are pretty much definitive. ...perfect soundscape for O'Lionaird's peerless voice...hugely rewarding experience it is...rich, powerful and tender...providing the perfect atmosphere and the end results manage the rare trick of sounding both ancient and contemporary at the same time. 8/10 --americana.uk.com