Written by Helene Dunbar.
Reprinted from Irish Music Magazine - April, 2010
It’s strange to think of Solas as an “old dog” but on paper, the band has now been together for fourteen years and through ten albums. They’ve played worldwide and amassed a strong and vocal fan base. Many bands would be content to rest on those past accomplishments but Solas’ new album, “The Turning Tide”, shows that they are not yet out of new tricks.
Seamus Egan (flute, tenor banjo, mandolin, tin whistle, low whistle, guitars, bodhran) and Winifred Horan (violins, vocals) are the two remaining founding members and Egan says “On one level it’s great to have had the chance to work with someone for that length of time but at the same time you need to be mindful that that dynamic doesn’t get complacent. We definitely still push one another.” They are helped in that endeavor by Mick McAuley (accordions, contertina, low whistle, vocals), Eamon McElholm (guitars, keyboards, vocals) and the band’s newest member, vocalist Mairead Phelan.
Phelan, on her second Solas album now has developed with the band and allowed them to grow in a way that only a vocalist can. “Certainly,” says Egan, “‘Love & Laughter’ really was her first time making an album and going through the process of being in the studio. At that time, she’d really only been singing with us for live for a couple of months, so everything was new for her at that stage. Since that time and through the making of this album, she’s had nearly two years of being out and about and doing all kinds of gigs with her voice getting stronger. Coming into this album she’d really grown quite a bit over that two year period.”
That growth has allowed the band to do some branching out. In addition to the fiery and tightly-arranged tunes that Solas are known for and that you’d expect to find on any Solas CD, the band has chosen some interesting covers most decidedly outside of the normal Celtic musical catalog: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’, Richard Thompson’s ‘Poor Ditching Boy’ and Josh Ritter’s ‘Girl in the War.’
“We wanted to try to push the boat out a little bit in the songs we looked at on this album,” Egan explains. “In the case of ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ – that was a song that we thought about for a while but it seemed like something that would have the potential to really suit Mairead.” When you make an album “you’re looking at your wish list of songs that you’d love to do and in this case, that list for us was more adventurous in spots than in the last few records.”
Phelan, who replaced Deirdre Scanlon who replaced Karan Casey, is, in finding her own feet, giving the band a bit of a new direction as well. “Every singer, on an obvious level, has their own personality which allows them to sort of tackle certain types of songs,” says Egan. “Not every song suits every singer. So with the changes in the singers that we’ve had over the years – it takes a little while for that cohesion to settle in. This is particularly true in the case of Mairead because she’s so young and she’s really just starting out and seeing which songs she naturally gravitates towards and how they fit with her and how they fit with the band. So it’s a learning process and a “getting to know you” process. The job there then is to try to meld the songs with the singers.”
Egan is grateful that Solas’ long term fans have not only given them latitude but have grown with them. “We’ve always been looking ahead from the beginning,” he says. “We’ve never actually been too concerned with sticking with material that was totally traditional or approaching traditional material in a totally traditional manner. As you develop and go on there’s a natural inclination to see how far you can push that. We’ve done albums that scared people,” he laughingly admits. “But I think that’s all good. We’ve been very fortunate with our fans that after fourteen years and ten albums they kind of give us the benefit of the doubt. We’ve got a nice relationship built at this point – us with them and them with us and it allows us to try things. Obviously not everyone is going to be happy with everything. But at the end of the day we don’t want to make the same album each time. Once you make an album in a certain way, you have a tendency to move past that artistically and on to the next thing.”
As to what that “next thing” will be, Egan isn’t sure but he’s quick to assert that the band never stops looking for it. “It’s never a thing where you’ve finished a record and all you’re doing is that album. You’re always looking out for something that you might be able to tackle at some point. I end up doing a lot of writing during sound-checks because it gives you a chance to try things. There seems to be no shortage of sound checks which I don’t mind; they’re a good cleansing of the brain. But it drives some of the rest of the band a little mental.”
As the last Solas album, ‘Love & Laughter’, offered up some interesting collaborations with roots group The Dukhs and as ‘The Turning Tide’ offers some interesting covers of songs by living songwriters, I had to ask if there were any plans for Solas to pursue more collaborative performances. “Those things need to come together very organically,” explains Egan. “The germ of it needs to be natural so that those connections evolve as that particular one with The Dukhs did. There are loads of folks we’d love to do things with but for us to feel that it was a real type of thing there needs to be almost a courting if you will. It needs to feel genuine and come about in a genuine sort of way.”
There is one exception that Egan might make though. Does Solas envision performing “The Ghost of Tom Joad’ with Springsteen? “If he were to call we’d definitely make an exception,” laughs Egan. “We’d let that evolve very fast. My goodness that would be fantastic!”
The Boss aside, Egan says that Solas’ goal is to “Ideally just keep moving forward and continuing to push ourselves and keep making music that challenges us and hopefully that the audience still wants to hear. As bad as you hear that the music industry is doing, musically, I think it’s a really exciting time – there’s a lot going on. It’s difficult to get things done now but there are a lot of reasons to remain positive about it and I’m very happy that Solas is still a part of that.”
When asked if he thought they might make it to their 20th anniversary though, he exclaimed “Oh god no, we’re not thinking of that, that’s a horrifying thought. Right now we’re working a lot which we’re really grateful for and we’re really enjoying the whole thing at the moment. At some point though, I’m sure we’ll have to rein it in a little.”
Still, It’s clear that Egan isn’t ready to do that just now. The “turning tide” referred to in the album’s title “seemed to coalesce with where the band is and also on a broader scale and with the songs that we chose for the album and with what’s going on all around us. In that sense it dovetailed and seemed to make sense to us.”
Many bands found touring near to impossible in the wake of 9/11 and the travel restrictions that came after and the weak value of the dollar. “Without question, over the past nine years there was a real sense of ‘whatever you thought about how difficult it (touring) was before – this is really dangerously difficult,’” says Egan. And it has gotten worse before it started getting better. “We’d been out on the road right at the time the economy completely tanked last year. We were in the Midwest and you really sensed that there was definitely some concern that something horrible was going on. You don’t always get a palpable sense of it when you’re out but this time it was there. But it does seem to be maybe easing up just a little bit,” muses Egan. “There seems to be a bit more confidence for people to come out and spend some money.”
The band is acutely aware of what it takes sometimes for fans to get to a show. “People coming to a gig are out for a night, they might have to get baby sitters, there’s a meal, maybe a drink later. It adds up. You can’t take it for granted. Whatever we’ve done to get to the show, the audience has too. There is a bit of planning and money spent. And there’s a commitment on both sides.”
It clear that that commitment is one that Solas takes seriously and one which their fans seem happy to continue making from however long the band chooses to stick it out and regardless of what direction the tides turn in.