Rising Star: larla Ó Lionáird

Award-winning exponent of the sean-nós singing style on influences, albums and flying to the moon

Who/what/where/when/why is Iarla O Lionard?

I am an Irishman born and reared in west Cork in a Gaelic speaking region, or Gaeltacht, called Cuil Aodha. I grew up in the mid-1960s as men prepared to go to the moon.

What exactly is 'sean-nós', the singing style that you are known to perform?

It is a definition that came into vogue in the 1960s. It describes in general the unaccompanied style of singing typically found in Gaelic speaking districts: Donegal, Connemara, An Rinn, Cuil Aodha, Corcha Dhuibhne. It is a centrepiece of the traditional music arts in Ireland and is regarded by many as predating our traditional dance music.

How does it differ from popular traditional singing?

That is a good question. Some argue that true sean-nós must be in Gaelic or the Irish language, but there are many who disagree with this. The styles commonly referred to as sean-nós can vary quite a bit. Generally this type of singing involves specialised ornamentation and breathing strategies. There are also other attributes concerning dynamics and tone that make it audibly different from folk-singing in general.

The repertoire of sean-nós varies quite a bit too. There are many types and sub-types of songs within the genre: working songs, laments, love songs, comical songs, descriptive songs and more. Most of the larger songs date from the 18th and 19th centuries, and there are some that are older still. Sean-nós is still being composed today, though not in the large narrative forms as a rule.

Who are your influences within the form?

My greatest single influence within the genre of traditional song is Pádraig Ó Tuama of Cuil Aodha.

Your recent album, Foxlight, won best traditional album of 2011 at the Irish Times Awards. How did you find the process of recording the album?

I think the very organic and real feel of the recording owes much to the fact that there were great players on it. People like Jon Hopkins, Leafcutter John, Simon Edwards and Neil McColl, and also cellists Lucy Railton and Oliver Coates. Emma Smith and Vincent Sipprell of strings duo Geese did a wonderful job, as did my friend Caoimhin O Raghallaigh on fiddle.

For my own part a small regret is not being present when many of these people were in studio. In that sense it was a different experience for me, hearing tracks evolve over time and not physically encountering some of the artists. I did meet almost everyone at some point though, either during the recording or later.

There is obviously critical appreciation of the album, but how have the public taken it?

The answer to that is 'Don't know yet'.

The album sounds beautiful, even abstract, as if Radiohead or Sigur Rós had a hand in production. Did you set out to bring sean-nós up to date?

It's nice to be referenced against music that I admire. Yes, I think it's modern but not self-consciously so. From the beginning we wrote with only one plan in mind, and that was to push all boundaries and serve the songs as best we could.

I did want to sing the traditional songs in a certain way, that much is true. And I feel very satisfied that I achieved what I wanted to. What that might mean to anyone else is really for them to think about. I love the sound of the album.

Where can audiences see you perform in the near future?

I will be touring the USA in April with Masters of Tradition, making music with my friends in The Gloaming in May in Ireland, and touring Europe with same in June and July. I'm also going to do some festival dates in Ireland this summer with my own band. In the early autumn I'll also be performing with the RTE Concert Orchestra nationwide. Visit my website for more information.