Whether playing solo or with the newly formed The Gloaming, Martin Hayes, the marvelously gifted fiddler, finds his mesmeric rhythm in the Irish tunes he learned from his father – the leader of the famed Tulla Ceili band – and other master musicians in east County Clare.
The first time I heard Martin Hayes it felt like an earthquake. Not ten seconds into his first tune, the ground started to pulsate, the bottles behind the bar were shaking as everyone in the room felt the urge to stamp their feet to the rhythm of Hayes’ fiddle. While there is undeniable electricity in the way Hayes commands an audience, it is juxtaposed with a very distinct gentleness. He plays as if each note is made of glass; mishandle it slightly and the emotion is shattered. As a man, he exudes that same gentleness. Quite soft-spoken and self-deprecating, the County Clare native is uninterested in fame and has no concern with being best. His concern, it seems, is always to connect with people. He works to be better only than himself, than how he played the day before.
Hayes, who now splits his time between Connecticut and Ireland, has lived in the U.S. for 23 years. As well as playing, he composes scores for film and stage. His newest project, The Gloaming, is a dream team of Irish and Irish American musicians. Hayes is joined by Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh on fiddle, his longtime musical partner Dennis Cahill on guitar, the legendary Iarla Ó Lionáird on vocals, and newcomer Thomas Bartlett on piano.
I spoke with Hayes just before the group’s debut at Webster Hall, in New York City.
When did your life as a musician begin?
I started playing when I was seven. My father was a fiddle player in the Tulla Ceili Band so there was always music in the house, always musicians coming and going and people interested in music. I had been hearing traditional music as the predominant music form since I was a little child so it wasn’t something I had to get to know. I grew up in that environment. I don’t know that I exactly learned. I learned some tunes from my father, but there was a lot of just being around it, kind of absorbing it.
Right, osmosis. Like the way people learn a language I suppose… As a teenager I became quite curious about lots of other musicians. I became curious about styles of music in my locality. I would tape all these old players, learn their tunes, talk to them, hang out with them. As a teenager, I was kind of friendly with people who were 60 or 70 years of age. I was lucky I did that because they aren’t there now.
There is such a strong tradition of music in Clare. Do you think it’s a function of those family traditions that you are a product of?
The music was carried in certain families for sure. And I suppose, for some reason I can’t really explain, there just were a lot of musicians in the county. There’s a strong tradition there that hasn’t ever really weakened.
Would you describe your style as Clare specific?
I suppose I have some of that accent in my music, but I’m not particularly concerned or obsessed with preserving that now. I think I did start out with a real mission to preserve it, but I don’t think it needs to be preserved anymore. It’s kind of a ranking of priorities. There’s the regionalism, there’s the family, tradition and heritage, but number one there is music. Music is the main thing. In that array of things, one just views it not so much from the cultural or historical or social but purely music perspective.
There’s a long history of the Irish coming to America and bringing this music with them. Now especially, it seems those two lines of music are crossing over again. Do you think the style of traditional music has been influenced by this cross-fertilization?
All through the 20th century for sure what was happening in America was affecting what was happening in Ireland. Probably more so than what was happening in Ireland affecting what was happening in America. I think that’s more balanced now. And over the course of the 20th century [Irish] music on both sides of the Atlantic developed quite differently as well.
Is Irish traditional music still Irish or is it global?
I think global at this stage. I played seisiuns this year in places like Japan. People are playing this music everywhere.
What do you think it is about the music that translates?
Underlying all the techniques and all the different elements that sometimes make it sound like it’s Irish music, the main characteristic is the strength of the melody line. It’s a melodic music. It’s why pop music is successful sometimes, it’s melodic. The Beatles were very melodic. Simon and Garfunkel were very melodic. I think the beauty of the melodies and their accessibility is what makes them successful. The other quality of the music is that it’s non-hierarchical. There isn’t a separation between professional and amateur in any real sense. The playing system in seisiuns is very equal, circular and kind of egalitarian most of the time. It’s a music that is made for participation and not necessarily always be a distant observer of. It’s music people can partake in.
How did your partnership with Dennis Cahill begin?
I met Dennis in Chicago in 1985 so I’ve known him a long, long time. We actually played in a band together for a while in Chicago. Then some years later when I moved to Seattle and I was looking for a guitarist to come on the road with me on a more full time basis, Dennis said, “Hey I’ll do that.” And that was it. We’re just very good friends and we built up a musical rapport over the years. We understand each other musically.
It became second nature?
Yes, we have a way of working on it together. We have a comfortable way of touring and traveling together and those are all important things too.
Tell me about The Gloaming?
I’ve known everyone in The Gloaming for a long time. I’ve known the singer, Iarla Ó Lionáird, since we were little kids. He was always an amazing singer. I’ve known Caoimhin since he was a young teenager. And I’d known Thomas Bartlett since he was a little kid. And Dennis, of course. We all kind of knew each other in various combinations, and I knew enough about them all to know we all had a similar aesthetic feeling around music and a shared sense of what this music is and how we like to look at it.
The idea of doing this project together was that rather than picking the most flamboyant musicians or even picking a band based on instrumentation, because this is a strange combination: vocals, two fiddles, guitar and piano, no one puts a band together of that structure. But we put it together based on the idea that all the people would be very sympathetic to each other and each other’s viewpoints and that we had similar outlooks on music. And at the same time everyone in this band has an absolutely unique voice. It’s safe to say that every musician in this band doesn’t carry a standard set of music tools. Caoimhin absolutely only sounds like Caoimhin. Iarla just sounds like Iarla. There’s only one Thomas Bartlett. There’s only one Dennis Cahill.
What are some of the elements each member brings to it?
There’s a kind of moodiness we’re all attracted to in our styles of music. We definitely seek to evoke and arouse feeling in a very real way. Sometimes musicians are not necessarily oriented that way, but I think every musician in this group is that way. Sometimes musicians are driven toward that high energetic side of music. I knew all these musicians had a longing for other elements of the music. There is a more gentle side of the music that often doesn’t get explored in ensemble playing. It allows us to go in a slightly different direction sometimes by just having other people who think or feel the same way.
Thomas brings in a lot of worlds. It was a bit like when I first started with Dennis, he had backgrounds in different areas outside [Irish] music. So he brought new ideas to the guitar way of dealing with specifically how I was playing. I think that Thomas brings another dimension because he works in a very cutting-edge world of music in a way. He has leanings toward jazz and rock-and-roll and traditional. He works with Anthony and the Johnsons and The National and all these other bands that are very current and doing great things. He has that great ensemble ability to really feel and respond to things as they’re happening. And he knows traditional music very well because he did that as a kid. So I just thought he would be a great compliment to Iarla’s singing.
So when Iarla told me he’d like to do some stuff with me, I said, well, why don’t we get Thomas Bartlett? And he hadn’t heard of Thomas yet but was really thrilled when he got to meet him. Then I knew the band was out of balance instrumentally, that this was a lot of guitar and piano for me to overcome with the fiddle. So I knew that Caoimhin had been working with Iarla and I had also been working with Caoimhin on separate projects. So he had two people in the band he could hook into. And I had my hooks and connections with Dennis. It fitted together surprisingly easy in the end.
I understand you and Thomas have an interesting history.
Back in the early 90s, I did a tour in Ireland. Thomas and his family had come [from Vermont] on holiday and they hadn’t really a clear plan of where they wanted to go. Thomas, just a small kid at the time, had been interested in traditional music as he had been interested in contra dance music in New England as a kid. At the beginning of their vacation, they came to a concert that I played. They really enjoyed it. They decided that rather than make a plan for their vacation they would allow serendipity to dictate it. Thomas said he wanted to go to all the concerts on the tour so they did.
They went back to America after that and I basically forgot about them. I forgot this kid’s name. Maybe it was a year or two later we got an e-mail from this guy called Thomas Bartlett. We didn’t know who this was but he was asking if we’d be available to do a concert in Vermont. We responded by saying, “well if you can let us know of some concert presenter there we’ll certainly do it.” So some time passed and we got another e-mail saying, “We found a venue and will you be able to come at this time?” The correspondence kept going back and forth. Then something slipped in the email. Some little bit of information that made us wonder “What the hell?” [He said something like], “I have to ask my mom.” We found out that we were being booked by an eleven-year-old to play a concert [laughs].
Thomas put on this concert and it was really amazing. The place was full, the hall was booked, the stage was there, the PA was there, the PR was done. We had a great night. After that I never really lost contact with Thomas. We would cross paths occasionally. And just before the Gloaming project we had made contact and done some jamming together in the studio just to see what it’d be like. Then I’d been talking to Iarla so I said this is the opportunity to put it all together.
When did you all start playing together as The Gloaming?
Last winter. We got together in the studio in the midlands of Ireland for a week just to generate music and throw all the ideas in and see what happens. So basically we just sat in a circle and [someone would] say, “Ok, I’ll start out with something. So everybody just throw whatever you got at it.” And so it kind of went around in circles like that for a week and we were generating material every day. Thomas was writing melodies with Iarla. Dennis, Caoimhin and myself were putting together medleys and tunes. So we had loads of material before the week was over, enough for some concerts. So then we did a tour of Ireland. We were really happy with it. That was the real testament. Do some concerts and see what happens. You can’t know what you have until you walk on a stage and try it.
Is there a different atmosphere on stage as opposed to when you’re all just in a circle?
The stage brings an energy to things and forces concentration. I think [The Gloaming] is a band of really good listeners. All the arrangements… it has an inherent looseness built into it. In other words, ‘Let’s see what happens on the night when we play this part here.’ We have a good sketch of things but people are generally free to create and invent right in the whole form as we’ve moving forward. So there is a kind of aliveness and an improvisational quality there all the time.
Is there a story behind the name?
The name came from Caoimhin, he’s a really creative guy. To tell you the truth, naming this project was probably the most difficult part of it. It’s excruciating trying to come up with a name for a band. I don’t know how many names I sent in and they were all stupid really.
But you all came to a consensus?
We just gave up [laughs]. “Ok, Caoimhin, that’s it.” He had come up with it earlier and we couldn’t come up with anything better.
Is there a different atmosphere you find playing to American audiences?
I personally don’t make any distinction at all. Playing New York feels like playing Dublin to me. I don’t look at it any differently, I don’t see the audience any differently. I treat the audience the same way whether we’re in Tokyo or New York or Dublin.
Do you have plans for the future?
In so far as we can. We’d like to do some touring in the States, Europe and maybe Asia as well. We’d like to record. We think it’s a good band and a good project so we don’t want to mess it up. We want to give it the best chance it has. We’re not particularly obsessed with fame and fortune. You get to a point in life when you’re happy to just do the thing. You can let go. We just want to give it its best opportunity and see what happens. Then we’ll know. Maybe it’ll be successful, maybe it’ll be okay, maybe it won’t. We’re pretty certain that we will enjoy doing this while we’re doing it no matter what. Where it leads we’re not sure.
Almost everybody in the band has an active interest in other genres. Certainly Iarla branches out to other areas [and has] for many years – with Afro-Celt or what he does with Crash ensemble or with composer Gavin Byer. Caoimhin has been exploring obviously traditional Irish music but has also taken a huge interest in Scandinavian music and in improvisational, free-form music that he does as solo work as well. Dennis has lots of background in classical and jazz. Thomas similarly has that background with all these other forms of music. We share a lot of common interests. Both Thomas and I are fascinated by the musicality of Keith Garrett and his improvisational skill and his performance intensity. Even though there’s a lot of varied interest, there’s plenty of junction points as well. Both Caoimhin and I would be very interested in very old forms of fiddle playing in Ireland and obscure ways of dealing with the music. It would be of interest to both of us in very different ways but I think in the end it’s complimentary.
Is there a story behind the instrument you play?
It’s a fiddle I picked up ten years ago in Chicago. It’s not a particularly valuable instrument. It’s a good instrument. It doesn’t have pedigree, but it’s good. It’s like a mutt dog. Fiddles are… people have sounds in their head – what they want to sound like when they play. It isn’t so much that the instruments can be exactly that but they allow you to make that sound easier. The instrument that allows you to make that sound the easiest way possible, that’s the instrument you want. With this instrument I felt that the sound was the way I wished to sound.
You have quite a bit of experience playing competitively. [Six All-Ireland championships.] How does that competitive playing differ from what you do now?
When I competed I didn’t really focus on the competition. I didn’t focus on competing per se. I focused on playing as deeply and as well as I could. When I played in a competition I played to the people in the hall as opposed to the judges. The only thing I ever knew how to do was access feeling in music, and technically I wouldn’t be so sure I could compete with anything. I knew I could get into music and play what I felt and what I like. In that sense, nothing ever really changed. I got through that competitive arena of music looking at it that way.
Do you ever still do scale work?
I mostly just play. I just play the things I like to play. My practice is really the idea of pushing. When I play, I want to go a little bit further than I’ve gone before. I always try to do that, and I always try to imagine that this performance is going to be the one that I haven’t yet achieved. So I’m always, when I play, pushing myself that way. I could be pushing toward quietness. When I say push it doesn’t mean toward wildness and fire all the time. It’s the idea of being able to play from a deeper place continually. I find that much more important than any number of scales one can play. Almost any of the technical stuff can fall away to nothing if it’s not coming from a deep meaningful place. It excuses my inability in other areas.
Where do you see Irish music finding its home in the world?
I think there was a peak of popularity in the 90s and early 2000s. So it’s not as popular as it was. At the same time it’s a good deal more popular in the world than it was at any time in the 20th century. It’s widespread. I think that if you went back to the 50s the issue was: would it survive at all? Now it’s inconceivable to ask that question. I also think that the new generations of musicians, the teenagers out there, bring a remarkable ability. I also find that a lot of classical musicians are engaging in and interacting with this music. This music is having little effects in other areas of music too, so the barriers of genres are falling. It’s no longer that you would have a classical violinist and a traditional violinist. It’s very often that you would find both combined, especially in the next generation of musicians more so. Less barriers, less boundaries.
So there’s probably an exciting future there. And I think no matter what happens musicians will continually go back to the source. I think there’s a cycle where you push out but find yourself coming back again. There’s a wellspring there. There’s a large body of melody and playing technique that’s sufficiently rich for people to keep coming back to. I think there will be many failed attempts to turn it into something completely \different and it will revert again and again. In the meantime overall it adjusts itself to the world it’s in.
Thank you, Martin.
See photos of The Gloaming’s New York debut at globalFEST at Webster Hall below. Photos by Sade Joseph.