- 04 Aug 20
Happy 68th Birthday Moya Brennan! To mark the occasion, we're revisiting a classic interview with the Clannad legend – originally published in Hot Press in 2003.
Moya Brennan has more than one reason to be cheerful on this dismal, wet, winter’s afternoon. The erstwhile “voice of Clannad” has just released her fifth solo album Two Horizons – a record she feels is amongst her very best work to date. She is also about to head out on the road with her band, taking in Holland, Germany and the US, a prospect she says she relishes after spending two years working on the album.
“I’d love to play in Ireland as well but I don’t know if anyone would come and see me,” she offers, modestly. “We hardly sell any records in Ireland compared to other countries, which is a shame. Irish audiences probably feel they get too much Irish music – it’s probably taken for granted here.”
More significantly, 2003 marks 30 years since Clannad recorded their first album – the event marked by the release of In A Lifetime – The Best Of Clannad, a double CD featuring highlights from throughout the Donegal family group’s entire career.
It’s been a long and sometimes strange trip for the group who, taking their name from the Irish word for “family,” first formed in 1970 when the Brennan siblings Maire, Ciaran and Pol began playing at their father Leo’s pub in Gweedore with two of their uncles, Padraig and Noel Duggan.
They soon began performing at folk festivals around Ireland, releasing their self-titled debut album in 1973 and earning their first taste of international success when they toured Germany in 1975. (Younger sister Enya joined the group in 1979 leaving for a successful solo career in 1982 just as they were about to enjoy their first pop success in the UK with ‘Harry’s Game’).
Over three decades, Clannad have sold 10 million records, scored several chart hits, and netted a Grammy and an Ivor Novello award, among many other accolades. They’ve composed soundtracks for several TV series and movies, including Last Of The Mohicans and Robin Of Sherwood. Along the way Moya has duetted with Bono, guested on record with Led Zeppelin legend Robert Plant and collaborated with a host of luminaries from Paul Young, Bruce Hornsby and Joe Jackson to Shane MacGowan, Paul Brady and Russell Watson. In 1999 she also scored a surprise worldwide hit in collaboration with dance outfit Chicane on the song ‘Saltwater’.
“It certainly doesn’t feel like 30 years since we started out,” she reflects. “But when you think about it, an awful lot has happened over that time. When I see these television shows like Pop Idol and Fame Academy, I’m amazed that I’m still involved in music. But I love it and I’m grateful that I was allowed to grow in the business over the years. We didn’t think there’d be any longevity in the group when we started out but Clannad now commands a huge respect in the music business internationally. The Clannad sound has been widely imitated, whether in advertisements or movie soundtracks so it’s nice to have been a part of something that we gave birth to.”
Despite her abhorrence of latter-day manufactured pop groups she reveals that Clannad’s first album came about in somewhat similar circumstances to today’s eager young contenders.
“We won a competition at The Letterkenny Folk Festival in 1970 and the prize was a record contract,” she laughs. “But the record company didn’t know what to do with us and we didn’t make our first record until 1973. We were actually in the National Song Contest that year. Eurovision was a big thing back then and it was more credible than it is today – you had people like Lulu, Cliff Richard and Sandy Shaw doing it. We didn’t win the contest – I think that was the year Maxi won. But because of it we got a bit of publicity – we were being photographed hanging out of trees and all that and the record company probably thought ‘let’s make that record’.”
While many might think of the early Clannad incarnation as a purist, traditional group Brennan insists they were anything but conservative in approach. Their first album Clannad night have included traditional songs sung in Irish, but it also featured double bass – unknown in Irish music at the time – and it contained a cover of Tim Rose’s classic ‘Morning Dew’.
“People always thought Clannad tried to be more poppy as they went along,” she says. “When we went out on the road with drums, people said, ‘oh I see Clannad are using drums now’. But there were drums on the very first album and we had electric guitars on the second and third albums!
“That fusion was always there in the family. The Gaelic songs came from my mum and the pop element from my dad’s showband who we’d see rehearsing in the front room playing songs by Bill Haley, The Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley – we grew up speaking Gaelic and listening to all this. When the showbands couldn’t make it up to Donegal during the snows at Christmas they’d ring my dad and we’d all hop into a couple of cars and head down the road to the gig. I was getting up onstage singing everything from ‘Dana’s All Kinds of Everything’ to Sandy Shaw songs.”
Six albums into their career Clannad finally broke through internationally in 1982 with the theme for the Yorkshire TV series Harry’s Game, the music a unique blend of Celtic textures and ethereal vocal harmonies all sung in Irish. It sounded like nothing else in the charts at the time.
“Again people thought it was something completely new but we were always delving into odd stuff and experimenting with sounds,” Moya explains. “On the album that came before it, Fuaim, we were beginning to attempt that kind of thing and Ciaran and Pol were creating these atmospherics with the Prophet 5.
“With ‘Harry’s Game’ we just sang all these notes and put them straight into the control desk in the studio – it was a real moment of discovery. These days everything is done to a click track but at the time it was just me and Ciaran looking at each other.”
The success of ‘Harry’s Game’ led to major tours and strong sales for follow-up albums such as Macalla and Magical Ring. Then, in 1986, came another breakthrough with ‘In a Lifetime’ – a remarkable duet recorded with U2’s Bono.
“It was really lovely how that song came about,” Moya recalls. “It wasn’t planned or anything, it was quite spontaneous. We were doing the Macalla album and Ciaran had this backing track lying around. After a recording session in Windmill Lane we went down to the Dockers pub and some of the U2 boys were there. We got chatting and two days later Bono was in Windmill and we were all messing around with the track.
“We went home that night and there was this amazing thunder and lighting storm. Everyone came in the next day with lyrics about thunder and lighting. I learned a lot from watching Bono working at that time. He wasn’t afraid to go places with his voice and I think to his own surprise he hit notes that were just amazing. I know that he regards it as something very special – it was a real moment.”
It was also around that time, of course, that tabloid rumours began to circulate that Moya and Bono were having a secret affair.
“Me and Bono?” Moya laughs. “I mean come on! We didn’t even deny the story at the time because it was so stupid. I was much older than him anyway and I knew Ali who I thought was lovely. The funny thing was, it started with Bono and then it moved onto Adam who was also a good friend of mine. Once, we all met in the Dockers and Larry or the Edge –I can’t remember which of them – said, ‘I suppose I’m next’. The whole thing was ludicrous and I don’t think anyone believed it.”
Back to the present. On her latest solo record Two Horizons, Moya celebrates the Irish harp – an instrument she has played since the early days. Guests on the album include folk legend Martin Carthy, Robbie MacIntosh (one time Pretender and sometime Paul McCartney guitarist) as well as familiar players such as Anto Drennan, Maire Breatnach and Nigel Eaton.
“Dare I say it – it’s a concept album,” she explains. “It’s nearly become fashionable again – Neil Young’s Greendale comes to mind. The harp kept biting when I was thinking about the album but living in this country you go ‘no it’s the emblem of the country and it reminds too many people of the taxman’s envelope’ so I went against the idea. But then I thought that’s only in Ireland – it won’t matter anywhere else.
“Then I started to look at the Hill of Tara for inspiration. It’s a fantastic place. It’s a feeling more than anything else. I did bit of reading and I saw a picture of Daniel O’Connell who had a meeting there before nearly a million people. It’s like a 3D story – I bring the listener on a journey which I think works.”
The album was produced by Ross Cullum who had previously worked with Tori Amos, Tears For Fears, and Enya. They began writing together, and on the track ‘Bright Star’, Moya says she was so inspired that she produced the words and vocal lines in two hours. Callum was also interested in finding new ways to frame Moya’s voice, as she explains.
“When Universal asked me would I be interested in recording with him I jumped at it,” she says. “I remember going in with Clannad with producers we had met the night before. Most of them were OK but some of them tried to move us away from what we wanted. Ross was careful not to take my music out of its context. But he also gave a modern, rhythmical aspect to it. A song like ‘Ancient Town’ has a bit of a Massive Attack feel, I think. It’s so good to have the traditional and the technology working together. I even brought in a hurdy-gurdy player at one point.
“I really do think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I know everyone says that about their latest album but I really believe it this time. The record company are really going to give this one a long shot, there’s been a great response from Asia and Europe. As usual it’ll have more impact outside the country.”
Meanwhile, according to Moya, Clannad is still an ongoing prospect. “The band still exists, even though we’ve taken time out,” she says.
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Moya Brennan is one of 75 stars contributing to our special celebration for Van Morrison's 75th birthday, 'Rave On, Van Morrison', alongside the likes of Hozier, Sinéad O'Connor, Gary Lightbody, Imelda May, Damien Rice, Andrea Corr and President Michael D. Higgins with Bill Whelan. Keep an eye on hotpress.com and our social media platforms for more information...
— Moya Brennan (@moyaclannad) August 3, 2020