- 15 Jan 21
For a long time, women had been forced to play second fiddle in the music industry. Now, however, things are beginning to change for the better. Inspired by ace songwriter RuthAnne Cunningham, the sisters have been doing it for themselves with Irish Women in Harmony. First, the 30-plus strong supergroup took a marvellous cover of the Dolores O’Riordan-written ‘Dreams’. Then came ‘Together At Christmas’ – a song that is already well on the way to becoming a Christmas classic in its own right. It was, without a doubt, the Irish music story of the year in 2020. Photography: Miguel Ruiz
When RuthAnne Cunningham assembled Irish Women in Harmony – a supergroup of epic proportions that saw many of the leading ladies in Irish music, from Clannad’s Moya Brennan, Imelda May and Una Healy through to Wyvern Lingo, Soulé and Erica Cody, team up for a cover of The Cranberries’ smash hit ‘Dreams’ – she had no idea what she was letting herself in for!
Nor did she – or any of the 30-plus artists involved – have any inkling just how successful it would be.
It was a classic example of people pitching in because it seemed like the right thing to do, rather than from any personal ulterior motives. For a start, it was making a statement about Irish female talent: look, here’s a platoon of women singers, all of whom are capable of delivering something brilliant. It was a musical message that had the empowerment of women among its essential purposes.
It was also about raising money for hugely deserving causes in a time of escalating national crisis. The particular importance of Safe Ireland was underlined with the release of figures confirming that there had been an upsurge in complaints about domestic violence during the pandemic. Normal fund-raising activities were virtually impossible for charities at the time. RuthAnne realised that Women In Harmony could step into the breach. Doing so with an iconic song written by Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries – one of the most successful female songwriters ever to come out of Ireland – was the icing on the cake.
The track was recorded in the middle of Ireland’s first Coronavirus lockdown. Musicians couldn’t congregate in a studio for a session. Instead, RuthAnne divided up the lines in ‘Dreams’, sending them out to each artist individually. They, in turn, sent back a recording of themselves singing their allotted lines into (quite literally) whatever kind of machinery they had to hand. RuthAnne was left with a dilemma: how could she create a radio-worthy song from a bunch of laptop and iPhone recordings?
One thing was certain: she wasn’t going to fail for want of trying!
If it was a daunting challenge, the singer, songwriter, and now producer was certainly up for it. “With my records, there’s always been a man involved in their making,” RuthAnne confessed to Hot Press around the time of the original release. “For me to be the sole producer, as a woman, was a challenge that I was really happy to be a part of. I didn’t want everyone to sound the same, but I wanted it blended.”
It’s now clear that she needn’t have worried. Working like a demon in the studio, and using all the guile she has developed over the course of a hugely successful songwriting career, she got the voices working together. Editing the video, meanwhile, was akin to painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. With so many different sources to be drawn on and meshed together, lighting and colour-coding had to be dealt with in painstaking detail. But it worked magnificently.
The finished video is one of those special artefacts that delivers a powerful emotional hit, derived in part at least from the marvellous diversity of the voices, the faces and the expressions it brings together – and which it, in a quiet, subtle way, celebrates.
SET-UP IN MY BEDROOM
One Late Late Show performance and over a quarter of a million euro raised for Safe Ireland later, RuthAnne Cunningham found herself contemplating what the next step might be. They’d had a massive hit. The vibes were really good. It would be important not to spoil that success in any way. Then she had a light-bulb moment. A Christmas single might just make the perfect follow-up. But only if they had the right song and could execute it in a similar style and spirit.
“Irish Women In Harmony needed a Christmas song,” RuthAnne laughs down the line from her home. And who better to write it than RuthAnne herself? It was towards the end of summer that the idea crystalised.
“My fiancé is also a songwriter,” she explains, “and we’d been talking about the type of Christmas song everyone would need this year. It was really hot at the time, and I woke up one morning at 8am, in August, and the idea had just fallen into my head.
“I sat up really quickly, and was like, ‘Wait. Has anyone done a song where they use famous lyrics from other Christmas songs?’ So I started writing down the choruses of all these Christmas songs, and I woke my fiancé up and I started singing it to him, and he started doing it with me.”
Then came the elevator pitch to her fellow Irish Women In Harmony members. There were fewer phone calls and texts required on this occasion...
“We first found out about ‘Together At Christmas’ when we were doing the Late Late Show performance for ‘Dreams’,” Una Healy smiles. “She was explaining to us how it came about – the songwriting element of it. It was really clever how it was all put together, with references to well-known songs, so it’s instantly familiar – yet very original with the melody, the feeling and the sentiment. It’s a beautiful song.”
With social distancing still in effect, it was clear from the outset that ‘Together At Christmas’ would – like ‘Dreams’ – have to be largely recorded at home. Fascinatingly, ‘Dreams’ had spurred many of the artists to up the ante, in terms of the home recording equipment available to them.
“It’s true,” Una Healy says. “A lot of people are investing in home set-ups and studios now, so they can get their vocals down from home – especially for working on demos.”
“With ‘Dreams’, it was just one of those things that got done,” says Erica Cody. “There were no ifs or buts. Everyone came through with their parts really quickly, and obviously, RuthAnne did so well with producing the whole thing and sending us all our individual parts. Actually, it may even have happened quicker this time around. It’s all been very smooth sailing.”
Soulé had always been used to working with the Diffusion production team.
“‘Dreams’ was new for me,” she confides, “in terms of recording at home and using my own studio set-up in my bedroom. I enjoyed the process though, because I learned how to add and stack vocals. With ’Together At Christmas’, I knew what to do and what not to do.”
A REVOLVING DOOR POLICY
Aimée was also an original member of the IWIH clan. For her, Irish Women In Harmony is much more than just a group of people she sings with. It is a collective of friends and peers, who can share information, ideas and insights.
“I was buying new studio equipment a few weeks ago,” she smiles, “and I was able to inquire in the group ‘Has anyone used this, what do you think?’ It’s a great space to be able to get advice from each other.”
“It’s been a lonely industry for women,” she adds. “For me, anyway, up until this past year. But, now, to be able to have a group of women in all different spots on the industry spectrum has been invaluable.”
This sentiment is echoed across the board, by different members of the Irish Women In Harmony troupe.
“There’s a weird stigma around getting a bunch of female artists together,” Erica says. “Everyone thinks there will be loads of drama, when that isn’t the case at all. We can work together just as well as men can. The Irish Women In Harmony projects have been really efficient and super-quick. There’s been no hassle.
“If it had been stressful, it wouldn’t have gone on this long,” Erica adds. “Everyone’s super-sound... it’s just great. We all have our own projects, so it was very relaxed this time around. RuthAnne said, ‘Anyone who wants to do the Christmas single can, and anyone who doesn’t want to, doesn’t have to’. But they’re still very much part of the group.”
“I never wanted Irish Women In Harmony to be about one or two members, or to have the same people all the time,” RuthAnne says. “Because there are so many of us, and everyone has their solo projects.
“This whole thing was meant to raise awareness for meaningful causes, and to highlight the talent of Irish artists,” she adds. “I want everyone to have a chance to be in the community. Even though we don’t have some of the girls from ‘Dreams’ on this song, they’re still in the text group. They’re involved even if they aren’t singing. I wanted to keep expanding, and to have a revolving door policy”.
For the Christmas single, it was important for RuthAnne to open up the floor to other women, who hadn’t had the opportunity to participate in ‘Dreams.’ Lenii is one of the new members of the group, and the up-and-coming star from Cork – who recently did a powerful Hot Press Y&E Series Instagram gig – jumped at the chance to join ‘Together At Christmas’.
“Women are under-represented in so many parts of the music industry,” Lenii says, “and are often made to believe we’re in competition with each other. So it was class to see a spotlight on talented Irish women working together.”
BIGGER THAN ALL OF US
Finding the right causes to work with was important to RuthAnne – and it was for the rest of the Irish Women in Harmony collective as well. The proceeds from ‘Dreams’ went to Safe Ireland – the track has thus far raised over €250,000 for the charity. For ht3e follow-up, RuthAnne and the gang thought spreading the wealth was necessary, with online donations and proceeds from texts going to ISPCC Childline, which supports children under 18 in crisis.
“For children, Christmas can be a very exciting time, but also a very scary one, if things aren’t great at home,” Una Healy says. “And now that we’re home more than ever, we need to protect the kids out there, and let them know that their voices can be heard. It’s all about supporting that. Having kids myself, I’m so protective of them.”
“One of my favourite parts in participating in this project,” says KEHLI, another new member of the troupe, “was being able to give back to people that need our help in these tough times.” .
“Especially this year, people are feeling so isolated,” Lenii adds. “And with the lockdown, there has been an increase in domestic violence. So it’s extremely important that the ISPCC and Childline have the resources to make sure every child is taken care of.”
“We’re still working with Safe Ireland, and all the revenue from ‘Dreams’ continues to go to Safe Ireland, forever,” says RuthAnne of the switch-up. “We just felt like we wanted to help as many charities as we could.
“We did not expect this to turn into such a thing,” she smiles. “Where it’s gone has become so special. It’s so much bigger than all of us.”
GIVING SOMETHING BACK THROUGH MUSIC
RuthAnne’s 8am lightbulb moment has turned out to be a winner. ‘Together At Christmas’ is the perfect antidote to the prevaziling bleakness of these dark times, with the pandemic making it more difficult – and in some cases impossible – to see family and friends over the Christmas holidays. It’s got an abundance of heart – and accompanying the single is a beautifully-shot video, full of snow (and complete with Love, Actually-inspired cue card lyrics).
“I was able to go into the studio to be there for part of the video,” says Una. “I was delighted to get in the car with my letter, and to be able to get out of Tipperary!
“It was like my day-pass up to Dublin!” she laughs. “It was all very Covid-friendly. We went in one at a time, and it was a lovely little set-up, with the fake snow.”
The single also features 18 tween girls in a children’s choir.
“That’s my favourite part of the video, when the kid’s choir starts singing,” laughs Soulé. “It was so cool having those kids participate. It’s something they’re going to remember when they get older. It also makes me happy that we’re able to raise money for such a good cause as Childline – and to give something back through music.”
And so say all of us...
• ‘Together At Christmas’ is out now. Text ‘CHILDHOOD’ to 50300 to donate €4 now.