- 10 Apr 19
There is something mysterious, and otherworldly, about the music of The Gloaming. To understand what it is and where it came from, you have to take a journey back to the 1990s, when a 12 year-old Thomas Bartlett came to Ireland for the first time. Interview: Pat Carty
Ostensibly playing traditional Irish music, The Gloaming are for all intents and purposes a genre unto themselves, combining Irish, classical and minimalist elements into moving music of undeniable beauty. Their story really starts back in the nineties when the young Thomas Bartlett and his family came to holiday in Ireland from their home in Vermont – the second smallest Sate in the US by population, which is bordered to the North by the province of Quebec, in Canada.
“It was just after Martin Hayes’ first record came out, I was obsessed with it.” Thomas remembers down the phone from his Manhattan studio. “We flew into Dublin and I got my parents to take me to see Martin play. It was just life changing. We followed him around the country, and after maybe the second or third show, he noticed the same grinning blonde child was sitting in the front row, so he introduced himself.”
How does a twelve year old in Vermont get into an Irish fiddle virtuoso like Martin Hayes in the first place?
“My best friend, Sam Amidon, and I had started a band together playing contra-dance music, do you know the contra-dance tradition at all?” Vaguely, Hot Press lies. It is folk music danced to by couples in long lines, also known as New England folk dance, Vermont being part of that wider geographic region. “Some of the tunes are drawn from southern old-time stuff, some from Quebec but probably the majority come from Ireland, and in the summers we would go to this folk music camp where there was a lot of Irish music”, Bartlett continues. “It was through that scene that I heard Martin’s first record. I was obsessed with Chopin at that time and the bleeding romanticism of Martin’s playing was the first time I heard that same kind of almost exaggerated emotion in these traditional tunes.”
If all this sounds precocious, we should remember that Bartlett had been taking piano lessons since he was four years old, but surely he was listening to more contemporary music as well?
“Actually, no!” he freely admits. “At that age I listened only to Irish and classical music. Later it was Kind Of Blue and the Keith Jarrett solo concerts that slowly got me into jazz and it was even later again that I started listening to rock music, which forms the vast majority of what I listen to now.”
You must have stood apart from the other 12 year olds at school?
“Yes, I was a strange creature, no question! I tended to be more interested in adults than kids my own age, but it worked out ok for me.”
Bartlett moved to New York in 2001 and soon began showing up on records from the likes of The National, The Swell Season and Martha Wainwright as well as releasing The Acrobat under his Doveman alias in 2005. He also started picking up production credits, first with old friend Sam Amidon. He would go on to work the faders for Glen Hansard, Sufjan Stevens, St. Vincent and many others.
In 2011 Hayes, alongside his long time collaborator guitarist Dennis Cahill and sean-nóser and former Afro Celt Sound System singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, was putting together an as yet unnamed musical project. It was Hayes who vouched for the inclusion of Bartlett, saying he would “connect the worlds” they were attempting to bridge.
“Martin and I had kept in touch and, a few years before The Gloaming, he came to New York to spend a day in the studio working on my songs. The other players didn’t know any Irish music. It sounded a little bit like late Talk Talk accompanying Martin Hayes”
That sounds great, Hot Press enthuses.
“I thought it was really cool”, Thomas agrees. “Martin was intrigued but it wasn’t quite what he wanted. I think that experience made him realise that I could have some kind of other perspective on the tunes that they were playing. I was with Anthony and the Johnsons at the time, and Glen Hansard and The National, a bunch of music that Martin was really loving, and I think he was looking for a way to bridge those worlds a little bit.”
Coming from outside the Irish tradition means you can break rules in ways the other might not be willing to.
“Absolutely. I have enough of a background in it to guess there’s an ‘A’ part and a ‘B’ part but they play these tunes in sessions all the time and there’s just a way that they go, certain chords that they would always be accompanied with - and I don’t know that.”
So that’s where the classical and minimalist elements come in?
“The minimalism thing wasn’t really part of the classical music that I was involved in but certainly Steve Reich and minimalism in general has become very important to me in a lot of the music I make, in productions for rock bands as well. I’m very interested in the little repeating cells of information that overlap and slowly evolve. It seemed a very natural thing within the structure of traditional tunes. That was something I was actually exploring much earlier in the band with Sam. Each contra-dance set tends to be ten to fifteen minutes long and you’re playing two or three tunes over the course of that. Just as a matter of keeping myself interested, I would slowly develop a morphing pattern over the course of the tunes.”
Traditional Irish music is made up of repeating passages, The Gloaming have slowed those down in a lot of instances. Is this those two ideas coming together? “I think it is, that is Marin’s signature innovation for me, to slow down the tunes, and let the melody and emotion breathe.”
Strange Whistley Things
The last man onboard was Dublin fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, already well regarded for what he was pulling out of his ten-stringed instrument known as the hardanger d’amore. The way Caoimhín incorporates the sounds that other fiddlers might strive to exclude perfectly compliments Hayes’ lyricism.
“Caoimhín’s sonic ability on that instrument is very unusual” is Bartlett’s take on it. “There’s a whole palette of sounds that I use on other people’s records – strange little whistley things, the sound of the wind – that I rely on to generate atmosphere, and Caoimhín kind of has all of that right there on his instrument. He plays the ‘white noise’ or the ‘ambient electronica’. Martin has this unshakeable pure tone that always speaks the melody and Caoimhín provides the shadows and the weather around him.”
How does Dennis Cahill’s blues background feed in?
“Dennis is an entirely unique player in Irish music. Most guitars in Irish music are tuned in DADGAD, so those natural chords for the tunes are just there, ready to go, they involve the most natural changes and it’s very fluid. But Dennis plays in standard tuning, he’s constantly having to stretch and contort, which gives an intensity to the playing that you don’t get in the other tuning.”
Iarla Ó Lionáird’s voice goes beyond language, it’s such a soulful sound, you don’t need to be an Irish speaker to “get” what he’s projecting.
“After working with Anthony (and the Johnsons) for years - another extraordinary singer - the words mean relatively little to me. It’s the pure sound, that’s the instrument. Iarla makes you feel a thing even if you don’t know what it is you’re meant to be feeling.”
Like acts as varied as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or Sigur Rós, or a hundred others, the feeling vaults the language barrier. “I think Sigur Rós is a good analogue to what Iarla can do with these songs.”
A Question Of Numbers
Aside from the music, there’s an aesthetic uniformity across the three studio albums the band have released. It turns out Bartlett is especially proud of this.
“The covers are from a photographer, Robert Parke Harrison, who I’ve loved for a very long time, I’ve had a book of his for maybe twenty years. When we were figuring out what the look would be, what the name would be, all of that, I really, really wanted the photo that’s on the cover of the first album. Harrison had never licensed his work for anything commercial, anything other than galleries but our manager miraculously convinced him. After that, I just kept picking things from his archive that I really loved.”
It’s almost like a Zep throwback – no name on the cover, albums untitled apart from numbers.
“That was very much a conscious decision.” Bartlett laughs at the memory. “As we were doing the thing that a band does – tossing around the titles and passing lists back and forth – my heart was sinking. Almost any title seemed to be pushing it in a direction I really didn’t like. I felt that it just needed a really evocative image and we were done.”
And it looks cool too, that’s surely the most important thing? “Exactly!”
The first album, The Gloaming (2014), was recorded in Grouse Lodge, Westmeath, the second one, The Gloaming 2 (2016) in Real World studios in Bath. For this one, The Gloaming 3, the band used Thomas' own Manhattan studio. What effect has that had on the end result?
“The first two studios were extraordinary, it was basically the five of us together and we pretty much had the record by the end of those weeks. In the years since then, I’ve spent every day in front of a piano or a computer in this studio, editing, making things, engineering, so this is the first time I’ve been thinking about The Gloaming in the same way that I make records with other people. I’m more consciously constructing things and I love making records with a lot of space in them. I experimented with striping things out entirely from around Iarla’s voice, especially the last song (‘Amhrán na nGleann’ - which translates as 'Song Of The Valley')”
As it’s your working environment, is this record more “you” than the other two?
“No, I don’t think that’s the case”, Bartlett counters. “It’s still very much a collective thing. I just have a new skill set that I’m applying more this time. On the other records I mostly made my contribution from the piano, on this one I think the editing and carving is actually more important.”
There’s more fiddling - if you’ll excuse the pun - after the fact? “Yes, although I hope that you still get the feeling of a band playing together in a room.”
Is this record more to your taste than the others? “I wouldn't necessarily say that” Thomas answers carefully. “It was more a feeling for me that we had made the first two records, which I love, in a very similar way, and then we had the live record, so we needed to shift just a little bit. I wouldn’t have been happy if it just felt like well, there’s the third one.”
You said before you were after new ways to present Martin and Caoimhín’s playing.
“That was my goal, and I think I’ve achieved it. Previously we had gotten together for at least a week before we recorded and generated material. With the second record we were in the middle of a bunch of shows, so the way we played the material had already been established on stage before we recorded it, the relationship between Martin and Caoimhín’s playing was natural and set. This time a lot of material had never been played live, so I was capturing the way Martin or Caoimhín might play a tune on their own if they weren’t even thinking about it being in the band, and then being able to build around that first impulse.”
Thomas goes on to give a specific example. “With ‘The Lobster’ the first tune is Martin’s, and the second one is Caoimhín bleeding in. It’s almost lazy but it has this drive to it that really pulls you along, like waves. It’s very naturally played but we built it into a Gloaming sounding thing.”
In Ireland especially, the band were a huge success, right from the off, did this catch you by surprise?
“Certainly!” Thomas says, delightedly. “I knew that Martin and Iarla in particular both had pretty big followings, but it was immediately quite a bit bigger than either of them.”
The shows in the National Concert Hall have become the stuff of legend. What is it about that room?
“It was the first show we ever played, which was a pretty crazy experience for me , and it sold out! The first thing we played was ‘Opening Set’, an eighteen-minute long piece, and we got an immediate standing ovation. It was shocking. It’s a beautiful space: the room is big enough that you can feel the music enveloping you, you can feel the potential vastness of it, but everyone in the room can still kinetically feel the intensity of Martin when he gets going. It’s a sweet spot for us.”
You can’t keep President Higgins away either. “Yes, our traditional annual presidential visit. I love it.”
Despite this success, the band don’t really tour as extensively as they might. Bartlett has his own reasons for this.
“I am really much happier in a studio," he confesses. "I start to get anxious if I’m away, I have this perfect little space. Sufjan is across the hall and I’m really, really happy here. I’m trying to limit the amount of time I’m away.”
The Gloaming plan, then, is to put out a record, do a few select shows and then see everyone again in six months?
“Pretty much. We all have so many things going on but everytime we get back together and do another one.”
Bartlett keeps himself busy. “There’s a record I made with Olivia Chaney," he says. "I think she’s playing at the Concert Hall soon, I’ve been writing some songs with Nora Jones, and I made a record with Yoko Ono last year. Actually it’s her birthday today, after this interview I’m going to go play some songs with her at the party.”
Head off so, and tell her we all said hello.
The Gloaming 3 is out now