The Sounds of Old Ireland, Mixing With Those of Its Youth

02.14.12
Chieftains
The New York Times

By James C. McKinley Jr.

Paddy Moloney, the bagpiper and bandleader of the Chieftains, said that last year he was not sure what he wanted to put on an album to celebrate his traditional Irish group’s 50th anniversary this spring. There were plenty of unreleased tracks from the group’s early days, he said, and he wanted to reunite other surviving members of its first line-up for a long jam on the traditional tune “Toss the Feathers.”

But his manager and the American producer T-Bone Burnett brought him a radically different idea: an album of collaborations with some of the hottest young folk, country, bluegrass, rockabilly and indie-rock talents on both sides of the Atlantic.

“I was 50-50 about the whole idea at first,” said Mr. Moloney, who was the group’s founder. “It was a tough decision. It took me about two months to really come around to it.”

In the end Mr. Moloney spent three months in the fall shuttling back and forth between Dublin and Los Angeles, weaving together songs recorded in different studios and collaborating with Mr. Burnett. Next week the Chieftains will release the resulting album, “Voice of Ages” (Hear/Concord). They have also begun a tour that will end with a St. Paddy’s Day’s concert at Carnegie Hall to celebrate the golden anniversary.

The album is a testament to the wide influence the Chieftains, who have six Grammys and have made more than three dozen albums, continue to exert not only on contemporary folk music but on folk-inflected country and rock artists as well. Among the 12 collaborators on the album are Bon Iver, the Decembrists, Low Anthem, the Civil Wars, Pistol Annies, Punch Brothers, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Irish rockabilly star Imelda May.

In a recent telephone interview from his home in Naples, Fla., Mr. Moloney, 73, discussed the youthful energy on the album, the difficulty of touring at his age and the role the Chieftains have played in a revival of Irish folk music. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

Q. Why did you decide to do a series of collaborations rather than a retrospective for the 50th anniversary?

A. I was thinking of doing an out-and-out just-Chieftains thing, but I always like to have a concept, something to follow. I was thinking about the new bands that are coming on, and here we are, 50 years on, and I’m over 70, and the idea was pitched to me of seeing how our music, what we like, our songs, would go together with their music.

Q. How did you choose these collaborators?

A. Our own management had quite a few ideas. I had a few myself, particularly from the Irish side, like Imelda May, who’s a huge star now, also a young voice from Lisa Hannigan, who is frightening, she’s so brilliant. Then the Decemberists, Low Anthem, the Secret Sisters — this is the field where T-Bone was working.

Q. Do these groups share an aesthetic with you?

A. What’s happening here with these young groups is they’re coming back to the melody, back to the real stuff, the roots and the folk feeling of them all. I can hear any of them singing folks songs.

Q. When you formed in 1962, did you imagine a traditional Irish band could have the influence you have had on so many musicians who are not traditional players?

A. No, I never thought it. People like Mike Oldfield and the Beatles, who gave me their studio in 1969 to cut “Chieftains 2.” People like Roger Daltry from the Who. Who would ever believe that he was listening to us?

Q. When you started, you couldn’t even make a living. You were all part-time musicians until 1975.

A. We weren’t of the ballad scene. When you think about the 1950s, when Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers really broke ground and put out Irish songs that people didn’t know, they did a great job. I always felt: ‘Damn it, this music of ours deserves the same. I want to play Carnegie Hall and the Albert Hall.’ I just had great faith in it and what I was doing with the music at the time.

Q. Is it difficult to keep touring now that the core of the group is getting on in years?

A. Somebody asked my wife one time, is he ever going to retire — this is about 10 years ago — and she said, ‘He’s in rehearsal for retirement.’ It is hard. I’m up there, I’m on top, I’m afraid. And Matt Molloy, now who is 10 years younger than me, says: ‘Come on, Moloney, slow down. You’re going to kill yourself. You’re killing us as well. Take it easy.’

Q. As you look back at your 50 years, are there concerts that stand out in your mind?

A. It was a concert that we did at the Albert Hall in London in 1975 and it was totally sold out with three weeks’ notice. And the emotion when we were playing! That concert and that hall was something magical. To see the crowd at the end all dancing around the hall, which they had never heard tell of in the Albert Hall. The penny dropped as far as we were concerned for people to listen to good traditional Irish music. It was a great breakthrough.

Q. As a traditional player, how many tunes do you have rattling around in your head?

A. God, you know, I used to try and think about that when I was in me 50s. How many tunes? Sean Keane will sit, or Matt Molloy will sit beside me at sound checks, and all of a sudden you’ll pop into something you haven’t played for 30 years, but it’s always somewhere in the back of your head, some little song or a tune of some sort, or an air that people love. There will be tunes that as a child or as a teenager, I would have loved and played or that I remember getting from somebody, some old man. They all have meanings to me.

Q. Would you say the folk scene in Ireland today is more robust that when you started?

A. It is very robust at the moment. We have some brilliant musicians at home now, the pipers and flute players, frightening — some of them I wouldn’t want to be in competition with any more, put it that way.

Q. Is it easier today for young pipers?

A. It’s so much easier. There are different organizations now in Ireland. They run these big music festivals. Unlike when I was beginning, and we played for 200 or 300 people, they get three-quarters of a million now for a whole weekend. They’ve got lessons, and young people learning the harp and flute and dancing.

Q. So in a sense you have lived through a renaissance?

A. Yes, indeed, and I’m so glad to have been a part of the whole thing and to have helped it along.