By: Mike Farragher | Published Friday, January 20, 2012, 9:15 AM | Updated Friday, January 20, 2012, 9:15 AM
A real Celtic Woman! Just as the arctic winds blow through Manhattan this week, Celtic chanteuse Ashley Davis serves up a chilled collection of songs called Songs of the Celtic Winter.
For this collection, Davis partners with Welsh musician Gawain Matthews (who co-produced with Davis) and Irish harpist Cormac De Barra (from Moya Brennan’s touring and recording bands), and Joanie Madden of Cherish the Ladies to create a winter wonderland for your ears.
The gentle harp melody that gently wafts through songs like “Faucht” and “Wild Mountainside” conjure up images of heavy snow licking the bare tree branches as Davis weaves her poetry about making tracks in the white powder. It’s an intoxicating blast of ethereal Celtic mysticism evoking vivid imagery of the natural world and our ever-shifting place.
To be sure, Davis tips a heavy, snow-covered hat in the direction of Moya Brennan and Clannad. But her music hop-scotches across all the Celtic nations as well, with “Faucht” borrowing from a traditional Breton melody, the New Year’s Day ditty “Auld Lang Syne” hailing from Scotland, and the words from “Banquet” lent to the singer from Turlough O’Carolan.
Davis’s otherworldly musical aesthetic and sparkling personality allow her to claim these influences as her own, making Songs of the Celtic Winter a heartwarming dose of Irish storytelling by the hearth fire on a cold night.
Davis has been touring the Midwest this month before her big gig at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan on February 23. I caught up with her right before a gig over the weekend about the new disc and how this is not a Christmas album. Here’s how it went:
What does a Celtic winter mean to you? It certainly conjures up many images.
Winter is the time of the year when nature takes her rest and we have our shortest days. I tried to bring this sense of quiet with the anticipation of rebirth on the horizon to this album.
Certainly in many of the Celtic regions there were areas that were quite isolated once winter set in and the nights grew longer. This is when the stories and songs of the Celtic culture became a necessity to pass these dark times. Many long nights were spent around the fire with the promise of spring around the corner.
I tried to capture the feeling of these nights on this album. I chose darker keys, wintry lyrics and lulling melodies to paint the landscape of these winter nights times long ago.
What makes this different from a Christmas album?
It was important to me to find and write songs that were only about winter and purely secular. There are so many Christmas albums out there, and so I wanted to create an album that would be accessible to all backgrounds and last throughout not only the holidays but through the winter season. An album you can buy in January or February to serve as the soundtrack to these days of winter.
Love the choice to end with "Auld Lang Syne.” What went into the choice and what does the song mean to you?
This was a late addition to the album and felt like a natural choice once I had a clearer picture of what the album as a whole was going to sound like. It is one of the few songs that everyone from any background can gather around to reflect upon the year past and wish one another good tidings into the New Year.
I put it as the last track on this album as a bookend, a period if you will, to the 10 tracks before it that have hopefully taken you to quiet nights long ago.
Loved Joanie's playing. What was she like to work with and what are your memories of recording with her?
Joanie has been so good to me since I came into the trad scene in New York City a decade ago, and I will never forget that. Her playing is so incredible it's hard to not want her on everything once you have had the good fortune of having her play on an album.
She played on two tracks on my last album Down By the Sea, and so when I wrote the piece "Fare Thee Well" for this new album and needed a low whistle, she was the obvious choice and so graciously agreed to put down a part during her one night home between being on the road!
Cormac did such great work on the last Moya record Voices and Harps and does great work here.
What did he bring to your creative process?
I had many artist epiphanies on this album, and one of them certainly was my general overall sound and what components make up that sound. And certainly Cormac's playing is a large part of that equation adding up properly.
Cormac is truly my right hand man. If I could have him with me for every gig I would because he is simply the best out there and our styles really compliment one another.
This album is the first time that I actually worked with a purely harp piece ("Banquet,” a/k/a "Missus McDermott") and loved doing so and would like to do more of that in albums to come. I am delighted that he will be at Joe's Pub with me to help launch the CD!