For many a gawker and walker on Grafton Street in Dublin, the eyes gravitate to the storefront windows that make it the historic center city thoroughfare anything but pedestrian given all the fancy goods on display.
But for a Dublin teenager on an uncertain path toward opera studies at a nearby music college, the lure of the rich and varied busking community up and down Grafton Street proved a life-altering attraction that led to a career as a folk singer on both sides of the Atlantic with a penchant for being risky and soul-searching and never predictable.
And for singer-songwriter Susan McKeown, she is well aware that she has plenty of company along those lines as one of Ireland’s most prolific natural resources are its people who write the songs. And in an upcoming series called SongLives at the Irish Arts Center in New York, we will catch a glimpse of some of the top talent in that field from both sides of the Atlantic.
After a year of studying opera which didn’t really appeal to her, McKeown found herself and a different voice studying in the live laboratory of the street busking community now made famous by Glen Hansard and his award-winning movie Once.
Coaxing her way into trad and jazz groups plying their trade on one of the more famous public performance districts in the world, McKeown literally learned a world of music, treating Grafton Street as an informal university for folk music of all kinds. “If you were into busking in those days it was a great scene with great variety” she remembered fondly in an interview by phone.
That yen for music of the people and a new adventure propelled her to New York and the East Village in 1990 where she could hone her craft in the thick of the melting pot cauldron of the Big Apple.
McKeown had a personal style that would never allow her to be a “cover girl” for Irish songs. She also found that Irish music still had a lot to say in a more contemporary vein and that meant composing her own songs.
The timing was even more fortunate as McKeown took up residence in the East Village just as the legendary Irish coffee house Sin-é, a cultural meeting place, was starting up and drawing all kinds of creative people in at all hours of the day and night, sharing their craft and inspiration.
Along the way she also wanted to encourage the work of other singer-songwriters of a similar bent.
“We are a nation of storytellers with a rich songwriting tradition, and even some of our greatest contemporary songwriters like Paul Brady, Christy Moore, Andy Irvine and Jimmy McCarthy were heavily inspired by the older musical tradition. Today’s singer songwriters also have a lineage that harkens back to that tradition as we tell our stories through songs,” McKeown said.
Regardless of whether we label the extraordinary number of Irish singer songwriters as trad, folk, rock or contemporary, it is clear that the gift of storytelling and language abounds these days, and that it is important for more outlets to be available for this art form.
McKeown, who keeps a watchful eye on the talent pool in Ireland and over here, was eager to find a viable venue in New York City where some risks and experimentation could co-exist with good entertainment and the right kind of intimacy for these creative artists and an audience willing to listen.
Conversations over the past year with Aidan Connolly, the executive director of the Irish Arts Center and McKeown’s own experience with the West Side redoubt for Irish culture resulted in a no-brainer in developing the SongLives concert series unfolding there this week.
Fittingly, McKeown (www.susanmckeown.com), who curated the series, will lead off the first of three scheduled nights starting this Friday, February 17 at 8 p.m., appearing with Dublin performer Declan O’Rourke (www.declanorourke.com).
O’Rourke is a major talent in Ireland doing his own material -- even Josh Groban recorded his composition “Galileo.” He is on a brief U.S. tour and is said to be an amazing performer.
This series will allow each artist some personal stage time and then a pairing at the end showcasing their own songs which will be a feature of the other two shows as well.
The second round is on March 23 where two local Irish-born singer songwriters, Michael Brunnock from County Meath (www.michaelbrunnock.com) and Brendan O’Shea from Kerry (www.brendanoshea.com), join forces as veterans sharing the same East Village frontier for singer songwriters.
Brunnock will realize some new fame from singing on the soundtrack for Sean Penn’s new movie
This Must Be the Place out this year. O’Sullivan, along with Karl Geary operates the Scratcher Sessions (209 East 5th Street) on a Sunday night from 7-9 p.m. that features musicians from around the world. On March 18 Liam O’Maonlai will appear with local Genna Nicholls.
O’Shea, the guitar-playing composer, came to New York in 1997 because “it was always a destination for songwriters and there was that allure of Sin-é and the East Village which was gone by then” he told me by phone, but it motivates him to keep the Scratcher Sessions going.
Still, he looks forward to crossing the 14th Street divide and heading uptown to the Irish Arts Center, where he looks forward to “playing in a strictly acoustic setting which breaks down the fourth wall with the audience and playing my songs in the moment to suit them and the feeling in the room.”
The third night in this series will be Friday, May 11 which will bring Mark Geary (www.markgeary.com) and Ann Scott (www.myspace.com/annscottmusic) over from their Westmeath home to perform.
Geary, a Dubliner, was a regular in the Sin-é scene in his early New York days before returning to Ireland.
I am sure that many people made their way along Grafton Street or Greenwich Village without taking any notice of those artists who performed the music of the people and helped weave a tapestry of who we are.
But if we don’t stop to listen to these voices who in describing their own life experiences can also take us to a more thoughtful and imaginative place, who will? And that would be a terrible waste of talent.
The beauty of the title of series SongLives is the double-entendre nature of it because in listening to the stories woven into the songs by the respective artists, we give them new life and meaning.
Tickets are very reasonably priced and you can purchase them for individual shows or the series by contacting 866-811-4111 or www.irishartscenter.org.
Here, catch a video of Susan McKeown performing "A Woman Like That":
Here's the official video for Declan O'Rourke's "Be Brave and Believe":