OTHER SIDE OF THE TRACKS Q&A with John Walsh, flamenco guitar
The development of a musical work begins a long time before an audience sees it, with inspiration, creation, choices, and many hours of work in rehearsal, practice, recording, and organisation. We love hearing the stories of how albums or concerts get from their initial seeds of thought to the final production, and how different musicians think about their creative process and work they do. Other Side of the Tracks gives us insights into this process from a range of musicians, and provides some fantastic perspectives on music, inspiration, work, and life.
Leading Irish flamenco guitarist John Walsh has just released his debut album, Irlandalucía, and shared some insights with us about his inspiration from different flamenco artists, the different paths composition can take, the process of fine-tuning different tunes through experimentation, and his thoughts on ‘authenticity’ and what it means.
John has been leading the flamenco world in Ireland as a performer, composer and educator, after studies in Andalucía. He has given concerts at home and abroad at the National Concert Hall, Guitar Festival of Ireland, International Flamenco Festival Festival, and ‘El Candela’ Madrid, amongst others, and performed with Flamenco artists including Salvador Andrades, Jose Manuel Leon, Maria Delgado, Alicia Carrasco, Karen Lugo, Luis de Luis, Antonio Sanchez. As a composer John has been commissioned to write for Riverdance, ballet Ireland and Michael Rooney’s De Cuellar Suite amongst others
Irlandalucía has already received critical acclaim, with Lyric FM’s Bernard Clarke describing it: “...melody, depth, emotion and brilliant technical virtuosity, but also elegance… a very beautiful and haunting composition which manages to convey both lyrical freedom and grace…It’s really superb stuff...”
You can buy Irlandalucía now on CD or digital download at johnwalshguitar.ie.
Q. Could you tell us about the inspiration behind this album?
I suppose the main inspiration was the time I spent studying and playing in Spain. Even if I’m not playing there, I try to get back there at least once a year to recharge the creative batteries.
Of course the music of all my favourites, Paco de Lucía, Jose Manuel León, Cañizares etc have been a big inspiration. The French Flamenco critic Claude Worms reviewed the album recently and spotted some little references to other players like Manolo Sanlúcar that I didn’t even know were there to be honest!
In terms of composition though it really varies from piece to piece. Sometimes melodies or rhythms come out of nowhere and it is a matter of sitting down and working on them and other times larger sections seem to flow as if I’m learning some piece that is already written.
One thing I started doing some years ago was to sing (badly) or hum any melodies or rhythms that entered my head into a voice memo on my phone. I like to spend a lot of time fly-fishing and one of the pieces on the album ‘Dos Ríos’ was pieced together almost entirely from voice memo melodies and rhythms that I recorded while standing waist-deep in a river.
The title track ‘Irlandalucía’ had a funny origin. I worked with the Irish harpist Michael Rooney a few years back on a piece he wrote called the ‘The de Cuellar Suite’. It had an orchestra of tradition musicians from Ireland & Spain which I wrote some guitar parts for. I did some recording for Bill Whelan a couple of years later and that was a similar situation, musically speaking. Having to straddle the line between the Irish music and Flamenco gave me lots of ideas that eventually ended up turning into the piece as it is now.
Q. Musically speaking, how do you go about taking the steps from initial inspiration to a finished piece/album?
A lot of experimentation, variation and gigging. Some of the tracks on the album have been around a good few years but I play them differently now than how they were originally.
I’ve played all the tracks in concerts and gigs many times over the years and the back and forth with percussionists often led to spontaneous ideas that wouldn’t have happened from just sitting alone in my studio.
I’ve never recorded anything of mine that hasn’t been played on stage many times. I think gigging really tightens things up and when you need to connect with an audience in the moment you sometimes end phrasing things differently.
I like to experiment as well with things I happen to be studying in the moment, be it harmony or rhythm or whatever. Sometimes it works and sometimes it gets binned but it’s always worth a try!
Q. What is the most important thing to you when making music?
To communicate and to be as authentic as I can be.
There are always 2 sides to that question of ‘authenticity’ going on in my head when I am composing within Flamenco. Firstly, that I remain true to the Flamenco tradition and secondly that I not allow that to constrain me or limit my own musical voice.
There are quite a lot of formal structures within Flamenco music. I do a lot of workshops and masterclasses to try to expand the knowledge of Flamenco in Ireland and beyond, and people are often surprised at just how structured it is. Things are very codified and there are musical references that one plays that are integral to each particular style.
So when you are creating new music it is a question of finding the balance between the 2 sides, which can be difficult but also a lot of fun. It is very important to me that I am creating something new, something which isn’t derivative and which reflects the fact that although I’ve been deeply immersed in this tradition for over a decade, I am Irish and not Andaluz and my musical voice is always going to be reflecting that somewhat.
Q. What would you like listeners to experience when listening to the album?
I’d hope that a listener would engage with it on an emotional level. That for me is the most important thing. It’s easy in this music to become obsessed with practice and technique but at the end of the day I just hope that the music speaks to a listener on some level.