OTHER SIDE OF THE TRACKS Q&A with Neil O Lochlainn on Cuar's second album 'Umhaill'
Described as a "musical seeker" by The Irish Times, Neil Ó Lochlainn is a musician and composer from Clare. His work is dedicated to exploring the contemporary and the universal in the local. We asked Neil some questions about his music and inspirations ahead of his upcoming show with traditional ensemble Cuar, as they launch their second album Umhaill upstairs at The Complex in Dublin on Saturday November 26th.
Could you tell us about the inspiration behind Umhaill?
In September 2019 I was a resident at the Heinrich Böll cottage on Achill Island where the ideas for the music and the initial sketches were written. I was travelling for about 9 months before then and had the residency in the back of my head the whole time so when I got there I was focused to develop something. I hadn't planned to do anything related to the island but when I got there I was really inspired by it, its history and the natural beauty of it. Each piece on the album is named after a townland or area of the island that I visited and I also included an instrumental version of a sean-nós song that is connected to the island. Umhaill is the old name for the territory around Clew bay that includes Achill.
Musically speaking, how do you go about taking the steps from initial inspiration to a finished piece?
Listen to my gut and think about the other musicians who will play the music, for instance the personalities.
What is the most important thing to you when making music?
Tradition, or a feeling that I don't own the music. Its passing through, in time, and I'm picking up on it. Decisions are already made, choices are neither limited nor boundless, the music is from us all. What's that Eric Dolphy quote?
"the music is like the wind, it's there and then it's gone" or something like that. There's a lot of wind on the coast in north Clare, where I'm from!
What would you like listeners to experience when listening to this music?
A sense of emptiness. Deep feeling, zero emotion.
How would you compare Umhaill to the previous release from Cuar, Roscanna?
In general it's a continuation of the same experiment. Asking an objective listener might be more interesting.
For me, I would say I cared less, in the sense that things are much looser and open and I wasn't obsessed with every tiny detail.
With Roscanna (Chants) I wanted to create a specular structure from the start to the end of the album based on dance forms and song airs that are the basis of all my work, in a way, coming from Irish music. With Umhaill it's much more in the moment and the overall structure is less important. Also the personnel is different and that will always shape what I write and the outcome. It's all a work in progress. Right after the launch tour we will record another book of music. With Cuar I want to get to a scenario where the writing becomes the absolute minimum but we still retain certain, extremely specific qualities. I'm so grateful to work with some great musicians to try and achieve this with Colm, Ultan and Sam in this instance.
What are your artistic plans in the near future?
As I mentioned right after this tour we will record Tairseach. It's a work that was commissioned by Belinda Quirke and the Solstice Arts Centre as a response to Tommie Potts' album the Liffey Banks which was released 50 years ago this year. We'll be premiering it next year at Solstice. I was really happy to work with the IMRAM Irish Literature Festival that happens in Dublin. I wrote a soundtrack for a poetry film they screened and next October I'll present a new work for a new ensemble of around 15 musicians at the festival.
Catch Neil and Cuar this Saturday, November 26th as they perform the magnificent Umhaill in its entirety. The performance will be an intimate and acoustic show, hosted in a new space for jazz music upstairs at The Complex in Dublin 7.