Brightest star of modern Irish folk

FOLK music is big business right now. What with Mumford & Son’s hillbilly hoedowns, Fleet Foxes’ re-envisioning of Crosby, Stills and Nash and Laura Marling’s intimate acoustics, the folk world has not been this popular since the boom of the late 60s when groups like the Byrds and The Band could blend the traditional with the contemporary and the Aran jumper wearing Irish traditional favourites the Clancy Brothers could join the Chieftains and the Fureys in playing packed clubs in the US.

FOLK music is big business right now. What with Mumford & Son’s hillbilly hoedowns, Fleet Foxes’ re-envisioning of Crosby, Stills and Nash and Laura Marling’s intimate acoustics, the folk world has not been this popular since the boom of the late 60s when groups like the Byrds and The Band could blend the traditional with the contemporary and the Aran jumper wearing Irish traditional favourites the Clancy Brothers could join the Chieftains and the Fureys in playing packed clubs in the US.

This time around we have no Dubliners to represent Irish roots music on the big stage, but that does not mean there isn’t some Irish talent making music which could be classed as folk.

Heidi Talbot was born in Kill, Co Kildare, and made her name in the US with Irish American folk singing supergroup Cherish The Ladies. She released her latest solo album last October. “The Last Star” is an entirely acoustic folk gem and features a mixture of traditional melodies like “Sally Brown” and Sandy Denny’s “At the End of the Day” with a number of songs written partly by Talbot. It is the first time she has had her own songs on her records.

“I’ve always written bits of songs but had never finished them, I wasn’t very confident about it,” she begins before adding with admirable honesty that songs don’t come as simply as the ease with which she wraps herself around the traditional melodies on the album. “I’ve worked with a lot of songwriters who are brilliant like [English singer] Boo Hewedine who is a brilliant songwriter.”

Talbot grew up in a house surrounded by music. Both her parents were in the Nas Na Riogh singers at one point and folk music permeated the house as she was surrounded by the songs of the Dubliners, the Chieftains and Mary Black. It is the music she has always been drawn to and was something she’d hoped rather than expected to pursue a career in. Then came a move to the US at the tender age of 19 and a request to sing with Cherish The Ladies, already firmly established stars in the US having been formed back in 1985. She was in a wedding band when the offer came.

“I was singing in Irish pubs in Queens and Manhattan and the Bronx and I got asked to fill in for a few nights with Cherish the Ladies and went from singing in tiny noisy pubs to concert halls of 2,000 people,” she says.

While a great opportunity it was also a little daunting for someone still in their early twenties. “It was amazing and frightening at the same time, because now everyone was listening to me.”

While delighting in appearing before bigger audiences, the group were perhaps looking from a little more than just singing from the shy young vocalist.

“As part of their show there’s lots of talking and banter with the audience but I wasn’t confident at all. Joanie Madden, who is the leader of Cherish, would do all the talking and she would ask me a question on stage and I’d just go ‘yeah’,” she giggles. She did find her stage legs over time, appearing with the group for five years before moving back to Ireland and, briefly, trying a sizable weekly commute to New York. “I was going to New York on Thursday and coming back on a Monday so,” she adds not unreasonably, “that was crazy”

After the success and camaraderie of Cherish came the move into the solo sphere and a more direct light shining on her alone. The nerves returned.

“When you’re in a band you have the other girls to fall back on. If you have a bad gig then you’re all in it together. So there is more pressure.”

Talbot and partner and fellow musician John McCusker are currently building a studio on the Scottish border to help further their recording careers while hopefully saving some money on future studio costs. Talbot is still very conscious of monetary constraints on her records.

“No one has any money anymore. It’s back to the old days of getting in the van and going on the road. That’s where you sell most of your records because there’s no outlet anymore.” Even record labels can’t always provide the funding required. “I’m signed to a record company in Nashville but it’s very difficult to make the record you want with the money they give you.”

In truth Talbot’s music is cut from a more traditional cloth than the folk pop stars which have made the media take notice of the genre once more. The contemporary folk of today’s pop charts is very much a hybrid of different musical styles in much the same way as the folk-rock groups of the 60s took elements from various genres to create their music. Talbot’s is a much more pure form of the music and she is aware that the media spotlight will only shine briefly on the stars of today.

“I think they’re fantastic and it’s amazing what they have done for folk music. At the same time it [folk music] has always been there but the media are just taking a look at it now because it’s a bit fashionable.”