Cork singer: Women of my age, 55, are really productive and energetic...

As she prepares to play the Triskel in Cork on April 29, singer Karan Casey tells COLETTE SHERIDAN about her feminist outlook and why music has the power to move us all
Cork singer: Women of my age, 55, are really productive and energetic...

Karan Casey singing at the evening of Irish and Ukrainian traditional music for the Ukraine relief effort at City Hall, Cork, in 2022

SINGER /songwriter, Karan Casey, currently touring to promote her twelfth album, is on a creative high having written a book, a play and enough songs for two albums.

Her new album, Nine Apples Of Gold, is all about the healing powers of both nature and music, the camaraderie of female friends as well as conversations from the grave.

“Women of my age, 55, have a lot of say and seem to be really productive and energetic,” says the Waterford-born performer, writer and campaigner for gender equality in the music business.

Her album features the voices of Niamh Dunne (performing a duet with Karan called Sister I Am Here For You), Pauline Scanlon on a searing feminist take on Ireland entitled I Live In A Country and Rioghnach Connolly singing Daughter Dear, a tender-hearted song between a mother and daughter.

There are other voices on the album on which Karan has teamed up with her long-time collaborator and friend, Seán Óg Graham.

Her husband, concertina player, Niall Vallely is touring with her and will play at Karan’s gig at the Triskel on April 29.

The empowerment of women is Karan’s great concern. She is a firm believer that songs can sing what we cannot easily say.

Of the song that Pauline Scanlon sings, Karan says it is “really ambitious. I was trying to get a lot of Irish history and women into it”. 

It references the mother and baby homes and “the daughters of the Magdalene laundries. It is polemical and is asking for a different cultural outlook on Ireland.”

Women have been silenced for too long. But the power of song is incalculable.

“In a way, I often try to sing what I’m thinking. There’s something very powerful about singing through our joys and woes.

“Let’s say I’m performing an anti-war song. There are people in the room that aren’t necessarily anti-war but you’ll find people joining in and singing the chorus, coming to the song with a different perspective. There’s something about the gentleness of a voice that can bring people together.

“I think music is very powerful and can sway people’s emotions. People generally feel better after singing and saying things in songs. If you had ten minutes of Stevie Wonder singing, everybody would feel better.”

But singing can evoke sadness also.

“Seán Óg, who produced the album and wrote a lot of the songs with me, lost his grandmother Mary and his uncle Paul to Covid. We wrote the album during the pandemic. We were using it to deal with our own sorrow.

“There’s definitely an undercurrent in the songs, a lot of twilight in that in-between world where you’re looking for people and trying to hold onto them.”

The song Daughter Dear evokes Karan’s mother speaking to her after her death. 

“It’s saying that you have to keep going. I talked to my mother every day on the phone but we would talk about small things like what she was making for dinner or if she was having a cup of tea. They’re small moments, not necessarily profound.”

Karan recalls her mother’s dressmaking sessions. 

“My mother used to make our clothes. I remember her making my communion dress. She used to leave everything until the last minute. We were up half the night before the communion, with me standing on a chair.”

Mother nature is a touchstone on the album. “During the pandemic, we all went to mother nature, walking in the glen or getting great healing from the natural world.

“I grew up beside a forest in Ballyduff, Kilmeaden, so I get tremendous solace from nature. It’s like a balm. I think a lot of us got that during Covid.”

Although she says she feels “half guilty” for admitting the pandemic suited her in a way, it allowed Karan to retreat into herself, where she tapped into her creativity.

“It suited me to be off the road and being able to write a lot. I think the pandemic payment really helped. It eased my concerns. I was able to be at home and I was delighted to be with my family (she has two daughters, Muireann and Áine). I’m not sure if the feeling was mutual!”

Karan found herself writing a book, as yet unpublished, about her great grandmother, Agnes Ryan, from Limerick, discovering that she had been a member of Cumann na mBan.

“I started researching that period and found it just fascinating. My great grandmother, whom I never knew, got a service medal.”

Karan also wrote a play which was performed at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in 2021. It’s called I Walked Into My Head.

“It’s like me walking down the corridor of my mind. I go into these rooms,” she explains. “Like vignettes, you see scenes and stories and experiences of my time on the road, being a singer, also being a mother and a daughter.

“It was a really different experience to anything I’ve done before. I did a lot of work on it with Sophie Motley (artistic director of the Everyman.)

“I’ll be doing a theatrical song cycle in the Everyman in October. It’s about the women of the rebellion.”

Karan’s daughters, aged 23 and almost 17, are interested in music and play instruments. Having taught music for Comhaltas, Karan has observed that “something happens to girls when they get to 17 or 18. There are definitely less women headlining acts and they’re paid less. The music industry is very male dominated. It’s a serious problem.”

She and other female musicians started formally addressing the issue in 2018 through the Fair Plé initiative. 

“The campaign is going well. We have passed on a lot of the work to ‘Safe to Create’ which the government set up in response to the Fair Plé campaign,” says Karan. 

It’s another string to her bow, empowering women in the music business.

Karan Casey performs at the Triskel on April 29.

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