A Man of Influence
Plus Potted History (Potted History courtesy RTE, 2005)
Plus An Overview (Courtesy Steve Winick)
An Irish Midas, the Irish Quincy Jones and the most important musician working within the Irish tradition - Donal Lunny has been called all these things and more over the course of a career spanning more than thirty years.
The list of Lunny's accomplices is as impressive as the weight of his accomplishments. He has produced over one hundred albums for artists including Van Morrison, Rod Stewart, Elvis Costello, Kate Bush, mark Knopfler, Paul Brady, Maire Brennan, Capercaillie and Baaba Maal.
As a musician and arranger he has revolutionised Irish music, co-founding three of Ireland's greatest, most influential groups in Planxty, the Bothy Band and Moving Hearts. His influence even extends to before he was born as the bouzouki, which Lunny redesigned from its original Greek round-backed, four pairs of strings tuned an octave apart shape into the flat-backed, unison-strings version, became so ubiquitous in Irish music that even the band on the film Titanic had one - fiftysomething years before Lunny got his hands on one in real life.
Lunny's career began in rock and roll bands around his hometown of Newbridge, County Kildare, where he was, he confesses, an unremarkable drummer. Then, inspired by hearing Andy Irvine, Johnny Moynihan and Terry Woods infusing Irish music with the Eastern European rhythms Irvine and Moynihan had picked up in their travels with Sweeney's Men, he switched to guitar and bodhran.
When Christy Moore, a friend since school days, returned to Ireland from travelling the UK's folk clubs to record an album in 1971, he enlisted Lunny, Irvine and uilleann piper Liam O'Flynn. Out of these sessions, held in the vaulted cellars of a country house in Kildare, grew not only Moore's classic Prosperous album but a quartet, Planxty, which was to spark a massive resurgence of interest in Irish music.
Harpist Maire Ni Chathasaigh and her sister, the brilliant fiddler Nollaig Casey who would go on to play with Lunny's Coolfin band, are among the traditional musicians who have attested to the liberating powers of Planxty's exciting interpretations of what was previously considered hick music. But if Planxty were exciting (and they were), Lunny's next group, the Bothy Band, with their tight arrangements, irresistibly flowing musicianship and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill's gorgeous singing, were to become the benchmark by which subsequent Irish folk bands have come to be judged.
By this time, the mid 1970s, Lunny was running a record company, Mulligan, and producing a veritable flood of talent, including Paul Brady. The next band to bear Lunny's name, Moving Hearts, and in particular their funk-jazz-a-jig swansong/masterpiece The Storm, confirmed Lunny's near God-like status among Hibernophiles.
His touch on albums such as Christy Moore's Voyage is unmistakable, clean, clear, shaping the music with a determination to move it on but always aware of tradition.
A music nut whose idea of a relaxing break away from a heavy production schedule is a quick duo tour with former Bothy Band fiddler, Paddy Glackin, Lunny will enthuse as freely about Youssou N'Dour and Portishead as he will about Irish traditional singers and players. In his hands, exotic rhythms or pop song chord changes integrate happily with jig, reel or air. He may have been an unremarkable drummer but his sense of time is meticulous, his production work "so tastefully correct", to quote Andy Irvine, a man who chooses words with almost fastidious care.
A quietly spoken, modest man, Lunny adheres to the principle that a producer's job is simply to get the best performance possible from the artist and opines that he gets more praise than he deserves. "I've had the privilege and luck to have produced albums for some very good musicians and people see my name on the album and associate me with the person's music," he says. "The music's great and some of it rubs off on me."
In 1996, while producing Common Ground, the celebration of Irish traditions on which he gathered a remarkable cast including Bono and Adam Clayton of U2, Christy Moore, Andy Irvine, Kate Bush, Elvis Costello and Maire Brennan of Clannad, Lunny got the urge to get back onto the road after almost fifteen years perfecting his studio tan.
The jaunty-rhythmed Cavan Potholes from that album, with Sharon Shannon's accordion dancing the melody along, gave a pointer to what a new Lunny band might sound like, and carefully avoiding the trap of falling into plodding folk-rock or using gimmickry, Coolfin began to take shape.
Having a powerful rhythm section which takes its cue from traditional music as its heartbeat was key to the sound Lunny wanted.
"Some Irish music might be able to incorporate hip-hop rhythms or whatever, and it might even be the right thing for it," he says. "But you can't just take one of those formulae, a chunk of this or that and stick it on top, without being aware of how drastic that is in dissipating the music's identity. The idea is not to build false extensions but to add all these elements by listening more carefully to what the music is saying and responding to it."
With a posse of the best musicians in Irish music on board, including fiddler Nollaig Casey, uilleann piper and whistle player John McSherry, Coolfin has quickly become the inheritor of the Planxty-Bothies-Moving Hearts legacy. Their first album, featuring guest singers Eddi Reader, Marta Sebastian and Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill, whose albums No Dowry and Idir an Da Sholas, recorded with her sister Triona, Lunny also produced, succeeded brilliantly in delivering Lunny's goal of music with completeness, purity and the spirit of Irish music and poetry.
Never content to rest on his laurels, however, he says the group is a step in the right direction, no more. "I have no sense of having arrived anywhere yet, personally," he says. "I'm really pleased to be making this journey, to be doing this is grand. But as far as I'm concerned we haven't really explored the other possibilities."
DONAL LUNNY (Potted History courtesy RTE, 2005)
(1947 - ) multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer and record producer
Born Tullamore, County Offaly
Raised in Newbridge, County Kildare and educated at National College of Art and Design. He is particularly noted for his role in establishing the bouzouki as a mainstream instrument in Irish music. In the late 1960s he formed the group Emmet Spiceland and he went on to be a founder-member of Planxty 1971 and in 1975 formed the Bothy Band with Matt Molloy, Paddy Keenan, Tommy Peoples, Tríona Ní Dhómhnaill and Micheal Ó Dómhnaill: despite its relatively short life the group had an enormous impact on the development of ensemble traditional music. In 1979 Planxty reformed and 1981 saw the formation of the very popular band Moving Hearts, which specialised in new musical directions. Lunny has composed music for theatre, film and television. He founded Orcheilteach, Ireland's first large folk orchestra, and was musical director and producer of the Emmy Award-winning series 'Bringing It All Back Home'. His credits as producer include albums for Kate Bush, Paul Brady, Elvis Costello, Mark Knopfler, Rod Stewart, Christy Moore, and Clannad. In 1998 he assembled a group of top Irish musicians to form the group Coolfin.
Overview (Courtesy Steve Winick)
Guitar and bouzouki player Donal Lunny is one of the pioneers of the Irish folk music revival. His first group, he told me, "was a very close imitation of The Clancy Brothers, [who] used to go to sessions every weekend in a pub called Pat Downing's in Prosperous, where there were some traditional musicians. As there was no other accompanist, I had sort of carte blanche with my guitar. So I used to go there and play all night, play tunes, reels, and jigs, and whatever on my guitar. I'm sure I was dreadful at the beginning. It improved as time went on, and I got involved in different groups in Dublin." One of those groups, Emmet Spiceland, also included Mick Moloney, now a champion of American-Irish music. In 1972, Christy Moore came home to Ireland to record an album. Lunny says, "He decided to collect musicians together. So he assembled whatever it was, eight or nine musicians, and we recorded Prosperous. And it just felt so good to everyone that we just said,'Well, jeez, of course, yeah. Of course... let's form a band.' At the time, I was making jewelry, making a living at that, if you like, and it just stopped. Planxty started, and I never had time to do anything else since." In 1975, Lunny left Planxty to join a group that never got off the ground. His career, however, bounced back nicely: "The Bothy Band was in existence at that point, not as The Bothy Band, but as an ensemble I think was known as 1691. I joined them, and we became The Bothy Band, and off we went." Lunny toured with The Bothy Band and recorded four albums with them. When they broke up, it was back to Planxty and eventually to Moving Hearts: "Some of the most enjoyable moments I've had in the last ten years have been with Moving Hearts. That did actually spring straight from the last version of Planxty. I wanted Planxty to sort of gear up, get a rhythm section in. Christy was interested in pressing on, so Moving Hearts started. That was an exciting time for me, both on stage and in the studio, because it was the first time I had to deal with bass and drums on an ongoing basis." Since Moving Hearts, Lunny has been more active as a producer than as a musician, producing records by many of the top groups in Ireland and Scotland. Look for his name as musician or producer, and you're sure to be buying an exciting, high-quality album.
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