Niamh Parsons has come to be known as one of the most distinctive voices in Irish music. Her voice has drawn comparisons to such venerated singers as Dolores Keane, June Tabor and Sandy Denny. The great Scottish balladeer Archie Fisher said of Niamh, "a songstress like her comes along once or twice in a generation."
Never has this been more clear than on her new album, Heart's Desire (Green Linnet, 2002) featuring Graham Dunne. True to the direction of the two solo albums that preceded it, In My Prime and Blackbirds and Thrushes, Niamh's latest album furthers the tradition of Irish song with unadorned settings and heartfelt delivery. She has gathered together a collection of songs drawn from both traditional sources and modern writers including Mark Knopfler and Andy Irvine. The talented musicians who play on the album include in addition to her main accompanist, guitarist Graham Dunne, accordionist Josephine Marsh and Dennis Cahill, who produced the CD, and calls it "her best work yet."
Heart's Desire is dedicated to the memory of her father, Jack Parsons. "Daddy had a beautiful voice," says Niamh, "and a great ear for a good song." Born and raised in Dublin, Niamh learned traditional Irish songs and harmonizing from her father, who instilled a deep love for traditional singing in his daughters. Her mother is a set dancer from Co. Clare and a lover of traditional music.
Niamh developed this love into a penchant for collecting songs. She is always on the lookout for songs that speak to her -- listening to new albums, scouring the Traditional Music Archives in Dublin, sharing notes with a network of friends and other singers. Once she discovers a song she likes, Niamh views herself as the vehicle for the music. "For me the song is more important than listening to my voice," she says. "I consider myself more a songstress than a singer -- a carrier of tradition."
Throughout her career, Niamh has performed with a wide variety of artists, and has appeared at nearly every prestigious folk festival on either side of the Atlantic. As a member of the traditional Irish band Arcady (led by De Dannan's Johnny "Ringo" McDonagh), she sang on their Shanachie recording Many Happy Returns. She appeared before President Clinton and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in Washington, joined Grammy Award winner Paul Winter for an album and a summer concert in New York, and performed on "A Prairie Home Companion" when the show broadcast live from Dublin.
Niamh's recording career began with The Loose Connections, a band of top-notch Belfast musicians she formed with songwriter and bass-player Dee Moore. The band recorded two albums of contemporary and traditional material together. Their debut recording, Loosely Connected (Greentrax, 1992; Green Linnet, 1995) met with the highest of praise. A beautiful mix of traditional Irish and contemporary songs, it featured the memorable "Tinkerman's Daughter" and featured Brian Kennedy, piper John McSherry (Lúnasa, Coolfin), and accordionist Alan Kelly.
The Loose Connections' second album, Loosen Up (Green Linnet, 1997) was another buoyant mix of originals and well-chosen contemporary ballads, like the gorgeous "Clohinne Winds" and Tom Waits' "The Briar and the Rose," a powerful a cappella duet with Fran McPhail of the Voice Squad. Once again the album featured first-class musicians, including guitarist Gavin Ralston (Mike Scott, Sharon Shannon) and Kilkenny accordion player Mick McAuley (now with Solas).
In 1999, Niamh took a bold step and returned to her roots with her first solo album, Blackbirds and Thrushes (Green Linnet) a collection of traditional Irish ballads gathered from over 15 years of Niamh's singing repertoire. In her words, "these songs are living in me." The album won instant acclaim as a welcome return to traditionalism. The Boston Globe declared that it "expressed the sorrow and longing of the Celtic soul more deeply than any within recent memory", and Irish Music Magazine called it "simply magnificent traditional singing."
Keeping in form, Niamh's next CD In My Prime (Green Linnet 2000) was another collection of mostly traditional material, and again received widespread praise. Folk Roots named it one of the top albums of the year and The Irish Voice called the album "a must-have disc for lovers of Irish song." It also saw the emergence of Niamh's new accompanist, talented young guitarist Graham Dunne. The album was nominated for Album of the Year by BBC Radio 2 (UK) and the Association for Independent Music (US).
You can listen to short samples from some of the tracks from this artist using the player below.
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