Rediscovering Bobbie Gentry, the Bothy Band and a few other things besides ...

Hello there. I’m on day nine of the recording of my new album, and it’s sounding really lovely so far. All thanks, I must immediately point out, to the good offices of Gerry O’Beirne and Trevor Hutchinson, who are back in the producer’s and engineer’s seats, respectively, just over ten years on from when we recorded When Two Lovers Meet. We’re back in Trevor’s house in Glasnevin, Dublin, where the first album was made as well, and it all feels strange and familiar at the same time.

It’s going to be quite a different album from the last one in terms of the material; the focus this time round is going to be on the American old-timey songs and tunes that I remember from my childhood. But we’re still aiming for the same spare, uncluttered feel. There are two new original songs as well, both written within the last month. The melody for one of them, in fact, was just written last Friday night.

Liam Bradley had been in the studio most of the day, putting down some very cool percussion on three tracks and gorgeous vocals on a fourth. I wish Liam would make an album featuring his singing sometime – he has an amazing high tenor voice that deserves to be heard. Anyway, he finished up, packed up all his numerous bits and pieces (a chunk of stone from Iceland, seashells on a rope, bells and blocks of wood and all sorts, not to mention several huge drums that all somehow fitted into the boot of his car, as if in a reversal of the old circus gag with the dozens of clowns getting out of the Mini) and got back on the road to his house in Donegal, which he’d left at 6:30 that morning, poor fellow ... and then I started to try and record a song I’d written a few weeks back, and it just didn’t seem to be working.

At 8 in the evening or so, Gerry told me he had an assignment for me: I was to go off to the place where I was staying and write a new melody for the song. I went back to my friend Mary's tiny flat behind the Guinness brewery, feeling utterly disconsolate and crestfallen. Fortunately for her, she was working late that night, so didn't have to listen to me moan about how discouraged I felt. Instead, I poured myself a glass of wine, sat down and wrote an infinitely better melody than the one I’d had before, with a completely different rhythm and chord structure. So fair play to Gerry for making me do it.

It’s a song that's very close to my heart – I wrote it for my daughter, who was born in 2005, and my mother, who died in 2004, and on Saturday morning when I tried to play the new version through for Gerry and Trevor, I started crying halfway through the song and had to take a break. But in the end I managed to pull myself together and record it, and it’s good.

I’ve also recorded one cover – ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ by Bobbie Gentry. Gerry wanted to hear the original version of the song for comparison purposes, so I went onto Amazon and ordered a brilliant compilation called Chickasaw County Child: The Artistry of Bobbie Gentry. Having now listened to it several dozen times over, I’m going to order every recording she’s ever made. She’s a phenomenally talented woman and has supplanted Ella Fitzgerald as my favourite singer of all time.

She wrote (and that’s wrote, not co-wrote) nearly all of the 23 songs on the compilation I have, and the one thing they have in common is the excellence with which they’re crafted. The styles of the individual songs vary wildly, but in terms of lyrics, melody and structure, they’re hard to beat. She’s a nifty guitar player as well, and even produced one of her own albums – most unusual for that era. And then there’s that voice, raw and husky but always perfectly controlled, with an incredibly elastic range.

Born in 1944 in rural Chickasaw County, Mississippi, and raised mostly by her grandparents in a house with no electricity or indoor plumbing, Gentry set off for Las Vegas after graduating from secondary school and found work dancing at a casino in a Folies Bergere-style revue. In the mid-60s she moved to California, where she reportedly studied philosophy at UCLA (something this philosophy graduate was intrigued to discover), then transferred to the LA Conservatory of Music and started doing gigs at a club in Pasadena. That led to a publishing deal and then to the release of ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ as her debut single on Capitol Records in July 1967. Four albums followed, and Gentry eventually became a fixture on the stages of Las Vegas and Reno casinos (and was briefly married to gambling-hall tycoon Bill Harrah). There’s a great quote in the compilation CD’s liner notes from Tom Jones, who reminisces about how he, Gentry and Elvis Presley would congregate in Elvis’ hotel suite after their gigs and stay up singing and jamming together until dawn. Those must have been some sessions ....

And yesterday (Sunday), Máire Breatnach came in and put down some utterly beautiful fiddle and viola tracks. I feel so very privileged to have had her on this recording – she’s a lovely person and a brilliant musician; I’m in awe of her ability to hear a song for the first time, sense instinctively what it needs, translate that to her instrument and get it spot-on in one take. Respect, as Ali G might say.

Speaking of respect – Gerry and I were talking with Máire about Omos, the concert at Vicar Street in honour of the late Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, which we all attended last Thursday night. There were some uproariously funny moments, as when Máirtín Ó Connor introduced a tune as “‘The Tongs By The Fire’ ... without the ‘h’ …” and some deeply poignant moments, as when a reunited Bothy Band – Tríona Ní Dhomnaill, Kevin Burke, Matt Molloy, Paddy Keenan, Paddy Glackin and Donal Lunny – assembled around an empty chair, the unplayed guitar on its stand beside it reminding us why we were there. Earlier, Paddy Keenan had played a powerful solo set on the uilleann pipes, probably the high point of the evening from a musical point of view. And at the start of the second set, Mícheál himself had appeared on a large screen above the stage, in an old clip from ‘As I Roved Out’, over the course of which the camera panned back to reveal Kevin Burke on the fiddle ... and none other than Gerry O’Beirne, in a much younger and rather more hirsute incarnation, playing a 12-string guitar.

I’ll be finishing up in the studio on Thursday, then heading off up to Coleraine on Friday to start the next round of gigs. Have a look at the calendar for an updated schedule; note the change of date for the Bridge Tavern gig, which will now take place on Weds June 13 instead of Tues June 19 as previously announced. The plan at the moment is to wait to release the new album until February or thereabouts, so as not to interfere with the ongoing re-release of When Two Lovers Meet. But in the meantime I might put a taster track or two up on the website – we’ll see. All will be revealed ....

Finally, infinite thanks to my long-suffering husband, Feargal Shiels, who's been doing far more than his fair share of looking after the children while Mummy is away playing her guitar; I’ve been spending two nights out of every three in Dublin, in order to minimise the time I spend driving up and down to Ballycanew. Don’t worry, lads, he’ll get his revenge in due course – he’s already making plans for a long solo holiday on the bike after we move to Cornwall! Many, many thanks for your support, and feel free to email me with any questions or comments. All the best until next time!