An 11-year old American boy once became obsessed with the music of an Irish fiddler. Two decades later the pair formed a band that is re-shaping Irish music in ways that may echo through the ages. Imagine if Brian Eno or even Sigur Ros played traditional Irish music and you are coming close to the sound of The Gloaming.
The fiddler was one of Ireland’s most loved and revered, Martin Hayes. The boy was Thomas Bartlett, now 33, a New York pianist and producer, also known as Doveman, who has enjoyed collaborations with artists as diverse as Julia Stone, Glen Hansard, Antony and the Johnsons, Nora Jones, The National, Martha Wainwright and Rufus Wainwright.
Shortly after becoming besotted with Hayes’ first record Bartlett went on holiday to Ireland with his parents. He immediately obtained a Dublin Time Out, and found that Hayes was playing that night. “We went to this concert,” he recalls, “and it remains one of the great musical experiences of my life. It changed everything for me, and so we ended up following him around the country for the next week. It was like I was a stalker!”
The pair stayed in touch, and when Hayes conceived of The Gloaming Bartlett was an important part of the mix. Chicago guitarist Dennis Cahill (Hayes’ long-term colleague), singer Iarla O Lionaird (from Afro-Celt Soundsystem) and Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, who plays the hardanger, an eight-string Norwegian fiddle, complete the band.
They initially assembled in an Irish studio to see what would eventuate, and it clicked more easily than they had expected. “I’m the odd man out in certain ways,” says Bartlett, “because I really don’t know the tradition. So Iarla would sing one of these very old songs, and I, not really knowing how the thing was meant to go, anyway, would start re-harmonising a little bit. And we just ended up finding this interesting territory together that feels like it’s drawing on all this really old stuff, but it doesn’t sound particularly like what other people have done with it before.”
Bartlett was acutely aware of not encroaching on the 20-year rapport that Hayes and Cahill have shared, which he describes as “something close to perfection”. “At first I had the feeling that anything I added was just going to f**k it up,” he says. “But they were both very flexible and easy, and also it became clear pretty quickly that there was a different set of things that we could explore with this group than what they do as duo.”
Alongside the use of improvisation and presence of Bartlett’s non-traditional piano the third ingredient to distinguish them from a conventional Irish sound is the hardanger. “But Caoimhin, in a way, is almost the deepest traditionalist of the members of the band,” observes Bartlett, adding that O Raghallaigh also contributes the greatest sonic breadth. “It’s almost like having someone playing electronics in the band,” he says. “Martin’s tone is so pure and so consistent, and it’s this thing that you can always focus on, but then Caoimhin is able to weave in and out and make sounds you’ve never heard before.”
The Gloaming: Concert Hall, October 27.