How It’s New York:  Not only does it take place at our home away from home, Irish Arts Center, which is so New York in its cultural fusions and happenings, the new SongLives program will include Irish singer-songwriters who are based in the city, as well as visiting.  New York has made an impact on Irish songwriting– see Luka Bloom, for example!  (who I think is working on his next, and we can’t wait!)  And of course Susan McKeown herself, whose brainchild this is, is an East Village Lady.

How It’s Irish:  All of the singer-songwriters are Irish, and the idea behind the series of programs (there will be 3) is to bring some of the Grafton Street feeling here.  The Irish are known for their poetry and for their music, and songwriting brings those strands together.

You can hear Susan talk more about this, and snips from all the musicians, on the Feb. 12 podcast!

A version of this article first appeared in Irish Examiner USA, Feb. 14.

We have video of Susan and Declan below, but you can catch video of ALL of the SongLives artists who will be performing through May:  including Brendan O’Shea, Michael Brunnock, Mark Geary and Ann Scott– at the Irish Arts Center’s SongLives page!

From Grafton Street To NYC

Had Susan McKeown not abandoned her operatic studies at the College of Music to busk on Grafton Street, SongLives, a new musical series beginning Friday at the Irish Arts Center , showcasing Irish singer-songwriters, might never have happened.
You might know about the tradition of musical performance on Grafton Street from the movie and musical Once. That was a very real thing, Susan says.

She remembers seeing Glen Hansard, who plays a busker in the story (and wrote the music for it), there when she was a girl, singing Mike Scott and Waterboys songs.
As a teenager she also met Kila, the Hothouse Flowers, and many others who have remained her friends.
When the College asked her to skip her final year of school and take opera seriously, “it was clear what my choice was.”
She wanted to sing songs of the people, and although she loves opera, there is an elitism to it.

“I was getting such an education on Grafton Street, being exposed to all kinds of music. Singers and songs from other cultures, in addition to trad and folk.”

So she finished high school, went to college, and when she wasn’t studying, would busk with others, and make enough for a fine meal.
Since then, she’s gone on to win a Grammy award with the Klezmatics, and has recoreded and performed with Pete Seeger, Natalie Merchant, Billy Bragg, Andy Irvine, Linda Thompson, Johnny Cunningham and many others.

Still, when Irish singer-songwriters come over, she doesn’t always hear about it.
SongLives is an attempt to rectify that, and bring some of these contemporary artists to a wider audience.

It’s a welcome reminder that the Irish songwriting tradition includes contemporary poetry and contemporary sounds. On Friday, Feburary 17, Susan and Declan O’Rourke are on the bill.
O’Rourke’s song “Galileo” has been covered by Josh Groban, among others.
Susan will perform songs from her upcoming album Belong, the third in a series of very personal albums, that she describes as “my blood and guts.”

She calls the songs, written over the last decade, her babies. But now she’s ready to let them go.
They’re dealing with belonging, death, religion, Ireland, “all the stuff that makes life really interesting.”
Some of the experiences that inspired them are the death of her father, her late mother, the birth of her daughter, the end of her marriage, the passing of her friend, the great Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham.

“There were a lot of events that caused me to go into that place from where songs come. I try to understand by writing poetry.”

Often the words come first, but sometimes the music comes first too.

“It’s a mixture of an event that happens that’s something beyond me, that I want to reach and understand and be prepared for, even though it’s already happened, and also, it feels as if something comes from beyond. I read about a lot of poets talking about, you feel it’s a gift, handed to you, you’re just the vessel through which it comes. It beats working for a living.”

Some of the new songs are in the raw style of earlier albums Bones and Prophecy, others have a more roots, twangy feel.

She became a citizen in the past ten years, and laughs that this is her American album.” There’s even a song called “Our Texas.”
There are too many songs for it, though, so she plans to launch a pledge campaign to help her choose which songs should make the final cut of ten.  Check her website for updates!

On March 23, SongLives will feature Brendan O’Shea, a singer-songwriter who runs the Scratcher Sessions (209 E. 5th St.) on Sunday nights, and Michael Brunnock, who both live and work in New York. Michael will release his new album The Orchard that night; his voice is also featured in Sean Penn’s new film This Must Be the Place. 

On May 11, Mark Geary, who has performed with Joe Strummer and Elvis Costello will perform, and release his new album, Songs About Love, Songs About Leaving, with Ann Scott, who has been twice nominated for Meteor Ireland Music Awards.

Susan laughs that she thinks it will be “her first time performing above 14th Street.”
But we think it won’t be her last.

As its name suggests, SongLives promises to add more songs to our lives.

SongLives takes place at Irish Arts Center, 553 W. 51st St, 8 PM, Feb. 17, Mar. 23, May 11. or 866-811-4111.

No Jericho: Susan McKeown from Media Factory on Vimeo.

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.