How it’s New York: Maybe more Philadelphia! RUNA‘s singer, Shananon Lambert-Ryan, is from Pennsylvania, and they often play in the tristate area.
How it’s Irish: The band plays Irish and other kinds of Celtic music, and two of the members are from Ireland.
An earlier version of this article was published in Irish Music Magazine.
RUNA released its fourth CD, “Current Affairs,” in June 2014. In some ways the album is a breakthrough for the Celtic band, which consists of players from Ireland, America and Canada; it includes original music for the first time. The band prides itself on mixing traditions. Both of the Irish players now live in the States.
The five members of the band include Philadelphia’s Shannon Lambert-Ryan, vocalist and step-dancer; Dublin-born guitarist Fionán de Barra, Cheryl Prashker of Canada on percussion, Galways’ Dave Curley on mandolin, vocals, bodhrán, and step-dancing, and Maggie Estes of Kentucky on the fiddle. RUNA won Top Group in the Irish Music Awards for 2013.
We caught up with Shannon while the band were in Goderich, Ontario, playing and teaching in the [pullquote]We wanted to find a word that we not only liked but that was fairly easy to pronounce in Gaelic. [/pullquote]Goderich Roots Festival for the third time.
How did the band get started?
We got started in 2008. Fionán and I—we’re now married, we weren’t at the time—we had recorded in album in February 2008 together of traditional Scottish and Irish songs that was supposed to be a side project to anything the two of us were working on at the time. He was involved in several different bands, I was involved in a world music band. We had met at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 2006. We went to record the album at his studio in Dublin. It eventually became the main project, and morphed into what we now know as the band today. Probably about six months after that he joked with me about touring the world together with this music … we found a song that has become our signature sound, “Jealousy,” a Claudine Longilles song, who was in the group Touchstone. That was a jumping off point.
In August of 2008 we did our first gig at a small bar in Philadelphia. A friend of mine, Cheryl Prashker, I knew from the folk music scene, now the percussionist, had said she loved Irish music and would love to join us. At the end of the evening we said, this is kind of fun and special, let’s continue doing this. For a while it was us as a trio, and then it became a quartet, and we’re now a quintet.
Where did the name come from?
It means mystery, or secret lore.
It came along from a very long day of going through an Irish dictionary. Fionán is a native Irish speaker. He grew up in Dublin. His family is originally from Cork. We felt strongly that the name is a calling card, first thing people see. We wanted it to represent the music we were singing, and it has both Celtic and Nordic roots. We wanted to find a word that we not only liked but that was fairly easy to pronounce in Gaelic. It’s still surprising to us how many different ways you can pronounce the name “RUNA.” We’ve had “Runna, Rouna, Arun, Rua,” just all combinations of the different letters in the word.
It’s also how we approach the music. It’s stuff that we enjoy and are invested in but also stuff that’s [pullquote]We’d either start with a Scottish or Irish song and try to Runafy it, modernize it or make it fresh, or finding something that’s not as well known and trying to bring it forward in a fresh way.if not a Scottish or Irish song we’d try to Celtic it up[/pullquote]accessible to people at the same time. We try to run the balance in everything we’re presenting, the music, the name, the production level of what we do. If we’re having fun we’re hoping that the audience is having fun as well or at least get caught up in the fun that we’re having, and vice versa.
“Jealousy” is an American sound, not an Irish song. Why is that your signature sound?
With the band, we’ve always used Scottish and Irish music as a jumping off point, but not something we’ve felt the need to stick to. More looking for songs we’re interested in that have a fabulous story, that we’d be abe to transfer to what we’re interested in. We’re all from very different geographical backgrounds and rather than ignore that we try to embrace that. “Jealousy” as an American song was never a problem or not available to us to use. We’d either start with a Scottish or Irish song and try to Runafy it, modernize it or make it fresh, or finding something that’s not as well known and trying to bring it forward in a fresh way.if not a Scottish or Irish song we’d try to Celtic it up… not just in a silly way but adding different elements that bring it in to the genre.
As we’ve gone on we’ve started to call ourselves Celtic Roots. We started with Contemporary Celtic as a brand name, it kind of gave a different connotation. People got confused and said are you Celtic rock or New Age? We felt that Celtic Roots is more of an accurate representation, kind of like roots of a tree, branches out in directions, traditional music and what traditional music has influenced throughout the world.
Some of it is dependent on personnel. Some musicians have backgrounds not in trad. I had been an actor for a while, rock and roll music as well. With this current lineup, our fiddle player has grown up in bluegrass world. Something we had wanted to delve into but never felt we had knowledge and expertise within the band, but now we do. So with this new album we embraced that, adding a new dimension to everything.
So you wouldn’t say that you are a trad group?
No, I absolutely wouldn’t say we are a trad group. I would definitely say we use traditional music as a jumping point, influence or starting off point, and push the boundaries from there.
Is it ever challenging to blend the different styles together?
There are always challenges. I think we look at them as positive challenges, something to figure out and work towards. When we’re choosing songs, we look for the songs and then look to see what suits the songs, rather than saying we need this song for this sound, or we need a song for this part of the track listing. It is a conscious choice to be trying new things, to keep ourselves interested as well as the audience members. There are certainly things I’ll hear one way compared to Fionán or people in the band. For the most part, all of us are fairly on the same page with our preferences and the way we approach things. Where we differ strengthens the band.
On this album we’ve introduced some new instruments than we’ve had on the album before, the banjo being one of them. Dave Curley, the multi-instrumentalist in our group, has had a lot to offer. A difference in this particular album is that after the research process we were all involved in the get-go in the arranging of the songs, rather than the core of the group. It makes a huge difference. It’s all of us developing things together and bringing things to the table. There are certain songs put on the short list that probably wouldn’t have made it to the album without all five of us being part of that process.
“False Knight” was one of those moments. It has a lot of verses. I said that’s fine if you’re sitting at a session and everybody’s singing along with you, but nobody will be there at the end. Dave and Fionán put it together and said what if we put the chorus in every couple of verses. I really liked it, but I’m not hearing it—by the end of the day I was oh my gosh, I love this song.
Same with “The Last Trip Home,” the Davey Steele and John McCusker song. It had been on the short list for awhile. Something about it was not fitting. I think part of it was that it was a little faster. Fionán said “wait a second, what if we tried it slower?” Then I said we have to do this album there’s n debate anymore. I think having everybody together makes a difference for the song choice and overall development of the sound.
Do you find your songs from other artists, or from books?
We’ll go to the Childe Index and a couple of other indexes of lists of songs to start off with, and then we’ll do research and find different recordings of songs. Some are fairly contemporary, others are field recordings which makes modernizing them a challenge. One of the things we really like is that part of the tradition of traditional music is that it does change throughout the generations. If you don’t bring something new to it the songs will be lost. We try to get a variety of different versions, not just one or two. Then once we’ve learned the melody we’ll stop listening to all of those.
And some are more contemporary. The Amos Lee song was written just a few years ago, so there’s one definitive version of it. So we try to put our own spin on it. We’re always trying to do it in a different way that’s been done before.
And you’ve started writing music?
This is the first time we’ve recorded anything we’ve written. Fionán has had a great experience writing, with Moya and with Clannad as their musical director. Dave has had some experience, think Cheryl and Maggie have too, but this is the first time we as a band have presented anything we’ve written. The week before we released the album I’m looking at Fionán going “I really hope this is OK. I really hope people like it.”
It’s something we’d like to try some more of, and see where it goes.