Carrick-on-Shannon native Ailie Blunnie talks to Babylon Radio about playing Knockanstockan, striking the balance for playing outdoors and the story behind her debut album West to the Evening Sun.
“It was a bit mad.” Ailie Blunnie tells me over the phone. “There was a lad with fairy wings running around in front of the stage at the start my set.” The festival experience that is Knockanstockan in a nutshell.
Fresh from the Faerie Field stage, Ailie hasn’t attended a festival since U2 performed at Slane Castle in 2001. It may seem like a jump in at the deep end for her return but Ailie and her band were right at home sharing the stage with the likes of Paddy Hanna and Lemoncello. Knockanstockan has always been an impressive showcase of Irish talent. “The Faerie Field stage was where most of the folk acts were playing so the crowd knew what to expect. It was a natural amphitheater, on a slope, grass and stones and all.. it was really beautiful”. The festival itself holds about 4500 people, an intimate affair down by the Blessington Lakes in Wicklow. She appreciates how much goes in to holding an event like this. “The organizers put so much effort into it. There was a real buzz about the place.”
At first listen Ailie’s music seems a smorgasbord of different music styles, however at the root of it all her music is folk- a distinctly Irish, earthy sound. The sharp smatterings of electronics thrown in provide the perfect balance of atmospherics and storytelling. But how does she keep the magic on stage? She was all too aware of the drawbacks of playing outdoors and somewhat struggled to strike the balance- stripping back the set to the bare minimum. “We kept paring it back. I was afraid that the drums would overpower it.. If you were looking you’d see that the drummer was barely touching the cymbals at all.”
It’s coming up to a year since the release of her debut album, West to the Evening Sun. The album was recorded over four years, much of it spent up around Lissadell House and the beaches in Sligo. “I rented out different cottages and that. There’s not much coastline in Leitrim. Sligo or Donegal would be where you go for that.”
Like many Irish families, music featured heavily in her household: her father is a pianist who played organ for the local church, and there’s a great love for traditional music on her mother’s side. She spent a large chunk of her childhood at local traditional music sessions and attending Fleadh Cheoil or Irish music competitions around the country. Her sister Róisín, a music lecturer in DCU, also worked on the album, conducting the Laetare Vocal Ensemble Choir on “Would That You May”.
‘I will not be more or less than I am, for you’
I Will Count My Blessings is a defiant statement in the midst of a soaring and swelling of emotion-laden sea. “I haven’t talked about it much apart from with my counselor to be honest. I wouldn’t have really expected people to pick up on it when they’re listening to my songs!” she says.
Her album isn’t merely vacuous noise, or the product of a break up. I Promised Her Gold interweaves haunting harmonies with something more sinister, touching on Ireland’s darker side of motherhood. “When I was writing the album, I’d just turned 32, so you reach a point in your life where you realise ‘Oh, I actually do have to make this choice’.” … “A sense of broodiness?” I ask, “It’s more like a child.. towards the mother. At the time the Tuam Mother and Baby Home scandal had just come out as well. I mean the last home didn’t close until the 90’s.. So this was all around me at the time. This was before Repeal.”
Ailie’s vulnerability lends itself well to such delicate topics, and in this way strikes a chord with many Irish women.
The album itself fits together rather well, 10 songs strong, until you get to Love Song to a Bicycle which metaphorically throws a cat amongst the pigeons. ‘I was dead after all, she was a bicycle after all, it was unlikely after all, that this was going to work. But who knows? Like Montague and Capulet, animate and inanimate, who knows? And why not?’ Ailie laughs when asked about this. It turns out that she was originally commissioned to write a song based on Carrick on Shannon’s Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman. Perhaps a welcome change, given that there’s many a tender track on this album.
In the last few months she hasn’t had much time for playing gigs, spreading her time between her day-job teaching English, and studying psychology, but is looking forward to returning to songwriting. “I haven’t been able to focus much on music, I’m not great at multi-tasking!” she confesses. Back to Sligo it is so.
For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure of seeing Ailie on stage, hopefully you managed to catch her last night at 8pm at East Side Tavern for post-Knockanstockan night with Lemoncello and A. Smyth.