Celtic Divas — A circle of friends

Originally published May 16, 2012 in Capital Times

What do travelling Irish musicians get up to on a Friday night in Wellington? On or off stage they’re all about sharing music. Amanda Witherell follows along with two of the Celtic Divas, Noriana Kennedy and Nicola Joyce, backed-up by guitarists Noelie McDonnell and Gerry Paul.

It’s easy to find the house where the Celtic Divas are staying: I hear singing from the street. Entering the Newtown flat, I step over guitar cases battered by years of travel. As professional musicians, they spend eight or nine months a year touring and staying in a flat is a novelty: Kennedy and Joyce are in the kitchen cooking chicken and pouring wine for this impromptu party with a handful of Wellington musicians.

Soon, plates are exchanged for guitars as Paul and McDonnell are joined by Andrew Moore and Steve Moodie from The Thomas Oliver Band, Kirsten Moodie, Miles Calder and Nick George from Miles Calder &The Rumours. Canadian singer-songwriter Jesse Rivest and Mark Mazengarb also have guitars tucked under their arms.

When the strumming starts it’s not the usual sing-a-long fodder: Justin Townes Earle’s Harlem River Blues, followed by The Be Good Tanyas Littlest Birds. Greg Brown, Ryan Adams, Gillian Welch, Old Crow Medicine Show – Celtic Divas may sing traditional Irish tunes but they’re well versed in alt-country Americana. No one hesitates in the face of a passed guitar and all eagerly swap lyrics and accompaniments as the music continues late into the night. Ask any one of them what they do for fun and they just smirk and keep singing. This is fun.

Making connections with a revolving cast of characters is how the divas do business. It’s a task to tease out all the connecting tendrils, though many lead back to Paul. Fresh from touring Australia’s folk festivals as the Noriana Kennedy Trio, in New Zealand they’ll be the Celtic Divas when joined by Pauline Scanlon and Éilís Kennedy, of yet another band called Lumiere. Joyce and Paul also played with Gráda, whose 2010 Natural Angle was voted best folk album by US National Public Radio. All hail from Ireland, though Paul spent his childhood in the Lower Hutt and after several years in Galway, is moving home to a Roseneath flat. His long list of collaborations includes Tim O’Brien’s Two Oceans Trio and The Sharon Shannon Band, not to mention backing up some of the bands at the house party.

“It’s good to diversify if you’re going to play folk music for a living,” says Joyce. “It’s good for your mind, to be involved in lots of different styles. It keeps it interesting.”

Kennedy adds, “It’s really difficult to keep one lineup together. It’s easier to mix and match. It’s the best thing about our circle of friends.”

Kennedy and Joyce came to song down the same path: parents foisting instruments and sessions at Galway pubs. “I learned to sing in front of a crowd at a pub,” says Kennedy, who grew up in Dublin but moved to Galway seven years ago. She got serious about it after losing her job testing water for an environmental consultancy.

Joyce’s father owned a pub and most of her family members are musicians. She spent her childhood glugging Fantas at the bar and listening to traditional Irish music, country, Americana and isn’t afraid to cross genres. During a previous New Zealand Gráda tour, Paul introduced Joyce to Hirini Melbourne’s Māori song Homai O Ringa.

“It sounded like it could be an Irish melody. He got a friend to translate it into English and then I translated it to Irish,” says Joyce.  “It’s quite emotional when we sang it live. Māori who came to gigs were really touched that we’d even bothered.”

The song has since been recorded on the second Celtic Divas album.

“Being so far away from home and making a connection with a whole other culture and seeing people really touched by it, I felt that it was an important thing.”

The connections continue. While waiting for the arrival of the other two divas and band members Chris Stone and Ben Franz to begin their Australasian tour (four dates in New Zealand, 17 in Australia), the three are touring Wellington schools with Paul, who also wrote children’s book Hank the Wrestling Shark and the album Tales from the Sea and an Elephant Tree. Last Thursday they visited Porirua’s Holy Family School, a Catholic primary with a high percentage of young Polynesians eager to sing.

“The school was founded by Irish nuns from Kildare and the kids sang us an Irish prayer as a farewell,” says Joyce. “We all welled up.”


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