Hailing from Coleraine, Northern Ireland, banjo-playing singer and arranger Damien O’Kane certainly ruffled a few feathers with his recent solo album, Areas Of High Traffic. Featuring a selection of (as he rightly says) “great songs” they’re given a surprising sheen by O’Kane and his band, while the publicity images depict very urban, contemporary, scenes – all blurred traffic lights and graffiti. Very much rooted in the Celtic folk tradition it may musically be, but it doesn’t sound, or look, like your average folk album. Nonetheless, it’s deservedly wowed critics and listeners alike.
On stage since he was 13, performing with The O’Kane Family Band, Damien’s since gone on to partner with Shona Kilping and joined Flook (winning the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Best Group in 2006 with them), before embarking on a solo career, teaming up with David Kosky, and forming a professional and personal relationship with Yorkshire songstress Kate Rusby.
Prior to autumn dates with Kate, O’Kane’ll be playing with her, as well as appearing solo, at Oxfordshire’s Towersey Festival 2016, in August.
Areas Of High Traffic had some incredible reviews, and was (of course) nominated for a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award; any thoughts on why the album has made such an impact, and resonated with so many people?
Mmmmm. Sonically it is pretty different to most folk albums that came out last year, or at least the ones that I heard. I wanted a ‘big band’ sound for this album, with a kit and a more overall ‘modern’ sound to coat the fantastic traditional songs I’d chosen (bar one original song on the album). I have an eclectic taste in music having grown up listening to all sorts, from Techno/Dance Music right down to those classic Planxty albums or early Paul Brady material. I always wanted to try and marry the new with the old and I haven’t really had the courage until this album to do it. The album has more influences than just the aforementioned though. The other members of the band, Cormac Byrne on drums and percussion – Steven Iveson on electric guitar and Anthony Davis on keys/synths/pads and more, brought some of their musical experiences to the table and it resulted in a hugely enjoyable time in the studio. Together they cover blues, jazz, electronica and many more genres of traditional material. I brought all the material, all the chords and a shape for the songs, with a different sonic palette in mind for them and we all seemed to ‘pull on the same rope’, which was fantastic. I wanted an ambient, rocky, dancy feel to a lot of the material and I’m really chuffed how the album finished up.
I also think people are a lot more open minded to change these days. It is not such a shock anymore as there are so many interesting things going on in traditional music right now.
The theme of ‘family’ seems to link many of the songs, either in terms of subject or your decision to include – from ‘The Blacksmith’, which you remember hearing at an early age, to the more obvious ‘The Goddaughter’ and ‘Interlude For Mama’. Did you set out with that theme in mind when you were planning the album?
No, I didn’t set out with a ‘family’ theme, but I am hugely influenced and eternally grateful to my family who have supported and encouraged my music career from the very start. My folks introduced us (my three brothers, two sisters and I) to traditional music at a very early age and started sending us to classes. I have loved it since then. A huge number of children nowadays don’t even get the chance to play music and it is an ever declining ‘priority’ in schools from what I can see. That is a very sad thing. When I play music, Irish traditional music, I feel a huge sense of identity and family.
You’ve referred to the book Folk Singing in North Derry: Shamrock, Rose and Thistle as your “‘bible’ of folk songs” – when did you first come across the collection?
I first came across this book around 2008/2009 when I was introduced to a great collector of Irish traditional music and song, Jackie Devenney. Jackie hails from Coleraine in Co. Derry, like myself, and I was incredibly surprised to learn of Jackie and of the wealth of repertoire we boast in the north of Ireland. It is this material that excites me, songs with place names I recognise and places I played as a child. Shamrock, Rose and Thistle is only a tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the songs but I feel attached to it as it was my first learning of all these homeland songs and I love to take the stories out and bring them to life.
What are some of the ‘interesting bits and bangy things’ that percussionist Cormac Byrne is credited as playing on the album?
Well, Cormac could make a pencil sharpener rhythmical! But he did some really interesting things on Areas Of High Traffic on triangles and weird shakers and washboards and other things that I didn’t even recognise! The most interesting bangy thing he used was a bucket! Yes a bucket. You can hear it on the second track ‘The Blacksmith’. It is literally a metal bucket turned upside down. Genius!
The album has a very distinctive urban look – graffiti and skyscrapers; what was the idea behind it? Was there a conscious decision to make it not look like ‘a folk album’?
There was definitely a conscious decision to make it look different. The music is very different to anything I’ve done before so I thought the look should be too. There’s hints of urban music influences throughout the album, it is overall a more mainstream sound and I wanted to depict that through the image as well. I am really not a fan of the ‘stand in a field with a guitar’ photo, which has almost become a stereotype of folk music, and it has always been, arguably more so now than ever, a lot more than this. The next generation are creating some incredible and new sounds with folk music and it’s a really great time to be a part of it. Folk music deserves as much press as any other genre of music but it is hugely difficult to compete with those big bands on big labels where copious amounts of money are spent on image, then comes the music!! So I guess the answer is yes, I didn’t want it to look like a stereotype. I wanted it to be more interesting and David Angel, the photographer for the album, is the king at being interesting. I gave him an idea and he brought it to life.
I understand that you’ve been working on a new album with guitarist David Kosky – will this be a direct follow-up to The Mystery Inch, or something different?
I can’t really say very much about this at the minute but I am indeed working on an album with David Kosky. But not just David! There is another key banjo player involved in the project who will be announced at some point over the net few months but there is a list of guests planned for the album I would never, ever have dreamt I would ever work with!
When do you think they’ll be another solo album to follow Areas Of High Traffic?
I am starting a new solo album in October and would like to have it finished before the end of the year. I waited so long between Summer Hill and Areas Of High Traffic, through no fault of my own, but I’d like to follow up with another. I had so much fun making Areas… and the other lads are excited to get going on another.
Any other plans, projects or collaborations coming up?
Actually, I’ve just finished Producing Kate Rusby’s new album. I have to say, and even though she’s my wife, this is a very, very exciting album and not one people will expect. It is called Life In A Paper Boat and will be released in October but I’m not telling you anymore! As for other plans/ projects/ collaborations coming up, they are all covered in the questions above! I need some time to spend with my family.
You’re appearing twice at Towersey Festival – have you played the festival before?
I think the last and only time I played at Towersey was back in 2007 when I was playing in a duo with piano accordion player extraordinaire, the brilliant Shona Kipling. I can just remember being quite nervous. At that point I wasn’t really used to playing at big festivals but I remember having a great time and having a few drinks after the gig! I’ve been back as a punter since and it’s one of those festivals that has a great festival atmosphere and there’s lots going on all day every day. I’m looking forward to this year where I get to perform with Kate Rusby on the Friday (26 Aug 2016) and my own band on the Saturday (27 Aug 2016).
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Artist’s website: damienokane.co.uk
In case it passed you by – ‘The Mystery Inch’: