In part one of this interview with Irish folk singer Lisa O’Neill, who is touring Australia until March, she spoke of the way nature didn’t just inform but reformed her songs and her thinking on her most recent album All Of This Is Chance, a record in part inspired by Patrick Kavanagh’s epic poem of Ireland’s constricted 20th century, The Great Hunger.
In part two, we delve past the natural and physical, the kind of things graspable even to those of us who might never create, to the conundrum in that album title itself and the role the intangible and unknowable plays in her art. Along the way she poses – herself and us – the biggest question.
WE HEAR IT OFTEN ENOUGH among writers and musicians, painters and poets, the idea of chance as the determining factor in the creation of art, that whether you believe it is some god or all-encompassing spirit, or just “in the air”, the creative and inspirational elements are beyond your control and you just hope you are attuned at the right moment.
There is a corollary to this among the less hippy dippy of the creatives that what is controllable is opening yourself to those possibilities, creating an environment where chance can play its part with imagination or knowledge or craft or skill. That is, that chance is effective if the work beforehand has been done.
“It’s a way of life, it’s a way of working,” says Lisa O’Neill, now of Dublin but once of Ballyhaise in County Cavan, a village in the north of Ireland. “These chances come to us all but to live our life in a certain way as well is important: to have your space ready or your tools, in my case mostly instruments, in sight. Little things like that, what we eat, cooking, taking time with things, and if there is space around things that’s when the light comes through the cracks, the chances.”
So if I’m reading the title track correctly, her album suggests maybe nothing is chance, or maybe everything is chance?
“When I was writing that song I came to the conclusion in the song that ‘All of this is chance, as any chance is chance/As chance it is we end up in the womb’. So as chance it is that we are born is the same chance it is to take the dandelion seed over to that fertile spot in the field,” she says. “So many things could have happened around my conception, or your conception, that our parents would never even have known about. So I like looking at how precious and delicate life is.
"The wind is the great mover of things and I can’t yet find any idea of us human beings being born into the world through the wind, but we can with the dandelion seeds, and we can then look at the other, darker side of things, look at the storms and tornadoes and fires – that’s wind.”
O’Neill pauses, mindful maybe that my silence might suggest lack of comprehension rather than enthralment.
“I don’t know if I’m getting anywhere or if I’m just walking you down a rabbit hole, but this is the way I think. I put it down but I take a long time to choose the words; I don’t just let anything come out. You let it all out but then you’ve got to edit.”
In 2014, when we first spoke, O’Neill was talking about how she can’t just let things be in terms of lyrics. She does not want to waste words, cannot have things in there that aren’t true, that aren’t real and only there to fill the space. She said then that everything has to come from a true place and if she feels that there is a filler there she is disgusted by it.
“You think I’m still at similar thinking,” she asks. “Or have I changed?”
To me she seems unchanged in this regard, and I would be amazed if she was changed from what then clearly was core principle. But the belief in chance does raise a question of whether we then have little or no influence or control over ourselves, our futures, our creativity. And if so, if you think that we are at the whim of the wind, that can offer freedom or it can induce fear.
You could say I will allow myself to be open, I will give myself the chance to hear and feel, to hurt and be loved, and that is the only decision I can control. That could be a wonderful way to live for some people. But for others this capriciousness is terrifying. And yes, this may be me taking us down a rabbit hole.
“I think you understand my song: it goes from one extreme to the other, it’s very abstract, but the narrator suggesting ‘I fly through a halo in Antarctica on the coldest day the South Pole knew’ is personal,” says O’Neill. :When I was gathering for that song, in many ways for quite a while, I looked up, I googled, the day I was born and I wanted to know what else happened in the world that day. It was the coldest day ever recorded at the South Pole, and I thought ooh, I slipped in that day, that’s cool! And I imagined myself flying through the ice – chance, again. I go on to say,’ all of this is chance as any chance is chance as chance it is we end up in the womb’. And we are back to Patrick Kavanagh now and I’m mixing up the characters because Antarctica is the only time the personal side came into the song.
“So ‘When I was evicted love I never knew I was allowed to leave the iron realm’, to me that means when you are born we don’t always know we’re free and the iron realm that Patrick Kavanagh talks about in The Great Hunger, that my song is mostly based on, is like a bird in a cage, like a prison around the imagination.”
As O’Neill explains, the song pretty much closes with her addressing herself and asking ‘are you frightened to die? Are ye frightened of the dead? Are you frightened of living that you don’t live instead?’, but the questions aren’t just for her.
“So back to your question: are we too afraid to live that we live in a cocoon of cotton wool and try to control every aspect of our lives when we know at the core that something is missing. We are not doing this, we are not stretching,” she says. “I do think fear is a terrible prison for people and it’s induced in so many ways, in our school system, in the ideas of competition, religions. We are told a lot of us what to think at a very young age, what to be afraid of, and I don’t know about that.”
While Kavanagh was addressing the emotionally and culturally crippling world of Ireland in the 20th century’s dominance by the Catholic Church and what was virtually its political arm, the long-ruling Fianna Fail party – a country where, as Kavanagh mocks, sex was only one of the things which didn’t exist– it’s not like he or O’Neill, who was born in 1982, are so distant from non-Irish experience. Most of us live in a scolding society that tells us you can’t, and you mustn’t and you shouldn’t think like this, and if you were to do this it would be without control.
Consequently we are told to fear and confine, which goes against what O’Neill has long written about. Hers is an imagination that roams freely.
“I don’t say this out loud too often, I have to be careful about it because I still have a fear there and I don’t want to upset people, but the Catholic Church had a great power over people in this country. A lot of fear comes from those teachings and Patrick Kavanagh in The Great Hunger says ‘come with me imagination, into this iron house and we will watch from the doorway the years run back and we will know what a peasant’s left hand wrote on the page’.” O’Neill says.
“There’s so much in that: the peasant is not worthless, the peasant writes with his left hand, the right side of the brain, which is creative, and what he wrote is worth something. He is not an academic, he is a man of the land and he did feel that imagination was the best, and the spirit of the people oppressed as well, the true sense of themselves which was a healthy relationship with the land.”
Though our time is up, this comment from O’Neill prompts one last foray. There’s a view among some hardcore folk fans that traditional songs and therefore folk music, is at its best only when it is about the land and the people who lived close to the land. Her songs very often touch on natural elements, on wind or rain or earth or birds, but she finds heart in stories from the cities, the docks, the streets too.
If landscape can affect our spirit, cannot urban settings do the same?
“Yes, of course they can. One of the reasons that I’ve been writing about the inner city [is that] I’ve been living there for the last 24 years, so I can’t deny my environment. That’s what I see, that’s what I feel,” says O’Neill. “But I also know that two hours up the road is the land that I grew up in. I’m writing about, I’m reading about the past.
“Can we talk about the Travelling community of Ireland for a moment because these people lived in the rural parts and the cities, they lived these nomadic lives, made their way through. They would breed horses, weave baskets, they made and collected medicines, they cured people – they were a very welcome and fundamental part of society up until the 1960s, both in the city and in the countryside. People still have a relationship with the land even when they are living on concrete because it’s about how we survive and it’s about the spirit.”
One of the things that appeals to many of us about folk music is that it speaks to the lives that people are living at the time of writing. That life may be on the land, it may be in a tenement block, but it is the people. The kind of people who debate whether folk music can exist in a contemporary urban environment are often the kind of people who declare what is or isn’t “real” country music.
“One thing folk is not is debating,” O’Neill says firmly. “Folk music goes way back before we started writing things down. It is our oral tradition, it’s universal, it’s how we collected information and how we keep and pass it on to the next generation. Like the First Nation people of Australia who collected all the knowledge they needed in the song – knowledge of the land, medicines, insects, the seasons, the constellations, everything – and it shows they saw life beyond the mortal life here, that they were part of a bigger story.
“Be that drawing or folk music, it’s about collecting important information on everything that’s happening in society. And society’s questions should be in folk songs. Whatever you want to document and feel needs remembering … everything has a story.”
Lisa O’Neill plays:
City Recital Hall, Sydney – January 19
Meeniyan Town Hall – February 3
The Brunswick Ballroom, Melbourne – February 7 and February 10
Bendigo Bank Theatre – February 9
Cobargo Folk Festival – March 2-3
WOMADelaide – March 9-10
WOMAD New Zealand, New Plymouth – March 16- 17