The world wakes up to Irish “Sleepsongs”

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 16.05.2014
As an arts snob, I had never paid much attention to Irish traditional music but here, in a new CD called “Sleepsongs” (Heresy 014, U.S. distribution by Naxos), the lovely Irish singer Caitriona O’Leary’s calming voice overwhelms from the first track onward. My defenses collapsed.

Most of the songs are taken from Irish tradition, some of them centuries old, others more recent, originally intended for a mother to sing to her children. Ms. O’Leary is backed up by her very Irish band Dulra.

An accomplished arranger and performer, Ms. O’Leary explains in her liner notes that she collected the songs over a period of years and finally selected these as her favorites for their “rich and colorful imagery and the range of moods”. Such evocative titles as “O Woman Beside the Stream”, “On the Fairy Mound” and “Little Cuckoo” help set up the ambiance for a mellow experience. 

The lyrics were researched academically and are printed in both Gaelic and English in the handsome accompanying album.

Instrumentation includes a panoply typical of the Irish music culture: the bodhran (a drum often described as the “heartbeat of Irish music”), a cello, a flute and whistle, a fiddle, clarinets, bass viol and lira da gamba. The effect transports the listener to the Irish countryside.

A major bonus in the album is the 40-page album of photographs illustrating the themes of each song. Irish photographer Laelia Milleri places Ms. O’Leary in various extravagant poses. 

Behind this album and several others in the past two years is the visionary founder and CEO of Heresy Records, Eric Fraad, an expatriate American living near Dublin. Fraad brings a distinguished U.S. pedigree of music and opera direction, including experience co-producing New York shows with the late Joseph Papp.

Among Heresy’s recent releases is “Possessed”, a musical voyage demonstrating how cults can use “particular instruments in specific ways to signal or instigate trance that leads to and incorporates possession”, Fraad writes in the album’s notes. 

Elaborate imagery is a hallmark of Heresy productions. “Possessed” cover art references Sigmund Freud and Hollywood films. Another recent release, “On the Nature of Electricity and Acoustics”, features electro-acoustic music from Ireland. On the cover is Benjamin Franklin catching electricity from a stormy sky. Fraad writes that the music reflects “isolation, restiveness, melancholy and poetry of the place”.

Fraad serves as conceptualizer and creative director of each project and brings in established designers to create stunning graphic effects for the albums, a rare quality in today’s spare downloaded digitized music world. His work has attracted a following for its originality, the quality of the music and the CD design.

Heresy specializes in early music, traditional and world music, folk, contemporary classical, electronic music and innovative fusions of these styles. 

Fraad says his recordings seek to create a “new, vital and unexpected approach to the ever-changing relationship between the yesterday and today.”

With a plethora of new delivery mechanisms, “nobody”, says Fraad, “knows what’s happening or where the music field going.” But these uncertainties have not stopped him from pressing ahead with his sassy new label. Just two years old, Heresy crosses over from traditional Irish music to classical, “casting our net wider and wider”. He is fighting the sclerotic world of classical music, which he describes as “very uptight”.

So far in its short life, Heresy is proving to the antithesis of uptight.


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