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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Brennan and an Irish Christmas
Davidt the beginning of December I am forced to look at something that can remain ignored for some 48 weeks of the year – Christmas albums. As we get nearer to Christmas Day, as I choose songs for my radio show, what can I play that will reflect the wonder of the season without lowering the tone? There are many albums that do what Christmas has done – sell out, compromise and sanitize the real meaning of Christ’s earthly and earthy incarnation. Among the plethora of such there is the odd exception that artistically adds a slant or an insight. This year our own Moya Brennan has released such an album. With her own unique Celtic twist she has taken songs familiar and new and spun an album of reverence, artistic flair and theological depth to grace any December evening or radio show. I asked her a few questions about how her Irishness influenced the songs and what the season means to her.
STOCKI: Moya… why now for a Christmas album… what sparked the idea?
BRENNAN: What? December? No seriously, it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for while and this year it seemed to fall into place. I’ve performed in a number of Christmas projects in the last few years – a Chieftains album, An Irish Holiday with Phil Coulter and guests and the Celtic Christmas concert with Liam Lawton at Multifarnham Abbey for instance. The thing that I felt, though, is that they weren’t necessarily Irish or Celtic but more like Irish people doing Christmas songs. So I felt led to do my own interpretation and make it more Celtic.
STOCKI: How do you then choose the songs?
BRENNAN: Obviously the choice was immense and the more I looked the more I became amazed at the wealth of Christmas music written and performed over the years. But gradually things started to crystallize, helped by the fact that I had a clear idea of the overall sound I wanted to produce and also to feature specifically Irish carols. "The Wexford Carol" was on the list before I started as was "Oiche Chiúin" ("Silent Night"). I came across a not-so-well known carol called "Love Came Down at Christmas" with an Irish traditional air which is gorgeous in its simplicity and message. After that I gradually narrowed it down to a selection based on a combination fun and reflection on the Christmas story. I think when people listen to Christmas music they are drawn to the familiar so I included "Joy to the World," "In the Bleak," and "In Dulci Jubilo." Of the others, "Gabriel’s Message" is also known as "The Basque Carol" and has a sublime air and "Carol of the Bells" (aka "The Ukrainian Carol") gave me an opportunity to go big with vocal harmonies and drama. There is also one new composition, "I Still Believe."
STOCKI: Once chosen how do you get musically imaginative with songs so familiar? Is that difficult?
BRENNAN: It wasn’t difficult once I established that the traditional Irish instrumental input would be a distinctive feature. You obviously start with the basic song but the enjoyable part was weaving the instruments around the familiar form and leaving spaces to layer it with my voice. I have to admit that a lot of the carols are very word heavy and also, unlike songs that I usually write and perform with some kind of verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure, most of them only had verses! And lots of them! So the challenge was also to break up the sameness of each verse. I have to say that I have a band of superb musicians who not only tour with me but played a big part in getting these arrangements together.
STOCKI: The last album Two Horizons was very much a concept type album that told a story. I guess this one is too?
BRENNAN: This has to be the greatest story ever told. Baby born in a shed, angels, stars, cosmic visions and even the wicked King. The Two Horizons concept was a journey of discovery and I suppose in the end a quest for peace, justice and truth as symbolized by the harp. I suppose the Christmas album is not a million miles away from that – the theme trying to regain that spirit of purity and innocence and redemption in spite of a lost world.
STOCKI: As a Christian, is this a Christmas album a great opportunity to bring your faith to work?
BRENNAN: There really is no better opportunity. It’s the only time of the year that people unselfconsciously go to church and sing about Jesus. My faith is based on his life and teaching so it’s a joy for me to do it – also in the knowledge that the album doesn’t get labeled Gospel or Religious.
STOCKI: You obviously bring your own Celtic slant. Personally I love the Gaelic versions. What do you think that Celtic spiritually brings to Christmas?
BRENNAN: My understanding of Celtic spirituality is that it drew inspiration from the immediate surroundings of those who practiced it. So, for instance, the elements, the weather, the mountains, trees and sea were glorified as God’s creation and his gift of life to us. Its no surprise that this has been taken on in a New Age framework but what this lacks is how central Jesus always was to the likes of St. Patrick, Colmcille and Bridget and the early Christian communities who literally lived a sheds and stables type of existence. What a connection with the baby we celebrate at this time of the year.
STOCKI: You flit between a west of Donegal Gaelic speaking Catholic and an inner city Dublin free evangelical church scenarios. What are the riches of each and how have those influenced the album?
BRENNAN: Flit sounds a bit directionless! In terms of churches and worship there are huge differences but much can be gained from both. There is a reverence and awe in the traditional form of worship which can easily get lost in the loudness of modern evangelical worship. Similarly, the fun and sense of community of more progressive churches can be lost when you are simply going through the weekly ritual. I hope that this album reflects both that reverence and awe but also the fun and excitement of celebrating Jesus’ birth.
STOCKI: I love the richness of the theology of advent. Spending time making an album must be like an extended time of meditation on the Christmas story. How has that impacted you?
BRENNAN: I have to laugh because when I was recording this, it was summer outside the studio and we could smell the barbeques burning down the road! It took a while to get into a Christmas spirit so I decorated my studio with tree lights, tinsel and candles. But I know what you mean – living with the story for a couple of months focused me on priorities in life.
STOCKI: What do you hope the album achieves?
BRENNAN: I wouldn’t pretend that this is ground breaking stuff although I didn’t come across much like it in my research. I think it will appeal to those who have always enjoyed my music but hopefully take them to a place of meditation and reflection on what Jesus brought us with his short life and why we strangely continue to lift him up 2000 years later. I hope that people of all persuasions will enjoy it without prejudice and be brought an awareness of the real meaning of Christmas.
STOCKI: On another track altogether, I am doing a Masters at the moment in the theology of art and social justice and how art can change things. Do you hope this changes things?
BRENNAN: Art of all kinds has the ability to move people in the most extraordinary ways and you will never change things without movement from. Aren’t we so aware of that in Ireland, north and south. I have a big burden for my country’s spiritual as well as social welfare and I hope what I do strikes a tiny chord in every corner of the country.
STOCKI: What songs have you written or performed with an intention of changing things.
BRENNAN: Although "Harry’s Game" was not a protest song as such, it addressed the hopelessness of where we have been led, particularly in Northern Ireland and the void that needs to be filled. "Heal This Land" has similar sentiments but is offered more as a prayer and sees light at the end of the tunnel.
Of course the song which we had great hopes for was "Put ‘Em Under Pressure," the official Irish World Cup song for Italia 90. I sang an misty Ole Ole Ole as an intro to the rousing Horslips riff and we progressed to the quarter finals. What more can I say?
"Perfect Time" comes to mind as well. I wrote it with my husband, Tim, at a changing point in my life. I have been overwhelmed by the amount of letters and personal testimonies from those who have been profoundly affected by this song.
STOCKI: Are there any songs or art forms that you feel have changed you or changed the world?
BRENNAN: I cant think of anything specific but music and art continually affect me and influence who I am and what I do.
STOCKI: What next? Any more concept ideas?
BRENNAN: I’m recording a new studio album early next year but as its still work in progress I don’t want to say too much at the moment
Steve Stockman is the Presbyterian
Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community
with 88 students. He has written two books Walk On; The Spiritual Journey
of U2 which he is currently updating and The Rock Cries Out; Discovering
Eternal Truth in Unlikely Music. He dabbles in poetry and songwriting and
he has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster (listen anytime of day or
night @ www.bbc.co.uk/ni/religion/rhythmandsoul). He has his own web page--Rhythms
of Redemption at http://stocki.ni.org . He also tries to spend some time
with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin and Jasmine.