Of the many roads that could be taken, The Alt—an Irish folk band comprised of John Doyle (guitar, bouzouki, vocals), Eamon O’Leary (guitar, bouzouki, vocals) and Nuala Kennedy (flutes, whistles, vocals)—chooses the beaten path on its music journey. The band’s self-titled debut is not, however, a collection of Irish tunes that are beloved by the masses, but a collection of overlooked gems from Irish, Scottish, English and Kentucky (yes, we said Kentucky) tradition. Of the latter, O’Leary explains how one track, “The Letter Song,” is influenced by the Bluegrass State.
“There’s a kinship between songs from Appalachia and songs brought over from Ireland and Scotland,” says O’Leary, who hails from Ireland and resides in New York. Similarly, Doyle splits his time between Ireland and Asheville, North Carolina, where the band chose to record the album, hunkered down in a mountain cabin. Kennedy, who is in the band but not currently touring due to pregnancy, resides in Ireland, but has spent time in Scotland.
In the Appalachian setting, the trio’s members tapped into their heritage and reflected on its lineage and influence in North America, specifically in Appalachia’s country and bluegrass music.
“I think John’s idea with this band…was more about harmony singing and song tradition rather than the instrumental dance music tradition,” says O’Leary.
Though the group pulls lyrics from old songs and manuscripts, they create the instrumentation and harmonies to go with those findings from scratch. Take, for instance, the first track on the album, “Lovely Nancy.” That song comes from author Sam Henry’s book, Songs of the People.
“It’s a massive collection of songs, some are well-known and some lesser-known,” says O’Leary. “I would come across some text that looked interesting to me and come up with an arrangement, and then the band fleshes it out.” O’Leary explains that he’d never even heard many of the songs featured on the album played before.
“With a project like this there’s definitely an attempt to unearth things that are less commonly heard,” says O’Leary. “That’s not to be deliberately obscure, but because there’s a lot of beautiful songs that don’t get heard.”
There’s a kind of show-and-tell process related to the tunes that members of the group each bring to the table. “We teach each other songs and we learn songs from each other from the tradition,” says O’Leary who notes how Kennedy taught him and Doyle the song “Cha Tig Mor Mo Bhean Dhachaigh.” The song, written in Scottish Gaelic, required a quick language lesson from Kennedy.
“In Ireland, everybody learns Irish Gaelic in school growing up but some of us neglect it in later life,” says O’Leary. Scots Gaelic is closely related but different, so it was new for me, but we’d always be familiar with the translation of the song because you have to know what you are singing about.”
O’Leary notes that Kennedy discovered the song from a friend living in Nova Scotia, Canada, where Scottish Gaelic is still widely spoken. “A lot of songs go on those kind of journeys,” he says.
Like the evolving songs, The Alt will perform on Friday sans Kennedy. Joining the group in her absence will be Cathy Jordan, frontwoman of traditional Irish folk act Dervish. She will bring her bodhran, accordion and vocal talents to the band.
“Working in a new group is exciting,” says O’Leary. “New people bring a different perspective and energy to the music.”