Artist Profiles: Susan McKeown

Susan McKeown

Susan McKeown grew up in Dublin, Ireland, the youngest of five children. Her composer mother encouraged her early interest in music and theatre. She listened to religious and classical music as a child, but in her teenage years discovered Mary Margaret O’Hara, Michelle Shocked, and June Tabor. At age 15, she was selected for intensive study with Ireland’s leading opera trainer at Dublin’s Municipal College of Music, but left after a year to pursue rock, folk, jazz, and blues, often busking in the streets of Dublin.

Susan had already toured in Europe and performed on national TV in Ireland when she left Dublin in 1990 to take up a scholarship offered her by New York’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy. She quickly immersed herself in the East Village and downtown music scenes, and was one of the original performers at the legendary Sin-e Cafe. Soon she was headlining in clubs such as The Bottom Line, The Mercury Lounge and Fez. She now tours internationally with her group The Chanting House, or with Johnny Cunningham and Irish guitarist Aidan Brennan.

She is an artist who literally defies categorization and she’s wasted no time sharing her strong, unique, beautiful blend of Irish, jazz and folk music with the world. Since arriving to the United States, she has shared the stage with such artists as Van Morrison, Sinéad O’Connor, Natalie Merchant and Paula Cole. Television appearances include the PBS special “Thomas Moore’s Soul of Christmas“, alongside Jane Siberry and Iris Dement, and a broadcast of “West 54th Street Sessions” with Natalie Merchant.

Susan returned to the theater as lead vocalist in the Mabou Mines hit “Peter &Wendy“. (The soundtrack for the show was released by Alula Records in 1997.) Los Angeles’ Geffen Theatre celebrity attendees included Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Downey Jr., Leonard Nimoy and Kevin Costner.

Bushes & Briars, Susan McKeown’s release on world music label Alula Records is a contemporary collection of traditional Celtic songs, sung in English and Irish. Winner of the Crossroads Magazine award for Best Celtic Album of 1998, Bushes & Briars features an impressive line-up of acclaimed Celtic artists, including Seamus Egan (Solas ), Johnny Cunningham, Andy Irvine and Jerry O’Sullivan.

In 1998 Susan’s vocals were featured in Thomas Moore’s Soul of Christmas, a recording produced by Johnny Cunningham. The album was released by Upaya Records (a Tommy Boy imprint).

In the summer of 2001 Susan and Johnny Cunningham toured extensively and recorded an album titled A Winter Talisman. It was recorded in August in an old theatre in New York City. Although they had previously appeared as guests on each other’s recordings, this was Susan & Johnny’s first album together. It’s packed with Susan, Johnny and Aidan Brennan’s performances of the strange and wonderful songs of Celtic wintertime work and customs that Susan collected for the winter tour. Also featured are original poems and new tunes from Johnny, and the beautiful three part harmonies of Susan, Johnny and Aidan.

Susan maintains a heavy tour schedule and still has time for many new album projects. Susan McKeown is well on her way to being recognized as one of the few singer-songwriters whose lyrics touch the heart and soul of not only the “woman” experience but the human experience as a whole.

World Village released Sweet Liberty, her 2004 release. One of McKeown’s specialties is reviving rare songs that have yet to be explored in the current Celtic revival. Her arrangements of these songs sometimes employ traditional instrumentation but are as likely to surprise the listener with instrumentation not expected on an album of Celtic songs. A Thousand Times, My Love is a fascinating collaboration between McKeown and Ensemble Tartit, a group of Tuareg musicians from Northern Mali. “There was very little arrangement beforehand: we met in the studio in Manhattan, sat down in a circle and began to sing, and it was as if we were singing the same song“, says McKeown.

Mariachi Real de Mexico provides a rich, nostalgic accompaniment to the English folk song ‘Eggs in her Basket.’ Traditional Irish colors are also very much in evidence. The album opens with McKeown leading the instrumental quartet Flook in ‘The Wee Birds All Have Come and Gone.’

Listening to Irish traditional music and song for me is like listening to stories coming down from the past which have relevance in the present”, explains McKeown. “Perhaps people feel a deep connection to Irish music because it expresses deeply felt emotions to which we can all relate.”

Discography

The Chanting House (1-800-Prime, 1990)
The Chanting House – Live (1-800-Prime, 1992)
Bones (1995)
Peter and Wendy (Alula Records, 1997)
The Soul of Christmas: A Celtic Music Celebration (1997) by Thomas Moore and Johnny Cunningham
Through the Bitter Frost & Snow (1997)
Mighty Rain (Depth Of Field, 1998)
Bushes and Briars (Alula Records, 1998)
Mother: Songs Celebrating Mothers & Motherhood (North Star Music, 1999)
Lowlands (Green Linnet, 2000)
A Winter Talisman (2001)
Prophecy (Sheila-Na-Gig, 2002)
Sweet Liberty (World Village, 2004)
Blackthorn: Irish Love Songs (World Village, 2006)
Saints & Tzadiks (World Village, 2009)
Singing in the Dark (2010)
Belong (East River Music, 2012)

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.

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