If you have even half an ear for British folk rock as it emerged from the 1960s with a new and dynamic eye for texture and experimentation, the name Alison O’Donnell will require no introduction.
As a focal point within Mellow Candle, purveyors of one of the greatest (and most revered) albums of that age, O’Donnell remains an influential touchstone for several successive generations of aspiring folk vocalists, while recent years have seen her return to action with a string of new releases that are at least the equal, and oft-times superior to, anything she recorded in her youth.
Of course this includes her Fruits de Mer single, coupling songs by Nick Drake and Nico. But there is a wealth of other material out there that demands your ears as well.
Alison talks to Goldmine about her phenomenal rebirth.
GM: Your past has been very well-documented elsewhere... Mellow Candle, of course, and also Flibbertigibbet, the band you led in South Africa later in the 1970s.
With so much material behind you from just the last decade or so, do you ever tire of talking about the past?
AO: It is something of a double-edged sword. Because of the latent, niche success of Mellow Candle and in collectable terms, Flibbertigibbet, I have at least had a career, but people in the record industry and music business frequently just want to reissue with a twist or discuss days of yore as opposed to what’s been happening between 2006 and now, when I’ve kept up a steady output.
This is not to say that I don’t want to still be involved in all things Mellow Candle, because I do and I am proud of what we made back in the day. The main problem in getting projects to fruition is that I have had to do everything on a shoestring, which is all very well, but I feel I can never really indulge myself; there are no producers or patrons.
GM: What encouraged you to make a “comeback”?
AO: I did a lot of session recording in South Africa which is when I realized that I could be doing a lot more with my voice and stagecraft. I was recording again when I lived in Belgium back in 1999 with the excellent musicians who made up éishtlinn. The only time I dropped out of music altogether was between 1985 and 1995 which was due to moving countries, job and parenting duties. I decided to train and practice before tentatively edging back into music, and that has stood me in good stead all the years since. Although one’s voice drops a tone or so over the decades, my vocal technique is in a good place and my range is way better than when I was 17 making Swaddling Songs.
I worked on a variety of types of singing and performance, some of which is evident on my 2006 album with Irish musician, Isabel Ní Chuireáin, Mise agus Ise (myself and herself).
GM: Steven Collins of the Owl Service played a major role in your return, I believe?
AO: Meeting Steven online and then gigging with them a number of times led to the EP, The Fabric of Folk and contributions to several of their albums. Time is of the essence often in recording with musicians who are living in another country, as I often do, and given the overriding budgetary constraints, I have become adept at doing all my homework at home and then going for one or two takes. I find the ‘feel’ starts to disappear after too many takes in any case.
GM: Your album Hey Hey Hippy Witch has rarely been far from my ears since it was released… tell us about it, please.
AO: Hey Hey Hippy Witch was a mountain to climb in terms of pulling together musicians, co-writers and recording engineers. My songs are usually personal in some way, and there’s one track influenced by my convent school upbringing, as there is on the record with Isabel. I got some terrific contributions from musicians in Britain and North America: Kevin Scott of Mr Pine, Margie Wienk, now Margaret Ayre of Fern Knight, Steven Collins and Nancy Wallace of The Owls, Graeme Lockett, Richard Moult, Dave Colohan and Gavin Prior of United Bible Studies, Michael Tyack of Circulus, who I’ve done a few gigs with.
The aforementioned regular collaborator Isabel is on several tracks, and there is an older song featuring Frank Boylan of Mellow Candle and the late, great guitarist Jimmy Faulkner, who was in a short-lived band with Dave Williams and me directly after MC broke up. The song ‘No Meek Chrism’, co-written with Kevin Scott, is my rather rueful take on aspects of the Mellow Candle story. Once or twice a year, when I’m feeling self-indulgent, I listen to it which brings me to nostalgic tears.
“I played ‘Come Unto Me’ quite a few times with my own band and I had to watch out for getting choked up because it’s about child abuse in the Catholic church. Gavin Prior did a great job of sound effects and gave me an interest in using more of that in the future instead of just using conventional instrumentation. ‘Song of the Gael’ is a reference to a piece of music written and performed by my great uncle B. Walton O’Donnell but harks back to a traditional air. His father had emigrated from Ireland in 1867, post-Famine, but his children always retained their Galway roots.
GM: More recently, you released The Execution of Frederick Baker, a collaboration with Head South By Weaving.
AO: That came out of my and Graeme’s joint desire to make a whole album, having collaborated successfully on the Fruits de Mer single. It took several years mulling over material, both traditional and co-written until the point when Ritual Echo took it up on vinyl and CD.
The central murder ballad was one of a lot of songs I considered, but I didn’t want to do anything too many other singers had tackled. ‘Hedge End Day’ was written with parts of Graeme’s past in mind, to reflect his perspective and not just my own. Surprisingly, writing to order on a certain theme is not something I have found difficult. Steven Collins suggested I write about the making of Led Zeppelin III and so ‘The Plant and the Page’ came about.
GM: And, because it seems that you never stop to sleep or anything else, you’ve also been working with United Bible Studies.
AO: My big ongoing work is as a member of United Bible Studies, a fascinating, experimental collective I’ve been involved with since 2008. UBS are passionate about getting recorded material with inspirational artwork released in a constant flow. I’ve already participated in a number of their recordings, ‘The Jonah’, ‘Downland’, also with the lutenist Jozef Van Wissem and there are at least three albums in the pipeline.
One of the co-founders, Dave Colohan throws out some of his other work at me from time to time, for instance under the guise of Agitated Radio Pilot and Raising Holy Sparks. It is an ever-shifting group of people mostly based in Britain and Ireland, producing units who constantly write, tour and record together. I’ve been involved in their most recent mini-tours including the most recent one organized by fellow student, the prolific Michael Tanner.
GM: And coming up next?
AO: In the past few years I have also done a bit of work with Cathedral, including a live appearance with them in Dublin, Dodson & Fogg, Moonroot and Big Dwarf. Happily, they occupy different genres, which is interesting to me.
Looking to the future, I would like to mount another project of songs, but the jury is out on how I’m going to do it. I have to work hard (harder than I should) getting music professionals interested in current output, and attracting airplay is just as tricky. Thank goodness for the likes of Stuart Maconie. I have just completed an album with Adam Bulewski of Firefaywhich is awaiting label status.
A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of over 100 books, including Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” as well as Goldmine’s “Record Album Price Guide 7th Edition , both of which are published via Krause Publications and are available at www.krausebooks.com