BELL, BOOK, and Candle, Paul Deacy’s swinging-est hipster book and music emporium, was the venue recently for the launch of Songs From The Swilly Delta, the fine new album from Little John Nee and the Caledonia Highly Strung Orchestra.
For an artist who has enjoyed such a long career, creating excellent musical theatre shows, remarkably, this is Little John’s debut album.
“I’ve always played in bands and wanted to release an album since I was a young fella but it just never happened,” he tells me as he recounts how the recording came about. “I was writing songs all the time and they were an integral part of my shows. A few years ago, I had a residency in Letterkenny’s An Grianan Theatre and they published a book in association with Donegal County Council, titled The Donegal Trilogy, comprising three of my plays.
“It was suggested at the time it would have been good to have a CD to go with the book so that people could hear the songs. It’s something we’ve talked about for ages. Then the Arts Office in Donegal said they’d put in some initial funding toward recording an album of songs from my theatre shows. Around that time I wrote and devised a show with musicians from Donegal which is how the Caledonia Highly Strung Orchestra came about.
“I’d already done some demos and preparation work with producer Tommy McLoughlin of Villagers who has a fantastic studio in Donegal called Attica. We then did a Fundit campaign to raise the rest of the finances and that’s how we managed to make the album.”
From romantic yearning to the Irish travelogue
Songs From The Swilly Delta comprises 12 tracks that run the gamut from heartfelt romantic yearning, to the rural Irish travelogue ‘Dead Rooster’ (a bit like an Irish take on Johnny Cash’s ‘I’ve Been Everywhere ) and even a song about famous physicist Erwin Schrodinger, with flashes of trademark LJ humour running through the collection. I ask John if it was a challenge to relocate the songs from their original theatrical contexts to this album setting.
“Very much so,” he admits. “The context does change. Songs like ‘Full Tank of Petrol’ for example are written in character; it has the lines ‘I can walk into any bar/say ‘that’s my woman and that’s my car’ so it’s chauvinistic lads’ talk. So there was a sense of it being out of the original context. We wanted to make them work as a listening experience and to stand alone in terms of the musical arrangements - the musical context is important as well in terms of how the songs sit in a musical flow through the album.
“Also, you had the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy in the stage shows whereas now the songs are on their own. When you use the band you end up going for more musical stuff rather than comic stuff but there is comic material there too.
“There were nice songs there I wanted to do, like ‘Lorain’. There were also songs that, because in theatre you can’t break for a five minute song because it upsets the dramatic flow, sometimes they would be abbreviated which might be too short on an album, so there are a couple of songs that have new verses added to them.”
The album attests to Nee’s impressive longevity with the earliest track dating back to the 1970s. “The songs cover a span of over 30 years,” he reveals. “I wrote ‘Aranmore’, the first track on the album, in a squat in London in 1979, it would have been part of my live set when I did alternative cabaret in the early 1980s.”
‘I’m grateful to have worked with them all’
For the past three years, Little John has been performing with the Caledonia Highly Strung Orchestra. He describes their contribution to the album and his work:
“Because we had worked together on a theatre project before the album we had a very good relationship and they play with each other all the time in different formations. Jeremy Howard is classically trained and he also has an MA in composition for film so he has that cinematic style of playing and he can really pare back and be very minimal which I love about his playing. He can play virtuoso stuff if he wants to but he chooses to play sparsely and it’s lovely.
“Orlaith Gilchreest is also classically trained and is an incredible musician and her voice is stunning. I wanted her voice to feature prominently on the album because it is so beautiful.
“Finn Robinson is really talented as well and is like another musical director. I’ve been so fortunate over the years, I’ve been working with top musicians who are very generous in they way they have shared their knowledge with me, people like Fergal Gallagher, Kevin Duffy, people from Macnas, Laura Sheeran. I have learned a lot from them and I’m grateful to have worked with them all.
“We work really well as a band. When we rehearse our greatest problem is never coming up with new material, when we were rehearsing for the album launch we kept writing new songs.”
The album came together very quickly.
“Because I live in Galway and they are in Donegal we don’t get together that often,” John notes. “We did about 10 days’ rehearsal this year and four gigs. We only did four days’ rehearsal before going into record the album and we recorded it in three days. We had a very small budget but we were fortunate in that Tommy was such a good producer, and a friend, and he put a lot of work into it. He has a really good ear so he knew how to set up the microphones, he set them in the middle of the studio and we all stood around facing each other so the album is recorded live. There are only a couple of overdubs on it.”
What about that Schrodinger song I enquire? “‘Schrodinger Scat’ came from a radio play, Wee Black Bees, that I was commissioned to write for RTE,” John replies. “It was broadcast as part of their science season and I was inspired by Schrodinger. I wanted to do a radio play with the Highly Strung Orchestra in it and the producer was open to the idea so that’s how it came about. Orla, who shares the vocals, played this intellectual character in it called Norma Egstrom and sings that song.”
John wraps up with a few more acknowledgements and details of where the album can be purchased.
“The photography was by Paul McGuckian and the sleeve design by Laura Sheeran. She had played on the original versions of ‘Belle of Tyrconnel’ and ‘Queen Bee’ so it was nice to have her involved on this. We also set up our own label, Oldtone Records, to release it. At the moment people can buy the album for digital download from Bandcamp, and CDs and vinyl copies are available from Bell, Book and Candle. I’ll be sorting out more distribution details before Christmas so it will be available in other outlets. An Italian record label also wants to distribute it in Europe and we have a gig coming up in Naples in the New Year.”