February 25, 2020
Solas co-founder Seamus Egan launches ‘Early Bright,’ his first solo album after a 20-year hiatus
Seamus Egan, who has lived in Mayo as well as metropolitan Philadelphia and its suburbs – is in the midst of his third winter as a resident of Vermont, at the western edge of the Green Mountains, and all things considered, it has been going pretty well. “The first two winters were kind of shocking,” he says, with a laugh. “But this one’s not so bad. Mostly rain so far.” [As of mid-January, anyway.]
But truthfully, Egan hasn’t much minded the weather. Moving to Vermont was all part of a general life-overhaul after Solas, the groundbreaking Irish-American band Egan co-founded, decided to go on hiatus in 2017. Since then, he has embarked on a new collaboration that has resulted in his first solo album in more than two decades, “Early Bright,” which has just been released and was formally launched at the Celtic Connections festival in Scotland last month.
Egan will be in eastern Massachusetts to offer a taste of this latest creation, when he appears Feb. 28 at the Spire Center for the Performing Arts in Plymouth [spirecenter.org], along with Owen Marshall and Kyle Sanna, both of whom he worked with on “Early Bright.”
The 10 tracks on “Early Bright” all contain original instrumentals, and bear Egan’s familiar imprint, notably his superlative command of mandolin, tenor banjo, whistle, and nylon-string guitar (with a touch of keyboard and percussion as well). There are familiar rhythms and time signatures, too, that harken back to those propulsive, exquisitely arranged sets with Winifred Horan, Mick McAuley, Eamon McElholm, John Doyle, and all others under the Solas banner. But Egan goes beyond the Irish/Celtic domain to tap different musical influences: classical, Americana, progressive folk, and others for which labels and categories seem insufficient.
Most of all, “Early Bright” has the feel of someone who, however much he values the life he had for the better part of two decades, is quite happy with the life he’s leading now.
Still, the obvious question presents itself: How much does he miss Solas?
“After having something like that front and center in your life for 20-odd years, it definitely takes an adjustment,” he muses. “I absolutely miss a lot of what Solas was all about. There was no acrimony or anything that led to the band taking time off. I hope it reconvenes, and I look forward to that possibility.
“When you make music in a particular context, though, you’re very much guided by the needs of that time and place. The writing and arrangements I worked on, I always thought in terms of the band. But I came to realize it didn’t have to be that way, that I could free myself of that mindset and approach music with the idea that ‘This can be anything it wants to be.’ So I found myself with a lot of open space.”
This is not unusual territory for Egan, as anyone familiar with the 1995 film “The Brothers McMullen” knows – Egan wrote its soundtrack, a mix of traditional tune sets with original instrumentals. The following year, he released his first solo album, “When Juniper Sleeps,” which featured six of his compositions (the title track also appeared in “Brothers McMullen”). That was a pretty long time ago, and one might get the idea that Egan was building up a massive inventory of tune ideas in his head, waiting to unleash them.
Well, yes and no: While a couple of the compositions on “Early Bright” go back aways in terms of origin, he says, most took shape over these past few years since he relocated to Vermont. But the metaphorical soil in which these tunes grew has been nourished and enriched far longer, and from many sources.
“Honestly, a lot of it is happenstance and being open to what’s going on around you,” explains Egan, who was an All-Ireland champion on four different instruments by the time he was 14. “I’ve always been intrigued by the possibilities of what can be brought to Irish music, how things can fit together. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of opportunities born of playing Irish music that have expanded to include other kinds of music, in other arenas. You get out of your comfort zone, perhaps, and then you take that experience back home with you.”
At a glance, some of the album’s track titles bespeak a rural setting like the one in which Egan lives now: “Early Bright,” “Simon Nally Hunt the Buck,” “Two Little Ducks,” “Under the Chestnut Street.” And there’s a similarly pastoral quality to some of the tunes: The solo keyboard on “Early Bright,” for example, might summon up an image of the morning sun appearing through passing clouds; “Welcome to Orwell,” which builds on a nifty nylon guitar-rhythm guitar duet between Egan and Sanna, could easily suggest a leisurely passage along a country road; “Simon Nally” – Marshall’s bouzouki interlacing with Egan’s mandolin – can perhaps put your mind’s eye in a blooming meadow. (Other musicians on the album include Egan’s Solas colleague Moira Smiley on accordion and Joe Phillips on double bass.)
But while many an artist is influenced by his or her environment, inspiration is not always so straightforward, says Egan.
“There’s nothing pre-ordained about what I do – not like I look out a window and think, ‘Oh, I’ll write a tune about that cloud in the sky,’ or I decide I’ll compose something about that trip I took the other day,” says Egan. “What ends up happening is that I find myself tapping into something I’m feeling or experiencing, or I’m simply noodling around on banjo or mandolin, and I just follow it to where it leads. And what with smartphone technology, we’ve practically got a mini-recording studio in our pockets, so I can quickly and easily preserve those moments and work with them.”
Egan points to “Two Little Ducks,” his sumptuously ornate mandolin lead accompanied at close quarters by Sanna’s guitar and Marshall’s bouzouki, as a good example of how time and memory can incite a brainstorm. When he was in his teens, Egan began playing with Mick Moloney – an outstanding fretted-string musician himself – and would often sample Moloney’s large, varied record collection, which included baroque mandolin.
“So ‘Two Little Ducks’ is a tangible manifestation of that experience – the process of listening to something different and getting inspired, attempting to learn from it – seeping into my blood. I’m never sure where that sort of experience might pop out again; I kind of wonder what else is hiding back there.”
“Welcome to Orwell,” meanwhile, actually owes its original inspiration to listening to Argentine singer-songwriter Juana Rosario Molina, according to Egan, who for a while carried around a sound file labeled “Molina” on his smartphone to preserve the idea. The tune is a particularly apt showcase for Egan’s innovative use of nylon-string guitar, which goes back quite some years ago. As he explains, he was loaned an instrument that resembled a tenor guitar only with double strings. He tuned it like the tenor banjo but, because of its resonance, he used it for slower pieces and began experimenting with finger-picking.
“After a while I had to return it to its owner, but I had fallen in love with the sound and the possibilities it afforded me. So, that got me thinking about what was out there that was similar but might have an even richer sound. That search brought me to the nylon guitar. It’s hard to say who or what influenced my playing on it: Steve Cooney used a nylon-string guitar but in a different way than I was thinking about. I think I really approached it like a banjo – but a banjo that had two extra strings.”
Egan’s tenure as music director for the annual “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” production wound up bringing another important component to “Early Bright.” Late in 2018, as the album project had begun to coalesce, one tune he’d been tinkering with kept sticking in his mind. What, he wondered, would it sound like with a string quartet – and where could he find a string quartet?
As it turned out, he had to look no farther than the “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” line-up for that year, which included The Fretless, a Canadian quartet that has championed the “chambergrass” folk-string ensemble sound. And serendipitously enough, Maeve Gilchrist, the “Sojourn” assistant music director, was a masterful arranger. Egan worked with The Fretless and Gilchrist, then organized a recording session for the quartet in the Cutler Majestic Theatre, where “Sojourn” was being staged. Their contribution can be heard on “Under the Chestnut Tree” as well as “Simon Nally.”
“Far and away, the most elaborate recording studio I’ve ever been in,” laughs Egan. “But it was so lovely to be in that space, in the morning before we all had to get ready for the next show. You make the best of circumstances, especially when you’ve got A-level accommodations.”
Being part of “Sojourn” – first as performer, along with Solas, and then also as music director – has been a revelation, Egan notes. “You get to know, and work with, a ton of great musicians –sometimes people you might not ordinarily cross paths with. And together, you’re trying to make something that’s equally dependent on creativity and logistics. That’s the sort of experience which sharpens your skills in a lot of different ways; it’s kind of like being a producer in a recording studio. I feel I’ve learned quite a lot.”
It’s much the same spirit which has brought Egan to Vermont.
“I just embraced the season of change. I found myself in a moment to try something new, maybe take some chances, but feeling that it was worth doing. Push the boat out and see where it ends up.”
For more on Seamus Egan and “Early Bright,” go to seamuseganproject.com.