A Q & A with Norah Rendell

  • May 02, 2015
  • Linda Fahey
  • Q & A
by Gideon Thomas for FolkAlley.com

Norah Rendell Spinning Years 200.jpg
Norah Rendell is the Canadian singer behind the beautiful new album, 'Spinning Yarns.' Blending a range of influences and inputs over twelve tracks, drawn from some interesting sources. Showcasing the power of both song and community, the album shows off the strength of Norah's singing, and the conviction she puts into her music. It also speaks of the immigrant experience, as many of the pieces have their roots in the British Isles and Ireland. We spoke to Norah about the album, her singing roots and the songs she has encountered that make up 'Spinning Yarns.'

Gideon Thomas: Norah, thank you for taking the time to talk to Folk Alley. I wanted to start off by asking about your own background, how you came to singing, and how you'd describe your personal singing practice.

Norah Rendell: Thanks for featuring the album on Folk Alley - it's great to chat with you. I came to singing through the Irish session scene in my home town of Vancouver, British Columbia, but I have always loved singing - in the car, in the shower, anywhere really. I was trained as a recorder player, and pursuing a career in early music performance when I discovered my passion for singing, in particular traditional songs. I sing all sorts of folk songs, but these days I'm mostly singing Irish songs with Canadian and American connections.

The new album is full of wonderful versions of some well-known, and lesser-known songs. Tell us about the research you undertook for the record - what started you off on the journey, and what were some of the sources you used?

I've been thumbing through books of Canadian folk songs for years seeking out rare versions. For this album, I turned to field recordings for raw material, more than I ever have before. The key source that inspired this recording was Angelo Dornan, an incredibly skilled singer with a gorgeous repertoire from Elgin, New Brunswick. About five years back, my husband Brian shared a collection of Dornan's field recordings with me. He had received them from Catherine Crowe, a singer and artist from Ontario. I was blown away by the songs themselves, and by Dornan's compelling delivery, much of which was characterized by an unmistakable Irish style.

Having recently spent two years studying music in Ireland (and missing Canada), these recordings provided a way for me to connect my passion for Irish trad with my own heritage. Looking back now, hearing Dornan's singing was a bit of an ah-ha moment.

Other sources were field recordings from MacEdward Leach and the Atlantic Songs of Canada and collections from Helen Creighton. My husband, Brian Miller, is the real researcher in the family and he has impeccable taste in songs. He led me toward some of the best singers in the MacEdward Leach collection, like Cyril O'Brien (St. Patrick's Day) and the Molloys (Forty Fishermen).

And the specifically Canadian versions talk of related ideas like immigration, community and continuity. Why did you want to pick up on these areas?

I suppose most of the songs are about unrequited love, betrayal, accidents, death and vengeance - all the good stuff! Communities across the globe have to find ways of dealing with these big issues all the time. I am intrigued by the timelessness of the old songs. Another connection to community is that these songs would have usually been shared in communal settings such as house parties or musical gatherings. They are far from Kumbaya campfire sing-a-longs, but their existence is proof that people have been singing for a long time, to pass the time or to document/process important (often emotional) events.

There's focus on music in the community, and music in many different communities - is this an important consideration for you?

I was drawn to traditional Irish music in my early twenties first and foremost because I loved the music itself, but there was much more to it than that - I loved the humility of the musicians I met, the parties, the constant searching for renewed material, the comradery. It was fun, and casual. Irish music instantly became a part of my everyday life. I had tunes and songs dancing around in my ears all day and night and I never felt alone. That sounds silly, but it is true.

Music, especially folk music, has the power to bring people together. I think that is an amazing thing, really. These days, I'm spending a lot of my time running an Irish music school in Saint Paul, Minnesota called the Center for Irish Music. I'm passionate about keeping the tradition alive, and I guess I'm walking the walk - teaching young kids the skill and joy of playing music while continuing to be a performing musician myself.

You've selected quite a band for the recording of 'Spinning Yarns', so give them a shout out.

Oh, I could go on and on...The accompanists on 'Spinning Yarns' are some of the best at accompanying trad Irish song in North America. Brian Miller (Bua) and Randy Gosa are my guitar-bouzouki dream-team. They both have drive, an ineffable drive in their playing, whether they are picking out a sensitive, unmeasured song, or accompanying "The Pinery Boy," a song from the album with a Wisconsin connection and a more Americana feel. I think rhythmic nuance differentiates a good arrangement of a traditional song from a "just ok" one, and that their genius is in their approach to rhythm and groove. Brian and Randy share a musical brain after working together for years on material with a similar theme to 'Spinning Yarns.' I am honoured to have them as the core collaborators on this album.

My old band mate from the Outside Track, Ailie Robertson, is an intuitive innovator on the harp and she loves songs. Back when we were touring together, she knew all the lyrics to my songs. I'm a hug fan of the harp, and I'm thrilled that she was able to make the trip to Minnesota to record the album. Dáithí Sproule, a good friend, and Altan's guitarist, is among the best. We have been working on other material together - maybe one day we'll I'll be lucky enough to do an album with him!

Tell us about your work with The Outside Track - are you recording or playing with them at present?

I left the Outside Track late in 2013 to launch a solo career and to be based closer to home. I have a two year-old son now and although I miss the European touring (ham, cheese, baguettes anyone?), I am perfectly content to be sleeping in the same bed most nights. My little sweetie is in a separate room across the hallway and I can eat whatever I want for breakfast!

I miss playing with the Outside Track. They are fantastic musicians and dear friends. They are releasing an album very soon, the first since I was in the band, and they're sound has made the transition seamlessly - your readers should check it out.

Finally, you've made reference to the special nature, and the 'truth' of traditional song. Why is singing and recording these songs so special and important for you?

Honestly, I have no idea - Maybe I was a traditional singer in a past life. My conscious mind finds traditional songs rather esoteric, but my heart and my musical brain loves them and won't allow me to stay away from them for long. I have talked to other traditional singers that have that same experience. There is both timelessness and a selflessness in a good traditional song. These days, I think those are two concepts that we could all spend more time reflecting upon. I have always been drawn to older things, reused items, colorful characters. There is wisdom to be gained from being attentive to the stories that such things carry along with. I love the idea that I am singing a song that some unknown person wrote, that others were moved to learn and adapt to their own lives, and that I enjoy in 2015. And then, there are those incredible Irish melodies, with melodic intricacies that may be unrivalled....

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Norah Rendell's 'Spinning Yarns' is out now on Two Tap Music and is available HERE.

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