Singing her songs and staying true to herself

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Murray Leith and Jo Laing

THIS month we speak to Elle Marie O’Dwyer (above), a fantastic traditional ballad singer from Cork, about her influences, inspiration and musical career to date.

How would you describe the music that you typically perform and has it changed over the years?
It’s fair to say I come from a strong traditional Irish background. I count myself very lucky to have been taught and influenced by some of the greats of the traditional Irish ballad community. While the old ballads will always have a place in my heart, the music I typically perform nowadays has changed a lot in recent years. Now, I find myself turning to the likes of Maura O’ Connell, Mary Black, Jimmy McCarthy and Johnny McEvoy for songs. I feel very much at home singing these songs and get a great buzz from performing them.

Who inspired you to make music?
There was always music at home. My grandmother was a fantastic singer. She didn’t always sing Irish songs, but she performed in musicals and was no stranger to the stage. My father always had the radio on at home and so growing up I listened to, and was exposed to, a lot of country and Irish music. One of my biggest inspirations to make music was my principal in primary school, Con Herbert. Con, from West Limerick, is a renowned traditional Irish musician here in Ireland. I always count my blessings that he came to be the principal in Freemount—where I went to school—and taught me. We have remained friends over the years and I wouldn’t be the singer I am today without his guidance and advice, along with his criticism! He was the first to mention to me that I should record some songs. And as they say, the rest is history.

Since the release of your first album in 2012, you’ve graced stages all over Ireland and abroad. What has been your favourite venues to perform at and why?
I can’t say that I’ve ever performed in a venue and not enjoyed it. Every venue brings its own character, atmosphere and crowd. Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, the largest traditional music festival in the world took place in Ennis, County Clare in 2016.

I performed with Cherish the Ladies and Maura O’ Connell for the closing concert in the Dome to a crowd of over 2000 people and the electric atmosphere, the reception from the crowd and the buzz of the whole occasion is something I will never forget. It was simply magic. Having said all that, it is hard to beat a small, intimate theatre or venue where you can see your audience and feel the emotion and effects the songs are having on the crowd. It is easier create a more meaningful atmosphere and I feel that suits the type of songs I sing very well.

What’s the best gig you’ve attended?
This is a tough one. I’m a very emotional person, particularly where music is concerned. If I’m not crying at some point in a concert, that’s a sure sign I haven’t really let myself go and enjoyed it! With that in mind, any Seán Keane or Johnny McEvoy concerts can be considered some of the best I’ve attended. I cry like a baby!

If you could turn the clock back is there anything you would change, or do differently?
I’ve learnt a lot over the past few years. In the past, I found myself singing songs that I thought people wanted to hear me sing, rather than singing the songs that I wanted to sing myself. I was very slow to make the transition to these new songs for fear of insulting people, along with the fear of failing at these types of songs. Now, I realise if you are singing songs that aren’t from the heart, the public won’t connect with them. The songs I perform now are entirely different from the songs I sang seven or eight years ago. There is a more contemporary and folk feel to my music and I am very much at home with that.

How do you feel the Internet has impacted the music business?
The Internet has hugely impacted the music business, both positively and negatively. Social media and the Internet are a major tool for promotion and getting the ‘name’ out there. People have access to music at their fingertips and in the current climate—that is priceless. However, I feel the internet has also resulted in the decline in appreciation of the work, effort and cost that goes into making recordings as it is so readily available to people free of charge. I know many other artists feel the same about this and it is an opinion that has been voiced a lot recently as the music industry now finds itself on its knees.

What is your favourite song to perform?
People attend concerts and live music events for entertainment and as a form of escapism. I love to see people enjoy themselves at my gigs, but the greatest buzz I get is when I can sense that the audience have felt and connected with the stories in the songs I sing. Garry McMahon from Kerry has written some fantastic traditional ballads; his best known, a song called The Land of the Gael. A song of emigration, I have failed to find another song that grips an audience in the same way.

What was the best advice you’ve been given?
Seán Keane once mentioned to me: “You can sing anything you like as long as you stay true to yourself.” It has stuck with me since and is something I remind myself of regularly.

2020, hasn’t been the year anyone planned, how have you got through the ‘lockdown’ months?
It has been tough, I won’t lie. I don’t think I realised the impact performing and music has on my mentality and essentially, my life. It has been very strange adapting. I now find myself with so much more free time and while this was a welcome change in the beginning, the novelty has quickly worn off. I turned to social media to perform online live concerts, some on my own Facebook page and others with Murray and Jo on ‘Glasgow Irish Bands and Gigs,’ which have proved very popular and have helped to feel a void for me personally. Online concerts were an unknown territory for me in the beginning. I was apprehensive about doing them but I am so glad I took the plunge.

If you could perform with any artist who would it be and why?
Christie Hennessy. Unfortunately, I know I will never get the chance now. I adore the way he wrote songs and delivered them with such emotion and feeling. He was one of kind. He inspires my own writing and music hugely. It would have been an honour to share a stage with him.

When the world goes back to ‘normal’ what are your plans for the future?
My plan is not to take any opportunities for granted, to push myself more, worry less about the opinion of others and sing the songs I love to sing. If there is any positive to be taken from Covid-19, it’s the perspective it has given us all.

Time is precious and I plan to use it wisely when the world returns to normal.

Tune in to Elle’s next live gig at 8pm on Saturday 24th October on Glasgow Irish Bands and Gigs page: www.facebook.com/GlasgowIrishBandsAndGigs. Check in regularly for gig listings, guides, features, exclusive streams, playlists, news and more

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