Interview: Liam Ó Maonlaí on trad, The Hothouse Flowers and turning 50

Interview: Liam Ó Maonlaí on trad, The Hothouse Flowers and turning 50

SUMMING up Liam Ó Maonlaí isn’t easy. Eclectic is a bit of an understatement for an artist who has embraced musical genres from traditional and blues to rock and roll, and experimented with music, art and dance.

From The Hothouse Flowers to his solo work to his latest project Ré, Ó Maonlaí has pursued whatever musical visions he fancied.

The usually long-haired and often bare-footed performer has been singing and playing music since childhood, a lifetime journey he says he was lucky enough to follow under his own direction.

“My father taught me to sing as I was learning to speak and the first song I learned was Buachaill Ón Éirne. My mum was a piano player so I used to mess around on the piano at home all the time, learning little melodies and tricks from different people.”

He absorbed all kinds of music from babysitters and neighbours, anything from the blues to whistle tunes.

But traditional Irish music, and specifically Sean Ó Riada, was a landmark.

“I started learning tin whistle aged nine. I’d become a fan of Seán Ó Riada through a live tape from the Gaiety theatre… so I’d a lot of those tunes dancing in my head. And suddenly I could get my fingers around those tunes. I particularly liked slow airs like Anach Cuan, the Connemara tragedy song. I don’t know if it’s a song I just found in my memory. I’ve no recollection where I heard it but it was in my head. That was one of the first tunes I could play and it did me a lot of good.”

The young Ó Maonlaí mimicked songs from the radio and remembers the excitement of seeing Thin Lizzy perform Whiskey in the Jar on Top of the Pops.

When he was 13, the punk scene exploded and had a profound effect. “Punk rock kind of destroyed class difference in Dublin. People were making bands together and hanging out together and making clothes out of their dads’ stuff, and mums’ stuff,” he laughs.

“It was very exciting. Any kind of musical ability, the worse you were, the better sometimes with punk. Expectations were wide open and preconceived notions of what was and wasn’t good were destroyed.”  

Ó Maonlaí was into traditional music but also interested in new approaches such as that of English artist Jolyon Jackson’s progressive band with Paddy Glackin. “Paddy supplied the tunes and Jolyon played everything from cello, harmonicas, bodhrans and synthesisers and made this incredible modern, beautiful experiment in Irish music, Hidden Ground. We loved it as teenagers. We were mad into it.”

He was less into piano lessons; studying for piano exams meant less time to work on his own music. Otherwise his musical journey “had a good flow”. 

“The one thing I was blessed with was that I saw traditional music had its own infinite power and integrity. And although I was really interested in the likes of Jolyon Jackson and experimentation, I didn’t need it. I was as awe-inspired to hear somebody late at night in West Kerry singing a song as I would be by anything else, maybe more so, because of the nature of it, the timelessness. I really was very lucky.” 

He recalls hearing whistle player Cormac Breathnach play non-stop on a train journey all the way from Galway to Dublin which again was “as exciting as any concert I’ve ever seen really.”

The Hothouse Flowers — formed with schoolmate Fiachna Ó Braonáin — emerged in the late 1980s, with People reputedly the most successful debut album in Irish history. A video of this fresh band performing Don’t Go at the interval of the 1988 Eurovision Song Contest captivated British and European audiences, and catapulted them into the British charts. It was arguably their Riverdance moment which reaped more success.

But, Ó Maonlaí reveals it wasn’t without its difficulties. 

“It’s a long story and it was a confusing enough time. To me, the coming together of The Hothouse Flowers was a continuation and almost a natural result of my life until then. And the Eurovision time was a little bit tough. It was moving a little too fast and starting to realise that not everybody was out for the beauty of the music.

There were a few bitter pills that I was swallowing at the time. But looking back, I can see the significance of it and I hear from people in Ireland, up in the North and England and worldwide what it meant to get these signals coming from Ireland. And it makes me proud that something like that that just happened naturally, happened at all.”

With numerous solo projects and albums, Ó Maonlaí’s latest venture is his new group Ré.

Featuring Peter O Toole, Eithne Ní Chatháin, Cormac Begley, and Maitiú Ó Casaide, it was born out of Ó Maonlaí’s successful music/dance show Rian (named after his 2005 solo album) which he put together with Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan and which has toured the world, including two visits to London’s Sadler’s Wells. 

“By all intents and purposes, it’s just a traditional band,” Ó Maonlaí says.

“We decided to make a record and called it Ré after a line from one of my songs — Ré means era and also means moon.

We had a bunch of tunes from Rian which took the lead from the Ó Riada legacy. But all the musicians have great repertoires. Cormac is a specialist in East Clare music but he’s from West Kerry so has those feathers.

Mathieu is an all-round collector of music and player as is Eithne. Trad was Peter’s foundation and it’s something he does instinctively and impeccably. That’s the beauty of traditional music I suppose, you just play what you have and what you like at the particular time.

It’s not as precious as song-writing, where you write a new song and you don’t know whether it’s any good… when you’re playing tunes from the tradition, you just know they’re good so you get that bit of uncertainty out of the way,” he laughs. 

In terms of influences, the Ó Riada legacy seems to have been ever-present. Ó Maonlaí agrees. 

 “I’m influenced by loads of people but nothing would have happened without him. Something about the magic that happened on that live Ó Riada concert covered everything I wanted and needed to sense or feel in music. Really I just lived and breathed that record. And it said something to me, something I wanted to do, to have that connection with an audience and feel that atmosphere. Mike Scott calls it ‘Ground Zero’, and that really does put it all into context.”

Mike Scott and The Waterboys were an influence too. “Their album This is the Sea kind of blew my mind. It’s a masterpiece. On our first tour of Ireland, we had This Is The Sea on tape and just could not stop listening to it. It was just somebody who was a wordsmith which I hadn’t paid attention to before, how poetry plays a part in music. And also I could hear a folk influence in his voice and that completely woke a new gene in me creatively.”

There’s other influences in the Ó Maonlaí pot too: gospel, African, and the blues. When asked to pick a favourite genre, he cannot, but eventually concedes it would have to be Irish music. “It’s the foundation.”

Ó Maonlaí’s performances, like his musical legacy, are exploratory and unpredictable. With no set list, expect anything from sean-nós songs, bodhrán and whistle to piano-backed blues, African and rock. What does he think about when performing?

“As little as possible. Once the show is in flow, ideally I’m just feeling it and enjoying the experience of music. But before going on I would be quietening my head. Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m going to do first. I’ll just play the piano and see where my fingers lead. I think no matter where you meander with music, you always come to a song, so I like to go that way.”

Ó Maonlaí heads to Seattle in the US for a residency in a glass foundry this month exploring musical possibilities through glass. Another creative playground, it’s as experimental as it sounds and came about via collaboration with childhood friend and fellow Irish speaker Róisin de Buitléar. 

“They invited me as a musician to come and see what happens. I’ll have the use of a furnace and glass blowers and I can play with any possibilities. Róisin made the instruments and I found a way of making music on them. There’s one which we co-designed. It has a beautiful, low tone but very limited tuning although it could be further developed. So I may follow up on that.”

Meanwhile, he’s brimming with future musical projects.

“I’ve an awful lot of music I want to make and loads of directions I want to go. I might end up getting into production because I don’t know if I can do everything I want. I love the idiom of dance and I love Nile Rodgers. That disco sensibility has amazing possibilities. I love to dance and I love music that inspires dance. So I’d like to give my version of dance really. I also feel an empathy with rhythm. My own sense of rhythm comes from somewhere traditional, greater than myself.”

He recently turned 50. How did he handle the milestone birthday?

“My girlfriend threw a surprise party for me and that did the job really. It did what it was supposed to do which was just make me feel loved.

There’s always things to be thinking about and doing but I’m not a believer in worry. There’s a lot I want to achieve but I don’t feel old. And music keeps me feeling young.”