In a new book called “This Sporting Life” by Robert Collis, he explores the theory that for hundreds of years, the ruling class in the United Kingdom have perpetuated the myth that we live in a free country. One of the most pernicious ways that they have done this is by allowing the lower classes to partake in sporting activities where we think we can do as we please. In this way, our need to rebel is satisfied and this has obviated other forms of protest. Whereas most of us are happy to express our personal freedom by chanting “you don’t know what you’re doing” at a referee, a small minority assume that it’s okay to gate crash Wembley without a ticket, or to boo other countries’ national anthems, or to boo the England team “taking the knee” to show solidarity with the principles of “Black Lives Matter”, or to write disgusting racist abuse on social media.
Nothing excuses racism although it’s instructive to explore some understanding of why it has been football that has been the conduit for all the hatred recently. In my opinion, everybody should constantly be aware of any prejudice that may be lurking deep within them. I’ve written before about whether or not we are all racists. I think that for people of my generation, growing up in a lower middle class area of London where everyone was white, it’s an issue that I need to constantly monitor.
However, a terrible truth has dawned upon me and that is that I realise that I have prejudices about how female singer songwriters should look. I like lots of female singers, e.g. Molly Tuttle, Kirsty Merryn, Taylor Swift, Sarah Jarosz, Courtney Marie Andrews and many others. They all have something in common insofar as they all conform to my expected idea of how a female singer songwriter should look and it’s something I’m ashamed to admit. I realise that I was surprised to find that Michele Stodart, Mama Cass and Rioghnach Connolly have wonderfully sensitive and soulful voices. When I first saw a video of The Breath, I was surprised by Rioghnach Connolly’s appearance. Why should I be surprised? It’s all very well to be disgusted by racists judging people on the colour of their skin but I need to take a good look at myself because I’ve come to realise that I think that the physical appearance of a singer will affect the beauty of their voice and that’s arrant nonsense. I happen to think all eight of these artists have a beautiful appearance and have beautiful voices but I realise that my prejudices mean that the first five mentioned conform to my expectations more than the last three.
“Let The Cards Fall” starts with a 45 second wordless piece called “Ditty” before moving into the sensuous beauty of “All That You Have Been”. A fiddle and percussion introduce the song which is taken at a good pace and the introduction of Rioghnach Connolly’s singing immediately allows us to drown in the magnificence of her voice. The song references Walter Benjamin, the German philosopher who killed himself in 1940. “He knew the Nazis would erase all elements of his people’s existence,” she says. She is from County Armagh and when she sings “Our children bathed in blood will howl for their homes. Their history book may victor written be”, there’s an acknowledgement of the history of the Irish people.
The title track “Let The Cards Fall”, is slower. Rioghnach Connolly sings about Queen Macha, an Ancient Irish legend (of whom Armagh is named after). Stuart McCullum, who is from Manchester, plays beautiful acoustic guitar on this song and the contrast between the understated brilliance of his performance and the in-your-face beauty of Rioghnach Connolly’s voice is breathtaking.
“Let It Calm You Down” is a real highlight in this astonishing album. It was written during a performance at Matt and Phred’s, a music venue in Manchester. While in the middle of another song, Rioghnach Connolly saw that Ellis Davies, a former bandmate in her previous band, Honeyfeet, had walked into the venue. An earlier incident had caused her to become very angry but, seeing her friend, Rioghnach Connolly started composing the words to the song on the spot and the rest of the band joined in as her anger receded and she calmed down. John Ellis plays wonderfully sympathetic piano on the album version of this song. The acoustic version has some incredible guitar playing by Stuart McCullum.
“Trip the Switch” was written in an airless booth in a basement during the recording of the album. Her anger and frustration are not reflected in the gorgeous beauty of the sound. She said “Sometimes we have friends who are arseholes, but when you know the script you enjoy the show,” to which Stuart McCullum replied “but we got the song out of you, didn’t we?”
“Untie Me Now” is probably my favourite song on the album. Everything comes together in this song. The singing, the playing and the overwhelming beauty are irresistible.
“Hide Out” is more of the same. In how many ways can I use the words “beauty”, “overwhelming”, “gorgeous”, “lovely”, “elegant” or “stunning”?
“Will You Wait” makes reference to a lot of Irish history, in particular, mass emigration, the Magdalene Laundries (Catholic institutions which confined “fallen women”) and the mass graves in Galway. The inspiration for the song comes from “keening”, the crying lamentation of professional mourners who led the funeral processions down country roads. Ríoghnach Connolly saus “That tradition of keening doesn’t exist anymore. In fact there’s very little record of it at all.” She wonders whether this whole album is her way of continuing the keening tradition. “I don’t think I’m a good enough keener, or Caoíneamh, in Irish. I’m not fluent. Because I don’t have my home dialect. The dialect of Armagh has been lost, you know.”
The final song, “What You Owe”, is a rant about madness. “I could have gone a lot harder than that, let me tell you,” says Ríoghnach Connolly, referring to the more up tempo and hard hitting sound of the song. She refers to “Predator takers of land and sea” as well as “Exterminators of mind and will“. This is maybe the only song which has no “percussion” but has plenty of “drumming”.
Escaping into the world of The Breath and being captivated by the beauty of Ríoghnach Connolly’s voice over the past week has allowed me to forget about how some people abuse their freedom. It has also caused me to reconsider the old saying about people in glasshouses.