Interview with Irish Folk Musician and Producer Damien O’Kane
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Hot off the release of his latest solo album "Avenging & Bright", we sat down with Damien O'Kane to discuss a career in Irish traditional and folk music, working with his wife Kate Rusby and producing Christmas albums...
What inspired you to become a musician?
My mother and father inspired me. I feel so lucky I had parents that loved music and that they wanted to pass that on to my siblings and I. In traditional music we have a huge ‘session’ culture where musicians meet in their local pubs or clubs and they will sit and share repertoire with each other, play music into the night with each other, drink beer and be merry. As a youthful musician, this is where I learned most. Sitting and picking up the melodies by ear in these environments stood me in great stead and was very inspiring too.
What are some of your earliest influences?
I grew up listening to Irish traditional and folk music. Folk revival bands such De Dannan, Planxty, The Dubliners, The Furey’s and singers such as Paul Brady and Andy Irvine. They were all influences but I’d say my earliest were banjo players Gerry O’Connor, Cathal Hayden and David McNevin.
How important is your background and upbringing in Northern Ireland to the music you create? Are these ‘roots’ a continual source of inspiration?
I am an emigrant. I moved to England in 2001 to study and have been here ever since. My home/Irish roots became very important to me and music was a great way of expressing this. Over my last 3 solo records I have chosen a lot of material from the north of Ireland, the Ulster region in particular – where I come from - and I’ve put my own spin on these old songs. As well as growing up with Irish traditional music in the house, I was soaking up all kinds of music. I got into House music, I loved some indie music. I can appreciate the good in most genres of music and my last couple of albums have been very symbolic of my childhood and my eclectic tastes in music. The Telegraph described my last album as ‘Folk-Pop that is Irish music for the 21st Century.’ I really liked this. My roots are very much a continual source of inspiration, you can take the lad out of Ireland but you can’t take Ireland out of the lad!
Having good quality microphones and knowing how to position them is the key. It is often different for different instruments but once you hit that instrument's sweet spots you’ve nailed it.
Both your and Kate’s albums feature many traditional folk instruments. Could you share with us some of your microphone techniques?
Having good quality microphones and knowing how to position them is the key. It is often different for different instruments but once you hit that instruments' sweet spots you’ve nailed it. We have a great room at the studio and often when recording guitar, I’ll just put up 1 condenser and experiment until the guitar is sounding nice and warm and full and off we go. I used to play around with Blumlein and X&Y configurations but never found that they sound better to what I achieve now. More recently I’ve found it useful to setup a couple of mics which blend well, both head on and then have a room mic setup about a couple of feet from the guitar. The 3 mics i go to a lot are our iFet7 Soundelux, our Neumann M149 Tube Condenser and our AKG C12 VR. They are all superb microphones. The AKG C12 is a remarkable mic, the combination of diaphragm and tube create an incredible, real sound. It also works on almost any instrument and vocals! Whilst we are on the subject of AKG mics, I am also using the new AKG C636 and it is as clear as crystal. An upgrade of the legendary C535, which is now discontinued, it lets you bring studio quality vocals to the stage. A very exciting new find.
We have a great selection of mics in our studio now and when you have good mics and like I said before, when you have good quality studio gear it is hard to get it wrong.
How do you go about mic’ing/producing Kate’s incredible vocal? What is the ultimate goal?
Kate is incredibly easy to record. She is a total pro and we have a microphone that we have used for her vocals on almost every album (not telling which mic!). The only album we haven’t used it on over the past 10 years was ‘Angels & Men’ where we used a Neumann KM54 Vintage Tube which we’d never have thought of using for vocals but it worked amazingly. Kate’s voice is naturally breathy and beautiful and it is paramount that I achieve every nuance of her voice on the recordings.
On Kate’s last studio album “Life in a Paper Boat’ you introduced synths and drum programming. How did this come about?
The bass player in Kate’s band, Duncan Lyall, is also a very talented piano and synth player, among many other talents. He is the proud owner of a Moog Sub Phatty Analogue Synth, and having heard him play it on other music, I asked if he’d be up for bringing it along to the recording sessions for this record. I was moving in a different direction with this recording production wise and I could hear the new textures and sounds Duncan could bring to the table. For me it was one of the defining sounds of ‘Life In A Paper Boat’ and one that makes it stand out from the rest.
With the drums and programming, I have been working with a guy called Josh Clark from Bath. He runs his own business called Get Real Audio, based in Bath, were he is jack of all trades and master of all – studio engineer, mixing engineer and mastering engineer – and he also happens to be a great drummer and creator of drum loops and programming. Having worked with him closely on my 2015 album, ‘Areas of High Traffic’ I love his creativity and work ethic. Percussion and especially drum programming are areas we have exploited very sparingly with Kate’s music. So again, used in a tasteful manner, it is another layer of sound which I envisaged would create something new. Kate was very open-minded about the production of this album and gave me a lot of the decisions so I was like a kid in a sweety shop ;-)
What was it like to re-record such well-loved material for the ’20 album? Did you feel any pressure? What was your ultimate vision for the record?
Re-recording some of the material was, admittedly, very daunting. Especially some of her better known songs such as Courted A Sailor and Awkward Annie. Recording any album with someone with a following like Kate brings with it a certain amount of pressure but then it is all about how you manage that pressure. The vision for this album was to re-record different versions of the songs with some of Kate’s musical friends and indeed fans from over the span of her successful 20 year career at the time. It was about giving the songs a different setting with some exciting people to add their musical and vocal magic to Kate’s own repertoire.
How does producing a ‘Christmas’ album differ from any other project you have worked on? In terms of instrumentation, tonality and mood?
Christmas is, for most, a happy, jovial time of the year. Producing the Christmas albums is essentially about breathing new life into the Sheffield/Yorkshire carols that Kate chooses to sing. Over the last couple of albums we have included a couple of Christmas staples such as Let It Snow and Winter Wonderland but with our own interpretation. Instrumentation wise, it is not much different for the core band. The real difference is the inclusion of the wonderful Brass Quintet who record on the Christmas albums and also come on the tour with us in December. It is really interesting combining the new direction I have taken with the production and the brass. They are such a powerful force on their own and adding the layers of the core band as well as some sleigh bells (of course!) makes for an exciting and Christmassy sound. Approaching the songs is different as they are carols and they already have their own tunes. Some of the carols suit being really minimalist arrangement wise and others lend themselves to huge, elaborate soundscapes. It is a wonderful experience making these records.
Despite what many people may think, recording is difficult sometimes. You can have great days and bad days like anyone else in their chosen job. Have a vision and although that may shift throughout the process, work with everyone closely to achieve that. Don’t be an ass!!
Would you be willing to share any difficult lessons you have learned as a producer?
I am always learning how to be a better Producer but what I have learned up to now stands me in good stead. From deciding what musicians you want to use for a record, what instrumentation you want, it is a continuous learning process.
It is important to be nice. Work with an engineer, if you can, that you can have a good discussion with but one that will not end up with a fall out! Understand your role(s) in the studio. A producer should look after the musicians, give them encouragement and guide them – let them know what you require from them. Despite what many people may think, recording is difficult sometimes. You can have great days and bad days like anyone else in their chosen job. Have a vision and although that may shift throughout the process, work with everyone closely to achieve that. Don’t be an ass!!
How important is it for you that the sounds you work so tirelessly to create in the studio are translated live? Do you find it difficult?
This is something that has also been a learning process but also somewhere we are at now. Both in Kate’s band and in my own solo project, this is something I’ve learned to achieve. It helps having very talented band members around you in achieving this too! Somebody once said to me and the boys at a gig of mine, ‘Jeez yees have more pedals than the Tour de France!’
In 2016, your album 'Areas Of High Traffic' was nominated for BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for 'Best Album'. How did this feel? It must be very satisfying to receive that sort of recognition?
It was hugely satisfying. Ultimately as a professional musician/singer we love recognition and it helps boost your profile. I remember watching Morrissey on the Jonathan Ross show once and he said to Ross ‘when I’m on stage I’m not performing, I’m being myself’! What a load of rubbish! If you are on a stage you are performing and in performing we like people to like what we do. It of course is not always the case but getting recognition from BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards was definitely my best musical achievement to date. I am very proud of that album and I feel that is crossed boundaries that hadn’t been crossed before.
Your third solo album was released at the end of 2017, what can fans expect?
I have carried on the progressive cudgel on this record. In my opinion in a slightly more subtle way than with Areas Of High Traffic but I think this record sounds even more contemporary that the previous. Again, it is and always will be rooted in Irish traditional song and music but coloured by my eclectic musical tastes. Here’s is quote from the album which just about sums it up I think: Released on the Pure Records label on December 8, Avenging & Bright gets right under the skin of traditional Irish and English folk seducing it into the realms of rock, jazz and world music – never predictable, always an exciting and uplifting voyage of discovery delivered by one of the most fearless and clever conjurors of modern folk music.
How do you manage your work/life balance when you are in a band with your wife and you have two children? It must be very difficult, particularly on the road?
It is very difficult and takes precision planning, and Kate is admittedly the organised one here. Kate has an incredible family that not only take care of her career and run the Record Label (Pure Records) but have always supported her with childcare. It is a team effort. One can’t work without the other!
If you could work with anybody who would it be?
Chris Martin from Coldplay. He’s incredibly talented, makes music I really like and always seems very humble.
Do you have a record or song that you are most proud of?
Track 2 on Avenging & Bright, my latest record. It is a song called Poor Stranger, features the vocals of one of my favourite female vocalists Pauline Scanlon and is probably the boldest I have been with the production. It is a simple, old Irish song and I’ve given it a pretty elaborate setting. The real purists don’t like what I’ve done on the past couple of my records but I don’t really care. There are no rules and I feel I am being true to myself and the Irish tradition I come from.
In terms of the current music scene, who are you a fan of?
As aforementioned, I am a big Coldplay fan. I am a huge Stone Roses fan. I love Irish traditional music, anything from straight trad to the more progressive sounds coming out of Irish traditional music at the minute. Bands like Ímar, Beoga and far too many to mention.
What are your plans for the rest of 2018 and beyond?
I am releasing an Instrumental album in July this year. It is a collaborative banjo record with Ron Block who plays bluegrass banjo and guitar with Nashville Bluegrass and Country legend Alison Krauss. It is a crossover album where Bluegrass meets the Irish tradition and I am very excited with the record.
There will also be my own tours, touring with Kate Rusby, and a lot of projects going on in the studio with Kate. I am also producing an exciting upcoming record for a duo. Two fantastic musicians and singers from the English folk scene, both stars in their own right and one of whom is making a very welcome comeback to the scene. More news on this to follow but very exciting indeed!
Massive thank you to Damien for taking the time to speak to us. You can follow Damien O'Kane @DeeOKaneBanjO. The new album 'Avenging & Bright' is out now via Pure Records.