In 2006 Zoë Conway launched her second solo album, 'The Horse's Tail'. This album was quiet a change from her debut album as it was recorded as naturally as possible, without using modern-day techniques such as overdubbing and click tracks. The musicians all played live in the one room at the same time, and the result is an organic sound, which harks back to old LP recordings and captures the raw energy of Irish traditional music. The album contains a mixture of Zoë's original compositions alongside older traditional tunes. Zoë is joined on the album by renowned guitarist, Steve Cooney and percussionist, Robbie Harris.
Irish fiddle player, Zoë Conway, is a prodigious talent, equally at home in both traditional and classical styles. She is a holder of the prestigious All-Ireland Senior Fiddle Champion Title, and was recently voted "Best Traditional Female of the Year" in Irish Music Magazine. Zoë has toured worldwide, playing as guest soloist with renowned orchestras including The Irish Chamber Orchestra, The Ulster Orchestra, The RTE Concert Orchestra, and The National Symphony Orchestra of Galicia in Spain. She has performed in some of the most prestigious concert halls in the world such as The National Concert Hall, Dublin, The Kremlin, Russia, The Kennedy Centre, Washington and Carnegie Hall, New York. Zoë has also performed with international acts, Damien Rice, Rodrigo y Gabriella and as a Riverdance soloist. She has recently performed alongside Nick Cave, Lou Reed, Jarvis Cocker, Gavin Friday and Beth Orton among others, at the Point Theatre on the 4th and 5th of October 2006 for the Leonard Cohen Concert - "Came So Far For Beauty".
"Conway is at her best when she lets the fiddle do the
talking. Wild Strawberry Hill/The Horse's Tail, both Conway originals,
span the breadth of her playing, blossoming from the mournful opener
to the spangly title tune, revelling in its technical wizardry but
never sinking beneath it."
Siobhan Long - The Irish Times
Hotpress Oct 2006 - Sarah McQuaid
The Horse's Tail
With her second CD The Horse's Tail, wunderkind fiddler Zoë
Conway has opted for a radical change from her Bill Whelan-produced
2002 eponymous debut. The new album was recorded live over three
days in a barn in Omeath, County Louth, with - as Conway notes in
her liner notes - "no overdubs, no headphones, no click tracks
and no safety nets!" The result is a stunning sustained performance,
full of life and carrying a powerfully immediate impact.
Guitarist Steve Cooney and bodhrán player Robbie Harris provide fine accompaniment, but perhaps the most impressive tracks are those on which Conway plays solo. The title track is a case in point, full of verve and swagger, and it's reprised at the end of the album as a "bonus track" recorded live at the Willie Clancy Summer School in 2006. Along with a number of other tunes on the CD, it's a Conway original; other standouts in this category include the driving 'Dannan's Reel', written for her "wee scamp of a nephew", and an evocative Scottish-influenced number called 'The White Deer' - Conway suspects that it would sound great on the Highland pipes and I suspect that she's right.
On two Charlie Lennon compositions, 'The Smiling Bride' and 'The Handsome Young Maidens', Conway is joined by her sister and fellow fiddler, Lisa, for a splendid unaccompanied duet, with Lisa playing a nifty harmony on the second tune.
In addition to being a virtuoso on the fiddle, Conway also has a sweet, childlike singing voice that she uses to good effect on 'A Ghaoth Andeas' and 'Westlin Winds'. The vocals don't quiet measure up to the instrumentals, but that's only in light of the outstanding quality of the latter.
Irish Music Magazine
Zoë Conway Live
Holy Trinity Centre, Carlingford, Co. Louth
June 24th 2006
Her latest live project is a coming of age for Riverdance starlet,
Zoë Conway. It's a setting like no other. The beautiful hilltop
location of the Holy Trinity Heritage Centre is set in prominence
overlooking medieval Carlingford in County Louth. And tonight the
former blessed site is host to a musical spectacular befitting the
Viking kings of old that once brushed its walls and peripheries.
In the welcome summer air of an Irish June evening, another County
Louth attraction is preparing to unleash her amazing talent on the
expectant gathering of family, friends and fans. And once the chardonnay
has been served and the lights have been dimmed, the star attraction
is welcomed on stage by a delighted audience. Zoë Conway, Riverdance's
fiddle playing extraordinaire, emerges to rousing applause.
Her endearing smile does little to hide her anticipation and excitement of the occasion. And it's evident too that the Dundalk lass is comfortable in these surroundings. Well, why shouldn't she be? Both musically and geographically, this is her turf. And having tasted success in 2002 with her self-titled debut album, she's now preparing for her second outing, a live DVD featuring songs and tunes both self-penned and borrowed. Tonight, in the splendour of the restored Norman church, she's filling the aisles with a repertoire of music and movement that's sure to please both the eye and ear of any traditional music aficionado. And what's to be expected once the DVD hits the shelves? Well, for a start, how about the contribution of two of Ireland's best musicians for accompaniment in the shape of John McIntyre on guitar and Robbie Harris on bodhran.
It proved to be the perfect pairing on the night as they skilfully crafted a musical mould giving Zoë the freedom to make her mark. And boy did she make the most of it. The first set of tunes, The Shetland Fiddler and Round the House and Mind The Dresser was a gently introduction that caressed the audience into relaxed mode with Miss Conway making it look very easy. She continued with a variety of impeccably engaging sets without ever looking uncomfortable under the prying lenses of the cameras and the army of microphones that surrounded the stage. Fair play indeed. Anyone who's ever recorded live will know it's not an easy task to relax and enjoy the proceedings when there's a congregation of technicians recording every heartbeat and eye movement. But the award winning artist handled the showcase with class, style and a modesty that will surely win many hearts in the years to come. And it didn't seem a crack before we hit the interlude.
The first set had finished and the punters were delighted that they had already got their moneys worth in both tune and song. The mean fiddler had also graced us with her angelic tones through a few well chosen airs worthy of evoking tears from the least sentimental of men. On return to our seats we were treated to some fine tunes such as the self-penned White Deer, a splendid piece that was, as Zoë informed us, inspired by two Mexicans, and injured hand and a countryside ramble. Sorry folks, you'll have to wait for the DVD for an explanation on that one! And on it went, set after set of pure genius from the three figures that cut the stage. The All-Ireland medal winner, as if to remind us that she is in fact mistress of many styles, launched into a hypnotic adaptation of the classical piece Danse Espagnole. With McIntyre's driving flamenco chords setting the backdrop, Zoë attacked her instrument with lightning strikes. It was, without any form of doubt, a masterclass in musicianship. Every note, precise. Every stroke, with absolute conviction. Bravo. And so as not to be outdone, percussion master Robbie Harris followed on the heels with a bodhran solo which is best described as frightening. While he enthusiastically beat the skin you could hear every goat in Carlingford applying for a passport.
With the audience in awe, and the sun fading through the giant stained-glass window backdrop, the evening was coming to a close. But not before the cheers of "Encore" enticed the star attraction back to the stage. The enticing Wild Strawberry Hill and uplifting exodus, The Horse's Tail, both her own compositions, proved to be the sugar on the icing on the cake. We had come expectant and we left bedazzled. And I'm sure that in years to come, when Zoë is counting her discography on more than two hands, she'll always remember the night in the hilltop location where she broke her performance mould.
The live DVD, as yet untitled, is sure to be a seller when it appears on the shelves in October. And is she busy between now and then? I'll say. Riverdance in Dublin, workshops in Cambridge and live dates in Germany. Oh, and by the way, there's the small matter of attending a wedding in September. Hers of course. I wonder who'll be playing second fiddle then?
- October 20 2006
Stripped Down Strings
For her second album, Zoë Conway has gone for a trad sound that's both raw and cooked. Siobhan Long talks to the fiddler about her decision to let it all hang out - musically speaking.
Musical minimalism: it's what Laurie Anderson trades best in. So
do Philip Glass and Steve Reich - and Tommy Peoples. Lately, Zoë
Conway has been busy stripping her music back to the bone, too.
Having basked in the advantages of unlimited studio time for her
solo debut in 2004 (under the watchful ear of Bill Whelan), Zoë
has opted for a rawer sound second time around, on The Horse's Tail.
"My favourite traditional album is Tommy Peoples The Iron Man," Conway says of the Donegal fiddler renowned for his fluid, bare-boned playing. "I love albums that have been recorded in a really short time, some only in a day, that capture the feeling that the musicians had at a particular time. There might have been a few mistakes and a bit of roughness here and there, but to me, they sound great."
Denuding the music of its scaffolding is a task for the brave-hearted - and the musician who has nothing to hide and everything to play for. Conway has lost no time in carving a career for herself that embraces everything from Riverdance to last week's spellbinding Came So Far For Beauty concerts, where she shared a stage with Jarvis Cocker, Lou Reed, Beth Orton and Antony.
Conway belongs to a small cadre of musicians who have taken the best from both their classical training and traditional background. Maybe that's because she has never been one to shut a door on her musical identity. Why should she, when she can mine such rich seams in both, and sometimes meld them to stunning effect, as she does on the title track of her new CD, replete with spicatos and pizzicatos - which, to the non-fiddler, are the musical equivalent of a trapeze artist working without a trampoline?
"First of all", she says, "I knew that all the musicians I'd asked to play on this CD were more than capable of taking on a 'live' recording without having to fix or edit it afterwards." She's speaking primarily of guitarist, Steve Cooney, and percussionist, Robbie Harris along with her sister, Lisa, and her husband, Revs guitarist, John McIntyre. "I think that it's a more honest approach. A lot of people who listen to albums have no idea about the surgery that's involved in it. When they hear something on the radio, they assume that the musicians can reproduce that same sound live, but a lot of them can't. The most important member of an album is the engineer!
"So, I just felt that I wanted a very honest, traditional approach, that is pure and simple and genuine. The kind of album that, if people walked into the room and we were playing, that's exactly what they'd hear."
The Horse's Tail is no collection of easy listening tunes, but a blistering gathering, propelled by nine original numbers, all composed by Conway. If traditional music was ever at risk of calcifying, she is one musician who is hellbent on insuring that doesn't happen by constantly breathing fresh life into it through her own tunes, as well as through the playing of tunes by other contemporary composers such as Charlie Lennon.
Composing doesn't come easy to Conway. It's a hard slog, but one that was helped last January by a week at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annamakerrig, Co. Monaghan. All that daily isolation and nightly conviviality around the dinner table breeds a welcome creativity, she reckons.
"You have to lock yourself away," she laughs, "With all the running around that we all do these days, it's hard to get time to write. Being surrounded by poets and painters and writers was fantastic. The days were an eternity, though; from nine o clock in the morning to eight o clock in the evening, you're on your own and you don't really talk to anyone. But I wrote about twelve pieces in six days, and there's just no way I could have done that at home. It's good to get away from reality at times."
There was a time when traditional musicians wouldn't dare venture down the classical route. Even now there is many a classical music teacher who will not tolerate a student dividing his or her attention between the two genres of music. Conway is adamant that her classical background was crucial to her development as a traditional musician. The two influences dovetailed, rather than collided, she insists.
"I'd be the first to admit that I'd probably be a nice traditional player, without the classical background, but I'd be quiet limited in what I could do. It's like having two languages. I just wouldn't be able to do some of the things that I do on, for example, The Horse's Tail tune, without a classical training. Because you learn all your scales and keys in classical music, it also means that when you here something you like, you can immediately play it. You don't have to spend hours trying to find the melody.
"A classical foundation leaves you much freer, but of course, if you only play classical and came to traditional music late, you'd have a lot of difficulty getting the 'swing' of it too. I was just lucky to get both when I was growing up."
Conway's nonchalance is refreshing, particularly when it comes to her total irreverence for the Gods of the music industry. Her sojourn in the orchestra for the Leonard Cohen tribute concerts was marked by a whole lot of rehearsal, punctured by the occasional tincture of disbelief at the posturing of some of the musicians, whose reputation, she admits, she was less than familiar with.
"When Lou Reed came on for the rehearsals," she chuckles, "I said to one of the other musicians, 'Who does that fella think he is?' and he just laughed! Just about the only one I knew was Jarvis Cocker. But playing with the musicians was amazing; there were just no egos there, and yet these people play with the best people in the world every day of the week!"
For The Horse's Tail, her decision to put down all fifteen tracks (and 31 tunes) over the course of three turbulent days in the studio is one that's paid off creatively, although she admits to a nervousness about the reaction she'll get from listeners, now that the genie is out of the bottle.
"I have to admit I'm a bit nervous about this. Will people want to hear the music without really any trimmings? But I just hope that they'll enjoy the live feel of it. That's what I love listening to in other people's music."