If you think folk music constitutes sitting in a circle singing Kumbaya think again. Irish Mythen’s performances have the power to pin you to the back wall with her honesty, wit and emotional intelligence. Her recent tours to Australia have left audiences stunned through the power of her performances. Trevor Jackson spoke to her just after she touched down for her latest tour, including a series of shows at Bluesfest.
I downloaded your self titled album and iTunes categorised it as alternative folk. I laughed to myself and thought: “what the hell is alternative folk”? Alternative to what? You’re an artist singing songs about what it is to be human over stripped back musical arrangements as folk artists have done for eons. How is that alternative?
I really don’t know, I think it’s all nonsense. It really depends on where you are – if you’re in Europe they’ll say “oh great I love old sea shanties”, or they’ll recoil and say “I can’t stand old men in straw hats waving their hankies”. So in Europe I specify that it’s contemporary folk, like a singer-songwriter, but in North America it’s roots-folk. It’s weird but people do have their misconceptions about what I do.
Funnily enough when I started playing twenty years ago my genre wasn’t cool, but in the last eight to ten years folk, for want of a better term, has become sexy again. So I’ve been really lucky because over the past five years or so a lot more people have been receptive to my music.
Why do you think folk is sexy again now, what’s changed?
Politically and economically people have been feeling the squeeze and so there’s been a tendency to go back to music that actually says something. I think one of the greatest protest singers at the moment is Kendrick Lamar. I don’t own a lot of hip hop or rap records, but I could listen to him every day of the week. I think his success is largely because people are searcher for something deeper with more lyrical meaning. Sometimes our perceptions close us off to what’s really going on, we think that rap music is all “bitches and ho’s” and the reality is so far from that.
It’s on stage where so much of your reputation has been built – performances where you’ve given your all to make people think, laugh and cry. Doing that consistently night after night is no mean feat, what is it that you want audiences to take away from your show?
I really want people to be walking away from my show and go “wow, I’m going to be thinking about this in a month’s time”. I want people to go away with a memorable experience because money is hard to come by and you’re forking out a lot of money to come to a show. For those who’ve never seen me before I know they’re taking a chance with their money and I never want to take that for granted. I am extremely lucky to do what I do.
You described one of your recent Australian tours as a life changing experience – in what way?
I was blown away by the reception I received from the biggest stages down to the smallest venues. I did the Small Halls tour and played to little drought affected outback towns where it hadn’t rained for four years and these communities had taken some of their drought relief funds to put on a show because they really felt the need for it. I’d look out and see the joy on their faces and I was so humbled by that. I was amazed at how resilient these people were and it was a privilege to play for them.
On that tour you played the Woodford Folk Festival where you had a tent full of people singing the words of your song Tullamore Blues back to you and you lost it on stage. Why was that such an emotional moment for you?
I tear up even when I think about it. It’s never happened to me before. I didn’t think they knew my music or who I was, it was such an incredible moment that totally caught me unawares. It was one of those rare instances that could never be repeated, I could feel the love in that room as everyone started singing back to me. The sound that came back to me was incredible, it just hit me. I was crying, they were crying, it just washed over me. It was one of the most emotional moments I’ve ever experienced on stage.
*Irish Mythen plays Bluesfest April 13 -17.