Dara Mac Gabhann is a singer-songwriter from Co. Monaghan, Ireland. Her recent debut album was launched on 27th January in The Market House, Monaghan.
Entitled Release, the tracks are a blend of blues and jazz vibes with some personal touches. Having been played on national radio, and interviewed by Charlie McGettigan, a stalwart of the Irish music industry, Dara has had an eventful couple of months.
You released your album in late January; that must have felt like a significant achievement?
Yes, Barry Devlin launched the album and I had the full band with me, as well as Josh Johnson on piano. It was absolutely exhilarating to see all the people that had turned out to support the launch. Being surrounded by familiar faces helped dissipate the nerves a bit. In the past I would have shrunk from the spotlight but that night I couldn’t wait to get up on stage and just sing.
Even looking back at the video now, the excitement and happiness is clear to see on my face. Cathal Murray was the first to play some of my tracks on Late Date (RTE Radio 1) which was surreal, but a fantastic buzz for all of us involved.
Dara with Barry Devlin and Aoibhinn at the launch of Release
This is your first professional studio album. How difficult was it to write?
I’d been writing songs from my early teens but had never had the courage to put anything out there. So I actually had a wealth of material to work from at the early stages of this venture. In fact, the real difficulty was in paring it back and choosing which material to use.
It was my involvement with MOPOSOGS (Monaghan Poets and Songwriters) that finally gave me the confidence to bring it to the studio. The band members (Dez Murphy – guitar, Alex Watson – base, Howard Hughes – drums, Eddie Hamill – blues & sax, Aoibhin Ni Ghabhann – backing vocals) are part of the writing group too and we have been collaborating for years, so the whole experience felt very organic and everyone in the band had an input, bringing their own expertise to bear on the album.
I was lucky too in that Ben Reel (singer/songwriter from Armagh) was available for recording/mixing and mastering of the finished product. He’s a busy, working musician so his involvement was invaluable.
What was it about MOPOSOGS that changed things for you?
Originally, I had set it up for the community but it has really given back to me tenfold. Without MOPOSOGS, I would never have had the courage to call myself a singer-songwriter. My degree is in Community Development and I have been working in that area for fifteen or sixteen years. I encountered the PEACE III initiative, which provided funding for community and cross-border projects. And from there we set up the writer’s group and the Arts Network. It’s funny how life offers you opportunities.
Dara at work
There’s a really wonderful group dynamic. I lead it but other than that there’s no real structure; we are just a group of people who love writing poetry and music. Being involved in a creative atmosphere like that naturally begets creativity. You’re bringing your work to a small, trusted audience and receiving feedback for it. There are writing prompts available and discussions of submitted pieces; the process is constantly inspiring and you push yourself more to contribute.
It also gets you used to presenting your work. I’ve come a long way from the person who’s shaking with fear at the thought of sharing my work publicly. While I still have nerves, they’re a healthy kind rather than debilitating.
Dara with her band; Dez Murphy – guitar, Alex Watson – base, Howard Hughes – drums, Eddie Hamill – blues & sax, Aoibhin Ni Ghabhann – backing vocals. © Julie Corcoran
You were involved in setting up The Monaghan Arts Network, which has been a great success, showcasing artists from the surrounding areas. It must take a lot of your time?
It can take a lot of energy and time, you’re constantly trying to meet deadlines, but it’s also very rewarding. There’s a fantastic committee there so you never have to worry about what’s happening, everyone knows what is needed and it all gets done. When we started up we expected to get a year or so out of it, but three years later, it’s still going strong.
We have showcased 100 acts; it’s surprising how many talented people have come out of the woodwork. If it wasn’t for the network I would never have known about some of the many great artists living in the locality. It’s a great achievement; not only does it provide an avenue for artists to show their work, but it also opens minds and creates audiences.
What do you think about the newly launched arts initiative, Creative Ireland?
It’s encouraging to hear about anything coming to the arts in terms of support and funding. My one reservation would be that it’s hailed as a ‘roots-up’ movement providing artists with the tools needed to progress, yet there are no artists on the committees. It’s going to be run by local authorities, not that I have a problem with them obviously, they’re just doing their job, but I think it’s important to have someone there who is passionate about the arts and who can represent our voice.
If you are tasked with making decisions about something, you should at least have someone there who knows what’s happening on the ground. It can’t be called ‘bottom-up’ when in reality the decisions come from up top.
The album cover for Release © Julie Corcoran
Do you have any advice for up-and-coming singer-songwriters?
I think it’s important to surround yourself with the positive people who make you feel worthy for one thing. If you want to produce art, spend time with the people who produce art, and who are honest and supportive.
And don’t hold yourself back; if you closet your work, nobody will ever get to hear or see what you’re doing. You have to be willing to push yourself; you don’t know when one connection will lead to another.
Talent or perseverance, which is more important?
It’s probably a combination of both. You can have all the talent in the world and do nothing with it. I think passion is the most important; it’s hard putting original work out for critique, without passion it would be very difficult to persevere.
The album is very bluesy. What inspires your work?
I’ve always listened to jazz and blues; Billie Holiday is a particular favourite of mine. Growing up, my sisters listened to a lot of this type of music and that would have had a lot of influence too.
I like all types of music, I’ve even written some reggae and country-style songs, but I’ve learned over time that jazz and blues are my strengths. Playing with Dez (Murphy) one night, he said ‘Your voice just suits the blues.’ It was lovely to hear and I did take notice. From that my confidence has grown and I’ve embraced the style even more.
So what’s coming up next for you in terms of work?
It’s going to be busy. I’ll continue with gigs and promotion of Release, and I’m still in MOPOSOGS, so there’s always new material being produced. Then there’s Connecting Through Dance – which also sprung from the Peace Project – which provides a platform for connection and creativity, and generating sustainable arts works.
There’s also Jam-Nights, a cross-border venture which will host music in cultural venues on both sides of the border. It’s exciting to be involved in it and I was delighted to find my name was in the pot for this.
Dara performing with her daughter, Aoibhin, at Iontas in Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan
Then, to celebrate Canada Day, MOPOSOGS will be releasing a new CD in June with music from artists around Monaghan. (Famine emigration means that there is a strong connection between Monaghan and Prince Edward’s Island in Canada; records show that the population in the area was at one time 49% Irish; 29% of which were from Monaghan.)
Catriona Sherlock will be performing one of mine for it; it’s called Irish Eyes and was written in the late 1980s. I have also co-written a song with my daughter, Aoibhin, called No Return, and we’ll be recording that for the album too. Aoibhin has been in the writing group for years and she produces drama and music herself; actually she’ll be showcasing some of her work in June. It’s incredible to see her grow as a performer, and to be able to collaborate with her on projects like this makes me feel so proud.
Phew! I get the feeling that Dara won’t be taking a breath anytime soon.
To connect with Dara Mac Gabhann or hear samples of her music, click on the following links: