Sean Phair is a music fan and video professional; he hides behind the moniker Ambiguous Fiddle.
In the brief three years since forming folk act Ye Vagabonds, brothers Brían and Diarmuid Mac Gloinn have become very well-accustomed to West Cork. They’ve played local many times, usually nestled in between major international support slots for the likes of Glen Hansard, Lisa Hannigan and The Villagers.
In the middle of touring their debut self-titled record, I spoke with Brían, the younger half, about West Cork and performing for the president among other things.
Brían has many strings to his bow; a self-proclaimed country mouse and multi-instrumentalist, he has recently moved from Ardfield (Clonakilty) to the city and fondly recalls his time living and performing in the area.
“Levis’ was kind of our introduction to to West Cork maybe two years ago, it was the first place we played after we got back from touring with Glen Hansard. Playing over the shop counter was a pretty great return to reality, going from that weird mad extravagant tour with a tour bus and massive venues to hopping on a Bus Eireann bus down to Ballydehob to play such an intimate show.
“In a lot of ways Cork has been a very important and formative place for us and West Cork especially. I loved living there; it was and continues to be a really important place for me as a person and for the band also. We met Sam (McNicholl) and Peter (Hayes) and a bunch of the lads from Connolly’s. There’s such a good scene down around West Cork. In many ways I’m a country mouse, so I found it great down there.
“I think busking is ingrained in the culture in West Cork. I mean you’ve got people like Les Clague, who has been doing it for years. I busked at all the markets for about six or seven months and I had some pretty amazing days. You’ll always get fed really well.
“It worked out really well that I could just survive off being a street musician down there for six months while we were mixing the album with Nick Rayner in Castletownsend. It definitely feels like we’ve sowed some seeds down south now too and it’s great to now have a base in Cork, as well as Carlow and Dublin.”
The Mac Gloinn brothers originally hail from Carlow and come from a musical family – they’ve performed trad music and sang in a choir for many years. The pair first played together in their mid to late teens and it all grew organically form there, as Brían recalls below.
“The first time we played together was actually at our sister’s wedding. I would have been about 14 and Diarmuid 18. it was the first time that we actually sang songs and worked out harmonies for something together. We quickly figured out that we had the blood harmony thing going or at least that our voices resonated nicely together. It was really satisfying for us and it kind of felt different to anything we had felt musically in the past. We sang in a choir but this was different. When you hit intervals perfectly in tune with each other it sounds like something much bigger than just two notes. It was a pretty big discovery for us and shortly after that Diarmuid dropped out of college and moved home.
“I was in transition year at the time but I was busking whenever I could, every Saturday and then a day here and there.
“We busked for a few months together and then we made friends with these guys that ran a cafe in town and they asked us to play at one of their music nights after we’d been coming in counting up our change every Saturday. So we called ourselves The Brand-new Switcheroo because we used to switch instruments; Diarmuid would hold my fiddle while I played the guitar and then eventually we got a mandolin as well and we used to keep saying we’ll do the old switcheroo and then that turned into The Brand-new Switcheroo.”
A chance meeting with acclaimed Irish Filmmaker Myles O’Reilly at Body and Soul festival in 2014 resulted in two music videos. These beautiful candid videos really helped to propel the band forward, it solidified both their new name Ye Vagabonds and a place as one of Ireland’s most promising acts.
Ever since then an album has always been on the horizon and I was delighted to finally get my hands on a copy. The album is laden with exquisite rising harmonies along with well-balanced yet heavily strung folk ballads. It really is a marvel how they managed to achieve such high production on an entirely live record.
Prior to its release they played the Ex-Change, a showcase event held in West Cork, which has opened them to headline shows internationally.
“Showcase events are interesting, normally like in general if somebody came to us and said here lads will you do a gig for us…you know you won’t get paid but you’ll get good promotion out of it – we’d usually say no and not necessarily be polite about it. But this time we had to make an exception, we didn’t really know how it would work out for us but there was interesting people involved. Then almost immediately after we got back we got invited to Australia to play at a Culture Ireland thing for the president’s visit and that was just because somebody spotted us at that Folk Alliance Ex-Change so that was very cool.
“I was surprised that he (the President) recognised us at all, we had played for him and Sabina at Aras an uachatarain, however it was in the middle of the Body and Soul festival and we had to rush back after the performance. It was such a cool experience to go over to Australia and play a few tunes and meet them again. They’re really nice people and it was kind of surreal to have the pair of them sitting there beaming up at us and watching attentively, the way only a proud auntie and uncle would, like if you were playing an underage football match or something.
Afterwards they both jumped up on the stage and give us big hugs and asked us to visit again.”
Aside from being mid-tour and having already played Levis in Ballydehob, Ye Vagabonds will be returning to West Cork on December 17 to play Connolly’s of Leap with Saint Sister.
“I’m really looking forward to playing in Connolly’s again. We actually played one of the first gigs in there after it reopened, we had like 140 people in there or something, it was crazy more than half of them didn’t know who we were. They just came just came because of the legacy of the place, you know it’s brilliant we love that place – it’s an amazing venue, on a good night like that when there’s a big crowd it’s a whole different level of electric that you experience.
“This gig is with Saint Sister, who we’re really interested in. I really like their music but we haven’t got to meet them yet, I saw them playing at St. Lukes, here at Sounds From A Safe Harbour. I’m just really looking forward to sharing a gig with them because even though our music is quite different, it’s got something in common in that it’s very harmonic music and yeah I just think their music is such an interesting mixture of electronic and acoustic and their songs have such a distinct quality about them.”