SOLO VOYAGE Matt Molloy will launch his new solo album – his first in over 20 years – with a special Westival concert in Holy Trinity Church, Westport, this Thursday evening. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
Matt Molloy chats to Áine Ryan ahead of the launch of his much-anticipated new album at Westival
MONITORING the Guinness quality in his local is a job that musician Matt Molloy takes very seriously. Well, the regulars with whom he enjoys a pint of the black stuff in his iconic Westport pub certainly don’t let him get carried away with being a ‘celebrity’.
And that’s always with a small ‘c’. So when those Japanese tourists or wide-eyed Yanks troop in to the Bridge Street hostelry on their pilgrimage to find the Chieftain whose flute ended up on the International Space Station for 159 days (long story), Matt is always amenable to having a chat and his picture taken with them – but he knows that the lads who are lined along the bar will ensure he is quickly ‘slagged back to earth afterwards’.
There is sure to be that type of banter this Thursday night, October 25, when people gather in the pub after the launch in Holy Trinity Church of ‘Back to the Island’, his first solo album in almost 20 years. It’s part of the busy programme for Westport’s newly energised arts festival – Westival – put together under the baton of director Conor Wilson and a troupe of dedicated volunteers.
This internationally renowned flautist, a member of The Chieftains since 1979, may have been born ‘in the heart of the bog’ in the Co Roscommon town of Ballaghaderreen but the musical riffs of the ocean have always been calling.
He first heard the cry when he started swimming in the sea at Portmarnock in north Dublin after he met his late wife, Geraldine – his ‘rock for years’ – and it has continued on his voyages out through the sea-drenched drumlins of Clew Bay when the compass is set for the shimmering elusive horizon and all its metaphysical magic.
Indeed, the album’s title tune ‘Back to the Island’ was composed off the Moroccan coast ‘after an interesting sojourn in Essaouira’: that cobbled-street bohemian haven on the Atlantic known to compete with the Wild Atlantic Way for its testing of the Beaufort scale.
While Matt Molloy’s world with The Chieftains has left him sitting in airports all over the globe, his downtime has been sailing on sea-highways to the Canaries, the Cape Verdes and Barbados in his 37-foot motor sailer, Eccentric Lady.
“Even before I had the boat we used to go to Inishbofin every August. At the time, we used to tour a lot, and all of the band had small kids, so we’d refuse to take work during August. We’d stay with Mrs Day on ’Bofin [the family hotel looked over the pier] and I got to know all the musicians there. We bonded like musicians do everywhere,” says Matt.
The Mayo News meets Matt in his home on the edge of Westport’s Colonel’s Woods where he has just added two logs of wood to the sitting-room fire. They are spitting and hissing rather venomously as Eileen, his beloved second wife, pops her smiling face in the door to say she is heading out.
Responding to curiosity about Eileen’s accent, he explains that while she was brought up in Liverpool, like the offspring of many Irish emigrants, she has deep family connections with the townland of Thallabawn near Louisburgh, where her mother was born. And moreover, he explains, a glance out to sea on a calm day from this stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way and there sits Inishturk, the home of her maternal forebears, the O’Tooles.
“I feel very very lucky to have met Eileen in the years after [Geraldine’s passing in September 21, 2008]. We met in the pub. She was always coming back and forth from Liverpool to Thallabawn and is big into the music. She used to teach Irish dancing too,” he says.
You could say it has been a traumatic decade for Matt Molloy: Geraldine’s brave battle with cancer was bad enough, but then his beautiful daughter Claire, aged just 33, also passed away on May 1, 2013, after her own brave battle.
Fundamentally, it was his music that sustained him through these deeply personal challenges.
“When Geraldine was ill you had to be strong. When I felt myself going down, I’d go into the [music room] and start to play, even if I didn’t want to play. I’d continue to play the tune, over and over again and, for want of saying it better. I’d go through a portal, and suddenly I’d be immersed in the music, for an hour, two hours, and when I got up and came back to her, I would be totally refreshed,” he says, quietly.
It was the same when Claire became ill.
So, his life’s experiences – happy and heartbreaking, joyful and sad – merge into the dance of his fingers as they jig and reel across the keys or linger in a frozen moment on a shivering note.
“Tunes sort of bubble away in your head and it might be there for years. Every now and then I’ll take a fistful of old cassettes, recorded decades ago, maybe, and listen again. A tune may have passed you by or maybe I just didn’t hear the music in it and, then, suddenly, it is there wanting to be played.”
AS his dear friend Merrily Harpur writes on the sleeve notes to ‘Back to the Island’, “So Matt’s legendary mastery of the flute is ever the servant of the music: ‘I just try to absorb the tune, flex it a bit, and when it’s making sense to me, play it’.”
A poet, painter and writer, Harpur reflects on how this collection looks seawards, to the big blue and its mysterious way of merging the universal with the individual.
She writes: “In this album Matt Molloy offers some of the perspectives the immensity of the ocean has taught him: ‘You suddenly realise you are alive, and yet what an insignificant thing you are … in case you’re in danger of getting above your station!’.”
Recorded over two days at Clew Bay Recording Studios at Westport Quay, the maritime theme includes such tunes as ‘Galway Bay’, ‘The Skipper Sean Prendergast’ and ‘Porthole of the Kelp’, as well as the title reel, ‘Back to the Island’.
Characteristically, Molloy is low-key about Thursday’s launch, but he is really looking forward to playing with the other musicians – Arty McGlynn, Brian McGrath and Joe McNulty – who joined him for his latest solo voyage. During the latter half of the gig, there’ll also be a bit of an auld session with McGlynn and John Carty, who collaborated with him for such previous albums as ‘Pathway to the Well’ and the more-recent ‘Out of the Ashes’.
Dubbed by many as the greatest flute player of our time, Matt Molloy’s respect for the traditional genre of the tunes of south Sligo and north Connacht blends with the boundlessness of the music he makes. There is no need then for him to catapult his prized E-flat flute off to space again. The edge of the ocean is the frontier that will always bring him ‘Back to the Island’.
BORN in Ballaghaderreen, Matt Molloy trained as an airline technician with Aer Lingus in the 1960s. It was there he met his late wife Geraldine, a native of Howth. Together they had four children, James and Peter, who now help to run the pub; Niamh, who also lives locally with her husband and two small children; and his late daughter Claire.
Already a passionate and accomplished flautist, Molloy joined The Bothy Band in 1975, after getting six months leave from Aer Lingus.
Six albums later and after almost four years of touring, this seminal group disbanded, and Molloy went on to play for a brief period with Planxty before being invited to join The Chieftains in 1979. Almost 40 years later, he is still a member of the legendary band.
‘Back to the Island’ by Matt Molloy, will be launched in Holy Trinity Church, Westport, on Thursday October 25 at 9pm. For tickets, €25 each, visit www.westival.ie, where the full six-day festival programme is also available.