The Farthest Wave
Artist: Cathie Ryan
Few performers straddle the worlds of “Irish traditional singer” and “singer-songwriter” as gracefully – or as successfully – as Irish-American singer Cathie Ryan.
As the Boston Globe recently wrote, “Cathie Ryan is a thrilling traditional vocalist, but her honey-pure soprano is equally at home on probing original ballads about a woman’s place in the modern world.”
Indeed, in the folk hive of Boston, Ryan has headlined Boston College’s staunchly traditional Gaelic Roots Festival; but also the hip songwriter mecca Club Passim, where the legends of folk music all cut their teeth. In 2003 one of her songs was included in the famous Irish music collection, A Woman’s Heart – A Decade On placing her amongst Ireland’s finest female vocalists and songwriters. It was the first time Americans were featured in the series and she shared the honor with Allison Krauss, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. In recent years, her original songs have been recorded by such distinguished Irish vocalists as Frances Black and Mary Black among others. All of this inspired the LA Times to name her, “One of the leading voices in Celtic music.“
What is her secret?
It was answered best by Billy Collins when he was America’s Poet Laureate: “There is a powerful sweetness in Cathie Ryan’s voice, as well as a Celtic intensity that can be felt in all the songs she writes and sings — songs of place, songs of memory, poignant songs of the heart.”
And her heart can be found in every note, every carefully sculpted lyric, of her new CD, “The Farthest Wave” on Shanachie Records. It is her prettiest and gentlest recording, and yet also her boldest. More than any previous work, it feels less like a set of songs than one long, sweet, and deeply wise song; born of troubled times, but refusing to linger on them.
“This recording is about wanting to belong, about losing that sense of security and love; and what you do once that happens.” Ryan says. “In the past two years, I’ve lost people I loved, lost the foundation of what my life was. That puts into very harsh relief who you really are, and how much you really have inside you.”
As a result, this is not an album about loss, but about finding what you need inside your own spirit; not about falling, but of rising again.
Ryan was raised in Detroit, the daughter of Irish immigrants. They lived a hard scrabble life, but Irish music was always heard in her home, and she began singing as a child. She later studied under legendary sean nos singer Joe Heany, who urged her not to ignore the other music swirling inside her American head, and to find her own voice. She first became a star during her eight year tenure as lead singer of the influential women’s ensemble Cherish the Ladies, from which she launched a career as one of Celtic music’s most popular and enduring singer-songwriters.
Most of the songs on “The Farthest Wave” dance in the delicate ether between the anthem and the ballad, sketching vivid people and places; and yet leading us toward deeply felt spiritual themes about the powerful graces within the human heart.
In every breath she takes on this disc, her lifelong immersion in traditional Irish music, myth, and poetry is evident. The past melds with the present; old songs become new, and new songs seem instantly timeless. It is the work of a master vocalist and writer approaching the sure summit of her art.
In the opening track of “The Farthest Wave,” she uses an old Irish saying – “What’s closest to the heart comes out” – as a guiding metaphor for a decidedly modern meditation on what we really want -and need – from lasting love. The singing is emotionally eloquent, but then listen to the way she breathes out the final Gaelic phrase “A’ dtiocfa’ tu'” (“Will you come?”). Her intent is suddenly percussive, to launch guitarist John Doyle into a propulsive guitar solo, joined by producer John McCusker’s frisky whistle playing.
Similarly, listen to the bewitching blend of world-weariness and sly serenity she pours into the old woman’s sigh of “Glory-o, glory, glory” in “As the Evening Declines.” Or to the vast and peaceful well of mother’s love she breathes into the line “Don’t my baby look the sweetest when he’s in my arms asleep?” in the American folk song “Rough and Rocky.”
However intimate her own songs are – and she is utterly unafraid to peer into the darkest corners of her life – she takes a crucial cue from the universality of traditional songs; using vivid images from nature – the sea, a welcoming fire, a setting sun – that always let us see our own lives reflected. Her songs succeed, because they are never just about her. They are about us.
“Every generation has their own way of looking at the world,” she says, “and yet the old folk songs remain relevant, because they’re not exact. They leave room for interpretation, and they have an emotional honesty that invites it. I also find them inspiring – out of pain comes understanding and deepening. There’s a lovely bit of comfort in that.“
In the title track, a meditation on longing, she suddenly, almost startlingly, asks the question, “Do you have all you need?” She makes it clear she is saying something very different about the longing that exists in all of us.
“I’ve always had longing in me,” she says. “I think growing up in America with parents who long to be in Ireland creates a kind of psychology of longing. Where you are is never home. So to me, “My heart is on the farthest wave” is my heart being out to sea, moving toward what its longing for. I‘m coming to accept that the longing is always there. I think its just part of the human condition. Its given me humility to see that; I see how wisdom begins to come from accepting that I can’t resolve everything.”
For the second time, Ryan used brilliant fiddler John McCusker as her producer, and made the album in his cozy Yorkshire studio. She is also joined by Irish singing sensation Sean Keane, and rising Scottish star Karine Polwart, with whom she co-wrote the title cut.
Never does Ryan seem to be trying to convince us what a wonderful singer she is. Her artistry has grown beyond that now. Whether unwinding tongue-twisty Gaelic children’s ditties into a doting homage to the unconditional love between parent and child; or turning an old American chestnut like “Home Sweet Home” into an urgent hymn to human resilience, her voice feels effortlessly beautiful, organic, and utterly focused on what each song has to tell us.
“I end with ‘Home Sweet Home,'” she says, “because I’ve come to understand that home has to be a place you build within yourself. That is the journey, to learn to go through life with the safe place within you. With that confidence and security deep inside, nothing outside can shake you to the core. It’s taken me a long time to understand that. And I’ll be building a little house now and singing as I go!”
|01. What’s Closest To The Heart||Listen||Lyrics|
|02. Rough And Rocky||Listen||Lyrics|
|03. The Wild Flowers||Listen||Lyrics|
|04. Follow The Heron||Listen||Lyrics|
|05. The Farthest Wave||Listen||Lyrics|
|06. What Will You Do, Love?||Listen||Lyrics|
|07. Dance The Baby||Listen||Lyrics|
|08. As The Evening Declines||Listen||Lyrics|
|09. Be Like The Sea||Listen||Lyrics|
|10. Peata Beag Do Mháthar||Listen||Lyrics|
|11. Gabhaim Molta Bríghde||Listen||Lyrics|
|12. Home Sweet Home||Listen||Lyrics|
Produced by John McCusker
Arranged by John McCusker, John Doyle and Cathie Ryan (except where noted)
Recorded and Mixed By Andy Seward at Pure Records Studios, Yorkshire
Mastered By John Baker at Maja Audio Group, Philadelphia
Additional Mixing By John Anthony at Maja Audio Group
“The Farthest Wave” recorded by Scott Petito at NRS in Catskill, New York. Additional recording on “The Farthest Wave”, “As the Evening Declines”, and “Peata Beag do Mháthar” by Greg Anderson at his traveling studio. Additional recording on “Peata Beag do Mháthar” by John Murphy at Probeat in Dundalk, Co Louth, Ireland.
Design: Brian Hanlon at Óg Media Group
Photography: Paul Carroll and Larry Kosson