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At the heart of English folk
Sharon Shannon

Exclusive interview: Sharon Shannon

Irish musician Sharon Shannon has achieved legendary status for her arrangements of traditional Irish tunes and her genre-defying collaborations. She plays at Cecil Sharp House on 13 June alongside Senagalese kora master Seckou Keita. We caught up with Sharon to learn more about this partnership, her wider musical influences, and more…

Tell us about your collaboration with Seckou Keita – how did that come about?

I met Seckou through a mutual friend of ours, Justin Adams. Justin co-produced my latest studio album 'Sacred Earth'. A good few of the album tracks have a Paul Simon's 'Graceland' type feel to them. Justin has worked with several great African musicians over the years, so it was Justin's idea to bring in Seckou. I couldn't believe my ears when I first heard him playing. And I am so proud to have a musician of this calibre playing on my album. 

You’ve been described as a ‘genre-defying musician’ – was this ever a conscious thing? Or do you naturally find yourself exploring different styles of music?

Irish music is my first love and it's the type of music that I understand the best. I'll never stop being blown away by Irish music especially when it's played really well. I love most other types of music, and there's something to be learned from all the different genres.

Fiddles, flutes and pipes etc. can fit in very well with any type of music, and most of all I love hearing a bit of diddley-eye mixed up with rock and roll. Some Classical music sound gorgeous on Irish instruments. I love experimenting with the different genres and mixing them up. Lots of great musicians and bands have been doing this for years before I ever came in the scene... bands that I grew up listening to such as Stockton's Wing and De Dannan and many others.  

Leading on from that, can you talk more about your relationship to folk and traditional music? What drew you to this type of music when you were young and why do you think young people specifically should take an interest in folk today? 

I grew up in a musical family. My parents sent my brother Garry to tin whistle lessons in the local village when he was around 11, and he taught the rest of us at home. Garry is the oldest of four kids. I have an older sister Majella and a younger sister Mary. I was 8 when I started playing the whistle. A few years later we all moved onto different instruments. I was 11 when I got my first accordion. Garry took up the concert flute, Majella took up the fiddle and Mary took up the banjo. My parents were music mad and they loved dancing. And they passed on their great love of music to all four of us. 

I don't think young people should be forced to take a particular interest in any specific genre of music. If parents love music, inevitably they will have music playing in the house when kids are growing up, and if the kids love music also, they will eventually decide themselves which genre of music that they prefer to listen to or to start playing. 

You’ve spoken about the cathartic experience of playing music in the past. Would you say this is something that is even more present for you when playing live? Do different audiences’ responses feed into the energy of your live performance? 

A positive audience response certainly helps enormously with the vibe of a gig and how myself and the band members feel when we are playing. It's a really great feeling when sometimes both the audience and the musicians are lifted up together at the same time to different level of consciousness.

Sometimes, there are some very extra special magical moments at shows and even on recordings. Moments like these are totally unpredictable but are cherished by all of us who are lucky enough to experience them. 

What music are you listening to at the moment?

I listen a lot to the music of Tommy Peoples, the great Donegal fiddler and composer. I mainly listen to traditional Irish music. There are lots of new CDs coming out with fabulous newly composed tunes with beautiful arrangements – too many CDs to name individually!

You’ve always been quite vocal about animal rights and environmental issues. Do you feel like you have a responsibility to use your platform to talk about these things? Have you ever been cautious of expressing social or political views because of the responses you might get? 

Yes I'm very passionate about these issues and I feel that it is very important to use the platform that I have to talk and write about them.

No, I am never cautious about expressing my views about these particular issues. It's part of what I do almost every single day on social media. 

I feel that the animal rights issue in particular needs more media attention. The environmental stuff at long last is now getting the huge attention that it needs. But alas, the plight of farmed animals, and all the dark and shocking secrets of the meat, dairy and egg industries, is still not making it onto the main stream media, so I feel that it's important to put it out on social media as much as possible and I make no apology for it. These poor animals have no voice to stand up for themselves and if they did, I'm absolutely certain that they would agree 100% that these horrific dark secrets need to be put out there in front of the noses of the consumers. All of us consumers need to be made 100% aware of the cruelty that we are enabling when we buy unethically sourced meat, fish, dairy and eggs. 

What are your plans for the next few months? 

Lots of touring! I have a UK tour coming up with the four-piece band (Jim Murray on acoustic guitar, Sean Regan on fiddle, percussion and beat box, and Jack Maher on electric guitar and vocals) and very special guest Seckou Keita on African kora and percussion drums. We also have various festival shows in Ireland and Europe. 

And finally, if you weren’t playing music right now, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I'd probably be working with animals in some form or other. Animals have always been a huge passion for me throughout my whole life. 

Sharon will be performing at Cecil Sharp House alongside Seckou Keita on 13 June. 

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