Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Maire Brennan - The Matriarch of Modern-Day Celtic Music

  • 2000 27 Feb
Maire Brennan - The Matriarch of Modern-Day Celtic Music
By Bruce Adolph, courtesy of {{Christian Musician}} Magazine

You may be more familiar with the ethereal voice of {{Maire Brennan}} (Gaelic spelling, pronounced Moya) than you think. As front-woman for the prolific Grammy-winning Brennan family group, Clannad (with over 15 million records sold), you've also heard her distinctive voice on VW commercials. Clannad is a huge international act that also has a large following here in the US. If you've seen the movies "Patriot Games" or "The Last of the Mohicans," you've heard Clannad and Maire's voice throughout the soundtracks. She even learned to sing in Cherokee for "The Last of the Mohicans."

Uninformed listeners draw comparisons to Enya (who has sold over 20 million records) regarding Maire's lush vocal qualities, not realizing that they are indeed sisters. Maire's solo projects for Word Records (Perfect Time and her new release Whisper to the Wild Water) are a strong musical statement of her faith, while she still remains the voice of Clannad. She writes her songs and music herself and plays the harp live in her concerts.

The Brennan family has helped shape modern Celtic music into what it is today all the while blending in its rich Irish heritage. Maire lives outside of Dublin, Ireland and recently showcased her new solo album at a small club in Seattle. It was a pleasure to see this matriarch of modern Celtic music perform. Her stage presence was warm and engaging, much like Maire herself.

CM: Tell us about your musical upbringing and influences.

MB: I come from a place in Northwest Ireland called County Donegal. It was quite an unusual background in the sense that Gaelic or Irish - Celtic - is my first language. It's not spoken by a great deal of people in Ireland. I grew up speaking the Gaelic language, and my mother's family, my grandparents - who were my teachers at school - taught me all the popular stories and songs. My father's side had a show band. We'd listen to him rehearse in the front room. They'd play anything from Buddy Holly, Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley. It's very unusual where I come from to have that sort of fusion of music. My dad would get the sheet music - which I still have - sent to him from London. My father came from a musical background with his mother playing the drums and his father playing the piano. The show band was a family band with his parents and brothers and sisters.

I'm the eldest of nine, and we grew up, obviously, with a lot of music around us. When I was in my early teens, the show band era was moving into pubs rather than halls. So my dad bought himself a pub, which he found quite difficult because he was a good Christian man who had never drunk nor smoked in his life. But he would've been playing in these venues anyway, you see. He bought the pub because it was a stage for him to sing. To this day, you get more than ten people in the place and he's up there singing. He's an amazing entertainer. People love him. He gets people up to sing. All sorts of people come into the pub: actors, great musicians. Bono and I served pints of Guinness behind the bar one time.

What this meant, is that when we came home from college - at this stage we were picking up all kinds of instruments (I was learning the harp) - we were getting up there and playing the stuff we loved. Beach Boys, The Mamas and the Papas, The Beatles, anything with harmony. We were also interested in the traditional songs, the melodies that were around us, so we included these songs too. It's interesting, even the local people couldn't understand why we included the Gaelic, because they thought we were letting ourselves down. This was the early seventies, and Gaelic was regarded as the poor man's language. People didn't sing these songs. They'd sing country songs instead. But we loved the melodies.

So we formed a band to enter a competition and we won. We hadn't gone professional at that point, because we were still in college. But we got more and more involved in going to older people and sort of collecting the songs that were dying, and rearranging them in such a way so that the emotion of the song was coming through. These songs were sung unaccompanied until we started playing them. Most people regard the sound that Clannad has - or for that matter, even Enya - as being traditional, but it's actually less than thirty years old. We started it. We didn't know we were starting it, it just developed out of us loving harmonies and wanting to paint pictures with these songs. We wanted to make Gaelic songs attractive to people.

CM: So you'd add music to it?

MB: The purists hated us because of what we were doing to the music. We were adding guitars and such. People would say, "You have a nice sound, but forget about the Gaelic." So we went to Europe, and nobody cared what we were singing, they just liked the sound we were creating. It was unknown to us that we were creating anything new, though. We were just loving what we were doing. We did six albums of collecting and recording those Gaelic songs. So if anybody ever accused us of trading ourselves in or anything like that, we can point to these six albums that people thought we were mad to do. But we loved the melodies, the beautiful concept of it all. The way they described emotions and situations - they use the elements of nature so much. It's just beautiful.

In 1982 we were asked to do a TV theme song called "Harry's Game." We swept Northern Ireland. All of a sudden we had a German tour and we were asked to do "Top of the Pops" in England. Here we were on "Top of the Pops" with a Gaelic song - that was unheard of. People began approaching us, asking where we got our sound.

Up until then we'd had to get small companies in Ireland to pay for studio time - they'd pay for two days, or five days, or ten days. We'd smuggle as many of our albums as possible into Europe: in the doors of the van and such.

After the TV theme song we got a record deal with a major label, EMG, who we were with until this last project. We couldn't believe it. That's when we started to write our own material as well. The first album with EMG was half traditional songs and half original music. At this stage, since we had heard so many beautiful melodies, it steered us down a certain route to how we get our own melodies. People always comment on how they love our melodies, and they stem from what we've come through. Unbeknownst to us, we had given ourselves a fantastic education in this type of music.

It's funny, "Harry's Game?" was not as well known over here [in the US] until the "Patriot Games" came out, and then the VW ad on TV. I started doing a lot of interviews, and one question that was always asked was, "You must've been influenced by Enya?" And I'd look at them and say, "This song is eleven years old and Enya's my sister." And they'd look at me and say, "Right." So we've been a bit of an underground band in a way. We're a band that doesn't worry about coming up with hit songs. We allowed our song to be in an ad because we don't get played on regular radio. It's wonderful to do music that people can relax to. It's also wonderful that the pressure's not there. Our back catalog sells all the time. It's an amazing situation to be in. The number of musicians who know the band is incredible. People I've admired - the likes of Jeff Beck - have come to see gigs. When I met Michael McDonald to do that song (their duet on the {{Streams}} project,) the first thing he said was "I love your band." Even on this tour there were a couple of musicians Bonnie Raitt band came to see me.

CM: On this last US tour, your audience was a mixture of Clannad fans and Christian music fans. How do you prepare your set list with this in mind?

MB: I don't worry too much about it. I know that the sound is what people like first and foremost. It's nice that there's a message in it. In the US there's a different culture for evangelizing. I'm a singer and not an evangelist, if you know what I mean. I don't want to put a barrier between myself and Clannad fans by being overwhelming with Christianity. It's important for me to get them to listen to what I'm saying and perhaps develop an interest in it. It's so important to reach people. My music is not just for Christians. I know that's why God had me wait until now before doing a Christian album. It's all about timing - this music pulls people in.

CM: Your stage presence is warm and engaging, and I think it pulls people in, so you're definitely achieving that.

MB: How kind of you to say. When a Christian comes up to me after a concert and says something like that it very much encourages me because then I know I'm doing the right thing. Non-Christians often say, "Your message of love is so wonderful." I want them to find out where I get my love and my strength, which is Jesus. There are a lot of people who are lonely who get something from music, and then want to find out, "Where does this come from?"

CM: You do some fun songs in your show that don't make a lot of sense.

MB: It's something that I like to throw in, like "The Lottery" for example, - first of all because it was on the last Clannad album - but also because people think that Christians are boring and they can't have a good time. I'm trying to stretch that image a little and show people that God has a sense of humor. And I'm not - I hope - offending anybody. It's today's world; that's today's people. It's also a very big Irish thing: there's love songs, songs about feelings, about immigration, about drink, and then there's lots of humorous songs.

I know that some Christians might find that difficult, but others in the audience that don't know much about Christianity might think, "Hey, it's okay to have fun." It's just the fun element of things.

It's a shame sometimes that we burden ourselves with so much baggage, with so many rules and regulations that they take over what is real about our walk with God, which is our relationship with Jesus. We get laden down with all that stuff sometimes. The most important things are realizing God loves us, and loving Him back as much as we possibly can. We need to do what He asks us to do and love our neighbor, which is everybody, not just another Christian. Into the new millennium we have to stress that more and more.

People will throw it in our face: "You Christians are all bickering about the same things." And they're right. The respect between us all is lacking. It has nothing to do with what church anyone goes to. Whatever gets you into the best relationship with the Lord God is what's important. It's not about which is the best church or the best speaker. It's about what brings you closer to the Lord.

I remember a church I was visiting, where we were standing and singing and loving the Lord, and a woman across from us was sitting quietly. Someone ahead of me turned around and was nearly apologetic, saying "She's only been here a couple of months, but we'll have her dancing and singing by the end of the year."

And I just looked at her and I said, "Why?" It's as if she had to. We're so judgmental. We think everybody needs to be like us. It saddens me. She could've been connecting better just sitting quiet. There's nothing wrong with her way of praising the Lord. If people on the outside could see more unity among Christians, that would make a huge difference. God must be so sad to see us arguing about this and that way to get dedicated or get baptized.

When Christianity was brought to Ireland, Patrick knew the culture, having been there as a slave. So he brought it within the culture. So now there are some things we do that aren't strictly Christian, which is okay as long as it's nothing that separates you from God. There's no point in an American coming to Ireland and trying to impose their culture and teach us the American way. The more and more we see that the more we'll love our neighbors the way we're supposed to. We'll become less judgmental and really relax into what we're supposed to do: love God.

God has led me in a couple of different avenues. I've been doing a lot of study on Northern Ireland recently. I was brought up as a Catholic in a very remote area of Ireland. My husband was brought up in a middle-class Protestant English family. God has such a sense of humor. And the news about Northern Ireland has been wonderful recently, but there's still so much healing that needs to be done. I was up there singing in a Protestant church - the thing you have to remember about Protestant churches in Northern Ireland is that they're not Irish, they're not Celts, it's all about what they're not - and for me to sing there in Gaelic, playing jigs and reels, is unheard of. A young minister had asked me, and if I had thought about where I was going - in that area I could have easily been shot - I may not have gone. But we prayed about it, and I did the show. And I was so blessed. The church was packed. There were people there that had been totally against me coming, who came up to me at the end of the concert and said, "I have learned so much tonight." And I sang the next day in their service, and I was so very blessed. This is what I'm about.

CM: How do you approach songwriting? Do you write on the harp or do you use the piano?

MB: I do use the harp a bit, and it's funny, because even when I go to the keyboard I click on the harp sound. I use the Roland 1080 and 2080 quite a bit. I use a Korg wave station as well. My husband writes alot of music, and then I go in and work on it. From the word go, once I like something we put it down for real. I never do demos anymore. For years we'd do demos and then go into the studio and try to recreate from the demo. It's awful. You keep going back to the demo, and even though you put everything down exactly the same, there's something missing. That element of freshness is gone.

So when I go into the studio, I'll try anything, no matter how stupid or silly it might seem. And sometimes it can create something wonderful. A lot of times we don't want to try new things in the studio because we don't want the engineers and producers to think we're stupid. But it's your album. We've got to stop being intimidated in the studio and just experiment a little. If I don't try something, I'll never know if it works. So I come into the studio with a huge collection of rhythms, melodies, themes, vocals, but I love building in the studio. If I'm not happy with what we've done the first time I'll do it again. As far as putting the layers together, after years of doing it with Clannad, it comes very naturally.

Sometimes I worry about using too much. I load it all into my keyboard, and many times I have to take something away, because I don't want to overload. When I finished these last two albums, then I went back and added the boehrn and the jamb and other ethnic sounds. And when I feel that something's not going the right direction, I strip it back down rather than add more to it.

CM: How would you describe your latest project, Whisper to the Wild Water?

MB: There's a song on the album with that title, which I think can conjure up a couple of different images. My voice is not a big voice. It's very whispy and breathy, and the wild water could be the music world. Or you could look at it as whispering the message of love to the wild water of the world. God is almighty, and we think He should come to us in a big way, but instead He whispers to us every day. And it's up to us to listen. Water is an element that's used in the Bible so much. Water calms. I can sit and watch water for hours. Even when it's wild it has a calming effect. The song itself is about people changing slowly, turning around.

When I was doing this album I was reading lots of different books about Christianity and Celtic Christianity. "Follow the Word" is about missionaries going out from Ireland. I am one as well, in a sense, going out with a banner of hope.

"Where I Stand" has a bit of me in there. But it's also been influenced by my church, which is working with challenged teens. And just listening to their stories has moved me so much. There are so many people who have wandered down the wrong way. It looks so good to be in a situation even though it is wrong.

"Ageless Messenger" is about angels. I was reading this book about all these different people who have seen angels. And so many of them describe the angels with a sword and big tall white wings, but they're not afraid when they see them. And many of these people who have seen angels haven't been the holiest of holy people, but it's a testimony about God's love.

CM: You're the matriarch of modern-day Celtic music, and you've sold over 18 million records, but you still live a very simple life. Can you tell us about your life in Ireland?

MB: I am so blessed. I am the eldest of nine, which really keeps your feet on the ground. And Clannad has never come into the super-stardom class, which is a nice situation to be in. I can do everything. I can go on the bus or the train with my kids, and people don't bother me at all. And I have wonderful parents, which has influenced the kind of person I am. My whole family is behind what I do, and they love and understand it. It's just so lovely. More than anything else, the Lord has blessed me with His presence in my life, and with two beautiful, healthy children and a wonderful husband. I can do so much because of Tim's encouragement, and I can tour like I do because I know he's at home looking after the kids. We love having family time together. I'm an ordinary country girl, and that's what I always want to be. I go to a wonderful church, and my parent's prayers through the years have been answered. It's unbelievable.

CM: What advice would you give fellow Christian musicians?

MB: I love music. You should do something that you believe in, that comes from your heart. If you're doing it because it's a trend or because you think you'll get more radio play, it won't last. I love what I do, and I'm reluctant to change my album format because I love the sound. If it comes from the soul, it comes together. One of the biggest things you learn in music is patience. Nothing happens fast. If you do everything for the Lord, He looks after you, and everything is in His timing, not in ours.