“Blackthorn: Irish Love Songs”
Susan McKeown puts a daring new spin on old Irish love songs.

“Blackthorn,” Susan McKeown’s new CD on World Village, is a sensual new take on Irish love songs that dares to be different, and shines the spotlight on yet another side of an artist who defies easy categorization. These are love songs channeled through McKeown in a way that brings every single one of us closer to what it means – and takes - to truly love.

“I don’t think people necessarily think of Irish love songs as being sensual,” says the Dublin native. “Maybe sad and at times strange, but not sensual. But there is a sensuality in the lyrics of the songs on this album. I wanted to bring that out in the delivery and arrangements, to let these songs breathe in a completely different way.”

When McKeown applies her burnished contralto to the luscious material on “Blackthorn” she makes those songs feel that they’re not only hers, but yours, that the moods and passions she’s evoking belong to all of us. Because, in one way or another, we’ve all been where McKeown takes us. The singer understands that, and reminds listeners that, as wrenching as this journey of the heart sometimes is, in the end its life lived to its exhilarating fullest.

Her independent spirit, celebrated once again on this CD, is what has long set McKeown apart from her peers. This is a woman who carved out a career for herself in New York City, far from the green fields of Ireland. While her native roots are strongly evident in her work, you can feel the influences of the world around her. She takes songs from a time almost forgotten and boldly yet lovingly re-imagines them, bringing them immeasurably enhanced – yet spiritually intact – into the 21st century.

The follow-up to her World Village debut, the equally adventurous “Sweet Liberty,” “Blackthorn” draws on a dozen Irish love songs, nine of them sung in Gaelic and the majority of them lesser-known gems that McKeown dug up during the ongoing research of the tradition that she so relishes.

“Many of the songs are quite dark,” she acknowledges, “yet they are beautiful nonetheless.” Credit the leader and her anything-but-traditional band mates with making them so. You’ll hear songs about girls betrayed by love, on the brink of love, and seemingly ready to kill for love. And songs about just how wonderfully fun it is to be in love.

Her fourth album of traditional songs, McKeown has been building to this moment for quite some time. The youngest of five children, her composer mother encouraged an early interest in music and theatre. At 15 she studied with Ireland’s leading opera trainer but left after a year to immerse herself in the folk, rock and jazz that were taking her country by storm during the ‘80s.

Understanding just how wide a world of music was out there – and vowing to keep her ears and mind open to it all – McKeown set off for the U.S. in 1990 to study at New York’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy. She soon became part of the East Village and downtown music scenes, headlining in clubs like the Bottom Line and Fez and touring internationally with her acclaimed folk rock band The Chanting House.

Musical collaborations with everyone from Natalie Merchant to Richard Thompson have added to the chorus of praises she has received in the likes of Rolling Stone and Time magazines. “A Prairie Home Companion,” “Mountain Stage” and “CBS This Morning” have all hosted McKeown.

The reason is simple: she’s an original. And “Blackthorn” underscores just how original. It’s a rare artist who approaches the making of an album as organically as McKeown does.

“I enjoy researching and digging for rare songs,” she explains. “I’ll get them from old books – I have found some wonderful songs that I don’t believe have ever been recorded. I’ll look for those books that are worn and tattered-looking, like they might have been once well-loved.”

Some of those finds have made their way onto “Blackthorn.” “One Morning in Autumn” was discovered by McKeown in a book of songs collected in Galway in the early 1900s. Accompanied only by Eamon O’Leary’s guitar and bouzouki and Dana Lyn’s fiddle, McKeown makes these lyrics feel as poignant today as they did a century ago: “O great is my sorrow as I walk through the lowlands/As long as we’re parted no peace can I find/But she’s wed to another, none else will I marry/And that’s surely the cause of this grief in my mind.”

The original Gaelic lyrics to “I Am a Girl from the Suir-Side” have been lost, but McKeown uses verses from an English poem set to the original melody that appeared in 1584, the oldest known annotation of an Irish song. Guitarist Steve Cooney’s gorgeous accompaniment complements McKeown’s emotionally potent delivery.

Fans of Irish music will no doubt recognize several of the more popular traditional love songs covered by McKeown here, including “Bean Pháidín" (“Paudeen’s Woman”) and “The Blackthorn Tree.”

Credit Phil Cunningham, brother of the late legendary Scottish musician Johnny Cunningham, a dear friend of McKeown’s, with providing instrumental inspiration for several of the album’s more unique tunes.

“I was on memorial concert tour for Johnny with his brother Phil and at one point he played me some music on his laptop which he had recently recorded. I heard the voices and instruments and was really intrigued.”

What Cunningham had played was music by artists from Asturias and the Basque country in northern Spain, who McKeown eventually tracked down and convinced to join her on several tracks that they recorded together. “The Last of the Light,” a song that McKeown had first heard as a child, features Colombian musician Edmar Castañeda on South American harp and Igor Oxtoa and Harkaitz on traditional wood and stone percussion instruments. The resulting magic connects the dots between the Celts and the Basques.

Besides being an album of uniquely interpreted and sensual love songs, “Blackthorn” as a whole is about exploration for the singer. It includes tracks recorded in Ireland, the Basque Country, and Asturias, the first time the singer has ventured outside of New York to record. Although McKeown is quick to acknowledge that being based in New York continues to influence her music.

“The New York scene is unique,” she points out. “It’s really vibrant. Some people say that you can find the best Irish sessions here these days. I consider myself very fortunate to be part of the Irish music scene in New York because it gives you a lot of new ideas and helps keep you constantly enthused.

Whether the lyrics are sung in Gaelic or in English, whether they were written centuries or decades ago, McKeown believes that the stories she tells through the songs on “Blackthorn” reveal truths that are timeless.

“To me, these love songs maintain their relevance even today. They express emotions that we all understand. And while they might be old, the subject of love remains universal and contemporary to us all.”