Sinead O'Connor interviews Davy Spillane

Piping Hot Sinéad O'Connor talks to Davy Spillane, the musician whose magical sound is kicking the kitsch out of Irish folk.

I first heard of the uilleann piper Davy Spillane through Daniel Day-Lewis, his number one fan. It was about five years ago and Daniel said to me, "You've got to hear this." Obviously, I'd heard of Davy's band, Moving Hearts. They hold a huge place in Irish musical history as the first band to use electric instruments and meld traditional Irish music with rock. And this was during the early '80s, a time of heavy political unrest and hunger strikes in our country. Moving Hearts was an expressive and powerful band. I was quite young at the time but I got into them later, when I identified with the pain and insights in their music. I love the low whistle Davy plays. I think it's the most beautiful sound. Working with him on his new record, The Sea Of Dreams (Red Ink/Covert), was like working with God. I was awestruck, though he's not aware of his greatness. This summer, playing with him in the band, I would look over and I couldn't believe I was right next to him and that I was playing music with this man. It's amazing I was given the chance to work with Davy at all. Out of all the songs I've worked on over the years, "Dreaming Of The Bones," which we recorded together, is one of my favorites. Davy told me the track was about the death of his father, and as I wrote the lyrics, it became a conversation where his father is talking to him: "Child, I can't be gone/ See, I'm in your soul and in your song/ The calling of your heart has brought me on." Dave's very funny, which you wouldn't think from his music. (We Irish are so serious in our music but we're really funny people.) Davy's also a bit of a fairy- a si, as we call it. He's possessed by magic. Just look at the twinkle in his eyes and the bit of gold around them. Besides, he's sexy. Sinéad O'Connor: When did you get involved in the traditional Irish music scene? Davy Spillane: At about twelve or thirteen, When I started playing te tin whistle. I was a young upstart folk musician. Even though my music wasn't mature, I become technically good very quickly. After about six or seven months of playing the pipe, I was on the street, playing for a living. It was a bit cheeky, but I was vocational from the word go.

SO: Were you still at school?

DS: Yeah, but I left pretty soon after. And I left home when I was fourteen.

SO: Why?

DS: (laughs) Because I wasn't too happy and because I fell in love with a girl. There was a lot of drinking and teenage angst.

SO: And music helped you through that?

DS: Music was very intimate to emotional well-being. It kept me on track. I could have been in deep trauma, but when I was playing the pipes it didn't matter.

SO: How did you go from busking to playing professionally?

DS: By default, really, because you can only arse around like I did as a kid if you have the means. From day one, music for me was tied up with income. Busking gave me that extra bit of encouragement, and the Dublin pubs I played in were fantastic. I don't regret one minute of it.

SO: Was that when you met the Furey brothers?

DS: Yeah. That was the time when the big artists is the folk scene were accessible, unlike today when there's a lot of separation in the industry. Pipes were very rock 'n' roll at the time and musical families like the Fureys and the Keenans were supportive and encouraging to me. Paddy Keenan was playing in his family band at a place called The Pavee's Club, and when he was away I used to sit in and play with his family, which was formative. It was an amazing time.

SO: I wish I'd seen it.

DS: Yeah, you would have loved it.

SO: I wouldn't have gone home either. It's obvious that their influence helped create you as an artist.

DS: But I don't see myself as an artist. I see myself as a craftsman. I think it's more accurate and less ambiguous, even though there is artistry involved.

SO: When did you start making pipes?

DS: When I was very young. My relationship with my pipe-making master, Johnny Bourke, was pivotal. He was a great friend.

SO: How did you meet him?

DS: I met Johnny through the piping community in Dublin and became his apprentice. It was sort of a medieval apprenticeship where I just turned up and worked. It went from my early days messing around and leaving home, right through to when I started performing with Moving Hearts and beyond. Johnny died about five years ago and it was as much of a loss to me as losing my father. Now I have his tools and a considerable amount of responsibility to continue the pipe-making lineage.

SO: What's the history of the uilleann pipe?

DS: It's evolved over the last three hundred years. Being a professional piper is an unbroken tradition in Ireland. There have been two kinds of professional pipers over the years. One was a street piper, like a bluesman, and the other provided music for the aristocracy and the middle classes. When I first started playing pipes, they were at a low ebb of their survival. Then they had a renaissance with the folk revival of the late '60s and early '70s. Actually, I've only started getting back into pipes recently. I went through a very dark period with music that I'm just coming out of now.

SO: What happened?

DS: I wanted to be cool and play the guitar. I spent a good fifteen years on the road wit Moving Hearts and it was enriching, but I felt I had emigrated from the tradition. I was working in modern music out of choice and interest, but also necessity. I think that fucked up my interest in pipes. Now I'm coming back to the joy of the instrument.

SO: Why did you think of me for "Danny Boy"?

DS: "Danny Boy" has always been sung in such a rigid, angular way, and I had a vision of you singing it in a tender and passionate way- very delicately. I liked the idea of you accessing a side of your voice that's in keeping with the Irish tradition of unaccompanied or sparsely accompanied singing. And I also wanted to do it because I had never heard any pipes on any recording in the song's history.

SO: What about the other song we did together, "Dreaming Of The Bones"?

DS: I was so touched that you loved the music for "Dreaming Of The Bones" and chose to write the words for it. You were just like an angel. On a personal level, it meant an awful lot to me. I recognized that something special was happening, and "Dreaming Of The Bones," as you know, is magic.

SO: How does your work relate to tradition?

DS: My contemporary composition and style is not traditional at all. I'm an outcast because I took a left turn. I think what isolated me from my fellow folk musicians in Ireland was that I actually went out on my own and wasn't in anybody's club.

SO: I know what's that's like.

DS: Now I'm trying to find a balance between contemporary music and more humble, traditional stuff. But I'm not depending on the pop side; my life is about being en route anyway. -Sinéad O'Connor