When Heidi Talbot sings, it’s ‘simply vocal heaven’ according to one critic. The folk musician talks to David Markham
Heidi Talbot and her able band of men play the National Centre For Early Music on Monday, April 14. I spoke to her between gigs on the phone and she was utterly charming – a fine advert for the best of Irish culture. In fact a fine advert for the best of “folk” culture.
I start by asking about her background.
When did you start singing?
I started singing at church in County Kildare. They had a little childrens folk club. I was part of the group and that’s where I started playing the guitar. Just kids songs you know. Just strumming along.
You play the ukulele too don’t you?
That’s right. A few years ago my husband, John McCusker, bought me a baritone uke from an antique shop in America. He bought it for my birthday, it sounds just great.
You see them at all the folk festivals now. It’s so portable and easy to play. You can just strum along with a couple of chords.
You started your musical career quite early.
I left school and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do at college. I was 18. My brother was talking about going to New York for the Summer and coincidentally my mother saw an ad in the paper for wedding singers wanted in New York City.
She sent a tape off and I got accepted. When I got to New York the guy rang me and the day after I went to the Bronx. Stood up and sang with the band. Mammies always look after their kids right – ha ha.
You joined Cherish The Ladies in NYC didn’t you?
That’s right. It was quite nerve wracking. It was a big move from weddings to concert halls and sometimes orchestras. I was with them for six years: it was a great experience.
So how come you left?
I knew I wasn’t going to be based in New York forever so I bought a house in Galway and commuted back and forth for about a year. It was a bit crazy.
I was trying to make a solo record and tour it and I knew something had to give. It was time to leave the band and it came to a natural end.
I recorded and toured my first album In Love And Light and it’s just grown from there really.
Tell us about your latest album Angels Without Wings.
The plan was to record it as live as possible in Glasgow. We recorded 15 tracks over seven days in a studio with enough booths to take all the musicians.
The vocals were put down as a performance – rather than being sonically perfect. It was a natural process. It was meant to sound alive.
There are imperfections on there. You can hear the sound of breathing and the squeak on the accordion. We were very happy with it.
We wanted to make a record of modern day folk songs. We wanted to involve people we knew or were friends with. So we made a list and were lucky to get people like King Creosote, Tim O’Brien, Mark Knopfler, Boo Hewerdine and Jerry Douglas amongst others. Lots of brilliant musicians.
Folk musicians seem happy to chip in together…
I think it’s a friendly scene. Everyone knows each other and you meet lots of friends at festivals.
You can call someone up and say what do you think about writing a song. Folk is very friendly and from what I’ve seen not many egos about.
Who are your influences?
I grew up in a family of nine kids and I was in the middle. There was all sorts of music coming from different parts of the house. From Guns ‘n’ Roses to Dolly Parton.
I was drawn to folk music like Mary Black, the Clancy Brothers or The Furies or Foster and Allen. All things my mum and dad listened to. I also love The Pogues and the Proclaimers and Teenage Fan Club too.
Have you played York before?
Yes we have. I think it was about two years ago. I love York – it’s a really lovely city. We’re really looking forward to playing there again.
And then she was gone. It was a lovely conversation. She was generous with her answers. Incredibly polite and fun to talk with.
Yet she must also be steely. To leave home at 18 and move to New York City took guts. To take on the challenges of Cherish The Ladies demonstrated ambition.
To raise a family and record/ tour – must bring its pressures. I suspect the pay off for Heidi Talbot is doing what she loves to do. Maybe what she’s destined to do.
I’m not sure I subscribe to the philosophy of Angels Without Wing,” but what I do know is the voice of an angel will be heard in York NCEM on Monday night.
There is a sense of fragile innocence in her voice – complemented by the one and only John McCusker on fiddle and the organic warmth of a guitar.
- Heidi Talbot is at the National Centre For Early Music on Monday, April 14 at 7.30pm
- More details on the NCEM website
- Read more music stories here