Sligo musician and contemporary harpist BRÍDÍN tells Stephen Holland about her music, the limitlessness of the harp, and how being a funeral director influences her creativity
West Sligo native and harpist BRÍDÍN says her music acts as the perfect emotional outlet when life gets tough.
The multi-instrumentalist contemporary musician spoke to The Sligo Champion about the way living in Sligo has influenced her music, the boundless possibilities of the harp, and how working as a funeral director and embalmer feeds into her creative expression.
BRÍDÍN (Bríd McGowan) is the fourth generation in her family to play Irish music and carries on that tradition through harp, flute, piano, and Sean-Nós dance with some of her earliest memories being performing at sessions in her family’s own McGowan’s pub in Easkey.
“My mother would have brought us around playing a lot of sessions and gigs, this was before the curfew and we’d love it,” she said.
“That was really my first experience of performing, playing my little tune that I’d learned throughout the week and then falling asleep behind mum while she’d be playing the pipes.
“It was such a normal thing to always have music around, playing and singing songs, it was only when I grew into a teenager that I realised I was one of the only ones in my school who played music. Everyone was hanging around the town while we were off playing a fèis or a fleadh.”
BRÍDÍN first started playing the whistle when she was four years old with her mum telling her she just picked it up and started playing a tune she’d heard at a session, but it was at aged 14 after hearing Laoise Kelly playing the harp that she knew she had found the instrument for her.
“I had tunnel vision and I said I really want to play the harp. My mum said, ‘are you sure?’ because you can’t just walk into a music shop and pick up a beginner harp,” she said.
“I started playing the harp in November the year of my junior cert and then I did it in my practical, I was literally obsessed.”
BRÍDÍN says the harp is an instrument with very few restrictions and now in her music she uses effects and loops to produce otherworldly and incredibly layered melodies with a voice than blends beautifully with contrapuntal fiddle, keyboard, electric guitar and bass, woven together with pulsating drums.
“The harp’s not just for playing lullabies on. You have the likes of Laoise Kelly, Gráinne Hambly, and Michael Rooney playing tunes that have changed the face of it. It’s gone from being considered a dainty instrument to creating powerful class tunes with amazing arrangements.
“People’s eyes have really been opened to it over the past few years and sometimes people are blown away by all my effects and loops, but people do the same thing with guitar, there’s just less of them,” she said.
“My goal is not to revolutionise anything, I am making music that I love to hear myself and I am so happy people like it as well.”
After having released her first EP ‘Oceans of Stars’ last year, BRÍDÍN is now preparing for the release of her debut album this September. The first taste of this is the track ‘Empty Room’ which is available now on Spotify and Bandcamp.
The song is about a love for ‘the sound of an empty room’ and stems from BRÍDÍN experience as a social introvert and the possibilities for creative and personal expression one can achieve alone in solitude.
“I get great peace when I am alone, to come up with ideas, to record and develop them. When I am in that zone I am so happy, but I am aware that from the outside it can look kind of sad, there are some people who cannot fathom how you could be so happy in your own company,” she said.
The music video for the song was filmed in Markree Castle and features strong aesthetics and a stunning dance performance from Dublin dancer Ellie Burke.
“My idea started with Ellie dancing in the room and then there’s a build-up in the song where it goes to my soprano counter melodies. I knew I wanted that moment to be angelic and beautiful,” she said.
BRÍDÍN highlighted the input of videographer Fionn Rogers and his father the photographer Steve Rogers on all of her visual work.
While studying for a master’s degree in music performance in University College Cork, BRÍDÍN says she was often forced to make music alone stating, ‘I always wanted to be in a band’ but ‘no one seemed to want a harp’.
“I said I’ll make my own band and I saved up and got a loop pedal, that developed my style so much and I think people will be blown away when they see the progression from my EP to the album,” she said.
BRÍDÍN has received national attention performing on The Late Late Show, The Tommy Tiernan Show, Claire Byrne Live and more saying she feels incredibly lucky to stand alongside musicians who she has idolised her entire life, even getting to work with some of them such as Sharon Shannon.
“I am so grateful for every second of it but the best piece of advice I’ve received is when you walk out of RTÉ forget about, it’s the best approach because you could lose the run of yourself, there’s more important things in life, but what is great is the relationships you make along the way.”
While often writing and recording alone, BRÍDÍN is frequently joined onstage by a fiddle player in live performance and for her upcoming Sligo show in the Hawk’s Well Theatre will have the backing of a full band with Brian Dillion on keys, Kevin Donnellan on fiddle, and Paul Leonard on drums.
As well as being a musician, BRÍDÍN works as funeral director and embalmer in her family’s MacGowan’s Funeral Home and says this work has greatly influenced her outlook on life and the way that she expresses herself.
“There are a lot of situations in my job where I come home and I am not okay. It is really tough and we see things that a lot of people will never see, but with the music I feel I can go into the studio and play or write and it feels like I get it out of my system,” she said.
“It’s an emotional outlet and I feel working in this industry it’s important to have a creative outlet. I wouldn’t say I am writing songs about it in a literal sense, but it’s more like the songs come from the pain of it.”
While personal experience feeds into her music, BRÍDÍN is also inspired by her natural surroundings and the beauty of Sligo. “I love to be around nature and Sligo is where I am most creative. It’s just such a beautiful place that I love so much, I love to spend time at the sea and I find it so fascinating. That constant flow and movement of nature inspires me so much, there’s something in the air here.” BRÍDÍN is playing at the Hawk’s Well Theatre on Friday 24 June and tickets are €15/7.50 U18s.