Susan McKeown
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Susan McKeown

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"Editorial Reviews"

Susan McKeown not only has one of the finest voices in contemporary Irish music, she has wedded a profound understanding
of the traditional songs of Ireland with an adventurous musical spirit. On Lowlands, her second collection of
traditional songs, her connection with the roots of Celtic music is so deep that when she mixes instruments like the
kora (African harp), erhu (Chinese fiddle), and tabla (Indian drum) with the less exotic violin, guitar, and tin whistle
the results sound absolutely right. McKeown moved from her native Dublin to New York in 1990, an event that
she says paradoxically made her feel more Irish. Songs like “The Snows They Melt the Soonest,” which features the
fiddling of Johnny Cunningham, and “The Lowlands of Holland,” a lament about a lover’s death at sea, are infused
with the sense of loss and longing that haunt the emigrant in a new land. On Lowlands Susan McKeown performs
a rare feat of artistic alchemy by transforming sorrow into beauty. –Michael Simmons - Irish Times


"Rhythm Magazine"

One of the strongest, most expressive voices in Celtic music belongs to Dublin native Susan McKeown. Her powerful
pipes mix equal parts Sandy Denny and Siniad O’Connor, creating a primal sound that would guarantee stardom if
she sang pop or rock. That inevitable climb may take just a little longer since Ms. McKeown is not content to sing
obvious songs in a typical way. She looks for buried traditional treasures and then adds interesting instrumentation
to massage her supple tones. Johnny Cunningham, Joanie Madden, Glen Moore, Jamshied Sharifi and other special
guests are outstanding, but it is McKeown’s voice that demands attention. Lowlands is this artist’s fifth release but
her first for Green Linnet. Poised to win a larger audience, Susan McKeown is ready for the spotlight she so definitely
deserves, and will undoubtedly get. -James Rodgers - Rhythm Magazine


"Press Quotes"

“A singer of passion, grace and striking presence; she seems to personify both past and present.”
Irish Examiner

“Music that lives and breathes in the wider world.” Q MAGAZINE

“Think Frida Kahlo crossed with Oumou Sangare.” – The Irish Times

“McKeown grabbed both song and audience by the throat, dragged them through heaven and hell and back again, and left the stage to the loudest applause heard all evening.” – Rolling Stone

“one of the most powerful and distinctive voices in Irish music” - The Irish Voice
- Various


"Susan McKeown & the Chanting House A review of her album 'Prophecy'"

Following on from the critically acclaimed "Lowlands", Susan McKeown is back with a new release "Prophecy". Dublin-born, American-based McKeown has always been traditional by nature, but she's experimenting here as the traditional music often plays second fiddle to a bolder, more acoustic rock sound. The sound is much more diversified than before and the lyrics are inherently dark and often wistful. Alternating between foot-tapping melody and gothic ballads, McKeown deals with heritage, religious faith and personal loss. Yet in a contradictive way, the album exposes feeling of a positive nature propelled by her delicate yet strong vocals.

"River" is similar in style to Dolores Keane with a pumped up rhythm. This track along with "South" clearly shows that she's evidently proud of her Irish roots and the "Ballinaboula" is as traditionally Irish as its title suggests (with lyrics dealing with Celtic influences, witches, devils and the like, with pipes and a string arrangement playing their part).

The songs on the album jump from one varied sound to another as a range of instruments are used, and yet it's performed with the same inimitable style. "What Did I Ever Do To You?" is a bluesy effort, again with those dark, sometimes bitter lyrics, "And I wonder and I ought to / Just how easily they bought you" and it even utilises a kicking electric guitar solo and organ riffs the Doors would be proud of. In another form, the opening track "Be Brave Be Strong" sounds almost reggae-ish at first, backed up with an excellent combination of trumpet and fiddle scores.

"Because I Could Not Stop For Death" is one of the most intriguing tracks on the record and is unquestionably a highlight. The lyrics of the song are actually an excerpt from the writings of Emily Dickinson. Natalie Merchant provides an excellent vocal with McKeown, and their combined talents collaborate perfectly with a distant bass & cello combination. Similarly, the albums' namesake "Prophecy" has lyrics inspired by WB Yeats, sung in a haunting and convincing fashion.

Along with lyrics inspired by some of the great writers, McKeown's own song-writing ability cannot be ignored and "Wheels of The World" demonstrates this: "And the wheels of the world won't stop for you to give us your reaction". In the very heartfelt "Seven Cold Glories", she pays tribute to a lost loved one providing a provocative hybrid between the desperation of loss and the faith she's left with ("There's a God out there / I wish it was mine"). One of the album's darkest moments, "Chances Are" is performed with a bass solo as laden as its lyrics: "This heart is tattered and torn / Got to wring it free of this bitterness and scorn". A disturbing lyric, yet atypical of the album's message, the struggle and eventual victory.

McKeown's inventive techniques have presented an album that is as compelling as it is diverse. She has successfully crossed genres here and the album is performed with an artistic excellence and with honest conviction, and it is sure to broaden her horizons. In that sense, "Prophecy" is indeed a prophetic album.

Jimmy Murphy - Cluas


"Music Review: Saints & Tzadiks - Susan McKeown & Lorin Sklamberg"

Although the diaspora of Jews from Israel began as early as 8th century BCE, it was the destruction of the Second Temple and the razing of Jerusalem in CE 70 by the Roman Empire that finally succeeded in scattering their population throughout the known world. Over the next century or so communities of Jews were established from India to Great Britain, and a period of mourning was declared which included a Rabbinical edict banning secular music.

The ban lasted to the middle ages, and the music that developed after was much like the language, Yiddish, that was used in daily life, a hybrid of the various cultures and people they found themselves living among. So you can hear Slavic and German influences in both the music they played and the language the lyrics they sung. Therefore it's not difficult to see Jewish music easily adapting itself to work with most other cultures. However, the idea of mixing Irish and Jewish music together still seems at first blush as maybe pushing that envelope a little too far. Can Gaelic and Yiddish have enough in common for such an effort to be possible? Yet, that's exactly what Susan McKown and Lorin Sklamberg have done on Saints & Tzadiks, a new
release on the World Village Music label.

This is nothing new for this duo. They won a Grammy award three years ago for their first collaboration, Wonder Wheel, so there are plenty of expectations for them to live up to with this recording. Well, I haven't heard the previous work, but all I can say is if anybody finds Saints & Tzadiks a disappointment they need to consider having their ears checked for hearing loss. Each of the twelve tracks on this disc are a wonder and a joy that tap into the wide range of emotions both traditions are famous for. What's really wonderful is that for two cultures with plenty of reasons for music to be replete with sadness, the collection on this disc does more than just break your heart as they have uncovered treasures to lift the heart and well as making it ache.

While the majority of the tracks are sang either in Yiddish, Old Irish, (Gaelic) or English, some are actually a mix of all three. "Prayer For The Dead" starts off by blending together the old anti-war song, "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya", with the Yiddish song "kh'bin Osygeforn felder,velder, oy'vey!" (I've travelled across fields and forests, Oh woe), sung in alternating verses by McKown and Sklamberg respectively, and then concludes with the singing in Gaelic and Latin of "Deus Meus Adiuva Me" (My God come to my aid). While McKown sings the part of the young woman not recognizing her beloved come home from the war for all the body parts he's missing in "Johnny", Sklamberg sings of finding the corpse of a soldier in a field and wondering who will do the funeral rites for him. Finally they conclude with the haunting prayer, written in the 11th century, asking God to fill the soul with love and sunlight.

The effect of the three songs blended together in this manner changes what are nominally anti-war songs, and songs about misfortune, into a prayer for something better. For, after hearing the litany of sufferings brought about by war, the beseeching a God to be filled with light and love is made much more powerful and turns the song into something more than the sum of its parts. The two principle tunes blend sufficiently well together they don't sound out of place being alternating verses of the same song, while the contrast between the two, ensures they become more than just one culture's lament by emphasizing the universality of suffering.

Like I said earlier this is more than just a disc about how horrible it is to be either Irish or Jewish as the two also have some fun. " My Little Belly" is an old Yiddish children's rhyming song that lists off various ailments by running through the various body parts with the two vocalists alternating verses. Sklamberg in particular has fun with making himself sound as plaintive and suffering as possible.

"The Hag With The Money" is another combination of three songs, this time three Irish tunes; "I'm In Arrears", "The Hag With The Money", and the instrumental "I Buried My Wife And Danced On Her Grave". This time the two alternate singing the Gaelic verses of the first song, and then McKeown sings her verses of "The Hag" in Gaelic and Sklamberg sings it in English and Gaelic. The story that's told by stringing the three together is a warning to all women of means - don't be marrying a guy in debt or you just might find him dancing a jig on your grave.

While the material is equally wonderful throughout the disc, listening to how McKeown's and Sklamberg's voice mix and contrast is the real marvel. Sklamberg has a beautiful tenor with which he communicates a wide range of emotions in all of his singing, while McKeown is a husky voiced alto with a rich sound. While it initially sounds like her voice will overpower his as they're not competing with each other that's not a problem, and the way in which their voices compliment each other is a marvel. If you can imagine two voices dancing and alternating who is leading as the music behind them shifts, you'll have a good idea of how well they work in tandem. Each of them serve as a perfect conduit for the meaning of their songs, so even though much of the material isn't sung in English listeners, should have no problem drawing a general idea of each song's emotional tenor.

Even if you need to acclimatize yourself to the idea of Yiddish and Gaelic material being sung together, you can't help but be moved and impressed - even awed - by what Susan McKeown and Lorin Sklamberg create on Saints & Tzadiks. The combination of their voices and the material being sung is as powerful as any music I've listened to in the past. It's not often that secular music is able to obtain the heights of beauty one would normally associate with religious music, but this recording is as full of passion and wonder as any oratorio to a god. - Blogcritics.com


Discography

Saints & Tzadiks (2009 Harmonia Mundi) with Lorin Sklamberg
Wonder Wheel (2006 JMG) with the Klezmatics
Blackthorn (2006 Harmonia Mundi)
Sweet Liberty (2004 Harmonia Mundi)
Prophecy (2002 SNG)
A Winter Talisman (2001 SNG) with Johnny Cunningham
Lowlands (2000 Green Linnet)
Mother (1999 North Star Music) with Cathie Ryan and Robin Spielberg
Bushes & Briars (1998 Alula Records)
Through The Bitter Frost And Snow (1997 Alula Records)
Bones (1995 SNG)

Photos

Bio

She walks on the wild side of Gaelic melody.
- BOSTON GLOBE

Once heard, you would never take Susan McKeown for anyone else. The Grammy-winning album 'Wonder Wheel' from The Klezmatics, features Susan on lead and harmony vocals throughout; her strong, richly colored contralto soaring on the dramatic survival anthem "Gonna Get Through This World".

A singer of passion, grace and striking presence with the ability to capture both the essence of the human spirit in her own words and music, be they cast in a traditional mode or the more hard-edged domain of contemporary adult rock; she seems to personify both past and present.
- IRISH EXAMINER

After singing on the streets of her native Dublin as a teenager, Susan left for New York with a bursary from The Arts Council of Ireland and a scholarship to the American Musical & Dramatic Academy, and soon became a regular performer at the legendary East Village club Sin-É. The enlivening intelligence of her songs marked Susan as a distinctive talent. Her debut album 'Bones' (1995) garnered wide critical acclaim, established her reputation as an inventive songwriter with a powerful voice, and set her on the road to an international touring and recording career.

Her album 'Sweet Liberty' (2004 World Village/Harmonia Mundi) drew accolades and a BBC Music Award nomination for her beautiful arrangements and collaborations with the groups Mariachi Real de Mexico and Ensemble Tartit. Audi licensed a song from her "Bushes & Briars" (1998 Alula) album for their national 'Father & Daughter' television campaign.

With ten albums under her belt Susan has a catalog of music that solidly spans the realms of world music and rock and along the way she has worked with such luminaries as Natalie Merchant, Linda Thompson, Pete Seeger, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Billy Bragg, Arlo Guthrie, Andy Irvine, Flook, Lúnasa, and the Scots fiddle master Johnny Cunningham.

If there's some dividing line between traditionalism and eclectic contemporary songwriting, McKeown refuses to acknowledge it. And with a voice as warm, resonant and versatile as hers, why should she?
- THE OREGONIAN

McKeown has been praised in the pages of Time Magazine and Rolling Stone and has appeared on various NPR programs (All Things Considered, A Prairie Home Companion, New Sounds Live, Mountain Stage and The Infinite Mind) as well as on the nationally televised CBS This Morning and Sessions at West 54th Street. Her powerful, emotive delivery and unique approach to a lyric have made Susan the vocalist of choice for documentary film soundtracks on CBS, Discovery Channel and PBS American Masters, as well as for prestigious theatre companies such as San Jose Repertory Theatre and Mabou Mines: Susan contributes lead vocals to the latter's production of Peter & Wendy which plays Arena Stage in Washington, DC in May and June of 2007.

"McKeown grabbed both song and audience by the throat, dragged them through heaven and hell and back again, and left the stage to the loudest applause heard all evening."
- ROLLING STONE