I went to see Lisa O’Neill, an Irish folk (and so much more) singer at St Georges in Bristol last month. I booked the tickets on the strength of one song heard by chance on the radio- a rare occurrence for me. When I arrived, it seemed lots of others had done the same, which says something for the stop-in -your-tracks nature of her songs.
Most of her songs start with her strange, ragged voice, appearing to come from nowhere, then straining to a climax of voice and dissonant strings, before becoming low and intimate again. Each song feels like you’ve been on a journey.
And that voice- it can’t really be compared to anyone else, but certainly has accents of PJ Harvey and Patti Smith. Most of all though, it’s reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s raw vocals. There are definite similarities between O’Neill and Dylan- their propensity for poetry and storytelling and their seeming lack of concern for whether they’re ‘liked’ or not. Her music is filtered through her Irish-ness and the folk tradition, but like Dylan she has transcended it.
Her voice is ragged, rough, uncomfortable, deeply un-pretty, hag-like, crow-like. Sometimes it feels like a piece of ancient wood speaking to you.
A mention here to her band of mainly strings and a harmonium, who make other worldly, deep groaning and wildly beautiful sounds underneath her vocals, which really make each song magical.
Her subject matter is concerned with the earth and sky and the creatures in and of them, in an almost magical sense- one song is titled ‘Birdy from Another Realm’. Lisa explained on the night that ‘Old Note’ was about the ancient music of the wind and earth.
I find this quietly radical. Yes, it comes from a folk tradition, yes, it’s probably informed by our current predicament, but it doesn’t preach. Instead, it speaks to me of ideas I’ve been exploring recently of ‘uncivilisation’, deep connection with the earth and humbling in the face of nature.
This is a woman who has found her voice, both literally and metaphorically, and I always applaud that, as something that seems so unlikely and implausible in this world, especially for women, who are so often taught to speak in a certain way to elicit liking, popularity and male attention. That a series of of things should come together to enable it, and that a soul would push through to make what they have- even without encouragement, no doubt.
To find a voice, to not worry about what others think, to be patient, to allow all the strands of your being to come and be a part of what you make, to live within your culture and then use it to make something new. All this shows the way for artists to follow.
Lisa O’Neill got a standing ovation at St Georges in Bristol. In her own words: ‘To fill a room in Bristol- it’s taken so many years’. And perhaps that’s a lesson to us all- that finding our voices can’t be rushed. They will come if we let them.
Lisa O’Neill latest album, ‘All of this is Chance’ is out now.