Margeson on the Music April 09

Derry’s Maranna McCloskey is just out with a brand new album entitled, At Last. For the people familiar with the talented alto’s singing, this will come as welcome news fully justifying the title of the album. It has been a long time coming, and it is already receiving solid reviews and airplay, as witnessed by the LiveIreland award for Vocal Album of the Year, 2009.

Maranna was born in the mid 70’s in Dungiven, Co. Derry. There is a musical pattern to her talent that begins in her childhood, and it is common in the Irish music scene. Musical backgrounds tend to produce musical talent. This is not as self-evident as it may seem, at least not in regard to Irish music. A musical family is the alpha hallmark in traditional music for the overwhelming number of stars now on the scene in the music, and so it is with Maranna.

She began singing Irish traditional music at the age of seven, under the tutelage of her father, Tommy Gerard. There was also a musical mom, Lucy, the Kelly cousins and a host of friends guaranteeing that these songs, literally learned around the family fireplace, would be carried on and sung in the future. Derry is known for terrific singers. These family backgrounds are essential to understanding the continued membership in the traditional circle. Also common in these artists is early and frequent participation in the musical competitions known as fleadhs. Again, Maranna is no exception here, beginning her competitive efforts at the age of nine. Her list of championships is impressive, including three championships in the Derry Fleadh for English traditional singing and two champion trophies as winner of the Ulster Fleadh in the same category. Off to secondary school, Maghera College, where she was further encouraged musically and took up the silver flute, as part of a classical music education. “The theory and knowledge I gained there is so important to me today as I write music. It is really practical, ” she states.

Now, the pattern gets a little less clear, but not to worry—it all comes right in the end. Off to university to get a degree in—are you ready?—Biological Sciences. University of Ulster at Coleraine. But, as we said, not to worry. For it is at this time that Cara Dillon, she of last month’s cover story here in IMM, left the popular trad group, Oige. Maranna was immediately asked to replace her, and Maranna’s warm alto provided a startling counterpoint to Cara’s soprano, as the group launched into a busy concert and festival period all over Europe. The group’s only album, Bang On, featuring Maranna is still eagerly hunted by trad aficionados, as an example of her early work.

Pattern continues. After leaving the group following several years, Maranna decided it was time to take a career break from her scientific laboratory profession, and off she went for a year to Australia. Of course, it goes without saying that she continued singing in pub sessions and for friends. But, Australia, and a very close encounter with a crocodile beckoned, and the adventure began. While there, she wrote one of the tunes included in At Last, describing the magic of a place called Fraser Island. She returned home, and went to work for the University of Ulster as a laboratory clinical trials technician, whatever that is, please God—and earned a Master’s degree in Biotechnology. Another pattern emerges—the music never leaves her ears, heart or soul. Her voice, an incredibly warm and expressive alto, had drawn a lot of attention in the Oige days, and won her New Artist of the Year Awards for an EP she released in 2003, containing four songs, among them, Fraser Island –which also won her Composition of the Year from LiveIreland. A St. Patrick’s Day invitation from San Diego, California of all places, arrived from Brian Baynes and his band to join them and piper, Eric Rigler with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra in performance. Music fans may well remember Rigler as the piper for the film, Titanic. “It was such a thrill to be asked, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t wait, and counted the hours until I got on the plane—and the whole experience was even more wonderful than I could have imagined. It is such a treasured memory to me,” exclaims Maranna. In the performance, Brian was again captivated by her voice and knowledge of the tradition. Many cups of tea, lots of scones and hours later, At Last was planned and agreed to, including Eric Rigler’s eager participation. The album was worked on for the following year in Baynes’ Avoca Studio in San Diego, which saw Maranna flying back and forth to record the project. Along with a bumper crop of frequent flyer miles, the flights allowed the quiet time necessary to set everything in its proper place. “I came to love those flights. Lots of time and space, working on a dream,” she concludes.

Released at a packed debut event in Derry, the album is already making a mark. Also included is a beautiful air, written by Maranna entitled, The Cashel Air for the townland in which Maranna was raised in Derry. There are 10 selections on the album, including four penned by Maranna—including a redone version of Fraser Island. “Eric Rigler and Brian Baynes are geniuses. I am so thrilled to have this album onboard now, and can’t wait to start performing selections live for audiences. Now that it is done, it is all like a dream. All the costs and work and efforts have all come together. I am blessed, that is for certain.”

The album is deeply traditional in feel and ambience with classics such as The Home I Left Behind joining trad favorites such as Lonely Irish Maid and Going to Mass Last Sunday. Both of the latter songs were learned from a favorite of Maranna’s, Rita Gallagher of The Frosses in Co. Donegal. Drawing a lot of attention also is the song, The Verdant Braes of Screen. Maranna learned this at the age of 10. It is a local song in Derry and refers to the town of Ballinascreen. A lovely tune, it tells of a man trying to seduce a woman of the town who knows the man is not being exactly honest in his advances, as she believes him in love with another. “A Derry woman’s virtue is not captured so cheaply!” laughs Maranna. Many of the songs center on the geographic area, as they are of the area, as is Maranna herself. Magherfelt May Fair is named for a fair that still takes place in that town every May 1. The hymn-like At Last concludes the album—and is spiritual in tone, though the casual listener may think it simply a romantic song.

So, At Last. All of these influences, all of these experiences, ranging from a youth spent in the music, through influences like the revered Rita Gallagher, Dolores Keane, Cathie Ryan and Eddi Reader, world travel, Oige and even that incident, perhaps best saved for another time, with that Australian crocodile all result in this creation. American Public Radio calls her The New Queen on the Scene. Surely those who love the rich alto tones featuring her warmth—and that is the only word for it, will agree. At Last, at last.