Niamh Parsons has come to be known as one of the most distinctive voices in Irish music. Her voice has drawn comparisons to such venerated singers as Dolores Keane, June Tabor and Sandy Denny. The great Scottish balladeer Archie Fisher said of Niamh, ‘a songstress like her comes along once or twice in a generation.’
It has been said that while Niamh may not be the most famous Irish Balladeer, many feel she’s the best. Described in the Boston Herald as both emotionally haunting and tonally as clear as crystal, Niamh’s albums have been ‘must-have’ collector’s items for any lover of songs and singing. With 8 CDs to her name, Niamh has gathered a body of songs from many sources, both traditional and modern songwriters.
Growing up in Dublin, Niamh’s music-loving parents brought herself and her sister to the local folk club in The Old Shieling Hotel in Raheny, where the young girls were exposed to songs and singing from the likes of The Johnstons, Emmet Spiceland, Sweeney’s Men, Dolly McMahon, Danny Doyle and many of the other musicians and singers that were playing in Folk clubs at that time. ‘My father was a great singer, and on long journeys the family used to sing in the car – I don’t remember a time in my life when I was not singing – I love songs.’
Niamh developed this love into a penchant for collecting songs. She is always on the lookout for songs that speak to her – listening to new albums, scouring the Traditional Music Archives in Dublin, sharing notes with a network of friends and other singers. Once she discovers a song she likes, Niamh views herself as the vehicle for the music. ‘For me the song is more important than listening to my voice’, she says. ‘I consider myself more a songstress than a singer – a carrier of tradition.’
Throughout her career, Niamh has performed with a wide variety of artists, and has appeared at nearly every prestigious folk festival on either side of the Atlantic. As a member of the traditional Irish band Arcady (led by De Dannan’s Johnny ‘Ringo’ McDonagh), she sang on their Shanachie recording Many Happy Returns. She appeared before President Clinton and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in Capitol Hill, Washington, joined Grammy Award winner Paul Winter for an album and a summer concert in New York, and performed on ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ when the show broadcast live from Dublin.
Niamh’s recording career began with The Loose Connections, a band of top-notch Belfast musicians she formed with songwriter and bass-player Dee Moore. The band recorded two albums of contemporary and traditional material together. Their debut recording, Loosely Connected (Greentrax, 1992) met with the highest of praise. A beautiful mix of traditional Irish and contemporary songs, it featured the memorable ‘Tinkerman’s Daughter’ and featured Brian Kennedy, piper John McSherry, guitarist Paul McSherry and a variety of wonderful Belfast musicians.
The Loose Connections’ second album, Loosen Up (Green Linnet, 1997) was another buoyant mix of originals and well-chosen contemporary ballads, like Briege Murphy’s gorgeous ‘Clohinne Winds’ and Tom Waits’ ‘The Briar and the Rose’, a powerful a cappella duet with Fran McPhail of the Voice Squad. Once again the album featured first-class musicians, including guitarist Gavin Ralston, world renowned Saxophone player Ritchie Buckley and Kilkenny accordion player Mick McAuley (Solas).
In 1999, Niamh took a bold step and returned to her roots with her first solo album, Blackbirds and Thrushes (Green Linnet), a collection of traditional Irish ballads gathered from over 15 years of Niamh’s singing repertoire. In her words, ‘these songs are living in me’. The album won instant acclaim as a welcome return to traditionalism. The Boston Globe declared that it ‘expressed the sorrow and longing of the Celtic soul more deeply than any within recent memory’, and Irish Music Magazine called it ‘simply magnificent traditional singing.’
At this stage, Niamh found her self alone, without a band, and called on the talents of her friend Graham. Since 1999 they have been performing as a duet and there is a spiritual bond between them when they perform, which draws out the essence of the songs. Without doubt, Graham has proven the perfect foil for her voice.
Keeping in form, Niamh’s next CD, ‘In My Prime’ (Green Linnet 2000), was another collection of mostly traditional material, and again received widespread praise. Folk Roots named it one of the top albums of the year and The Irish Voice called the album ‘a must-have disc for lovers of Irish song.” The album was nominated for Album of the Year by BBC Radio 2 (UK) and the Association for Independent Music (US).
Over the next two years Niamh and Graham toured constantly, and Heart’s Desire was released in 2002. This album furthers the tradition of Irish song with unadorned settings and heartfelt delivery. She gathered together a collection of songs drawn from both traditional sources and modern writers including Mark Knopfler and Andy Irvine. The talented musicians who play on the album include, in addition to her main accompanist Graham Dunne, harmonica player Mick Kinsella, accordionist Josephine Marsh and Dennis Cahill who produced the CD, and called it ‘her best work yet’.
Heart’s Desire is dedicated to the memory of Niamh’s father, Jack Parsons. ‘Daddy had a beautiful voice’, says Niamh, ‘and a great ear for a good song’. The album won Association for Independent Music (US) Celtic album of the year 2002.
In September 2005, Niamh and Graham recorded a concert at the Fylde Folk Festival, in the UK, and released this as a live album, ‘Live at Fylde,’ which features many favourite of Niamh’s traditional songs, all on one album. It was an electric performance, beautifully captured by Alistair Russell.
‘The Old Simplicity’ was released with Graham in 2006. Produced by Dennis Cahill again, this album contains many relatively recent compositions; songs of hunger, of danger, of death and defeat, and ultimately, of love. This was the last CD with the Green Linnet company.
After a ten year absence, Niamh and Graham have returned with their new CD ‘Kind Providence’, released on their own label. A high quality album with mostly traditional songs, the album was very well received indeed, with Graham recording, editing, playing, singing backing vocals, mixing and mastering in his first major album production. As Siobhan Long of the Irish Times says, Niamh is ‘the conduit, not the gatekeeper of a song.’
Altogether this is a body of work that has proven Niamh Parsons to be one of the premier vocalists of her time, and certainly a keeper of the flame in Irish traditional song.