“It’s just very satisfying to be in the tradition,” suggests Liam Ó Maonlai over the phone from Ireland. The singer of Hothouse Flowers was once called “the best soul singer in the world” by U2’s Bono, but the jury’s still out as to whether the endorsement helps or hurts the band’s commercial chances. (Can anyone remember Clannad?)
Of course, Bono’s hyperbole overlooked Irish mentor Van Morrison, but Ó Maonlai is talking about a new traditional-music solo album and the live recording of “Sí do Mhamó í” on the band’s new American release, Into Your Heart, its first in over a decade.
Of the folk tradition exemplified by The Chieftains, Ó Maonlai suggests “It’s not an ego-driven thing, even though I won’t say that rock ’n’ roll is necessarily an ego-driven thing. With traditional music you’re respecting a source, and maybe putting an accent on it, but certainly not trying to claim it as one’s own.”
Into Your Heart, he says is the “result of three years, working on and off—Peter O’Toole (bass, traditional instruments), fiachna O’Braonain (guitar) and myself, the three original members.”
The result is another soulful collection in the tradition of Morrison, with a couple of falsetto turns that suggest Prince’s influence in “Better Man” and “Peace Tonight.” “Santa Monica”—written by O’Braonain while on tour with Michelle Shocked, along with “Tell Me” and “Alright”—has a decidedly American feel. The mystic spirit of Van the Man is channeled on “Magic Bracelets,” and elsewhere.
A solid collection, it’s Ó Maonlai’s vocal performance that sparks the moments of transcendence. He credits producer John Reynolds. “One thing about John is that he does pay particular attention to the voice, which of course makes me very happy. Sometimes the singer can be left ’til the last minute.”
While Hothouse Flowers is excited to have a new pop record that has already been well received in Ireland and available in America, Ó Maonlai is confident he and his band will be making music whether they succeed here or not. And it’ll be traditional music.
“That’s what is lovely about that traditional music,” he says. “You’re really just standing in line with people who’ve stood in line for centuries. It can be humbling, but it’s also empowering and quite extraordinary—the feeling that comes from singing a song that somebody 3,000 years ago has also sung. And annunciating the same frequencies, maybe not necessarily the same words, because the language is very old. But the sounds of the language are as old as the hills, literally.” I think Bono and Van Morrison would agree.