Scottish Music from the Paul McKenna Band Performing October 1 in Camp Hill, PA

PAUL McKENNA BAND STORY

By Kira L. Schlechter

Paul McKenna’s self-named band has been given all sorts of
accolades – racking up comparisons to the Boys of the Lough and taking home the
title of Best Up and Coming Act at the 2009 Scots Trad Music Awards.

Believe the hype: They’re that good. They are the best of
traditional music, holding fast those traditions while rooting their sound in
modern, forward-thinking arrangements.

McKenna, who sings and plays guitar and bouzouki, is joined
by mates David McNee (bouzouki, tenor guitar), Sean McGray (flute, whistles,
guitar), Ruairidh Macmillan (fiddle), and Ewan Baird (percussion). Based in
Glasgow, the band has been together since 2006 and released a debut album,
“Between Two Worlds,” three years later.

They perform Saturday, Oct. 1, at 7:30 p.m. at Camp Hill
United Methodist Church, 147 S. 22nd St. Tickets are $20 for general
admission, $16 for SFMS and Scottish Society of Central Pennsylvania members,
and $10 for students ages 3 through 22. A potluck dinner will precede the show
at 6 p.m.

McKenna answered e-mailed questions about the band’s latest
album, this year’s “Stem the Tide” – a lovely, energetic  mix of tunes and songs sung in McKenna’s
airy, burring tenor and featuring glorious harmonies – after taking part in Bethlehem’s
bustling Celtic Classic festival.

Q: You cite
traditional musicians like Paul Brady and Dick Gaughan as influences, but can
you explain how Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin filter into your musical mix?

A: I have listened to all types of music and played in
different bands over the years, including rock and indie (ones), so many
musical styles have influenced me. The mighty Zep continue to be one of my
favorite bands of all time, but of course, musicians like Paul Brady and Dick
Gaughan are probably more evident in the music we play today in the band.

Q: You graduated with
a degree in
Scottish Music at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow—what
do you plan to then do with your degree (teach, maybe, do research)?

A: At the moment, I am concentrating on
performing with a little teaching mixed in. Perhaps I will do some research at
a later date, but for now, touring is the main thing for me.

Q: To back up a little, how did you get interested in music in the
first place, when did you start playing, what inspired you first? Was it
playing that came before singing, or the other way around?

A: I came from an Irish background, so
singing was always around me from a young age. I began playing piano and
guitar, then started to sing in my early teens. I became more interested in
traditional music after listening to people like Christy Moore, which led me to
Planxty and to taking up the bouzouki and mandolin.

Q: Having been named Best Up and Coming Act back in 2009 might
seem to put some pressure on you (it’s rather like winning the Best New Artist
Grammy, it seems) – do you see it as such and why or why not? How do you deal
with accolades like that in terms of forging ahead, as it were?

A: Winning the Best Up and Coming Act in
2009 just gave us more ambition to drive forward with our music. We didn’t see
it as pressure, but as an opportunity.

A few questions about the album:

Q: “Again for Greenland” and “The Mermaid” are set to original
melodies – do you do that often, set words that already exist to a new melody,
and what do you enjoy about doing that? Can you speak a little more about the
words, what both songs are about?

A: We do write new melodies for traditional
words quite often – it has become more popular in recent years and is a great
way to use older songs and breathe some new life into them. “Again for
Greenland” is a song from John Ord’s Bothy Ballads and is about a time when men
would leave home for six months to fish and earn money hunting whale. Many men
took part in this, not only from Scotland, but from Scandinavian countries,
too.

“The Mermaid” is basically about the
hardship at sea, and the chorus features a mermaid, for some reason. I’ll have
to look back at that one, I think!

Q: Can you tell me a bit more about Lionel McClelland, whose song
“Silent Majority” you do on “Stem the Tide” (you describe him as a great friend
and include your own “Lionel’s Farwell” in tribute to him)?

A: Lionel McClelland was a great friend and
mentor to me and others in the band. He always had good advice, which kept my
feet on the ground. He was a prolific songwriter and a great instrumentalist. I
think ‘Silent Majority’ will be a song which will be important for many years
to come. It’s one of the finest songs I have ever heard and been privileged to
sing.

Q: The story behind “John Riley” (the deserter who goes to fight
for Mexico) is definitely compelling – what inspired you about that tale?
Whatever made him and the other soldiers go to the other side, do you
know?     

A: I was instantly drawn to the story, like
many others that deal with immigration. I’m a huge Tim O’Brien fan (he wrote
the song). I believe Riley and around 200 other Irishmen left the U.S. army
after being treated terribly. They were also all Catholics and shared this with
the Mexicans, so perhaps that played some part in it, too.

Q: Did you write “Dreams of Darien” to draw attention to that
tragic, misguided event because it was so little-known? I’m guessing it was one
of those get-rich-quick schemes that never work out for the poor folks taken in
by it – why do you think people were so compelled to participate in it?

A: I did write the song for that reason. I
wouldn’t say it was a get-rich-quick scheme, as it would have taken a
substantial amount of time to actually set up a trading colony in Panama. The
problem was that they were just not prepared for the conditions (there), and it
didn’t help matters when the English stopped all aid getting there when they
started to fail.

What people must remember is that at this
time in Scotland, nobody had any money. There was famine. And everybody wanted
this to work. Unfortunately, many people died and the scheme completely failed.
(Its) failure is one of the main reasons Scotland is part of the United Kingdom
today.

Q: What’s next for the band in general and perhaps for you
personally? Are you gathering material for another album, and if so, where is
the search taking you? How about maybe other projects apart from the band, if
there are any?

A: We intend to just keep doing what we’re
doing and try to progress even more. We won’t be recording another album for at
least nine months, so we haven’t put too much thought into it yet. What we do
know for certain is that we will be working with Brian McNeill again as
producer.

Personally, I will be doing some duo gigs
with a singer from back home called Siobhan Miller – this year, we will play a
few shows in Scotland and Denmark to get the ball rolling.

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