The Fairy Queen of modern folk

Irish folk singer Lisa O’Neill

The Barbican Hall has a capacity of almost 2000. And every seat was filled when I saw folk singer Lisa O’Neill on a rain-chilled March night. I wouldn’t have known a thing about her had I not chanced upon the remarkable track Old Note on BBC 6 Music earlier this year. I was driving from Cornwall’s south coast to surf the wide sandy beaches of the north. Her hauntingly emotive voice stopped me in my tracks and by the time I reached the gusty Perranporth car park I had to find out who she was.

Lisa O’Neill is an old soul in the body of a 40-year-old. Originally from Cavan near the Northern Irish border, she now lives in Dublin, with close ties to Wexford, a county where I have a long history. My mum’s parents lived near a tiny village called Ballindaggan, in a bungalow snuggled against rolling farmland. I would spend Easter holidays there, wandering the fields and haring through the woods playing make-believe games – mashups of James Bond and World War II – by the small stream that marked its boundary. I owe that magical woodland a great deal for the foundations of my imagination. Listening to Lisa O’Neill’s recent album All Of This Is Chance, it seems she too takes great inspiration from the countryside around her.

Lisa’s singing voice echoes a traditional folk sound, and she admits to drawing on the raw powerful vocals of Margaret Barry, a 1950s singer who influenced Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span. It’s an idiosyncratic style that morphs from impishly childlike to sounding like the oldest, wisest person in the room, and fits perfectly with her storytelling lyrics. In these she often imbues the natural world with a numinous quality, complaining “the birds and the bees were laughing at me,” in Silver Seed. Her fascination with nature and the otherworldly seems to stem from early childhood. Lisa’s parents had a toy globe and would use it to show her where she lived. Frowning at the little plastic sphere, Lisa asked, “But where do I get in?” This question is recalled in The Globe, where she sings of getting older and wiser until finally, “that cruel old globe went showed its door to me.”

Lisa sings of epiphanies among the tall grass and ancient stones studded with forget-me-nots

The Barbican sell-out crowd is perhaps no surprise, as Lisa’s popularity has been boosted by her appearance on the Peaky Blinders soundtrack. She was blindsided by the offer, she says, especially as the TV series was already two episodes in at the time. The show’s producers gave her three days to record her version of Bob Dylan’s All the Tired Horses from his 1970 album Self Portrait. What was quite a perky refrain in the original becomes a menacing mantra from Lisa’s lips. Her whispered vocals build in intensity as the music swirls around her, becoming more and more raucous, until turning darkly diabolical by the end.

The pinnacle of her album – and live performance – is Old Note. This phenomenal song is underpinned by a drone played on a double bass, supported by a viola (made in 1770, she tells us onstage) and hammer dulcimer. The latter is an elaborate stringed instrument that’s hit rather than plucked, creating sparkling, ethereal notes. Against this minimal atmospheric backdrop, Lisa’s voice glides in: “The wind whistles you in behind the springtime / Float old note, new among my mind.” That “note” is the music heard in nature, like the wind blowing past a gatepost. “I can’t come to quantify the feeling / I was walking home, half in the dreaming,” Lisa sings of her epiphany, a Wordsworthian revelation among the tall grass and ancient stones studded with forget-me-nots.

Old Note has held me utterly spellbound from the moment I first heard it as I barrelled along the Cornish lanes to when it resonated live across the Hall in EC1. In fact, each time I tap its name into Spotify, it thrills me completely, swooping and soaring and transporting me to another realm. The song ends with a recording of Lisa’s young niece. She’s playing with her dolls and lays one on its back, explaining: “She’s sad because the song ended.” “Can’t you make another song?” asks Lisa. “People say there are no other songs,” her niece replies. What people? “The spirits,” says the little girl.

If any artist can be described as spiritual, it is Lisa O’Neill. Her songs tap into the infinite, whether she’s celebrating elemental nature or railing against social injustice. Just as time would disappear when I clambered over my grandparents’ fence and raced down into the woods, temporal reality fades away as you listen to All Of This Is Chance. And if my paean sounds a tad hyperbolic, I’m someone who never felt folk’s allure when I was younger. Like the finest Van Morrison songs or the punk poetry of The Pogues, Lisa O’Neill’s music is truly transcendent. Her album ends with Goodnight World, where she soothes her beloved with a lullaby: “You’ll not be missing nothing, the sunshine’s sleeping too / The stars are lining up, love / To watch your dreams with you.” Lisa O’Neill is young, she is old. She is timeless.

Will Stubbs is a screenwriter and TV commercials writer. Music is his first love

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Arts & Culture, May 2023, Music

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