Heidi Talbot: Stories and Songs

Kerry Dexter's picture

Heidi Talbot loved singing around her house when she was growing up in the rural area of Kill, in Kildare, in Ireland. ”My mum’s a great singer, and she got me into children’s choir when I was seven,” Talbot recalls. ”I did that, but I was really really shy -- still am a bit. When I had to do  a solo at mass, I wanted to and then I wouldn’t want to,  then I’d go, okay, I’m doing it, then I’d be happy that I had done it, but the next week I wouldn’t want to do it again!” she recalls, laughing. “I think there’s no more of a nerve wracking place to sing than at mass, when it’s quiet and everybody’s looking at you, and it’s in front of all your friends.”

Being the focus of attention and sharing her music with friends and strangers turned out to be something Talbot has had a good bit of experience with. She’s celebrating the release of her third solo album, The Last Star. That experience at mass, and soaking up music from Mary Black, Maura O’Connell and Joni Mitchell that her parents and brothers and sisters had around the house, helped pave the way for her future, as Talbot found herself drawn more and more toward music.

Thinking about what to do after high school, she knew it was music. “It was all I really wanted to do. But you know, when you’re coming to the end of school and everyone’s picking college courses -- in Ireland six months before you leave school you have to send in your applications and make your choices -- I had no idea. I just wanted to sing, and everybody was telling me that wasn’t practical,” she says. “So I put in for psychology, really knowing nothing about it, and I got offered a place. I didn’t take it.”

What she did instead  was set out for a short summer break. “I went to the States for what was meant to be three months, and then that was me there for seven years, and no psychology!” she says, laughing. She soon had regular gigs singing in Irish pubs in New York City. “Joanie used to come in to a place up in Yonkers, on Maclean Avenue, a very Irish area of the Bronx, after she’d finished recording or whatever she was doing, and I got to know her a little bit,” Talbot said. Joanie is Joanie Madden, founder and bandleader of the widely known Irish American group Cherish the Ladies. Madden asked Talbot to sit in for a few gigs while the band was looking for a new singer. “I did that,” Talbot says, “and then she asked me to stay, to join, and I did that for nearly six years.” Cherish the Ladies began in the late 1980s when the presence of women as professional musicians  in Irish music was not that widely known or respected . The band has played a major role in changing that perception. In addition to its own top rank in world music, Cherish the Ladies has been a part of the careers of a number of notable artists who have gone on to top careers careers with their own music, among them Eileen Ivers, Cathie Ryan, and Aoife Clancy -- and now, Heidi Talbot.

“It was great working with Cherish. They’re total road warriors, you know, always traveling, and then when you’re in a band for any amount of time, they get to be your family, too,” Talbot points out. Time came when she was ready to spend more time on her own solo career, though. “I’d moved back to Ireland, to Galway, and then I met John (McCusker, now her husband) and he’s Scottish, so I moved to Scotland, and most of the band’s work is in the States. I was ready to sing more songs, to do my own gigs, and it was time.” Talbot released a solo album, Distant Future, while with Cherish, and another, In Love +Light, just as she was leaving the band. Both those albums have mixed traditional and contemporary songs to good effect.

Her most recent release, The Last Star, shows a bit more focus on traditional material, with a contemporary twist. McCusker, a fiddle player and composer, would write melodies, and then Talbot would find traditional lyrics to go along, adapting them as needed. It’s a lovely piece of work, thoroughly in keeping with traditional sound and idea and yet giving a freshness to older songs and stories. There’s the sea chanty Sally Brown for a lively bit of song, and the title track for a reflective turning point, along with the varied lovers’ tales of Willie Taylor, Tell Me Truly, The Bantry Girls, and six more tracks. Talbot is a natural story teller, with a voice that is all her own, yet may remind at times of Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, and Gretchen Peters. On The Last Star, among those who frame her voice are McCusker, who produced the project, as well as Michael McGoldrick on flute, singers Eddi Reader and Karine Polwart, and Kris Drever on guitar.

It’s been a long way since those days of doing solos at mass back in Kildare. In her relaxed stage presence these days, there is just a hint of that shyness still, though, a slight reserve which, along with her natural warmth and humor, endears Talbot to her audiences as much as do her voice and her way with songs.

If you are in the United States, you will be able to get a taste of Talbot’s work this winter, as she and McCusker will be featured this December in the Christmas Celtic Sojourn concerts in New England and a performance of the show will be syndicated throughout the United States by public television station WGBH.


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Kerry Dexter is the Music Editor for Wandering Educators.
Kerry’s work has also appeared in VH1, CMT,  Strings, Symphony,The Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas, and other places. She also writes about the arts and creative practice at http://www.musicroad.blogspot.com Music Road. You may reach her at music at wanderingeducators dot com


Photo courtesy and copyright Heidi Talbot