I was transported back a number of decades at The Harbour Bar in Bray a few weeks ago by a powerful performance of what used to be described as Celtic Fusion back in the day before buzz genres such as alt-folk, indie folk and New Age folk became the vogue. The occasion was a show by the Clare Sands Band, a Cork-based young artist who had been highly recommended to me by a number of reliable sources. An outstanding fiddle player who also plays electric and acoustic guitar and possess a beautifully potent vocal style was accompanied on stage by a four piece band, equally youthful yet playing like seasoned veterans. Featuring material from her 2016 album Join Me At The Table and a number of well-chosen covers their ninety minute set was outstanding. Their sound is a blend of folk, blues infused jazz and traditional, superbly executed. Self-assured, bubbly and with an infectious personality Lonesome Highway took the opportunity to chat with Sands, a young lady with melody, rhythm and verse ingrained in her genes and endless potential in wherever her musical career takes her.
You seem to have the perfect career and lifestyle balance combining teaching, session playing, support artist, performing and recording with your own band. A full-on schedule without doubt but well structured. Was this your game plan?
I wouldn’t say ‘Perfect’- more like intense, hectic! I never had a huge game plan. But I knew from day one that I wanted to play as much as possible, and release an album under my own name. I don’t like to rely 100 % on gigs for income- thus the balance I have finally achieved with teaching, music therapy, session work etc. It keeps me interested. I’m interested in a lot musically, and in other walks of life, so I have to keep it new and exciting. Ironically enough, the Leaving Certificate points came out yesterday- I had Music and Italian, or Law and French. I went with the music!
Am I correct in saying that you are the fifth generation of fiddle players in your family?
6th! No escape. All Dad’s side are fiddlers, songwriters. Mom’s side are pianists, singers.
Aside from the obvious inspiration from family members what other musicians have influenced your playing style?
I’ve found myself inspired by a variety of different genres and musicians. I’m a huge fan of Gypsy Jazz (The music of Django Reinhardt & Stephane Grappelli). I also love Latin music, in particular anything from Cuba. The rhythms are incredible. The musicians barely think- yet they can do things us Westerners can’t even dream of. I love rhythm...Something these two genres are steeped in.
When did Clare Sands the musician become Clare Sands the songwriter and which writers would have had the greatest impact on you?
I wrote my first song when I was 14 and learning to play the guitar. A song called Hear My Call which was all about homelessness in Ireland. Something or somebody must have affected my subconscious. After that, I just kept writing. It was a good way to deal with feelings, and what was going on around me. But as you get older, your songwriting definitely starts to change, and it’s not all about YOU! I loved poetry growing up, and still do, in particular Irish poets like Kavanagh and Heaney. I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan, and have acquired a recent obsession with Leonard Cohen, after reading a book of his poetry when I was in Guatemala. Strange guy. Master of the Pen. I also love two Cork men’s writing, John Spillane and Mick Flannery. Nothing is as it seems in their songs. I find that I write my best when I’m travelling. New experiences, new people, new cultures. I guess I’ll just have to keep jetting off if I want to keep writing!
Your musical style strays away from traditional, embracing both blues and jazz in equal measures, what I would describe as genuine Celtic Fusion without introducing a soft pop core centre. Did the motivation come from any particular artists consciously steering you in this direction?
Thanks! That’s a nice compliment. Consciously, no. I think it’s more to do with music I was immersed in growing up. I would listen to my Dad playing tunes in the house at night, but listen to Rodgrigo Y Gabriela (two Spanish guitarists) on the way to school. UCC also affected my playing hugely. I had a fantastic Jazz teacher-Tommy Tucker-who I really admire. My band also contributes hugely to the ‘Celtic Fusion’ sound. My keys/sax player Dylan Howe, is probably the best musician I know. He knows which chords to use, and puts them in the right places. Dylan and I have been playing for a long time together, as well as guitarist Kevin Herron. I feel we are extremely in synch with each other, and the two Fionns on bass and drums never miss anything.
Unlike the annoying tendency of many artists to ‘create’ a vocal style your delivery emphasises your natural accent which is refreshing, similar in many ways to that of Mary Coughlan. Was it a conscious decision to avoid adopting a ‘singing accent’?
I’ve thought about this a lot, and changed my opinion many a time. Firstly, I wouldn’t call it ‘annoying’. Everyone to their own. When children are listening to the radio, they imitate the accents of the singers they hear. All of my students sing in English Ed Sheeran accents! Some musicians also do this as adults, maybe from growing up hearing American accents constantly on their parent’s records. It’s nearly ingrained in them. I have no problem with it. I listened to a lot of American music growing up, but also to a lot of Irish singers- Karen Casey, Mary Coughlan, Mary Black. So maybe I slipped through ‘that’. I did make a conscious decision. When I listen back to my first single there is a twang of an American accent. I don’t know when I decided ‘Why am I singing in that accent’ but I did, and haven’t looked back. It’s too much effort to put on an accent- I’ve enough going on in my head! I’m also ridiculously proud of this fine island. I’ve been in eleven different countries this year as far away as Mexico, but Ireland has something very beautiful about it. I would like anyone that listens to my music to know that I am from Ireland.
I was hugely impressed with the band that accompanied you on stage on your recent Irish tour. Are these your regular band members and can you name check them?
Sure. Yes, they are my band members, and sometimes we have an additional percussionist, Paul Leonard. I mentioned them above, but to reiterate - Dylan Howe is on the keys/sax/vocals, and whatever else he can get his hands on. Multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist. Kevin Herron on electric guitar, sometimes dobro, and vocals. Funkiest guitar player around, and a fantastic singer. Fantastic rhythm. Fionn O'Neill on bass, sometimes guitar, vocals. New addition, and ‘A Rock!’ Fionn Hennessy Hayes on drums and vocals. Fionn is fantastic. Because he’s not ‘a drummer’, he picks up on my right hand of the guitar, and most importantly, listens. He can be as rock 'n’ roll as you want, or sit there and play a song on symbols.
With an increasingly over crowded market internationally and a small Irish market how does an artist like you best market yourself going forward and do you foresee yourself dropping the day job and pursuing a professional performing career at some stage?
I don’t know, to be honest with you. Definitely need to keep social media up and running. Make good videos. Try get as much airplay as possible and tour as much as I can. It’s really like building a house! Always building. It’s been an extremely busy year. I’ve been happy with everything that’s happened. I released the album last October, and have toured with some great Irish names as well as my own tours, and getting airplay on album tracks. It’s not so bad for a 23 year old, I suppose. I’m ridiculously hard on myself- and will never be fully content- but that makes it very easy to be driven. Won’t ever give up the day job (I say this now!) I don’t think music is a very sustainable or healthy business. There are the few exceptions (The Beatles, Dylan etc.) but I feel everybody has a ‘use by’ date. I’m not being negative- I think it’s a logical train of thought, especially with how music has gone. Even if you become the next U2, I don’t think I’ll want to be touring in forty years time. And for those that do, fair play! I’m a woman of simplicity, and I like my freedom. My goal is to start my PhD soon (music related - ha!) and take it from there
Are you working on a follow up to your 2016 Join Me At The Table or simply drawing breath and enjoying the opportunity to tour the album at present?
I’m enjoying the touring immensely. I have a new live video coming out soon and dates coming out of my ears till next December. Anything is possible. I might even go back and do Law!
Interview by Declan Culliton