Musical storytelling

Every once in a while you meet someone whose work impacts upon you so much, you just have to spread the word.

At the turn of the New Year, a post from the writer, Damian Gorman, caught my attention on Facebook. He gave a glowing review of a Belfast-based singer/songwriter who had just produced her third album, inspired by real-life stories. I decided to investigate.

What I discovered, after listening to some of her music online, and subsequently meeting the artist – Fionnuala Fagan – for a chat, was some of the most heartfelt and emotive music I have ever heard… and also some of the best storytelling.

FionnualaFionnuala’s novel style in the three albums she has produced in this format – Homebird; Stories of the City: Sailortown; and Dreaming Protected Me – involves interviewing people about certain aspects of their lives and then taking these transcripts and composing beautiful folk music around them. The result is impressive.

It also offers a different way of storytelling, which not only preserves the tales told for generations to come, but adds an extra intensity with the haunting melodies which carry the lyrics along. Yes, many artists tell stories in their songs, or base them on real life, but Fionnuala uses verbatim – that is, more or less, word for word – what her interviewees have told her, which creates greater authenticity and tells the audience about something important which actually happened in the past – in that person’s own dialect and language.

For me, it is a reminder that short stories aren’t confined to the page, but can be given another vibrant life in music, subsequently reaching new audiences in the process. The essential art form is the same though in many ways. How best should this story be told? How to arrange the music around it? How to highlight the key elements and how to make sure the tale has its beginning, middle and end? In less than five minutes.

The first CD I listened to was Homebird. Having spoken with Fionnuala over coffee in the MAC one afternoon (Belfast’s Metropolitan Arts Centre), I had already been irrevocably drawn into the story by her telling of it. Her grandmother was just 19 years old when her mother and father and nine siblings sailed to America to begin a new life, as times were hard after the Second World War. She was left alone in the south of Ireland, in Cork, her heart breaking – her mother’s scream of anguish at having to leave her eldest child as the train pulled away, still ringing in her ears as she stepped back inside the family home afterwards – for the first time, hearing her footsteps echo in what had once been a busy, noisy house.

She was a homebird you see – and she didn’t want to leave.

The rest of the story is brought to life beautifully in Fionnuala’s music, as are the stories of the people of Sailortown – a dispersed Belfast community who lost their dock-side homes to industrial development and never got the rebuilds they had been promised. It is a place I had never heard of, but which I know feel I know intimately, having heard the stories of those who once lived there, their memories of it and how life unfolded in this formerly bustling part of the city. It is a part of history preserved and which I would probably never have known about, but for the genius idea of a local musician.Dreaming Protected Me

Meanwhile, her most recent work – Dreaming Protected Me – portrays the stories of men and women affected by war – in Bosnia, and in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Again, the same sentiments prevail – the music brings a shiver to the spine, the words ring true and you come away having learned something – even if that is only that war affects us all and that, in the end, what type of war it is rarely matters. War is war.

My point in all of this is that storytelling – that ancient tradition which used to be passed on orally, then in words, music and so on – is powerful, and it is always a delight to discover someone doing it a little differently and bringing new life to old tales almost forgotten. Of course, I recommend having a listen to Fionnuala’s work and, for Northern Ireland residents, there will be a little piece in the Belfast Telegraph newspaper about her in the next few weeks.

As Damian told my writing group the other year – speaking fluent human is what writing is all about.


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