Niamh Bury is the hottest new name on the lips of the Irish folk music community. A little over six weeks since she dropped her debut single ‘Beehive’, the Dublin-native has already captured the imagination of the likes of The Sunday Times, who appointed her the cover star of their Culture section, an incredible feat off the back of her first release.
“It’s been really great,” Niamh smiles of the past few weeks, when she sits down to chat with CLASH. “I’m really excited to finally be releasing music I’ve been working on for a couple of years now and it’s really exciting to have people listening to it”.
Despite her relative newness to listeners, Niamh is in fact no stranger to the Irish music scene. She was born into a musical family, her father a great singer and guitar player in his own right, alongside her mother who plays piano, her classically trained opera singer of a sister, and her brother who is a touring guitarist. “My aunties and uncles are into trad so I had a bit of that growing up, but I definitely had a rock phase!” she laughs, mentioning the likes of PIXIES, Smashing Pumpkins, and System of A Down as some of her early favourites. “My brother is nine years older than me so I just copied what he was listening to,” she smirks. “But on my own I was always listening to Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and those kinds of stuff but I didn’t have any friends who listened to it until I got into my 20s”.
After school, she spent a year studying music in college, but she found voice studies hard, not liking learning how to breathe, before she dropped out and picked up an English degree. Her trajectory into the trad world all changed in 2014 when she went to the The Inishowen Singing Weekend in Co. Donegal. “It’s really hardcore singing,” Niamh explains of the annual event, “it’s 24-hour singing and the sessions go on until seven in the morning, there’s nothing else like it in the world, it’s very special”. Whilst there, she met a group of young singers who organised The Night Before Larry Got Stretched monthly trad nights in The Cobblestone bar in Dublin. “It was Ian and Darragh from Lankum, the guys from Landless, and Willie Power, Sinead Lynch were all there and I discovered they had a taste of the festival in Dublin with The Night That Larry Got Stretched nights so that’s how I got started with them. From there I just kept going and it’s been amazing. I have moments I’ll tell my kids about one day, like when Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin sang that song that night, it really feels like you’re in the presence of greatness but they are also all my friends, it’s lovely”.
It wasn’t until lockdown that Niamh stepped out from the background and into the spotlight, after being convinced by Brían Mac Gloinn (one half of Ye Vagabonds) to record her own material. From there, a single became a project, which went on to become a whole album. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do but I just needed a little push,” she explains, “and I always knew ‘Beehive’ would be the first single”.
‘Beehive’, a near six-minute reflection of the overlapping of myth, folk wisdom and science, was inspired by the book Wisdom of The Elders, which Niamh was reading at the time, and documents the lives of a tribe in the Amazon. The book described the brain as a ‘Beehive’, at once chaotic and intricately ordered. “I think the song means one thing to me and a lot of different things to anyone else,” the newcomer replies when asked of the song’s immediate success. “The arrangements and productions are my favourite things about the song and why I chose it as the first single. There’s some amazing musicians playing on it and I think it’s quite a positive song as well. The lyrics are quite dreamy”.
The song was released on Claddagh Records, the iconic Irish record label founded by the late Garech Browne – heir to the Guinness empire – in 1959. The label was established to protect Ireland’s musical heritage, and has recently relaunched with Bury being one of the only two signings in nearly 18 years, alongside doom-folk outfit ØXN. “Signing with Claddagh Records was huge,” she admits. “It’s great to have their support and the timing and everything worked for this summer so it was the right moment where I could finally release things”.
“They are a really great bunch of people and they have the right ideas going forward with creating a home for Irish music that’s actually based in Dublin,” she adds. “They signed ØXN as well who are an amazing super-group, so yeah this phase of reviving the label is only really beginning, there’ll be loads more to come and I’m so excited to be a part of it”.
As we speak, Niamh Bury is gearing up for the release of her brand new single ‘Who am I To Tell Him?, a track which shows that folk need not be sombre. “This is one of my favourite songs on the album because it is quite groovy and danceable to, and I think a lot of songs on the album are quite well balanced in that way”.
“I don’t think I would have done it any other way,” she notes of having her as-yet unreleased debut album complete before releasing her first track. “To me albums are still very important, and having a finished body of work before you start releasing anything helps make it all a bit more cohesive. I finished the album before Claddagh and that partnership was ever a possibility, so I think that’s another thing I’m really happy with. I was happy with the music before I ever thought of anyone else hearing it”.
With Lankum’s Mercury Prize nomination and New York Times articles detailing The Night Before Larry Got Stretched vents, traditional Irish music is experiencing something of a golden period since the turn of the decade. Having considered the question of why extensively, Niamh Bury has drawn a through line all the way back to the global recession of 2008 and the effect it had on young people during a time of such great economic uncertainty. “That’s when bands kicked off and it’s just taken a few years to catch on,” she notes.
“I think there is something about Irish music that’s always attracted people,” she continues. “There was obviously a huge revival in the 60’s and 70’s with Planxty. The Chieftains were a worldwide phenomenon, as were the Clancy Brothers, so there’s always been something about Irish music. It’s a very generous type of music, it really brings people in and the melodies are incredible”.
“People just love Irish people wherever we go so there’s probably an element of that,” she concludes. “An element of Irish ex-patriotism, we’re in every corner of the world and spread out and it’s simply grown through the generations.”
Words: Cailean Coffey
Photography: Ellis Grace