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Irish Mythen talks about the struggle to get her Juno-nominated album just right

Photo by Lisa MacIntosh.

The album Little Bones has been a game-changer for Prince Edward Island singer-songwriter Irish Mythen. The 2019 release earned seven 2020 Music PEI Award nominations – winning two – a 2020 Canadian Folk Music Award for Solo Artist of the Year and a 2020 Juno Award nomination for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year.

Interviewed at the 2019 Folk Music Ontario conference, Irish explained how the process of putting the album together took longer than she had first intended.

“I was all ready to go [with releasing it] and then I actually pulled the whole thing,” she said, “because I thought there were some missing songs that needed to be on there. Then it actually got the new name, because ‘Little Bones’ went on there and a couple of other tracks. Then we pulled half of the album and the way it was recorded, and we got the Atlantic String Machine in from PEI. They did the most incredible string arrangements on there. [As a result], the whole thing breathed new life! It’s the proudest I’ve ever been of an album.”

Obviously, that proud feeling wasn’t what Irish was getting the first time she “finished” the album. Something was missing.

“I went, ‘Hang on; something’s pulling at me here, something’s niggling. So I revamped the whole thing, pulled a lot of songs, pulled a lot of the brilliant people who were on it too. And then this album appeared, literally out of a mess I was making. People were saying, ‘Stop pulling it apart!’ and I’m like, ‘It’s not it! It’s not it!’ and then boom, it happened.”

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Little Bones was engineered and produced by Irish Mythen and Sergey Varlamov. The method used to put the album together is not exactly one Irish would recommend to any other artist.

“I laid all the bed tracks and then left the country on tour and went, ‘See ya!'” she said laughing.

“Sergey was so brilliant in this organic way. We would be on the phone together, on Skype, on Facetime, whatever. He would send me the tracks, and I would go, ‘Yay, ‘nay,’ ‘indifferent,’ ‘happy,’ ‘sad,’ whatever. But it was exhausting. When I got home again, we met up, and it was this beautiful thing. These songs are powerful. Nothing gets in the way of anything else. It’s a beautiful project.”

One thing that becomes apparent with “Little Bones” is that the aural beauty of the string arrangements doesn’t lessen the serious subject matter of the songs.

“There’s difficult songs on there but they’re needed,” Irish said.

One of Irish’s most powerful songs, “Let Them In,” makes a reappearance on the new album, wrapped in the artistry of the Atlantic String Machine, bringing the song to its original intention.

The title track is about a sad chapter in Irish history

“Shawn Kemp did the brilliant string arrangements,” she said. “Shawn got it. I just explained what the song meant and how the song had grown in the years since I first recorded it. He said, ‘Just leave me alone for a while,’ and he came back with the most hauntingly beautiful intro to the song! It’s that weird time where you go, ‘Yeah that’s what I meant,’ but you can take zero credit for anything (laughing)!

“Let Them In” could be looked at as an example of a song being ahead of its time.

“We’re living in times now where maybe people are listening in a bit more and instead of taking up room, they’re listening, and they want to be educated. We’re paying more attention to news, what’s true and what’s not true and the plight of people. So the way ‘Let Them In’ appears on the album is just stunning to me, and I can’t really see it or hear it or look at it in any different way now.”

The story behind the song “Little Bones” brings Irish back to her homeland and a time people are happy to be rid of.

“It’s probably the most difficult song I’ve written for two different reasons,” Irish said. “Number one is because it’s about such a difficult subject. We had a very ridiculous time in Ireland where church and state got together and decided what was better for certain people. They were taking children and putting women in institutions. The story around [the song] is there was basically a hole in the ground in Ireland where [construction workers] were excavating, and they found upwards of 800 bodies of children as young as 10 to 15 days old and as old as three and a half! I started thinking about all these institutions in Ireland, and I wanted to write a song that would make people feel uncomfortable because we shouldn’t feel comfortable about these subjects. The second part is because I live and perform in Canada, and I didn’t want anybody to think I was writing about a subject that wasn’t mine to write about, with the obvious history and current treatment of Indigenous Canadians and the residential schools. I wanted to be really clear that this is an Irish story. It’s about the [hideousness] of when we as a people let church and state dominate our lives. ‘Cause that’s never a good thing, it has never ended well ever in the history of everness.”

Success… finally

Regarding the work of The Atlantic String Machine on Little Bones, Irish said she can foresee touring with the quintet once artists are able to tour again.

“The glory of being a little bit more established is it is kind of a treat for people if I come along with something else,” she said. “I don’t necessarily think I would wait for a big soft-seater to do that. Because they make so much — noise is the wrong word – for a quartet or quintet. I could easily bring them along to a festival.”

Looking back at her career, Irish said she is pleased with her development and maturity as an artist.

“I’m extremely proud of the way I did the majority [of my career] thus far alone. I had no team. Twenty-fifteen was when the team really came together. My first show in Canada was 2006, so 2015 really for me was the catalyst year. I found a group of people who were an extension of me and my core values. I’m not afraid of working hard and neither is the team, so it really upped everything. Also, there was a beginning to understanding that [with] writing, you have to do it every day. It is a muscle you have to train. That’s when it kicked up into a higher gear. And then also I fell back in love with songwriting… Nothing that appears on this album is forced at all. Some were difficult to write, like ‘Little Bones,’ but I had a whale of a time writing. I was laughing out loud when I was writing ‘I Painted A Picture’ ‘cause it’s so simple. It’s basically ‘What are we doing to the world?’ and the last verse is me realizing I no longer live in Ireland. All my family is, and my generational family is there, and it’s that realization I’ll never lie in the family graveyard. But that’s OK because I’ve painted my own picture… So I had such a joy writing this album but also a heavy weight on me as well with some of the songs. It was an absolute journey. It’s such a cliché but this for me, this is the album.”

To find out more about Irish Mythen and Little Bones, go to: www.irishmythen.com.

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