Since my teenage years, when I first immersed myself in the world of folk music, I have been a huge fan of Niamh Parsons. I think, in fact, her forays into unaccompanied singing were a pivotal influence in it being my medium of choice for my music. Despite my love for her work however I have never been able to see her live – life just got in the way (check out my track ‘Little Things’ for how I feel about things getting in the way!).
A couple of months ago, by chance, I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to finally see Niamh perform with Graham Dunne in Stroud and she just blew me away (even with the tail end of a cold!). I sat there listening to her sing thinking ‘This is what I want to do’. Her light and shade, her emotion – everything about the way she sings is captivating, and that day I was mesmerised.
Being a small venue I was also excited (and I have to admit a little starstruck) to be able to speak to Niamh following her performance. Unlike a larger venue, where you wait in a line for a quick ‘ Hi’ and ‘Bye’ and perhaps a signing of an album with haste, Niamh was warm and welcoming to everyone and I was able to speak with her for quite a period of time (and get a much treasured hug!) both as she sold her CDs and just in general afterwards. It was during this time that we got to talking about my efforts and I plucked up the courage to give her a copy of Darkest Part. I also learned that she gave Skype lessons, which excited me no end! Shortly after that discovery, my wonderful partner Matthew, double bassist with the amazing band Shootin’ the Crow (check them out here) told me that he would like me to have such a lesson for Christmas. “Wow” was all I could think at first, before the excitement and apprehension crept in too.
Well, Sunday just past was the big day, but it wasn’t just a lesson and that’s that. No, Niamh was in contact regularly via email from Dublin for weeks before – happy to listen to my music and give her opinion and feedback, and I know now that this ethos will continue. So at 11am I sat with my tablet as Skype started to ring and nervously pressed that little green button to answer. Luckily because of Niamh’s contact prior I had some idea of what was coming, and had also had the chance to discuss what I wanted to talk to her about.
To begin with we spoke frankly about some things that I could do to improve the way I sing. It was like having a musical psychotherapist on the other end of the computer. Niamh just *knows* how to guide you and nurture you to grow – and in fact, just like a counselling session, realisations were made. Why I hold back when I sing, why I have been too scared to take a traditional song and truly make it my own. There were numerous ‘eureka’ moments for me within those 60 minutes and I came away feeling challenged but confident.
The rest of the time was spent discussing songs and song-choices, flitting back to technique every now and again. I say it again, Niamh just *knows*. From extensive experience and lots of research and writing on the subject she was able to suggest several songs that would not only suit my voice, but also the kind of stories that I want to sing about. Not only was I privy to what Niamh considered were definitive recordings of the song, but I was sent lyrics and even Niamh’s own research and notes on the pieces. That is more precious than gold. I have found it hard to find songs – I often worry that when I take a song I hear another folk artist perform that I won’t make it different enough, that people will always think of the other artist when I sing. Niamh not only suggested great songs for me (her choices were, in fact, almost spookily accurate in the way they spoke to me), but gave me a confidence to do what I want to do and truly make them my own. I feel like a new person, full of drive and ambition to do what I’ve always wanted to do, but have been too apprehensive to try. Sixty minutes with this incredible woman is all it took.
So in the aftermath of that hour I have an awful lot of work to do, and Niamh warmly exclaimed that she would be more than happy to answer follow-up questions, and to listen to ideas and recordings as I work with these new pieces. An amazing teacher and highly recommended to anyone who wants to really get under the skin of their singing. I can’t imagine not having another future session with her.
So in these days of materialism and consumerism, when everyone seems to want the latest gadget or the most expensive accessory for Christmas, I was lucky to be given something much more precious than any of those things could ever be. The gift of time with my long-standing hero, which she gave so warmly and with such encouragement. Thank you so much to both Niamh and, of course, to Matthew, without whom it would not have been possible for me to have gained so much confidence in such a short space of time.
I leave you with a favourite track of mine, beautifully sung by Niamh herself.
Until next time
Watch Niamh perform ‘Black is the Colour’ with Graham Dunne