# A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Alison O' Donnell - Interview

  by Malcolm Carter

published: 12 / 8 / 2017

Alison O' Donnell - Interview


Alison O'Donnell, the former front woman with 1960's/1970's pioneering folk outfit Mellow Candle, speaks to Malcolm Carter about her forthcoming second solo album,‘Climb Sheer The Fields Of Peace’

Mellow Candle, a band that initially formed in the 1960's, is often referred to as one of the innovators of folk-rock. The fact is that while there is little point in denying that the band were influenced by folk music, there was so much more to the band than the folk-rock tag would indicate. Their recording debut in the late 1960's, the single ‘Feeling High’/‘Tea With The Sun’, was heavily influenced by the girl groups of the period, with shades of Phil Spector and Shadow Morton in the production. Issued on Simon Napier Bell’s short-lived SNB label the single flopped despite some airplay on Radio Luxembourg. Then it seemed that the band just faded away. But in 1970 Mellow Candle re-emerged, led by singers Clodagh Simmonds and Alison Bools (now O’Donnell). Alison had by now met guitarist Dave Williams and it was that trio, along with bassist Frank Boylan and drummer William Murray, which made ‘Swaddling Songs’ for the Deram label in 1972. The album, which although not setting the charts on fire, merged a number of different genres and was in many ways ahead of its time. A fact confirmed by the influence ‘Swaddling Songs’ has had on so many bands since. Play it today and it still sounds contemporary. The problem at the time of release was that the album was maybe a little too rocky for the folk audience and certainly too folky for the rock crowd. Despite strong in-band song writing the album failed to take off, listening now to songs like ‘Lonely Man’ it seems incredible that the band didn’t attract more attention. That song alone covers so much ground. While it displays the rockier, almost progressive sound Mellow Candle became known for, it never betrays the folk leanings of the band, listen hard and there are even small traces of the 1960s girl groups heard in that debut single too. The simple fact was Mellow Candle sounded quite unlike any other band around at that time. There was a certain energy that other bands, who were also merging folk with other elements, lacked and in Clodagh Simmonds and Alison O’Donnell the band boasted two exceptional, expressive singers that other bands just couldn’t compete with. After Mellow Candle split for the second time, O’Donnell (who had by now married Dave Williams and taken his surname), relocated to South Africa and formed Flibbertigibbet, issuing one album under that name. In the intervening years O’Donnell has collaborated with many musicians and bands. It’s obvious why O’Donnell has been chosen to grace the work of Mr Pine, Richard Moult and Dodson & Fogg to name just a few. Her haunting vocals don’t just add a voice; a song which features O’Donnell’s distinctive singing ultimately becomes a soundscape, she has a way, just with her vocals, of adding an experimental touch to any song. O’Donnell has released albums and EPs with Firefay, The Owl Service and United Bible Studies but in 2009 she released a solo album titled ‘Hey Hey Hippy Witch’. O’Donnell wrote (or co-wrote) all of the songs on the album and for those who had not kept up with her work since the demise of Mellow Candle it must have come as something of a revelation. The singer had lost none of her vocal abilities, O’Donnell was still producing music that was timeless and unclassifiable and her song writing skills had been honed through the years. Songs that O’Donnell wrote without any outside help proved to be some of the best on the album, ‘Dated But Still Lovely’ and ‘To The Brow Of The Hill’ proved that O’Donnell was still pushing boundaries. Perhaps the most chilling yet affecting track on the album was ‘Come Unto Me’ a song that O’Donnell wrote and performed with Dave Colohan of the Irish collective United Bible Studies. As with much of O’Donnell’s later work it subtly combined her folk sensibilities with ethereal contemporary sounds. ‘Climb Sheer The Fields Of Peace’ is O’Donnell’s latest album, the album is set for release in July so we took the opportunity to ask this exceptional singer/songwriter a few questions about her earlier work and also what fans can expect from her latest collection of songs. PB: You started writing and performing music with Mellow Candle at a very young age. What inspired you to start playing music? AO: I was mad about ballet from the age of six but I realised it was not my future when I read about the incessant grind of practice on bleeding feet, coupled with the fact that I was never very flexible. I started working with Clodagh Simonds at school when we were ten years old. We both enjoyed listening to music, particularly pop and soul in my case. She was having piano lessons and we both loved singing so it was an obvious move to throw our lot together. Then along came Maria White and we became a hardworking threesome. Even at such a tender age I was massively passionate about making music. My mother commented that I had very definitely found what I wanted to do in life. It was only years later that I came to understand where part of that drive came from when I learned how steeped in music her parents and uncles were. PB: The band originally formed in the early 1960s but disbanded for a while, as ‘Swaddling Songs’ didn’t appear until 1972. Why was that? AO: Clodagh and I left school and did other things. I joined a covers band, went to art college, did a secretarial course and met Dave Williams. We then joined up with Pat Morris and from 1969 to 1971 we wrote, practiced, played and put out feelers for a record contract. We lurched between folk and rock, we started out quite folky, being a band minus a drummer, but we all concluded, together with Ted Carroll our manager, that we should find a drummer. Once William Murray joined us, we became more rocky, but not enough ultimately to play rock venues. A few A&R men came to see us and we eventually landed up with Deram. PB: When you look back on the Mellow Candle days, after so many years making music now, what advice would you give to the young Alison O’Donnell? AO: Keep off the grass, hehe. I am a better writer and performer than I was back in my teens so perhaps I would advise that one should learn as many aspects of one’s craft as early as possible. I would also say gather those feisty emotions and channel them into the writing instead of throwing them away on the wind. PB: It seems that there is more interest in the music you made with Mellow Candle now than there was when the band was active. Does that frustrate you at all? AO: I put Mellow Candle behind me after the mid-70s. When it came back with a bit of a bang in its own niche in the mid-90s, and even earlier in the U.S. on cassette in the late 80s, I felt vindicated and pleased that we were finally receiving some recognition for our creativity. We thought it was worthy of a bit more attention when we first put it out and naturally we were disappointed when that didn’t happen. Since then, quite a number of musicians and listeners have come to appreciate our work. PB: Are you surprised that the obvious influence of bands like Mellow Candle can be heard in new bands today? AO: Everything comes round again and is often re-made in an innovative way. I am making new music now using my own early influences and roots, in tandem with those that drive the numerous musicians I work with. I would not have envisaged that happening 25 years ago but once Mellow Candle re-emerged from the underground, I guess I wasn’t that surprised. Listening audiences like to spot influences and references in new music. It becomes a more interesting cultural experience. PB: You have a long and interesting discography. Apart from the numerous collaborations you have been involved in there are a number of albums, some released fairly recently, by United Bible Studies. Can you tell us a little about those albums? AO: United Bible Studies is a constant companion, we have an extensive back catalogue, not one record like another, and there is a steady release of material every year. I play a part in something like nine of the offerings on our Bandcamp site to date and there are more going out this year with my contributions. David Colohan, a founder member and I, also work together on a number of side projects. He is extremely prolific and I also like to work extensively and spontaneously. Life is short and I am much older than the people I work with! Rosary Bleeds, released in November 2016 is at times an exercise in eerie electronica. The writing and performance was a really interesting departure from what I had done years back across folk, rock, jazz, traditional music and musical revue. Working with UBS brought me to regular improvisation live on stage and in soundscapes, songs and instrumentation on record, all of which stretched my capabilities. PB: How did your collaboration with Firefay on the ‘Anointed Queen’ album happen? AO: Adam Bulewski of Firefay contacted me via MySpace and asked whether I would like to do some work with them. We created the material between us, most of the writing coming from Adam, myself and Carole Bulewski. We batted tracks back and forth via email and filesharing services and worked it up into the album. Richard Moult from United Bible Studies provided the cover image. He also did the lovely artwork for 'Climb Sheer The Fields Of Peace'. ‘Anointed Queen’ is folk rock at times and psych folk at others. Lyrically it covers themes I felt moved to write about: homelessness, depression, anti-bullfighting, war and riots. We also managed to do a couple of concerts together in the past few years, which is often a bit of a logistical nightmare, given that we live in different countries. PB: The new album, ‘Climb Sheer The Fields Of Peace’, is the first album to appear under just your name since 2009’s ‘Hey Hey Hippy Witch’ isn’t it? What inspired you to make another solo album? AO: I had a bunch of tracks I was writing with Dave Colohan and he suggested a solo album would be the way to go with them. A lot of logistical work went into ‘Hey Hey Hippy Witch’ because there were so many collaborators spread out over several continents so I didn’t fancy climbing that mountain again. Instead, the new album was written, recorded and will be released inside a year, which is mercifully quick. It helps that I can now do my own recording at home. Having to turn round a load of material for UBS naturally led to my taking on the basic recording learning curve. PB: ‘Climb Sheer The Fields Of Peace’ is being released on the Mega Dodo label, your first release for the label. How did you hook up with them? It is a perfect label for your music it would seem. AO: I sent an email to three labels. They all replied which was a pleasant surprise. Mega Dodo were prompt in their affirmation. I had participated in the 2016 compilation ‘Songs From The Black Meadow’ for them, the proceeds of which went to Cancer Research. Grey Malkin of The Hare And The Moon and I wrote the ‘Black Meadow Song’ together. He is also a contributor to the current solo album and a number of UBS projects. PB: You wrote (some with collaborators) all of the songs on ‘Hey Hey Hippy Witch’. Are all the songs on ‘Climb Sheer…’ originals? AO: Indeed all the songs are originals, 11 of them co-writes with Dave. Most were written and recorded in the space of a few months except for the dual acoustic guitar pieces, which had been languishing in the UBS vault for a few years. PB: Have you used the same set of musicians and producer on ‘Climb Sheer…’ as you did on ‘Hey Hey Hippy Witch’? AO: Everything is done on a shoestring – minimal studio costs, a healthy contributor participation exchange system and in-house production. Although Graeme Lockett of Head South By Weaving does not appear on this record, we have started album number two together, the first being ‘The Execution of Frederick Baker. He co-wrote the opening track of ‘HHHW’, ‘Harbour Boy’, and five years after its release we managed to do some concerts together earlier this year. Dave Colohan is the only person from the first solo album to join me on the second. He lives in Longford and I live in Dublin so we do everything via email, fileshare and text and several times a year we do a few concerts and gigs with various students of United Bible Studies, whomever is involved at the time. It is a fluid beast. PB: It was a pleasure to read the short notes after the lyrics to each song on the booklet that accompanied ‘Hey Hey Hippy Witch’ giving some background to each song. Can you explain where the inspiration for a few of the songs on ‘Climb Sheer…’ came from? AO: The album is dedicated to my clever mother who has severe dementia. She is an independent, principled and loyal person who is a great inspiration to me. ‘Sylvia’s Deadbolt’ is about who she was and who she is now. 2015/16 was a difficult time having to deal with the failing health of both parents simultaneously and it gave rise to a pressing drive to release some of that emotion into my writing. There are the pastoral and rural aspects of my upbringing shown in ‘Green of Heart’, a look at the longstanding need for the Irish to emigrate in ‘An Empire In Its Glory’, based on my great-grandfather’s departure from Ireland to India in the years following The Famine. There’s a song about my fury at the glee displayed by hunters of wild animals in ‘Hunting Down’, the fallout and stress from my parents’ situation in ‘Pathways’ and the company of friends in ‘The Road We Know’. I imagined what it must have been like for someone to try to grasp the way the world works now if they had been able to glimpse the future, say a couple of hundred years ago. It is astonishing even in this day and age to view the viral image of a weasel clinging to the back of a woodpecker, which was the initial idea for ‘Swans They Are A-Feeding’. The world is a scary place and that is very much reflected in the song. ‘Memorial’ is a poem written by my mother’s cousin Peter O’Donnell, published back in the early 60s. It has a haunting quality, which fits in beautifully with Dave’s psaltery and other instruments. Peter travelled through the night to reach his mother on hearing she was close to death but arrived just too late. The last line became the album title when it popped into my head one day unbidden. ‘Redbreast In A Rowan Tree’ is a wee song about the Irish myth of how the robin became a red-breasted bird. I have a notion for another project on those lines when I have time to get to it. Some may wonder if ‘The Pull And Drag Blues’ is a strange bedfellow with the other songs, and although the underlying theme is not an altogether happy one, it disappears into a really uplifting outro which makes me smile every time I hear it. PB: ‘Sleeping On Strange Pillows’ from ‘Climb Sheer…’ is our current favourite at the moment. It’s just inched ‘In The Snowmelt’ into second place. There’s so much to discover on every listen. Do you have a favourite song from the album, one that for any reason means just that little bit more? AO: ‘Sleeping on Strange Pillows’ is a paean to Joni Mitchell, a longtime influence. Even the design of the backing vocals references her style. She will never hear it, which is a blessing really, as she does not suffer gladly those who declare how great she is by covering her songs or indeed by outright flattery. I wanted to write something about how I feel about her entire body of work. My favourites from the new album change from time to time and perhaps will keep doing so depending on the reaction of listeners. PB: From what we have heard so far, it sounds like there’s a more ethereal feel to the songs on the latest album than on ‘Hey Hey Hippy Witch’. Would you say you’ve taken a slightly different direction on this latest set of songs? AO: I fell naturally into a psych folk feel with this album and a more ethereal vocal approach, often in higher keys than those I would normally gravitate towards. The album is at times acoustic, and at other times electronic. In addition, I have been let loose on a few instruments to give extra texture. My singing on ‘Hey Hey Hippy Witch’ and ‘Rosary Bleeds’ is more my usual style. Over the past year I have done a lot of celestial soundscape voice work with Dave on other projects so it seemed a natural transition. PB: Do you plan to make further solo recordings or have plans to promote ‘Climb Sheer…’? AO: I plan to do a lot of work with a number of collaborators, old and new and hope to be able to take some of it out for short bursts on the road. I do have a few ideas for several new solo projects but they might end up as something else. There will be a natural progression leading on from this album but I don’t yet know where that will lead. PB: Of all the albums you have been involved with which, apart from ‘Climb Sheer …’ holds a special place in your heart and why? AO: Obviously I have a great love for ‘Swaddling Songs’ and I really like the EP ‘The Fabric of Folk’, brought to life with Steven Collins of The Owl Service. I am proud of ‘Rosary Bleeds’ because it was an exciting challenge that panned out. Most of the records I have made are dear to me because I have lived through interesting experiences making them. I always strive to move onwards and upwards, developing, improving and evolving. However, having fun with the music is also necessary for the soul. PB: Thank you.

Article Links:-

Band Links:-

Picture Gallery:-
Alison O' Donnell - Interview

Alison O' Donnell - Interview

Alison O' Donnell - Interview

Alison O' Donnell - Interview

Post A Comment

your name
ie London, UK
Check box to submit


Profile (2020)
Alison O' Donnell - Profile
Malcolm Carter examines folk legend Alison O'Donnell's two new digital releases, a compilation of her 50-year career in music and a new set of songs with Head South By Weaving.



Exotic Masks and Sensible Shoes (2019)
Stunning collection of modern day folk songs on what is just the third solo album from 1960’s folk legend Alison O’Donnell
Climb Sheer The Fields Of Peace (2017)
Hey Hey Hippy Witch (2010)

most viewed articles

most viewed reviews

Pennyblackmusic Regular Contributors