Wilfried Besse of the band Doolin’ told David Hennessy how this all French band came to play Irish music.
Doolin’ are a five-piece band who make Irish traditional music.
Nothing strange about that until you say that they are not from Ireland. They are also not from the UK or America, places known for producing great traditional musicians.
No, they are from Toulouse in France and they have been proving for a long time that it is not necessary to have Irish heritage or grow up surrounded by Irish music to excel with it.
Frank McNally of The Irish Times says of Doolin’: ‘They’re an all-French band who play Irish traditional music brilliantly.’
Irish American News adds, ‘A finer gift hasn’t come from France since the Statue of Liberty was delivered’.
After three years of touring at some of the biggest roots festivals in the United States and Canada, and another three years locked out of the live performance world the band have returned with their new album, Circus Boy with the title track and latest single Darkest Way going down well.
While their 2016 debut album, which was produced by John Doyle and featured Michael McGoldrick, drew its inspiration from the fusion of traditional Irish music, French chanson, and American roots music, Circus Boy is more adventurous and contains more original compositions.
The band is made up of Wilfried Besse on vocals, Josselin Fournel on bodhran, Sébastien Saunié on bass, Nicolas Besse on guitars and Jacob Fournel on whistles.
They have solid musical credentials. Brothers Josselin and Jacob Fournel are tin whistle and bodhran laureates in Ireland.
We spoke to vocalist Wilfried Besse who told us what it means to the band to have their music embraced in Ireland and the strongholds of Irish music.
Wilfried Besse told The Irish World: “The music that we do is closer culturally to the country you live in so I’m very happy with the feedback.
“We’re really glad about the feedback in Great Britain and Ireland and looking forward to come and play there again.”
How does it feel to be getting comparisons to The Waterboys, Mumford and Sons and such acts?
“I really love The Waterboys especially Fishman’s Blues album and even the one with the whole of the moon and things like that.
“I really like the mix.
“I think it’s got something really rock and really folk at the same time.
“The singer is just amazing.
“And of course, we’re very honoured with comparisons.
“Of course, Darkest Way is very much influenced by Mumford and Sons.
“I mean, it’s obvious the first second of the track.
“I’m always happy to have the feedback of people to know where we land, where we are really but it’s cool.”
So how did it start, how did this all French band come to play Irish music? “That’s the big question: Why French people are playing Irish music?
“Well, why not?
“I always say, you don’t need to be Cuban to play good salsa music.
“I was touched by it, by different means really, different kinds of music.
“I first started listening to U2 and then The Cranberries and the Pogues and all in all, it led us to more traditional Irish music because we wanted to know more about the very roots of it.
“We started to meet people and got interested in more and more and one day, we met a fiddle player, he was very young at the time. He was 17 years old.
“We needed a fiddle player for a festival. That was with another band and we played with this young fella, which is Guilhem Cavaillé. He’s the former fiddle player of the band.
“The band is made of two families.
“On one side, there is my big brother and my big cousin and myself.
“And so this lad Guilhem told us, ‘You know, there are two other brothers that play really good traditional Irish music in the area Toulouse, you should meet them someday’.
“He arranged a session in an Irish pub and we had a session altogether and we thought we should make a band out of it because we sounded great already. That’s how we got started.”
Have you spent much time in Ireland? “I first went there for holidays when I was younger.
“Around 2010 we did a little tour there.
“When I was living in Toulouse I used to hang around with lots of Irish people too so kind of know a lot about it.”
The band will play Milwaukee Irish Fest in August. With over 100 acts across 16 stages, it is the biggest festival of its kind in the world.
Doolin’ join a line-up that also includes The Coronas, Derek Warfield and the Young Wolfe Tones and Wallis Bird.
“It is the biggest one.
“Last time we played there, we played in front of 15,000 people so that’s quite something.
“When you’re not in your own country, to play in front of 15,000 people is something.”
The new album would have arrived much sooner had it not been for Covid-19 with the band starting recording in 2019.
“We worked on it before the pandemic and during the pandemic but because of the pandemic we couldn’t release it when we wanted.
“We should have released it maybe in 2020, end of 2021 maybe.
“It was kind of finished by then.
“But everything had been slowed down.
“So here it is now.”
Circus Boy is an exploration of the recurring feelings and themes experienced during the group’s US tours: the friendship and solidarity on the road.
It also acknowledges a sometimes difficult world as well as the recent challenging times and includes a tribute to women with the track, Man Smart, Woman Smarter.
Wilfried says the album is more personal than its predecessor.
“It’s very different than the album before.
“There are more songs in this album and there is maybe more of ourselves in terms of more own composition stuff, maybe more personal too in the thematics, in the lyrics, in everything.
“The album before had this common thread of the famine.
“This one is much more personal, it’s much more about us really.”
What sort of themes come up in the album? “Mainly, it’s about love.
“It’s about sometimes being away from your family because you’re on the road with your other family.
“I wrote a track about my daughter mainly because I was away for a while. That was before COVID when we could travel a lot and we had been touring the USA for maybe three years.
“And one is about this famous circus boy, that’s the title of the album but that’s also the title of the first track of the album.
“It could be set in an American itinerant circus and there is this boy who remembers the time when he was with his crowd, with his crew, like us being in a band, sometimes away from your family, but still with another family.
“It’s about friendship. It’s about love. It’s about these things really.
“It’s about being grateful to an audience when suddenly during the COVID there was no audience at all, these kinds of feelings.”
The band are joined on the album by the female triumvirate of the Diver sisters, aka The Screaming Orphans and Ashley Davis (Lunasa, The Chieftains) on backing vocals, and Niamh Gallagher (Lord Of The Dance) on violin.
“We met all these brilliant people touring in the USA.
“The Screaming Orphans, they are four sisters and they were touring in the same festivals as we were in the USA.
“They’re Irish. They used to do backing vocals for Sinead O’Connor back in the day.
“And we’re a family band, like brothers and cousins and they are a family band too.
“We met and we got on really well and during the last tour, we had some days off and we asked them if they were okay to record some backing vocals on some songs.
“So we met in, I think it was Pittsburgh.
“We were playing in a festival in Pittsburgh together and we arranged to meet one day before and we had this recording session in the brilliant studio called the Church Studio.
“They are friends of ours, it’s just like sisters away from home.
“Ashley is a very good friend.
“We met her in Kansas City because she’s from around there and the first time we met actually is quite funny.
“We were recording in Nashville. That was the previous album and John Doyle was our producer at the time.
“He told us, ‘If you want, I got a friend of mine who could do some backing vocals for one song’.
“She arrived, and she had a plane to catch.
“She just had maybe a quarter of an hour to record and she did it flawless, then flew away.
“That was the first time we’ve seen her and afterwards we met her in many festivals in the US.
“She is a good friend of ours.”
When are the band coming to the UK and Ireland again? “We are working on it.
“That’s a yes (we’re coming), I just don’t know when.
“I’d love to, it’s ages since we played in England or Ireland.
“The engine is starting working again after COVID. It took some time to recover, really it did.
The Irish World caught up with Wilfried just a few days after Ireland played France at the Aviva Stadium (27 March).
What was that like for a Frenchman whose heart is clearly somewhat Irish? “I’m not a football fan but I was actually playing in an Irish pub that night just myself.
“It was good actually. The Irish put on a big, big, big game.
“When you see that France beat Netherlands 4-0, I think they did a pretty good job honestly without the hand of Thierry Henry this time,” he jokes.
“They put in a great game actually, pretty solid. Impressive.”
Circus Boy by Doolin’ is out now.
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