Dublin singer-songwriter and actress Lisa Lambe told David Hennessy about bringing her Nightvisiting show to Liverpool Irish Festival.
Lisa Lambe will bring her Nightvisiting: Songs and Stories from the Hearth show to the Tung Auditorium as part of the Liverpool Irish Festival, which launches this week.
Lisa Lambe is well known in Ireland from her stint in Celtic Woman as well as her acting career that includes extensive stage experience.
The Irish Times have described her as, ‘The finest singer and actor of her generation’.
She announced herself as a new voice on Ireland’s scene when her debut solo album Hiding Away was positively received.
In 2020 Lisa released her second album Juniper which would be followed by Wild Red only a year later.
Based on her work with the National Folklore Collection and her recent M.A in Irish Folklore, Nightvisiting was first commissioned by The National Famine Museum in Strokestown, County Roscommon.
Nightvisiting was an important part of Irish culture before it began to fade with the electrification of Ireland in the late 1940s.
The show is a celebration and a reimagining of those nights of sharing the old songs and stories.
Lisa told The Irish World: “We really are looking forward to this on so many levels.
“It’s the Liverpool Irish Festival of course.
“It’s my first time to the festival but also the venue itself is such an iconic venue and it’s so beautiful so we’re really excited, and we’ve been liaising with the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish studies so they’ve been part of the conversation and everything has been a lovely kind of dialogue.
“It’s great. We’re so, so excited.
“It’s the first time that this new show of mine will be performed outside of Ireland as well so that’s fabulous.
“Hopefully it’s the start of lots more Nightvisits overseas.
“I’ve performed in Liverpool a couple of times in different guises over the years.
“I was there with Celtic Woman in the Philharmonic space, I was also there with Hothouse Flowers so to come back now in something that is so personal to me and is my own project, it’s a lovely feeling.
“I really feel that the material is going to connect with the diaspora.
“A lot of the songs are the songs that have been sung for generations, on roadsides, around hearths, and they’re still sung to this day.
“They’re about love, they’re about loss, they’re about emigration.
“So many tunes have gone across the water and come back.
“It’s the experience of going on a night visit together.
“I suppose the ethos of the show is that we’re going back together 80, 90, 100 years with the old songs, the folklore, the stories and the tunes.
“It’s very exciting to get to do this in such an iconic city and a place full of Irish people actually as well.
“A lot of the material we’re going to celebrate in Liverpool will be stories of emigration, some of those famine stories and the letters that were sent home.
“That will lead into the old ballad songs, the old folk songs and out of that might come a slow air and then something that’s really lively.
“It’s a showcase of all the things that I love.
“During lockdown I spent two years doing a Masters in folklore.
“I was researching all kinds of things but in particular but what I was very drawn to in the archive was the materials of the old manuscripts that contain stories from around the hearth, from the roadsides and the songs.
“What was interesting was when the folklore collection began collecting in an official way from the 1930s onwards, they weren’t able to obviously bring a tape recorder or an iPhone to the session and capture the tune itself so a lot of the material only had the lyrics of things.
“I was looking at them from an actor’s point of view, reading lyrics and falling in love with songs and kind of wondering how to match what’s on the page with another archive that has the tune.
“So it began this fantastic adventure of finding the songs, finding the melodies, and falling in love with songs I kind of knew already and then lots of things I didn’t know, songs I had never encountered before.
“But I also spent a summer during that period helping to digitize one of the big song collections for the archives.
“So I was literally inputting data on over 20,000 songs so I was seeing the patterns and the songs and what people sing about literally in front of my eyes.
“What I started to see was the pattern in the Irish repertoire certainly is that love and the love songs, they’re the songs that remain and get handed on the most from generation to generation.
“And it’s love in all the shades, it’s love through famine, the grief of losing a loved one and then obviously there’s the great joyous songs of celebration when you find love.
“I think what I started to see was that there’s a lot of stories to be told, a lot of songs to be sung and there’s beautiful tunes and airs that can link these together.
“And so Nightvisiting for me was the natural progression from the studying side of things and bringing it back towards myself as a performer.
“But what’s lovely about it is the idea of night visiting, the very old rural Irish tradition of going to a neighbour’s house, going down the dark boreens on the winter nights and sitting around the fire singing the old songs and telling the old stories.
“The show for me is a celebration of that tradition that we no longer really do.
“It really was at its peak just before the rural electrification of Ireland in the kind of mid 40s.
“People would gather by the fireside, by the light of the fire, literally use the moon to go down the boreens on their bicycles.
“And once electricity came on board, that kind of gave way then to the dance hall and the community hall and the pub.
“So this show is kind of a celebration of that and having spent two years studying to be a folklorist, it’s kind of a combination of all the things I love in the one kind of piece.”
Lisa collaborates with renowned traditional musicians alongside local contributors to create a unique performance bespoke to each venue she visits.
You say the show can vary material depending on where you are, could it also take a turn in the moment?
“Yeah, I think it depends on the audience as well.
“This summer, we did a 12 date tour in Ireland.
“There’s nothing more thrilling than bringing something like this to a live audience because sometimes the scale of the venue or how close you are to the audience in proximity can completely determine how you interact there and then.
“There’s always room for that live element.
“One venue we performed in, there was a woman in the front row with the most beautiful voice and she knew most of the songs and so she sang, almost in just complete tandem with me, for most of the evening.
“It was a beautiful conversation that was going on, it wasn’t planned and she really became part of the experience for me.
“That’s the thing: As much as you kind of structure something, the beauty of this show is we always want those live elements to be part of it because if it was an actual night visit, that’s what would happen.
“So you have to absolutely allow those segues to happen and I think when you’re really connected to the material and you’re really comfortable with what you’re celebrating, what you’re saying, what you’re singing then, if anything does happen in the moment, you can always go back to that because you know it inside out and that’s what’s lovely.
“About coming to Liverpool, one of the big themes of the festival this year is the famine and the commemorations of that and how Liverpool played such a key part in the journeys of people.
“I think the show does bring people on a journey.
“People will always attach sentimental memories to pieces because they evoke something and that’s what’s very powerful about it. These are really, really old pieces that have been buried in manuscripts and haven’t really seen the light of day very often.
“I feel like my role as a performer now is to encourage this oral transmission of the songs that are kind of lost in a way.”
Lisa has been lauded for her spine tingling renditions of Amhrán na bhFiann. She has had the honour of singing it a number of times prior to the national football team, rugby team and women’s football team.
“That’s been fantastic.
“It’s been an absolute joy to do that.
“And again, we’re talking about this idea of scale, so to stand in front of 50,000 people to sing your national anthem is such an honour. It’s a great privilege and it means an awful lot to people in the stadium, I think, to be able to sing along.
“And it’s the pre-match ritual, I just love being part of that.
“It’s very special, and then you go to a little schoolhouse in the west of Ireland and you perform your night visit to 60 people and it’s an entirely different experience but it’s just as fulfilling and rewarding.
“Sometimes you could say it’s even more so because they’re so close to you.
“They say that if people sing together, that eventually their heartbeat becomes the same heartbeat.
“And there’s something about that sense of community that’s something that’s really important to me as a performer, I think that’s how I am.
“But I think with this material, it really allowed me to kind of go a bit deeper with that experience for people.
“We all sit in a semicircle on four stools, as if we’re sitting around the fire and so there’s an instant kind of casual nature to that but the prowess of the performers brings it to that level of delivery and emotive feeling for people.
“I can feel the alchemy in the room kind of change as we progress through the show.
“But yeah, I feel very blessed to be able to do what I do.
“I think singing is such a powerful thing, to be able to stand in the Aviva and sing a capella, you feel very charged after it. You feel very in the moment and very alive when you feel this wall of sound singing with you in the purest form of no instruments, just voices.
“I’ll never forget it.”
You took the show to Seamus Heaney’s home place not so long ago, didn’t you?
“That was one of the most beautiful, beautiful places on the tour and we had such a beautiful experience.
“At the end of that show, everybody was up dancing.
“As a performer, I’ve done so many things in the theatre sense where there is that sort of fourth wall between you and the audience because you’re playing a character so you know, so with this kind of material that you can’t really hide behind it, you’re with everybody.
“And for that 90 minutes, we’re all kind of in tune together and I guess invoking something of old together but hopefully is part of the present day.
“I always say when people leave to try and remember the stories or pass them on and I do always say be careful on the boreens going home because fairies are always out at nighttime, so you have to be mindful of the fairies.
“I feel like it’s never going to stop being something I’m learning about because it’s living and breathing.
“I think once you’re interested in folklore, it’s all there to be uncovered and used and that’s the great thing about the archives, they’re for everyone.”
What’s next for you? Is it another album or perhaps put some of the Nightvisiting tunes on an album?
“You got it, you hit the nail on the head.
“We’ve been recording and documenting all the work as we’re going at each venue.
“We are working on Nightvisiting, the live album at the moment.
“The idea, I suppose, is that next year and beyond Nightvisiting isn’t just like an album launch that has a certain period of touring with it but that this project is an ongoing one.
“We’re working on next year’s one already which is called Nightvisiting: The Hauling Home.
“So yeah, there’s lots happening. Lots of good stuff ahead hopefully.”
Lisa Lambe performs Nightvisiting: Songs and Stories from the Hearth at The Tung Auditorium on 20 October as part of Liverpool Irish Festival.
Liverpool Irish Festival runs 18- 29 October.
For more information and to book, click here.
For more information about Lisa, click here.