Voices in harmony

What Irish singer-songwriter Lisa O’Neill and Indian musician Bombay Jayashri have in common is not only their roots in traditional music, but a refusal to compromise their art

Hero image

Seldom does a voice emerge so singular it stops you in your tracks. Irish singer Lisa O’Neill possesses such a voice.

As outstanding as Joanna Newsom and Antony Hegarty before her – though hardly similar – O’Neill’s style is pure and affecting, tremulous yet powerful. She grew up in Ballyhaise, County Cavan and it was a priest who also taught in her school who first noticed the power of O’Neill’s vocals during her early teens.

“He heard something in me and brought that to the attention of other teachers, and that was special,” she recalls. “All you need at that age is someone to notice you and that was a big boost to my confidence.”

Over 20 years ago, O’Neill moved to Dublin aged 18 to study music and further her career.

“I was loving working as a waitress and barista but I quit because I kept having to call in sick to take gigs,” says the singer. Her big break came during 2011 when singer-songwriter David Gray took O’Neill as support on a North American tour. Numerous tours of the folk circuits of Ireland and the UK have followed but what stands out about her work is the lack of commercial compromise. Her new and fifth album, All Of This Is Chance, is a testament to her self-belief and musical confidence.

“I’ve read the term ‘uncompromising’ a few times and it’s a funny thing – why would I compromise and what is compromise in art?” she ponders. “Maybe uncompromising makes sense as that suggests what I do is untamed but really I’m just responding to the world in my work and I’m very happy with my work when I’m finished. I don’t have the same tastes as the majority for most things in life so I don’t expect that in return.”

The songs on All Of This Is Chance switch effortlessly between the vast, sweeping, orchestral and intimate. O’Neill’s distinctive vocals perfectly highlight lyrics both ethereal and earthy.

“The elements do weave in and out of this album. My feet are on the ground but I’m looking up and trying to take in the scope of it all. That sense of what else is out there I had as a child hasn’t really left me and while I was looking at these things years ago and they’re repeating in my new record, my songwriting has matured.

“I’m always looking to speak of how I see the world, how I figure out this experience that is life. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the trees and the oxygen and they wouldn’t be here if we weren’t so perfectly placed from the sun.

“It’s not airy-fairy to look up and question your relationship with the moon and the sun. A lot of the album is also about our relationship with the land and our relationship with the mind and it’s about keeping them both healthy.”

All Of This Is Chance is out now on Rough Trade Records. Lisa O’Neill tours England and Scotland from 16 March, visiting Leeds, York, Kendal, Liverpool and Manchester. (lisaoneill.ie)

Bombay Jayashri may be the fourth generation of her family to be steeped in Carnatic music but that just makes them infants in a tradition that goes back to the second century AD. The singer’s bringing her hypnotic renditions of its classical compositions to the UK for her first visit in 10 years.

Carnatic music was learnt and practised in south India, primarily in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Its languages span Samskritam, Tamil, Telengu, Kannada and Malayalam and it’s often contrasted with Hindustani classical music from the north. For Jayashri though, born in Kolkata but raised in Bombay, traditions are to inform each other.

“As a student of music I’m always keen and curious to step into the shoes of other forms of art, including western music,” she says. “When the opportunity came my way to perform with the Finnish Philharmonic Orchestra, for example, I grabbed it because for me, it was a way to learn about their music, how they look at music, the sensitivities of musicians, artists, and the way they practice, the way they train and much more than that.

“We have composers like Muthuswamy Dikshitar who have been inspired by western classical music and have also composed many songs based on that genre. Indian classical or western classical feeding off each other has happened for the longest time. If you look at the violin, it’s a western instrument which has been adopted into both Hindustani and Carnatic Indian classical music. So this exchange has always happened.”

Jayashri’s initial training came from her parents, whose open-minded approach to music began with with instilling in her a love of lullabies as a child. Going on to study as a disciple under leading Carnatic exponents, she played her first concert in 1982.

Jayashri’s repertoire also includes film music and her own compositions. In 2002, she won a Filmfare Award for best female playback singer for the song Vaseegara. In 2012, she was nominated for an Oscar in the best original song category for Pi’s Lullaby, from the film Life of Pi. Even bigger was her 2022 Padma Shri award – the Indian state’s fourth highest civilian award, given for “distinguished contribution in various spheres of activity including the arts, education, industry, literature, science, acting, medicine, social service and public affairs”.

Jayashri says: “It’s not just a huge recognition for me, but for everyone who has helped me create a path for myself, which includes my gurus, parents, peers and co-artists who have supported me for such a long time. It is a feather in the cap for Carnatic music in general and film music.”

Presented by Indian arts and culture organisation Milap, Jayashri is playing only two UK shows – in London and at Liverpool’s Tung Auditorium, where she’ll be giving fans a full two and a half hours.

Performing with renowned musicians HN Bhaskar (violin), Sai Giridhar (mridangam) and Giridhar Udupa (ghatam), she says: “I’ll be presenting compositions largely based on the Carnatic repertoire, but I will of course foray into one or two pieces which will show my training in other forms of music too.”

Bombay Jayashri plays the Tung Auditorium, Liverpool, 24 March 

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Voices in harmony

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.