The Rebirth of Moya Brennan
By Louise Carroll, Contributor
June / July 2004
If you don’t immediately recognize the name Moya Brennan, it’s only because she recently changed the spelling of her name. As the lead singer of Clannad, and now a successful solo artist in her own right, Brennan had been known as Maire Brennan for years. She explains, “I was not winning in trying to get people to say my name right, and it was harder for people to find me in the record store. So I just changed a couple of letters to make it easier.” In fact, she was reluctant to make the change earlier because she worried people would assume she was imitating her younger sister Enya, one of the most successful Irish musicians of the past 20 years. (Enya originally spelt her name Eithne.)
Fans of ethereal Celtic music should take note of the new name spelling because they won’t want to miss out on Brennan’s new album. Released by Universal Music, Two Horizons is a unique concept album and has received wide critical acclaim. Building on her demonstrable strengths as a singer from her almost 30 years in Clannad, she takes her music in a new direction and has re-introduced her audience to a truly traditional instrument — the Irish harp.
Brennan admits that she has at times resisted her position as a harpist, going back to her days as a teenager. “My Dad decided that it would be a lovely idea for a daughter, [to learn it] and he would start with me, the eldest of nine. I actually hated the idea of harp and singer. I would have been into different kinds of music at that stage, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The harp wasn’t hip. But I went and I learned it.” Thankfully her father was persistent and her talent as a harpist secured her position in the band when her siblings formed Clannad in 1970. (The band has recently released a greatest hits album: In a Lifetime.)
But even in her years in Clannad, as much as she loved the harp, it was treated as an afterthought. “The harp was always one of the last things to go on when we were making an album,” she explains. Strangely enough, it’s the harp that Brennan writes her music on. “When I was composing any songs, I always did it on the keyboard but with a harp sound.” However, she has resisted using the harp as the center of an album until Two Horizons. “But you know what it’s like in Ireland, you open the newspaper [the Independent] and you see the harp on it, on Guinness there’s a harp on it, and you get a letter from the government and there’s a harp on it. And you think it’s so overexposed. But then, only in Ireland is it. And even Irish people like the harp, and then it dawned on me, this might be an idea,” she explains.
Brennan’s relationship with the harp has come full circle on Two Horizons. The album is a story that unfolds from the first song to the last, telling of Brennan’s quest to find a missing harp. The harp that belongs in Tara, an important ruling area in ancient Ireland, has disappeared. A blind stranger entreats her to find it and return it to its rightful place. The songs then guide the listener on her journey. Brennan explains, “With every song there’s a line or two to give you the picture of where you are at with my story. But it’s not too detailed so that the listener can be part of it with me. There are different permutations of how you can review the story.” Indeed, even the identity of the stranger is open for interpretation. Brennan says that he could be the legendary 17th century Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan, but she likes to keep the mystery alive by not making definitive pronouncements.
The various meanings and the symbols in the album come from Brennan’s roots as a Gaelic songwriter. She explains, “Ancient Gaelic songwriters wrote in very much a cryptic way because years ago in Ireland, they weren’t allowed to sing about their country or their land or their heritage. So they used to write in ways with two or three different meanings.”
Brennan has also embraced the Gaelic language throughout her career, and she sings in Irish and English on Two Horizons. “In Clannad, we used the language as if it’s just another instrument,” she says. “I still use chants and choruses in Irish that come naturally. I choose the language that feels more natural. Sometimes I write in Irish and I may translate it into English and if it feels okay, then it’s fine with me.”
In addition to the harp and the Irish language, Tara, a place in County Meath on the east part of Ireland, inspired Two Horizons. In ancient Ireland, the High Kings ruled from Tara and traditional celebrations and rituals took place there. Brennan points out, “Even in the 1800s, [political leader] Daniel O’Connell had a gathering of a million people at Tara.” Considering the great importance of this area, she was astounded when she learned that before she recorded her song “Tara,” there was only one song previously written about the area. It was the Irish minstrel Thomas Moore’s song “The Harp that Once Through Tara’s Halls,” and it inspired Brennan’s story.
Her first visit to Tara almost two years ago influenced the title of her album. On the advice of her friend, she arrived at the top of the hill at 5:30 a.m. to watch the sun come up. Brennan says, “I arrived up there and it was a clear sky and a full moon. I didn’t set that up! And I was standing there and I could almost touch the moon.” At the opposite horizon, the sun came creeping up, and thus Two Horizons was born.
The album signals a rebirth of Brennan’s career, and it’s inspiring to see a woman who has 30 years of experience in the business still push the boundaries with her music. She ponders whether the story of the journey that the album tells is an allegory for her life.
She says, “I don’t know. I don’t think there are as many dark moments on the album as there would have been in my life. I think there is more hope and encouragement and spiritual earthy feel to this album than would be in my life. But the happiness at the end of the album, that is very much where I am in my own life now. There is a definite fulfillment.” ♦