Manchester-based dream duo, Ríoghnach Connolly and Stuart McCallum, are the creative heart of The Breath, creating honest, personal songs as likely to touch on childhood summers and first love as cultural dislocation and grief. Connolly’s deeply soulful vocal coupled with McCallum’s understated brilliance give The Breath a gorgeous emotional depth and, joy of joys, they have just released a new album, Let the Cards Fall, as the follow up to their 2016 breakthrough, Carry Your Kin. Ahead of some select UK live dates, Anna Claxton caught up with singer and founding member, Ríoghnach, to find out why fairies stealing babies and soft rock singer, John Farnham, are amongst her inspirations and why Brighton has a great vibe.
You’re part of Afro Celt Sound System and Stuart is best known for The Cinematic Orchestra. The Breath is clearly an amazing collaboration between two very respected artists. How did it come about?
Manchester has a great musical community and we were simply introduced by mutual friends. Essentially, it’s John Ellis’ fault! (John Ellis is pianist in The Breath and also a critically-acclaimed composer/ musician who has worked with Cinematic Orchestra, Corinne Bailey Rae, Lily Allen and John Squire, to name a few).
So you obviously have a lot of established musicians in your camp. Tell us about your new album. What inspired it?
Rolling the dice, letting go of something and not knowing how or where it’s going to land. It’s called Let The Cards Fall and it’s alright, I think!
You have been described as alt-folk. Would this be an accurate description of what you do?
Kind of. I hate all these terminologies. Shouldn’t it be okay to be difficult to categorise? Still, if I was describing our sound to someone who had never heard of us, I would probably say alt-folk. Ha! Aye; while our sound is alternative to folk, folk to us is everything. The difference is that we don’t play traditional folk because the songs are ours, although traditional is where I am rooted. For other members, their roots are in jazz so you can see both influences. It might be surprising to know that we write a lot of our songs on stage during improvised gigs but if I had to describe The Breath I would say we were ambient, cinematic, cathartic. Soft emotional noise.
Soft emotional noise – is that why you are called The Breath then?
Actually, it came about after laying down the first tracks for our first album, Carry Your Kin. On one track, we did approximately 70 vocal takes, all layered up to the heavens! All you could hear were the big breaths taken between the phrases… and it sounded hilarious. All we could think of is that it was gonna be a nightmare to edit out all the breaths. It stuck.
So it sounds like you put a lot into the creative process. What was your first ever memory of music and how has that shaped you today?
Sitting on my granny Sadie’s knee, being sung to in a rocking chair. She would sing old folk lullabies about fairies stealing babies and animals lost in the woods! It had a massive effect on me, and still does. My surviving grandparents are my best friends and those that haven’t survived are still with me on every gig!
And what is your musical guilty pleasure?
This week, it’s ‘You’re The Voice’ by John Farnham (the English-born Australian soft rock singer who is probably quite a few people’s guilty pleasure). I had a lovely musical family called the Meehan’s visiting last weekend from home and this became our soundtrack!
You are playing the bar in Komedia. Do you get nervous before such an intimate show? What can we expect from your live performance?
A little. I think if you didn’t feel nervous, it would be weird. I always try to use that adrenalin though to fuel the performance. You can communicate a great deal more sometimes by just letting yourself feel whatever’s going on.
Have you played in Brighton before? How does it compare to other places to play a show?
Yes, with a band called HoneyFeet (also featuring John Ellis) and more recently with Afro Celt Sound System (Rio collaborates with the collective as singer and flautist). I also played as a guest with art folk band, Moulettes, years ago! Brighton has a great vibe; there’s salt in the air – the sea makes a change to the general atmosphere of a place and its community.
A sense of community is obviously important to you because aren’t you also involved with musical projects in Manchester to build awareness about the plight of refugees?
Okay; this is a long and important conversation but, essentially, music is cathartic for everyone. However, it’s also a humanitarian vessel. I work with a charity called ‘Music Action International’ on a project called ‘Harmonise’ and I facilitate workshops in primary schools where there are refugee and asylum seeker communities. We talk about the effects of war and the plight of those seeking refuge, the asylum seeker journey and the road to asylum status. We sing songs from those countries that communicate differing cultural backgrounds, and the children write songs about the stories they hear. It’s a beautiful process.
Finally, I have to ask, if you just found out you were going to take your last ‘breath’, what would be the last thing you would do?
I wouldn’t want to be in a hospital but around a fire. I’d get all my Connolly and McNulty families around me for a music session and go out in style, playing music and singing songs together.