the breath 2018-07-30T09:37:17+00:00

the breath

real world / uk











raw, soulful, often mesmeric, richly textured and lushly constructed…versatile persuasive vocals.


Stuart McCallum and Rioghnach Connolly are such opposites in character and background that each is integral to the other. Their joint project, The Breath, is a miracle of integration. He is an urban guitarist from Manchester, the first call for Cinematic Orchestra (that’s Stuart on Ma Fleur and Live at the Royal Albert Hall), and has written and arranged for legendary UK saxophonist John Surman and collaborated with Radiohead. McCallum is particularly valued for his mastery of loops and effects. She is a singer and flutist from Armagh, and the voice of skewed bar-room band, Honeyfeet: she guests on The Source, the new album from Afro Celt Sound System. He trades in groove-based music that marries funk, rock and rave in a post-modern style. She is rooted in rural community and prone to ancestor worship. Stuart anticipates a blissed future. Rioghnach just wants to survive. And her lyrics pinpoint a way of life at the very moment it may not survive.

Her ancestors would recognise such savage passion. It finds an answering intensity in the big, big sound that McCallum carves to frame Connolly’s singing. The common element is raging catharsis.

A typical solo performance by Stuart McCallum will apply virtuosity and electronica in a diverting way. Looper technology is used to build the music layer by layer, overlaying embedded chords with skirling, fluid solos in an intricate sonic mesh. With access to a state- of-the-art recording studio, McCallum expands and extends this technique for the album. Again, sound is piled on top of sound, and each line is carefully sifted against the others, but the resources are so much greater. In effect, McCallum turns the studio into a giant looper.Carry Your Kin confronts with multiple Rioghnachs and walls of guitars in ways that would be impossible to find in nature.

Yet Rioghnach Connolly is so steeped in traditional music that purity is a transferable asset. She absorbed the old music in an Irish childhood full of summer schools and festivals. Music-making was definitely encouraged in the Connolly household. “I’m just going to County Clare for the week,” the teenage Rioghnach would declare. “Good girl, go and learn lots of tunes!” would come the reply.

“Oh the theme of family is massive for me,” says Rioghnach. “My family are a massive, destructive and productive part of my life. They play on my mind all the time. I have a lot of complexes like guilt: guilt from being away from them. They’re very tempestuous and frightfully dramatic and cloying. I love them.”

Stuart found Rioghnach on My Space singing a song called ‘Knocking on Another Man’s Door’. She was then living in Manchester. Keen to work with a singer, Stuart brought a raft of original songs from a previous collaborator for her to try. Rehearsal sessions took place in Rioghnach’s kitchen and were divided between playing and cooking. Eventually her politeness about the songs broke down. (“I was polite back in them days, wasn’t I?” she asks. “I can’t remember, to be honest,” replies Stuart, noncommittally.) The old material was

jettisoned, and the pair began to write together. It was sometimes a lengthy process: ‘Child’ took five years to evolve. And sometimes a song would arrive fully-formed. ‘For You’ was extemporised as the musicians jammed during a rowdy night at Manchester’s Matt and Phred’s club. Because the way Rioghnach writes is so emotionally reckless – excavating raw feeling with little in the way of defence – the process is easier when nobody is listening.

She has a capacity to flay the emotions in a way which is all but unknown in these diminished times.

The key word in ‘Our Own Way’ is ‘bereft’. Bereft of what? The supporting evidence of ‘Child’ and ‘Tremelo’ suggest that ‘bereft’ is used in its proper sense: the loss of children. This was a fact of life for child-besieged ancestors: children unborn, children dead in babyhood or infancy, children left helpless before man-made forces like famine or war. This kind of suffering is sometimes acknowledged in folk song (an honourable mention goes to Derroll Adams’ ‘Portland Town’) but is taboo in our mainstream culture. Kindertotenliedercould be an alternative title for some of these songs, but Mahler got there first, and anyway Rioghnach prefers to stress survival and continuity. The title is an imperative demand: Carry Your Kin.

Two other members are integral to The Breath. In his various roles of pianist, singer and producer, John Ellis has had a hand in most good music to emerge from Manchester in recent years. And drummer Luke Flowers embodies the true Manc spirit. Manchester music is always oriented towards rhythm (no matter the genre), and is full of pride and swagger. Stuart says of Luke: “He’s a great friend, someone I’ve probably played with more than anyone else in my life. There’s something very big about what he does. He has to project a big sound and drag everyone along on the Luke party bus. That’s how it is.”

Influences are trickier to pin down. Stuart mentions Debussy and Steve Reich, while admitting that The Breath sound nothing like them. “In terms of classical music, I always like the slow movement of pieces, where the emphasis is more on emotion and clarity of melodic ideas.” Rioghnach diverts the question to reflect on Stuart’s influence on her. “You’ve made me sing softer. And you’ve made me sing with less ornamentation. And you’ve made me concentrate on the words, and the diction.”

“Well you did lots of things to hide away. You would shout at people, and then you would use ornamentation to hide melody, to make it less clear, and then you wouldn’t say the words very clearly.”

“I have been very afraid of what I’ve been singing though. But I’m not anymore.”

Listen and marvel at the way The Breath reconcile the opposing positions of grandeur and intimacy, turbulence and calm, artifice and purity.