From Lynched to Lankum: Ian Lynch on folk song collecting and the ‘pure drop’

Lynched or Lankum; Lankum or Lynched? Rumours have been doing the rounds for some time that the acclaimed Dublin four-piece would be changing their name, and sure enough, in the days following this interview, they published the following statement, confirming that from here on in, Lankum they would be: 

While it’s clearly an important occasion, it’s not something that Ian Lynch – co-founder of the band – seems to have on his mind when I call him up in mid-January. Like so many of his contemporaries, he’s a young man who has the folk bug and has the folk bug bad. He’s bonhomie itself, but he becomes really animated when the conversation turns to collecting and to ‘the pure drop’, and it’s easy to imagine that his lectures (he runs courses in folk music) must be pretty compelling. He’s a man that very obviously lives for the music, and his passion is infectious.

I first met Ian during the session seen in the video below, sat opposite each other around a pub table in Robin Hood’s Bay (he’s the fella with the nose ring to the left of the frame). For someone riding high on several high profile TV appearances, as well as a prominent slot at  Normafest, he was incredibly friendly and open, happy just to be getting stuck into what he loves doing in the company of people who love doing it, too, only putting the instruments away when the dawn light came tapping on the windows.

Where are you now, Ian? Are you back in Dublin? 

I am. I’m just working away at home. I’m doing a bit of lecturing at the university during winter, and I’m starting again next week so I’m just trying to get my stuff together at the moment. I lecture two courses, both based around traditional music and folklore. One is a module on traditional music and song – a kind of introductory course – and the other is all about collectors, going back to collectors as far back as the 18th century and right up to the modern time, and how the whole process of song collecting has developed over the years.

So how does the band work for you, then? Is it something you do part time? 

Well, I suppose it has become a lot busier over the last two years. It’s more a full-time thing, you know? We still carry on doing stuff during the winter but it naturally gets a lot more quiet – there’s not as many festivals going on. It gets as crazy as it can get from May, and then on like that for the rest of the year.

How long has Lynched been in existence? 

The band, or entity, known as Lynched has been around for about 15 or 16 years. When we started off it was just me and my brother largely playing protest songs. I suppose the traditional element wasn’t quite as developed as it would be now. This line-up started playing together about four years ago. We knew each other from playing in traditional sessions around Dublin and eventually we asked the others to join the band. We’ve been together ever since.

Having seen you at Normafest, and with plenty of experience of playing in bands myself, I’ve got to ask you: how often do you rehearse to get that tight? How do you get those harmonies so pure? 

Ha! Well, I think it went well at Normafest. It’s not always that tight! But in a normal week we’d be practicing everyday, as much as possible. We started recording a new album at the start of December, so we haven’t been at it as much as usual, but normally we’d be aiming to do a few hours a day. That’s what we try to do, anyway, whether that’s working on new stuff and arranging new material or trying to keep the old things at a level that we’re happy with.

In terms of collecting, I was fascinated to hear your singer, Radie, talk about how she’d collected some of your songs in the traditional way – actually heading out to find older people singing them and learning them at source. Is that something you do regularly? 

I guess, when we started off, we were getting a lot of the songs from old song collections. We were more into looking up old songs in published manuscripts. Lately, though, it has been from singers themselves, and we have spent a lot of time with older singers around the country. There’s quite a few singing sessions and song gatherings, so we spend a lot of time going to them. I think a lot of the songs, especially on the new album, we would have gotten from singers.

So you’re actually going up to them and saying, “Can you teach me that? Can I take notes?” 

Yeah. It’s just about asking, y’know, “could you give me the words?” Or we might ask to record them singing. In general, most people are very happy if you approach them like that. Singers, especially, are always very generous with their songs, and especially when they see that it’s younger people coming along. We’ve never had a case when somebody said, “no!” Most of them are delighted for you to approach them in that way, you know?

Do you find regularly that you’re hearing songs you’ve never heard before, or is it the case that the more you do it, the more you hear alternative versions of the same pieces? 

It’s both. I love going over to the States, where you’re constantly hearing loads of versions of songs. You’ll recognise certain parts, or maybe the story is the same. It might be that the story and words are totally different but it’s the same kind of tune. I find it really fascinating. But, yeah – I suppose the more you stay at it, the less you hear new material, so when you hear something – one of those rare things – it hits you. Or maybe it’s that somebody has put together something themselves – they’ve maybe found the words somewhere and composed their own ayre to it, or found a tune somewhere else.

“You feel compelled to learn the song and sing it yourself, and you’re not satisfied until you’ve done it”

There’s so much stuff out there, it’s a continuous thing to find new aspects and different parts of the tradition. You’ve got the street songs, the broadsheet ballads, the sea shanties, the Child ballads, worker songs from the 20th century… there are just so many different aspects to it, and I find it all really fascinating to be honest. Once you start getting interested, you really get sucked down the rabbit hole. There’s so much stuff there.

Is there anything you look for particularly in a song, or does it just have to grab you? 

It’s hard to say. It’s not something I can put my finger on consciously, you know? It might be just the turn of phrase, or it might be the story of the song. Sometimes a song just hits you in a certain way and you can’t really explain why. It’s something that I find really hard to describe… that part of my brain… It just hits you and it’s something that you can’t get out of your head. You feel compelled to learn the song and sing it yourself, and you’re not satisfied until you’ve done it.

Are you bothered by where the songs come from, or is it all fair game? 

Do you mean if the song comes from another country, or…?

Yeah. Are you strict about whether the song comes from a particular region? Does that affect you at all? 

I see. Yeah, I’ve heard about people being affected that way before, but the way that traditional singers – people who were singing years ago, when they’d only have learnt their songs in their own locality – those singers weren’t interested in where the song came from, you know? A song could come through if somebody had travelled from another county, and if it spoke to them or resonated on a certain level, they weren’t worried if it came from the other side of the country. They weren’t worried if it was an English or Irish song. And, especially throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the broadsheet ballad trade meant that you had plenty of songs that were printed over in London or Manchester, and people in Ireland were singing them. And vice versa – there were songs that were printed here and then sold over in England. So there was such a big exchange, I don’t think anyone was worried about where the songs came from. They’d sing anything that came their way, as long as it spoke to them.

So that’s the way I look at it myself. If I come across a song that I like, I’ll sing it and I’ll sing it in my own accent. I might even put my own spin on it, but it wouldn’t put me off that it was composed in another part of the world. I think that’s a ridiculous idea to come to. The song might hit you because it’s someone singing in a similar situation to you, or their words speak to you on some other level. I don’t think geographical proximity has anything to do with whether you like a song or not.

I agree. It’s no more important than time, I suppose. I’m currently quite taken with ‘Hard Times of Old England‘, particularly with the fact that it originates from the 18th century and yet it describes life as many people live it today. 

And that’s the beauty of a good song. It’ll speak to people across time and across space, and it’ll carry on for longer than perhaps what its natural life would’ve been, because people decide to keep it alive. They carry on singing the song because it continues to hold a meaning for them. But in saying all that, I do have a soft spot for Dublin songs. I have a big interest in songs from this city, but it’s not the be all and end all.

Who does most of the collecting in the band? 

All four of us, really. We all have our different tastes, as it were. I suppose the repertoire that we have now as a band would represent the interests of all four of us.

And you’re recording some of these for the next album? You’re still recording, or is it ready to go? 

We’re still mixing it at the moment, and we would be hoping for a release sometime… well, sometime this year, anyway! We were hoping for the springtime, but I’m not sure it’ll be ready or not. This year, at some stage. That’s all I can say safely.

Recently I was chatting to David Suff who runs Topic Records, and he was discussing the moment when you hear a band and you know that it really works. He called it ‘the pure drop’, but he couldn’t describe it in any greater terms than, “I know it when I hear it”. He also said it’s an Irish thing. Can you define it any clearer than that? 

Yeah, it’s something that you find in traditional performing when people think that it’s maybe… y’know… erm… [takes a long pause]. Hang on… how to describe this!? Something that’s purely traditional; that hasn’t been infected by modern forms of music. That’s the phrase and how people would use it over here. It’s for proper traditional music, whatever that may be. Maybe you’d hear it a bit more in instrumental tradition than the singing tradition, but yeah – it’s still a phrase that you’d hear over here.

He used it to describe Lynched, actually. 

Are you serious?! 

Yeah, he said, “I know it when I hear it but I don’t hear it enough.” He said the last time he heard it was you guys at Normafest. 

[Silence, apparently while he takes this in] Woah! That’s some compliment. He’s the head of Topic Records, is he?

Yeah. Maybe you’ll want to go and chat to him about a contract… 

Holy moly! Yeah, I think so! That’s really brightened my day!

For more info on Lynched (or Lankum), including the release date for their new album and upcoming tour dates (they’re back in the UK in May), check out lynchedmusic.com

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