When Seamus Egan and Winifred Horan began gigging about the country in the first lineup of Solas, there wasn't much concern for what the future held.
That was nearly 15 years ago. Since then, the acclaimed Irish-American ensemble has released 10 albums that favor Irish traditional music without staying exclusively bound to it.
"If you had asked us 15 years ago, 'What do you think will happen?' I think our answer would have been, 'Oh, we'll just do a few gigs and that will be it,'" fiddler/vocalist Horan said. "Seriously. I doubt there was even thought to making an album.
"Obviously, we're still getting something out of Solas. But what that is doesn't feel like work. The band is the safety zone. It's the best place to be."
If the music on the band's upcoming album, The Turning Tide, is an indication, the best place is about to get a lot better. It is Solas' second recording with its current personnel — multi-instrumentalist Egan (born in Pennsylvania but reared in Ireland's County Mayo), Horan (born in New York to Irish parents), accordionist/ guitarist Mick McAuley (from County Kilkenny in Ireland), guitarist/ pianist Eamon McElholm (from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland) and vocalist Máiréad Phelan (also from County Kilkenny). And like the music it has produced since the release of a self- titled debut record in 1996, The Turning Tide is richly traditional in scope and style. Except when it isn't.
"In general, Solas doesn't pay too much mind to labels," Horan said. "It's very crippling to life, as well as to music and art, when you have to live according to how you've been labeled. Sometimes it is completely inaccurate."
So what does that make Solas? Is it the sort of contemporary band that bowed to enormous contemporary and commercial influence, like the Celtic ensemble Clannad during the '90s, to the point that it sounds almost like a pop group? Definitely not. Save for discreet touches of electric bass, Solas' music is thoroughly acoustic.
On The Turning Tide, the approach is contemporary only when you look at the repertoire. Sprinkled amid traditional instrumentals and songs are interpretations of works by modern songsmiths Bruce Springsteen, Richard Thompson and Josh Ritter. But those compositions reflect such a strong folk sensibility — lyrically and spiritually — that their transference to a largely Irish traditional setting seems quite natural.
From Springsteen, Solas chose the John Steinbeck-inspired The Ghost of Tom Joad, which is taken at a spry Celtic gallop. From Thompson came 1972's The Poor Ditching Boy, which already boasted a broad sense of traditional spirit. From Ritter came A Girl in the War, which had a suitably timeless narrative.
One of the album's most curious adventures is an adaptation of the traditional tune A Sailor's Life, which has long been ripe for reconstruction. In fact, Thompson was one of the chief architects in devising a new electric version of the song more than 40 years ago as a member of the then-young Fairport Convention. Solas' version, considerably less ghostly than the Fairport revision, flies on lighter, more limber accents of fiddle and accordion and the altogether sweeter air of Phelan's vocals.
"Really, if you try to cover somebody else, especially people like Bruce and Richard, one of the things you have to consider is that their original version will always be the original," Horan said. "And, in most people's minds, it will also be the best. And that's fine. But to get around that, you have to try to make the song your own."
When it comes to original music, Horan has come up with quite a surprise for The Turning Tide. It's an instrumental rich in accordion, mandolin and fiddle that boasts more of a rustic Eastern European flavor than an overtly Irish one. The title is A Waltz for Máiréad in honor of Phelan. But the surprise element is that Horan had not told Phelan about the title when we conducted our interview.
" Máiréad is such a wonderful person and a good friend. She has breathed new life into the band musically, socially and, for me, in every way. ... I'm curious to see what she's going to say when she finds out I wrote her a tune.
"I think the best thing any band has going for it is when it can be its own barometer for the kinds of music it wants to do. But we're still very well aware of where we come from and where our roots are. You have to know where you come from to actually get someplace comfortably.
"I mean, life is a journey, isn't it? You never get to a point where you get everything figured out. There's no set plan or map, really. It's the same with music. So why not keep playing and experimenting?"