How a diagnosis of a potentially life-changing condition helped in achieving a long held ambition.
Carmen Phelan has had a long career as a sought-after session musician on fiddle and violin before deciding in her 30’s to become a songwriter and recording artist in her own right. If this isn’t intriguing enough, Carmen Phelan who lives in London has family in Ireland and Trinidad, and she also spent part of her childhood in America. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Carmen Phelan over Zoom to discuss how her background made americana her genre of choice as an artist and why she is a member of Misty River with her husband rather than being a solo artist. She also explains that she would probably never have taken the steps necessary to establish a career as a singer-songwriter if she hadn’t had a sudden diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome which threatened her whole musical career. As a mixed-race artist, she is also able to shed light on the growing number of successful black women americana performers in America. In case there was any doubt, she was also able to confirm the direct link between Irish traditional music and bluegrass based on her own personal childhood experiences.
How are you? I hope you’ve managed to get through COVID?
Yeah, thankfully we have been very lucky and when you look around and see the impact it has had for so many musicians, and while we haven’t been touring we’ve used the time to record. I haven’t caught it and nobody close to me has caught it, thankfully. I’m excited to get back out there, and it is awful to say on the upside but there have been opportunities to collaborate with people on ‘Promises’ because people I really wanted to work with were available, haha, because they weren’t on tour. I’m not very good with technology, I’m just excited to make this Zoom technology work today, haha, but I have learnt to love it now, that new form of connection which was completely alien to me and collaborating with artists. I mean, you can work with anybody and we had quite a few national players on the record, and then finishing things off with people in Nashville on the other side of the world is just phenomenal. There have definitely been some highlights to the whole COVID situation.
While the pandemic has brought a lot of misery and pain to a lot of people, it has also changed society and economic models, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst, but it has made permanent changes to everybody’s lives.
The thing I’ve been interested in is that it has made me stop and think about connection, and what that actually means. Before I would have said you have to spend a lot of time with somebody, you have to be in the room with them, but I found there are loads of different modes of connection. It has been really interesting for me watching a lot of musicians playing live sessions in their living rooms, and just chatting and being around. It has been interesting, but we could have done without it.
Why do you think there are an increasing number of black artists, particularly black women, starting to tackle country and folk music?
I think that has always been there and therefore nothing has fundamentally changed with the artists, but I do think what has changed is how receptive people are to calling it country or americana. I think there is more visibility, quite frankly, and a bit more acceptance I suppose. It is hugely positive and it was nice to see people like Amythyst Kiah and Allison Russell on AmericanaFest 2021. I think with all those women their story is similar to mine, I’ve always played folk music and looking back on it, I’ve probably always played americana since I was a kid. For me, it is interesting that people find that surprising, I started off as a fiddle player in the States and then I made to Ireland, and even before I played we always had a lot of folk music playing, you know, Joni Mitchell, and we had a book in the house ‘A Hundred Greatest Folk Songs’, haha, and I was playing my three chords on the guitar to it as a young kid. It was Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, Ewan McColl, a real mix of folk songs from all over, and I started playing fiddle properly at the age of 8 or 9 in the States and then moved back to the UK. In the background you had, you know my parents were just old hippies so they were listening to Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, The Band and Little Feat.
I think it is an interesting thing, and I’ve certainly had people say to me they can hear reggae or a similar feel in the music. I grew up in a mainly Irish culture in London initially because my Dublin family were over here and then moved back to Ireland, I have a Trinidadian side to things but reggae is not Trinidadian, haha. Certainly, I heard calypso music at family parties, you would also hear The Rolling Stones, and Irish and Trinidadians are very similar in that they both love country music. my father was a member of the Irish Association and it would be country music, maybe The Dubliners, Christy Moore and that kind of thing, but otherwise it was mainly country music you would hear. It was normal for me to have that mix of Irish fiddle music, with bluegrass, folk songs and then the band music. I don’t think there was ever a point when I thought I might try this kind of music, and when I talk to the black artists it is a case of it always being there and it isn’t a case of I will just try this. For me, as a fiddle player I think there was a period when I started playing in bands myself in my late teens, and I started to hear kind of seminal records like Alison Krauss and Union Station, and I think the main one for me as a fiddle player and the one that had the biggest influence is Steve Earle with The Del McCoury Band, which I thought was just this unbelievable album, and then that T Bone Burnette soundtrack came out, ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’. For me, I have always heard the crossover between traditional roots music and the feedback and how it developed. I’m a real bore when it comes to that kind of thing, it is like I have a traditional music degree, I can ramble on for ages about roots music, haha.
Why Misty River and not simply Carmen Phelan?
While I sing and write, Adam my husband and I collaborate, and he mainly produces and arranges, and it is very much a collaboration. Mistry River for me was just a place I went to as a kid, a summer camp I really loved. I used to be a session player with lots of different bands, and I recorded with quite a lot of people, and I suppose it was an awareness of how much other players and musicians bring in when they join. So for me, it was very much a collaborative effort, and it starts off with me the singer and songwriter, and it then develops into something magical when other people come in. Obviously, when you are an independent artist and relying on people’s goodwill a lot in terms of how much time and effort they can put in, and in that respect, I also feel very lucky. Misty River is that magical place I think of when I have a lot of musicians around me helping me to create.
How do you approach songwriting, where did the songs on ‘Promises’ come from?
The oldest song is six years old I think, ‘Take This Dance’, and I had this strange situation where I released that before I had written the rest of the album, and I think that was one of the first songs I wrote as a songwriter and moving away from being just a fiddle player, and because I got involved with a film it sort of ended up getting out there into the world before I felt I had really pinned down my sound. It was actually a demo, so who knows where that song would have ended up if I could have added another hundred instruments, string section, mandolin, pedal steel. Actually, it is quite nice to have a couple of stripped-back ones as well. I think that one, to me anyway, sounds a little bit different to the rest of the record. With an album, there are obviously lots of songs that you end up picking and choosing from, but it was certainly last summer’s lockdown that caused me to put my foot down and finish things. On some of them, it was a case of scrubbing the recording and starting again with the arrangement until it sounded OK, and I think getting rid of what you think it should sound like and actually just trying to produce something that stays true to how I thought of the song in the first place. You know, not trying to be too fancy production-wise, haha, not trying to fit it into too many boxes. For the first album, I thought you should just try and show people what you had in your head. I would say the bulk of the album was written over the last year, but there are a couple in there that I’ve been mucking around with for a while.
What is it like working with your husband, is it interesting at times?
It can be challenging. One of the most valuable ways that the relationship works is that normally when I write a song I take it straight to him, and if he makes a comment like I’m not sure about that lyric or that verse, then I will get the hump and slink away and I won’t talk to him for an hour or two. That is because I know he is completely right, and that was probably the bit I thought was weak or I wasn’t sure about, the worst-case scenario is he will say I’m not sure about that song, haha. I will then probably leave the house and go off by myself for a few hours. But honestly, we never really disagree. I’ve known Adam’s family since I was a kid, and he sort of separately ended up in the same place after doing a lot of blues stuff initially, and he was off working with other people and producing them. It has taken me a long time to accept it would be great to work with him as producer, though we did work together for a long time on various sessions and what have you, and our musical tastes are near identical, so that when we are trying to get a sound or a feel, that works very well. Last summer when I was feeling is this ever going to happen when we were in lockdown and couldn’t get in the studio, he said asked me who my ideal drummer for the last songs would be, and I’d already had two drummers, who I love, playing, because drums really pin down a lot of what you do, and I said it is the drummer with Brandi Carlile because he can play and play and play. Adam just got in contact with him and asked him if he would be up for it, he told him it was my first record and that it was independent, which made it a bit of an ask, and he was very pleasant about it and actually very encouraging. It was the same with Peter Levin who plays the Hammond. Adam is quite good at taking my ideas and running with them, where I can have the idea but not have the confidence to push it through.
You are an established session player which gave you a regular income, and you will have had commitments as everybody does. How big a decision was it to try and establish yourself as an artist which is something that requires investment before you can get any real income?
I had always liked the idea of it, and I had always written songs here and there. I had so many good experiences playing with so many people, and I always enjoyed that side of things. A few years ago I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and it came about when I was walking and I suddenly lost my footing and I couldn’t walk on my leg. There was a whole sort of round of investigations, they thought at one point it may have been rheumatoid arthritis, and it looked like I may not be able to play or perform anymore. I just had this light bulb moment of thinking, shit haha, I never wrote the songs, I never tried it. It really was that fast, the fright it could all be taken away certainly gave me the kick up the arse that I needed, haha. It is a really scary thing in a way to step away, but I think it was time, I had done that session thing for a while. I did have to make a clean break, I did try doing a few things but to be myself as a songwriter I did need that bit of space. There are certainly friends of mine who I have toured and worked with who are on the album, John Reynolds is playing the drums and he is the MD for Sinead O’Connor and a bunch of other Irish artists and he mixed one of the tracks as well. That is the other amazing thing for me just seeing friends come in to play on my stuff when I’m used to it being the other way around and working with them. We often have a bit of standing back thinking, gosh, I can’t believe this is happening, haha.
How much Irish influence do you think there is in your music as opposed to the music you have heard and experienced as a musician?
That is an interesting question. I think it is hard for me to say because, certainly from the Irish side of things, it is very much the music I grew up with and it is very firmly my musical roots. A lot of the music I played in bands as a fiddle player, and it would have been John Prine and Guy Clark songs, and you have Delores Keane and John Prine singing together. For me I can always hear the two, there is Iris Lament, and I think they both have so much in common, and people have different definitions of what americana is, and I guess when I was younger what is now americana would have been known as alt-country. We would be singing country songs, and then I would come in and play some Irish fiddle tunes, and then we would play ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’, and then we would play some Scottish tunes. I think my music is a composite, for sure. I think also it is the song tradition that comes through from traditional Irish ballads, and that sort of thing, mind you that is very close and nearly identical to the bluegrass stuff, haha.
How is your condition now?
It is a chronic thing so it is there in the background, I was learning more about it recently online and the difference for us having the NHS in this country is I got information online and then the NHS was able to just throw resources at it so I’m fine with it. I realise for somebody else who doesn’t have access to that kind of healthcare it will be frightening, and I know not everybody gets the care they need from the NHS but I’m a bit of a fighter in that regard and living in London with the teaching hospitals certainly helped. At one time I was under ten different departments and they were just talking to each other to get me back together. It was terrifying at the time for me, and looking back on it I can’t believe where I am at now, and whilst I’d rather not have EDS, on the upside I don’t think I would have become a songwriter in my own right, I wouldn’t have had that impetus without it. It had been knocking around for too long as an idea and that is just the flow of life.
What are your plans for the rest of this year and 2022?
The plan is to do quite an extensive tour of the UK, and some dates in the States next year. We are just talking about the tour dates at the moment, in the UK we want to get to Bristol, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Sheffield and that kind of thing, and it will be America in the new year. I’m hoping to return to my technology and do a proper album launch in December, which will be an online streamed event. I know touring is coming back now but I think I will feel more confident next year just knowing the dates will be firm and fixed, and that audiences will be comfortable and safe coming to see us. When we played the St Pancras Church a few weeks back it was so nicely arranged everybody felt safe. It is a beautiful venue, and they had made space for everybody and it was very well organised. Obviously, I don’t want people to be nervous and there are different things at different venues, so we are doing what we can to promote it online this year, and I’ve been very lucky with the radio pickup it has got, particularly with regional play, so hopefully, that will continue when the full album comes out. I just can’t wait to get out and play it next year, touring and doing some of the festivals that didn’t make it this year.
Who is in the touring version of Misty River?
It is always Adam, my husband, he plays guitar and dobro, and we only bring out a bass player. On the record we have two different bass players, and we have worked a lot with Mark Lewis from Manchester who used to play with Yola, at the very least you will see three of us and at some gigs, it could be five of us, including drums and extra guitar, fingers crossed.
There is quite a buzz around what is your debut album ‘Promises’. Why do you think that is?
I’m delighted to hear you say that because I have no idea how people are responding. Coming back to Misty River, that was another thing I wanted, the separation from me as a player. I don’t know, that side of the industry the labels and all that kind of thing, I’m the same as anybody else because as a side musician you don’t ever have those kinds of dealings. Where I excel is having friends I can beg favours from, haha, and another thing I forgot to say was that I met Adam, my husband, through my best friend’s sister, who has been my best friend since I was nine, and she probably is my favourite singer. She doesn’t work as a singer, but we sang together all the time when we were kids Hannah and I, and that is another person because she works as a Director of Communications but she happened to be at home having lunch hours round the corner. I suddenly thought well she is my favourite singer, and she is not used to working in a professional capacity but with a bit of bullying we got her into singing and you will hear her on a lot of the choruses of the songs, which has been really nice. In terms of where it is sitting with the industry, it is really hard to tell, and I’ve no idea how the record will be received. There has been some nice pickup in the States as well, which particularly as a Brit wasn’t something I was expecting. In American because of this Black female artist thing people are working hard to support us, and it is nice to be included in a little bit of that, especially as a Brit, haha.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
I’ve just been listening to the Foy Vance album, ‘Signs Of Life’, and there are a few tracks on that I really like. Anybody who knows me will tell you I’m very obsessive about songs, and I do listen to albums but it is always the song I latch on to, so Lori McKenna has a song called ‘People Get Old’ and when I first heard that I probably played it forty times in a row, and that is no exaggeration. Sometimes I get overtaken by things and Nathaniel Rateliff, who I didn’t listen to much in the past, has got this song ‘And It’s Still Alright’ and I’ve been listening to that an awful lot. Some of the Allison Russell stuff on her new album ‘Outside Child’. Valarie June did a lovely song ‘Call Me A Fool’. I can never pronounce her name, but Sarah Jarosz, I love her new stuff. I suppose Lori McKenna is who I’m obsessing about, haha.
Do you know Foy Vance?
I don’t. He did support when I was playing with Sinead O’Connor so I’ve met him, and that was quite a while ago so he is an interesting example of someone who has been an artist for a long time and he has stuck to his guns on what he wants to achieve. I suppose that is an advantage for independent musicians, creatively you have that level of freedom. I think when you put that first album out it becomes a bit of a manifesto in a way on what you would like to do, and where you would like to go. You can’t always achieve everything, but it is an advantage being an independent artist, you don’t have A&R from the label telling you what to do, why have you got dobro, Hammond and mandolin all playing at once, haha.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?
I’d love it if once the tours get going if people came down and met us, come and talk to us because I love talking to fans. Again, it has been really interesting for me not having a bit of an online presence, how many people are reaching out and talking. One of the things I love is talking, and talking about music. Americana music is a continuum, and once you start playing you start seeing yourself as part of that. I often find there are so many things I didn’t know about americana music or acts I didn’t know about. I love to hear about it and I love feedback. It doesn’t really come alive until you play in front of people. I’m grateful for the support americana has given me, because being mixed race you are never sure whether people will accept it, as I said I know this is real because I grew up with it, but it is nice to get support for it in the background. Finally, there will be a vinyl coming out when we launch in December, check out the musicians and the bands they are playing with because they are fantastic, Chris Powell, Peter Levin on Hammond, the Irish crowd of Graham Hopkins, John Reynolds and the producer we worked with in Nashville Vance Powell whose main gig is with Chris Stapleton, so haha. Also, Chris Wilkinson who mixed the last few tracks, and we met him again during lockdown and he would be in Nashville working on a lot of records we love, and he has just moved back to Sheffield. He has his own studio in Sheffield called Fox Den, and it has been amazing to find that level of understanding, someone who knows the sound, understands and has worked with that level of musicians in Nashville for so long in all the best studios, and then he has come back and set up this amazing place in Sheffield. If you are a musician, check out Fox Den.
Misty River’s ‘Promises’ is out now on The Workshop