” An inventive set that could well become a crossover commercial success.” ★★★★ The Guardian
Damien O’Kane is a Northern Irish musician of many talents. He has teamed up most recently for his AREAS OF HIGH TRAFFIC album with master musicians – guitarist Steven Byrnes (Treacherous Orchestra/Kate Rusby), percussionist Cormac Byrne (Seth Lakeman Band), Steven Iveson (Kate Rusby/Damien O’Kane Band) and Anthony Davis (Irish Celtic) – he and his boys have created a sound that is hugely exciting and ‘very different to anything that has gone before’ (Colin Irwin).
Sublime and exhilarating arrangements of the old Irish traditional songs, with influences of rock, pop, jazz, electronica and not a trace of gimmickry. This is a band that take traditional Irish music and song and, in the words of the The Telegraph, turn it into ‘Folk-Pop that is Irish music for the 21st Century.’ As with his 2010 album, Summer Hill, O’Kane stays true to his Northern Irish roots again with much of the material on AOHT coming from the Ulster region, where he was born and bred – Coleraine town. But there are some real classics in there too. This is an album which is destined to become a classic!
O’Kane is a singer. A very good one, too, with a relaxed, assured, hypnotic vocal style that exudes a natural warmth and empathy with the colourful characters who occupy his songs. Added to his accomplished banjo and guitar skills, he is an artist of rich imagination and fearless vision.
Steeped in music, Damien grew up in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, with a deep respect and understanding of the folk tradition, yet which also forged a healthy appetite to explore its broadest borders and test its boundaries. All of which has culminated in his 2015 solo album ‘Areas Of High Traffic’ which, apart from proving he scrubs up well for a cover photo, takes some of the greatest songs in the folk canon – ‘The Blacksmith’, ‘The Banks Of The Bann’, ‘I Am A Youth’ and ‘The Green Fields Of America’ included – and reinvents them in refreshingly original ways.
“They are songs,” he says, “that take me back home. Great songs which I love, but I’ve always avoided doing them because they are so iconic. I decided it was time to overcome this and do the songs my way.”
And, with a mesmerizing array of ebullient percussion (courtesy of Cormac Byrne), dazzling jazz infusions (from keyboardist Anthony Davis) and beautifully understated electric guitar (Steven Iveson), Damien’s ways are very different to other people.
“I’ve always been a bit rebellious,” he laughs. “Not that I ever do anything for the sake of being different – everything is designed to suit the song. The words are always the most important thing.”
His career began early. Very early when he first went on stage with his parents and siblings at the age of 13 in the O’Kane Family Band. Damien – already a fine banjo player with a penchant for singing Christy Moore songs – then joined the first intake at the newly instituted Traditional Music Degree course in Newcastle, where he learned a great deal about the tradition (“before then I just thought all traditional music was Irish music, I didn’t know it was all over the world”) and shared sessions and opinions with other musicians from differing backgrounds with differing ideas.
One of them was Shona Kipling, who Damien formed a duo with in 2002. They made their first album together, ‘Pure Chance’, in 2003, followed by ‘Box On’ in 2007, which got them radio play, regular gigs and a nomination at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards for ‘Horizon Award’. Damien was suddenly being talked of as one of the most exciting young folk musicians in Britain, much in demand for sessions and touring and in 2007 he joined super Anglo/Irish band Flook for an eighteen month stint. “I loved playing with Flook,” he says. “I grew up playing in sessions so I was in my element with that band”.
Out of the blue one day, he got a call to ask if he was available to play a gig with Kate Rusby’s band. As chance would have it, he wasn’t. But next time the call came to see if he could help out with some of the music Kate had been asked to provide for the ‘Jam & Jerusalem’ TV series, he made sure he was available.
It was a life-changing move…for both of them. In addition to performing, O’Kane has co-produced several albums with Rusby now including her ‘20’ album which reached number 10 in the Official UK Charts. It has proved a joyous partnership in more ways than one; apart from the albums and tours together, it has also produced a wedding ring and two beautiful daughters.
The confidence and experience gained from his time with the Rusby band has also encouraged Damien’s startling development as a solo musician. This began with the ‘Summer Hill’ album released by Pure Records in 2010, winning many accolades with its sensitive interpretations of lullabies, ballads, instrumentals and even an inspired version of Ian Campbell’s anti-nuke classic, ‘The Sun Is Burning’. Then, as now, he sang boldly in an unmistakable Northern Irish accent. “I never understand why people don’t always sing in their own accents,” he says.
He says he has no masterplan beyond playing the music he loves in an honest way to as many people he can, researching new material, working up fresh approaches to old songs and proudly flying the flag for folk song in whatever form he finds it.
“Whether I’m playing with Kate or on my own I have a huge love and respect for the music and I love to sing and play it. I feel very lucky and privileged to have had the chance to play with some great musicians. Long may it last.” And so say all of us…