Name: Síomha Brock
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current release: Síomha's Infinite Space is out now.
If you enjoyed these thoughts by Síomha and would like to find out more about her work, visit her official website. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
What role, would you say, does the Irish language currently play in Irish society?
The Irish language plays a vital role in Ireland tying us to our native cultural identity. Unfortunately the language isn’t spoken as widely these days but those who do speak it are using it to promote our heritage and bring the language into the 21st century.
I grew up in the Netherlands as the child of German parents, so although I spoke Dutch fluently, there was definitely a sense of being different. I'd be curious what this was like for you?
My own background with the Irish language is a little different. My parents are not native speakers, though my sisters and I were given very old and unusual Irish names. Síomha means ‘good peace’. In fact, a lot of Irish people struggle to pronounce my name, even today.
We were all sent to an Irish language primary school which had a huge emphasis on all things Irish culture; music, drama, poetry, sport and history. I feel very lucky to have had this early education. I loved the Irish language even into my English speaking high school years. I spent a lot of time going to ‘Irish College’ in the summer - a month long summer camp through Irish.
When I finished high school, I really fell out of touch with the language. I had no reason to speak it and wasn’t seeking out opportunities to use it. It wasn’t until my mid to late twenties that I got back into it again.
Having grown up bilingual, I can personally testify to the idea that personality and language are closely related. How does speaking different languages concretely affect your identity?
I definitely agree with you - it has a huge impact on your personality.
As well as Irish I also speak French. I went to school in the South of France for a year when I was 16 and spent many years after that going back and forth. My father still lives there.
I can empathise with what you said earlier about feeling different because of your own background. Though I speak French fluently and have spent so much time in France, I feel almost like I fall ‘in between’ - when I visit, I am not a tourist but I am not native. I think if I was to spend more time there I would settle a bit more.
There have been many bands – from Ireland, Scotland and Wales – which have incorporated elements of their native language into mainly English language albums. Were there bands that did this which you felt inspired by?
When I was about 10 or 11 a compilation album came out titled Éist: Songs In Their Native Language and was followed by Éist Arís. These two albums had so many brilliant artists singing songs in Irish; Van Morrison, Maura O Connell, Brian Kennedy, even Kate Bush did a track.
It was the first time I heard Paul Brady sing "The Lakes Of Pontchartrain" in Irish and I was hooked. I learned it on guitar and I still sing the Irish version today.
I find singing in the Irish language so freeing. There is something so different about the sounds of vowels. It’s open, quite elastic and offers a lot of freedom in singing.
When and why did it become clear to you that you wanted to combine both Irish and English lyrics for Infinite Space?
In my late twenties I was asked to sing at an Irish Language stage at a festival. At the time I was very out of touch with the Irish language. I asked Billy MagFhloinn, a well known folklorist, if he would be interested in translating some of my songs for the occasion. He did a stunning job on them. Over time, the English versions just fell out of my set - audiences were much more interested in the Irish versions even if there were not native speakers. I think hearing the Irish language in the new musical context was intriguing.
It was these translations that reignited my interest in the language again after many years of neglecting it. When we were deciding on songs for the album it was just natural that the Irish language ones were prioritised.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
I am currently working on writing in Irish myself and learning how to translate my existing songs into Irish. I have gone back to study Irish and have had the opportunity to be mentored by a brilliant bilingual poet Ciara Ní É.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
I usually start with music - that said sometimes lyrics come first but it is more common for me to start with chords and melody. I just try to sit with an idea and see where it wants to be taken. Sometimes, I will have a clear idea of what the song is about in advance and other times the meaning of the song will reveal itself to me as I am writing it.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
Joni Mitchell is the ultimate for me. Her work is worth studying not just on a lyrical level but also musically. Her topics fascinate me - how she manages to make such everyday events become so poetic.
When working on the album, what was the response of the other artists to the Irish material? Did you find the moods and topics of these songs came through even though they may not have understood them on a rational level?
I’m lucky to have had a very positive response to the songs I perform in Irish.
I’ve had people contact me from all over the world to say they didn’t know what language the song is in or what was being said but that they connected with it - music has no boundaries.
After finishing the album, do you feel as though you could have changed Irish songs into English ones after finishing them – and vice versa? Or is there a sense that these are definitive versions?
I’m glad that I made the decision to go with the Irish versions of the songs instead of the English versions. They are very intriguing and people seem to be responding to them. I am also really proud to be among a strong group of artists working in the Irish Language.
In how far do you see the “pure” (instrumental) music as a language in its own right? What can be expressed through it compared to word-based concepts?
To me, the beauty of music is the feeling. I work mostly on intuition as opposed to practical knowledge of music. I love instrumental music - I love to get lost in it. Words seem to confine us sometimes, they box us into specific narratives and interpretations but words don’t explain feelings the way music does.