The Orphan Brigade – To the Edge of the World
Any fans of John Prine out there? Then here is the news. The Orphan Brigade has scored a coup – as the legendary singer songwriter makes a guest appearance on the new album!
‘To the Edge of the World’ is the third outstanding album from the creative musical collective that comprises The Orphan Brigade. With its three core members; Nashville-based Ben Glover, Joshua Britt, and Neilson Hubbard – each multi-award winning musicians, the trio collaborates with honorary members of the Brigade, which to date includes artists such as Gretchen Peters, Kim Richey, Barry Walsh, Kris Donegan. In fact over a dozen artists in their own right have formed what has become effectively a community of friends as well as musical minds.
Now, John Prine joins that roll of honour and Ben Glover is over the moon that an artist of Prine’s stature agreed to do guest vocals on the first single from the new album, ‘Captain’s Song (Sorley Boy)’.
Yet the core group (formed in 2013) remains the trinity of Ben, Joshua and Neilson, sharing a unique chemistry and imaginative approach to their compositions. Basically, for each album to date, they have sought out a location steeped in mythical, historical, spiritual, magical fact and fiction, and then immersed themselves body, mind and soul into the experiment to see and hear what evolves.
The Orphan Brigade’s inaugural album, 2015’s ‘Soundtrack to a Ghost Story’, was conceived and recorded in one of America’s most haunted houses – Octagon Hall in Franklin, Kentucky. The follow up, released in 2017, was the equally enigmatic ‘Heart of the Cave’, recorded in a pre-Christian cave system in Ossimo, Italy. So how and where could the Orphan Brigade follow up albums one and two with their unique and imaginative approach to music-making?
Ireland’s north Antrim coast is world-renowned for its myths and legends from Carrickfergus Castle to the Giant’s Causeway – the coast, the landscape, the people would provide a plethora of material to explore. Renowned for its rich storytelling traditions, it was as if Glover was answering an ancestral call to come home, to the small picturesque village of Glenarm, to make it base for the Orphan Brigade’s next adventure in creativity.
The result is as stunning as the famous coastline.
Titled ‘To the Edge of the World’, a forty second rousing pipe lament, ‘The Green Fields of Canada’ (as arranged by Barry Kerr), sets the scene. Close your eyes and you’re in Ireland for the duration. From mountains to glens, from cliffs to sea, old churches to castles in ruins, you’re taken on a journey round that magical coast, to meet some of the characters – real or mythical. These stories combined – transformed into song, and told with real soul – create the makings of a legendary album.
Different in tempo and style from its two older siblings, it’s as if ‘To the Edge of the World’ is responding to the heart-rhythms of the land, the tribal, ancestral echoes of the ancient lrish collective psyche, somehow poetically linked to the call of the sea.
Each of the twelve tracks was written in a different location along the coast, and based on local folklore. ‘Madman’s Window’ was composed on a rock formation on the Coast Road near Glenarm. Here sits a huge rock with a window-like opening at the top. The story goes that a beautiful young woman drowned whilst swimming in Glenarm Bay. Her sweetheart was so distraught that he lost his sanity and each day for the rest of his life would gaze through the gap in the rock awaiting her return.
Followed by ‘Banshee’ (in Irish legend, this is a female spirit whose wailing warns of a death in a house), this was written in the depths of Glenarm Forest at midnight, complete with Banshee-esque spooky noises, and a touch of ghoulish humour perhaps!
Beneath the Armada Tree in the graveyard of St Patrick’s church, rooted in medieval times, is the song-writing location for ‘Under the Chestnut Tree’. It’s the tale of a ship wrecked sailor from the ill-fated Spanish Armada. Locals speak of a Spanish nobleman who drowned when his galleon sank along the coastline at Ballygally in 1588. His body was taken to the graveyard at St Patrick’s in Cairncastle. Where his bones rest, stands the gnarled and twisted branches of a Spanish chestnut tree, that grew from chestnuts in his pocket, allegedly.
The title track ‘Dance With Me To The Edge Of The World’ was composed on the cliffs at Kinbane Castle, County Antrim, where nearby rocky headland has a tragic ‘beauty and the beast’ story. A Rathlin Island chieftain decided the only way to stop Viking raids was to offer his beautiful daughter’s hand in marriage. When she refused, a brutal retaliation by the Norse-men was feared. Instead the Viking lord invited the locals to attend a feast at Fair Head. Of course it was too good to be true. In the middle of the celebrations a local servant, at the behest of the devious Viking, danced the fair maiden straight off Fair Head to her death.
The swan-myth of the Children Of Lir is famous throughout Ireland, featured in the poetry of W B Yeats and immortalised in the songs of many others. It is a tale that mixes magical elements such as druidic wands and spells with a Christian message of faith bringing freedom from suffering. Here, the Orphan Brigade wrote their own beautiful, melodic version on a boat in the ‘Sea Of Moyle’.
The Ghost Room at Ballygally Castle is famous locally. The four hundred year old story goes that the ghost is that of Lady Isabella Shaw, wife of Lord James Shaw. He wanted a son, and when his wife delivered his heir, he snatched the baby from his wife, then cruelly locked her in a room at the top of the castle. Trying to escape to search for her beloved child, Lady Isabella fell to her death from the tower window. Over the years, many guests claim to have seen her mourning spirit wandering there.
‘St. Patrick On Slemish Mountain’ was written on the slopes of Slemish – a volcanic ‘plug’ visible for miles around, and historically a place of pilgrimage. It was here, the enslaved St Patrick looked after the sheep, and first came up with the analogy between the shamrock, the symbol of Ireland, and the Christian trinity.
The first single is the humorous and wry ‘Captain’s Song (Sorley Boy)’. It was composed in a small boat in Glenarm Bay – hence, the jaunty, swaying rhythm. It makes reference to the infamous chieftain Sorley Boy MacDonnell, five hundred years ago. John Prine no less, is the star guest – adding vocals reminiscent of the gravel on the sea floor. Stunning.
This is set to become an Orphan Brigade classic. Its sing-a-long, sea-faring rhythm made it perfect material for some audience participation – here, it also features the willing audience at a recent live gig in the Duncairn Arts Centre, Belfast.
‘Bessie’s Hymn (Here Is Love, Vast As The Ocean)’ is a little gem in the midst of it all. Bessie McWhirter is the long-time organ player in St Patrick’s church. While recording there, the Orphan Brigade asked her to play one of her favourite hymns. It was such a lovely rendition, the forty second interlude is included on the album. ‘Fairhead’s Daughter’ was written in the caves at Cushendun. For Game of Thrones fans, this was a site for two important scenes, now frequented by coach loads of tourists. ‘Fairhead’s Daughter’ is a rousing, rocky tune, with the aforementioned dark story of the Viking betrayal as theme. Somewhat poignantly, this is followed with the sweet voices of the local children from Seaview Primary School singing ‘To The Edge Of The World (Children’s Reprise)’.
‘Black Nun’ is based on well-known local folklore. Anyone familiar with the town of Ballycastle will relate the legend of Julia McQuillan, also known as “The Black Nun”, who lived and died in the Bonamargy Friary in the 1600’s. The Friary still stands today in ruins. She was said to be a gifted prophet – legend has it that her ghost can be summoned by walking seven times clockwise and anti-chockwise around the Celtic cross, then putting your hand through the hole. It is here, that the Orphan Brigade wrote ‘Black Nun’ but they’re not saying whether or not they summoned her ghost. Listen and find out for yourself!
The final track ‘Mind The Road’ was written at Glenarm Forest. Inspired by the long and winding roads of the north of Ireland, and its dark and tortuous past, let’s hope you are inspired to visit this album and explore the landscape, the myths and the legend at its heart and soul. This is storytelling at its finest. This is the Orphan Brigade at the cutting edge of their world – a masterpiece of musical alchemy.
To the Edge of the World is released on 27th September 2019.
See the theorphanbrigade.com for all UK tour dates.