Damien O’Kane is a musician of many talents. He’s a singer. A very good one, too, with a relaxed, assured vocal style that exudes a natural warmth and empathy with the colourful characters who occupy his songs.
He’s also a brilliant banjo player. And a fine guitarist. And an ingenious arranger. Not to mention an accomplished tunemaker, researcher, bandleader and accompanist 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 brilliant 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 (or “the Von Trapps of Coleraine”, as they were known locally). They did pretty well, too, playing for dances and singing old favourites like ‘The Mountain Dew’. After a gig at a big golfing event in Portrush, they were invited down south to play in pubs in Tramore and Waterford, leading to invitations to go further afield to play in Austria and Iceland.
Damien – already a fine banjo player with a penchant for singing Christy Moore songs – 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 other musicians from differing backgrounds with differing ideas.
One of them was Shona Kipling, an all-Ireland accordion champion, who decided to enter the BBC’s Young Folk Award competition and asked Damien if he’d accompany her. In the event he was too old to enter, but he and Shona formed a musical partnership anyway. 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 for the BBC Folk Horizon Award.
Concurrently also working with David Wood in another band, Cross Current, Damien was suddenly being talked of as one of the most exciting young folk musicians in Britain, much in demand for sessions and touring near and far with Flook. Indeed, he was with them when they won Best Group at the 2006 BBC Folk Awards. “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.
“It was a big challenge joining Kate’s band. A lot of people assume her music is simple to play, but it’s not, a lot of it is actually quite complicated and for me it meant learning a whole new way of playing. Every gig is a fantastic experience.”
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.
There was further acclaim in 2011 for the ebullient ‘The Mystery Inch’, a dazzling instrumental album with Sheffield guitarist David Kosky to add another string to an already busy bow.
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…