by Michael Lohr
There’s no getting around it, singer/composer Jillian LaDage (pronounced le-Day-ge) will remind you of Loreena McKennitt, and not just for her music. She is the founder of the Tarith Cote record label and is an experienced, touring musician with over twenty years of performance experience. Her debut album, The Ancestry, is a phenomenal album melding Celtic, Classical and Middle Eastern music into a sensational polyphonic experience. As of this publication, it was announced that Tarith Cote signed a European distribution deal with the French folk and world beat label, Prikosnovenie.
The descendent of Scots/Irish ancestry, she took to music at a very early age. In her formative years, she studied Celtic harp under the tutelage of renowned Celtic harpist Kim Robertson. She has since traveled and performed all over the world, including at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland. I had the pleasure to sit down with her and discuss her musical vision, her career thus far, her debut album, Celtic culture both modern and ancient, and so much more.
ML: How did you prepare for your debut album, The Ancestry?
JL: The album itself did not begin to take form until fall 2008 when rehearsals commenced and I entered the recording studio. I became a temporary resident in Madison, Wisconsin where the bulk of the musicians on the recording were located. Having recorded before I had an idea of what I was getting myself into however, this was my first full length album with a full band, what an experience! It is always difficult to put a time limit on the creative process when so much of what the recording will become takes place in the studio in the end. A week and half of 12-hour days later and the music had taken shape. I specifically wanted to keep this first recording simplistic in its portrayal of the broad aspects that make up the history and lives of the Celts. In this way I feel I have created a building block for future recordings and laid a solid foundation in which to expand. The first forays into the writing of the music and the bulk of inspiration came from the Irish author John O’Donohue and his books “Anam Cara” and “Beauty.” Although there were many other books along the way, these became the stepping stones into the extraordinary world of the Celts that still fuel my imagination and travels today.
ML: You delve deep into the pages of history to awaken your musical muse. How much research do you do for each song?
JL: Each song is different in its own right almost as if it is a work unto itself. With the song “Bonny Was The Lady (The Legend of Cong),” I knew that I wanted to include ancient Irish myth and so I started searching, looking for perhaps something that was not out there yet but that was important to the Celtic mind and way of life. A way to bring the Celts to life so to speak to the modern listener and yet facilitate that deep connection we seem to have to the past within the present. With the subject matter moving through Turkey and the Byzantine Empire to ancient Ireland and Scotland, I spent a lot of time listening to other musician’s renderings of these rich traditions. I familiarized myself with the subtle nuances found in Middle Eastern music and finding the common ground where these traditions seemed to connect.
ML: In much the same tradition as Loreena McKennitt did with Quinlan Road, you founded your own record label, Tarith Cote. What is your mission statement and goals, artistically speaking for the label?
JL: I founded Tarith Cote in 2007 as a private, one artist, independent record label in much of the same vein as Ms. McKennitt. Indeed she is a role model for whom I highly regard as an exceptional artist and consummate businesswoman. As an artist my goal for the label is to build partnerships within the industry that would allow a broader fan base for the music and distribution to the greater part of the world. Currently we are reaching France and parts of Europe with distribution through Prikosnovenie and intend to expand our list of distributors to include Canada, United States, and Germany.
ML: You mentioned Samuel Lover’s version of Celtic legend of ‘The White Trout’ in discussing your song, “Bonny Was The Lady (The Legend of Cong)”. How did mythic tale of ‘The White Trout’ help you paint the desired musical imagery for the song? What was it about this tale that so moved you?
JL: What caught me in The White Trout was the beautiful imagery and the heart wrenching story of this young woman to find her place and essentially make that mark that was taken away from her so quickly. Amazingly, in this one tale, I found a clear picture of the ancient Celts. From the imagery presented as the female character shape-shifts to become the trout awaiting her lover who was lost in the river, to the magical elements and pagan references of the divine aspect of water, you can see the important role myth carried in ancient Celtic life. The oral tradition was dying out when Samuel Lover came upon this story and I wanted to take its preservation one step further in musical format but also inject part of the traditional element to the song through the use of the bodhran and the intricate violin lines that sweep through the piece. A friend of mine once described this piece as an Irish Opera – and indeed it seems to be, all the essential elements are there.
ML: You mentioned the concept of a temple of memory or a repository containing the echoes of past days, as discussed in John O’Donohue’s book, Anam Cara. Do you think it’s possible that music could contain certain memory triggers that once heard, stimulate recognition of past times and places, sort of like a tonal touchstone?
JL: I believe in all possibilities. I have certainly experienced a sense of a sacred meeting place when listening to a particular piece of music or reading a certain paragraph in a book that draws me to days past. Memory to me is not a temporal thing but one that lives on. Science has found that even in organ transplants the memory in our DNA lives on and notes the receiver reliving and recalling experiences they have not had. Surely in sound there must live a memory or we wouldn’t keep returning to certain forms and styles, “…all forwards do contend” as Shakespeare said.
ML: Is there an essential, defining element that makes a song Celtic? What is the “special something” that separates Celtic music from other ethnic and folkloric styles?
JL: I am not sure if I am able to pinpoint and say that this is the essential element that makes one song Celtic or not. With that being said, Celtic music has a strong foundation in folklore, ritual, tradition, etc. that is not so unlike other folkloric traditions and in this we find common ground. In terms of musicality there is much debate and little known of what was truly the “Celtic” sound so to speak. The drone plays a prominent role as well as the writing of most pieces being found in a form of the minor key, creating the haunting lilt it is well known for. As diversified as the instruments in this tradition are, so too are the sounds. Perhaps that is what I am looking for, and maybe what we all (Celtic musicians) in one way or another are looking for, the essential element. As I explore the other peoples these migrating tribes of Celts would have encountered and their musical traditions I endeavor to create a musical picture, an experience that traces all possibilities. There seems to be a lot of deep connections for instance to middle eastern traditions in Celtic music, however depending on what era and tribe you are exploring their similarities could be hard to detect in what we know in the traditional Irish/Scottish music experience.
ML: The Welsh possess their own distinctive style of music such as the Eisteddfodau and Gorseddau Bardic observances and their own instruments such as the pibgorn, crwth and Cymru bagpipes. Have you focused your attention on this rich tradition yet?
JL: Indeed Celtic seems to encompasses so many rich traditions, although I have primarily been focusing on the ancient Celts in other parts of the world other than the here to acknowledged traditions of Ireland, Scotland, and even Wales. With so many of the traditional instruments being limited in the range they can play it can be a challenge in terms of writing the music and so I have taken the approach of adding them in sparingly in order to let the beauty of the instrument itself shine through. I endeavor to have a basic understanding and grasp of the instrument first before attempting to incorporate them into what ends up as a Celtic orchestra and sometimes this takes up more time than I would like. My paths take me many places and I hope to explore the Welsh traditions and many others in light of the ancient Celts and in the years to come.
ML: Have you ever taken a journey or pilgrimage to any of the ancient places that you sing about?
JL: It was important for me in the creation of this first album to spend some time in the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland exploring my own ancestry. In that time I developed an affinity for St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, the richness of its history, the historical figures that have passed through, and the changes the cathedral itself has seen. There is much to explore and pull on and I am constantly drawn back to my time spent there. Perhaps for me what stands out the most is the place I was not able to reach, due to the remote nature of it and its location near borders where the world is now feeling much conflict – Manzikert or present day Malazgirt, Turkey although a trip is in the plan for the near future and I am very excited about this! For Manzikert, the experience unfolded through photos, histories and notes from modern observers to this place. I think sometimes there is a misconception and I myself have been party to it as well that one must visit the place in the physical sense to make a connection, however I have found that the mind is a powerful thing and connections can be made in many ways so as to not isolate one’s experience to merely the physical plane but also to join the metaphysical. This is my dearest hope for my listeners, that they are able to experience these ancient sites and locations, even if in the physical sense they are not able to visit or explore it.
ML: What additional projects are you currently working on?
JL: Right now I am staying focused on performing and adding dates for the next few years in support of The Ancestry and getting ready to go into rehearsals for seasonal, traditional, and original Celtic music that I will perform during the Holidays. As far as other projects, I have begun to explore the threads and ideas where I left off for the next album.
To learn more about Jillian LaDage, her debut album, The Ancestry, or her record label Tarith Cote, please go to https://www.facebook.com/JillianLaDage or http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/jillianladage