Philadelphia's Irish-American roots band RUNA feels honoured to be awarded Irish Music Awards for “Top Group” and “Top Traditional Group”, as well as Independent Music Award for “Best “Bluegrass Song” and “Best Traditional Song”. Walkin' Tom questioned the group's singer Shannon Lambert-Ryan on the brink of RUNA becoming Irish Music's new supergroup.
Walkin' Tom Keller: The latest RUNA album has been recorded live on Paddy's Day 2016. Why a live album at this time?
Shannon Lambert-Ryan We’ve wanted to record a live album with this group for quite a while. The energy created during a live performance is incomparable to any other setting. There is an irresistible excitement and rawness that is simply impossible to recreate in a studio recording, and it is that excitement that has continuously inspired us to create this live album.
Tom: Well, looking back, how did you come to traditional Irish music?
Shannon: We all came to traditional Irish music from different paths. Most of us started playing music, singing, or dancing at very young ages. Cheryl grew up with Canadian folk music, studied classical percussion at McGill University, and played with a variety of ensembles and singer-songwriters. Maggie grew up studying classical violin, bluegrass fiddle, and Irish-step dancing, and continued to pursue them at Belmont University. Dave grew up studying the bodhrán, the banjo, and Irish-step dancing, and continued on to study them at the University of Limerick, as well. Fionán grew up in one of the foremost families of traditional music in Ireland, teaching himself to play the guitar and touring with Riverdance. I grew up studying Irish step-dancing, classical voice and piano, and continued to pursue them and acting at Muhlenberg College.
We come from a variety of geographical backgrounds. Fionán is from Dublin, Dave is from Galway, Maggie is from Kentucky, Cheryl is from Montreal, and I am from Philadelphia. But all of us were wonderfully fortunate to be surrounded by a wide variety of music and incredibly supportive families and communities, as we were growing up. Some of us knew that we wanted to pursue music as a career. For others, certain opportunities arose at the right place and time. But, for all of us, music has been an instrumental part in shaping who we are.
Everyone in the band uses their talents in other projects, as well! Fionán is the musical director and lead guitarist for Keith & Kristyn Getty, and was the musical director for Moya Brennan and Clannad for many years. Cheryl tours with a number of singer-songwriters, including Eric Anderson and Irish Mythen, and is the president of the North Eastern Regional Folk Alliance. Dave tours with the Brock McGuire Band and Slide, playing the banjo, guitar, mandolin, bodhrán, singing, and dancing. (Slide is Fionán’s brother, Éamonn’s, band!) He, also, tours with Moya Brennan. Maggie plays fiddle and mandolin, and dances with Keith & Kristyn Getty, and with the Vickie Vaughn Band. I am touring with Keith & Kristyn Getty as a vocalist, dancer, instrumentalist, and as staging director for their productions. I was a professional stage and film actor for a number of years prior to forming RUNA.
How did RUNA then came together way back in 2008?
Fionán and I met at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 2006. We worked together on an album in Fionán's studio in Dublin, Ireland in February 2008, and that album became the basis for RUNA. In August 2008, we had our first gig as RUNA and asked Cheryl to join us on percussion. For the next few years, we performed as a trio. Dave and Maggie joined the band along the way and RUNA has evolved into the five-piece that it is today!
RUNA's music is a mix of Irish and American roots music. How would you describe RUNA's approach to music?
We all have quite varied and eclectic musical backgrounds and interests. We embrace all of them and infuse them into our music and arrangements! Clannad, Solas, Mary Black, Django Rheinhardt, Sarah McLachlan, Dave Matthews Band, Nickel Creek, Led Zepplin, Union Station, Vivaldi, Natalie MacMaster. Anything from Bach to the Beatles!
We like to think of our music "Celtic Roots music". Like the roots of a tree, the musical roots of any genre spread out in many directions - the roots that have influenced a music style and the roots that will be influenced by that musical style. The origins of Celtic music are rooted in traditional Irish and Scottish music. In RUNA, we like to explore all of those different roots and musical styles!
I wonder if that also made you choose the group's name?
We wanted to find a word that represented those cultures where our music stems from and that would describe the music that we play. The word “RUNA” has Celtic and Nordic roots and means “mystery” or “secret lore”.
What are your criteria then to choose your songs?
We find our songs in old collections and songbooks, from old recordings, passed down in our families, and from singer-songwriters whom we have admired. For larger projects, we’ll often take a longer period of time to research songs and tunes, giving ourselves plenty of options, so, that we can pick the ones that are just right for the band at that time. We try to develop the music over time as the music grows on us. We, often, like to try out arrangements in a live setting before committing them to a recording.
When choosing songs, the things that we look for are a great story, interesting and poetic lyrics, and a beautiful melody. If those elements are there, the rest seems to fall into place.
You are based in Philadelphia, Nashville, and Chicago. What do you think about Irish Music in the US?
There has been a fantastic surge of interest in Irish music, dance, and culture over the past several years. All of the artists on the scene today are incredibly respectful of preserving tradition, while contributing their own creativity, to help keep those traditions moving forward. Festival attendances are growing and enthusiastic audiences continue to come out in droves to support the genre. Looking at the current generation of musicians and audiences, we would say that the Irish music scene is in good hands!
You have already toured Europe. Is there any chance to see you again?
RUNA performed on the Irish Spring Festival Tour in Germany with Éamonn Galldubh early on in the band’s career in 2010. Since then, we’ve focused on touring in the States, but we would love to head back over to tour in Europe again sometime soon!
Photo Credits: (1)-(4) Runa (unknown/website).