Kitty Donohoe celebrates "The Irishman's Daughter" at Conor O'Neill's


Kitty Donohoe

Kitty Donohoe brings the Irish countryside to the woods of Michigan.

Kitty Donohoe's sixth album, The Irishman's Daughter, was a long time in the making for a variety of reasons: financial, personal, artistic. But the finished result is a testament to her perseverance and talent.

The CD's 12 songs swing from the instrumentals "Leaving the Land / Ships Are Sailing," "Chicago Jig / Chicago Reel," and "Star of the County Down" to the mostly instrumental "Sneaking Up the Hill" and the primarily a capella original "Working for Mrs. O'Leary. "Fish on Fridays" is her humorous ode to growing up in a non-Catholic Irish-American household, and there are also full-bodied interpretations of Irish classics "The Lark in the Morning" (featuring her daughter Callie on harmonies), "Bold Jack Donohoe," and "Bonny Blue-Eyed Nancy" (with her son Jesse singing lead).

Donohoe closes the album with four originals, including "Abe Lincoln's Army," "Sneaking Up the Hill," and "Ireland Song," but it's the closing title track that really marks "The Irishman's Daughter" as a highly personal project.

"This song kind of sums up for me what it was like to be raised by a maverick man, an original thinker, and a truly proud Irish American," Donohoe writes in the liner notes about her dad.

Despite this third generation Irish-American's connection to her ancestral homeland, Donohoe's influences aren't strictly from the Emerald Isle. There are elements of French-Canadian music, with its button accordions and rhythmic rushes, as well as American folk and country woven into her songs and arrangements. Her voice is bell clear, too, with an occasional twang.

Conor O'Neill's Irish Pub & Restaurant in Ann Arbor will host the official release party for The Irishman's Daughter on Sunday, April 30, at 5:30 pm. We talked to Donohoe about the album, her guided trips to Ireland, and The Yellow Room Gang songwriting collective.

Q: You've said the new album started as a diaspora project based on your family's immigration from Ireland. What was the original plan -- playing traditional songs that reflected their experience? Writing new songs based on it? And why did the project end up morphing into the broader-themed The Irishman's Daughter?
A: The diaspora plan was kind of a vague overall idea about the project and it isn't that I so much changed directions with it over the past few years as that I tightened it up. I finally realized that Irish history is thousands of years old and music and art is a large part of every bit of that history -- and to try to capture all of that in one album would be crazy, so I decided to keep it more recent. So all of the music has some connection within my own lifetime -- either tunes I've played/listened to -- with my own take on them -- songs that are a part of my history, and things I've written myself.

Excerpts from The Irishman's Daughter by Kitty Donohoe:
“Lark in the Morning”

“Leaving the Land/Ships Are Sailing”

“Bold Jack Donohoe”

“Irishman's Daughter”

Q:I read that you listened to Mozart and Shubert at bedtime growing up, but it was a visit to Canada that helped inspire your interest in Celtic music. Was Celtic music a part of your upbringing as well as classical?
A: As far as my "classical roots," I'd definitely say that my ear was formed largely by that music, although I didn't get it then. When I was recording my first album, Farmer in Florida, I wrote what sounded to me like a trad tune and brought it to some Irish players for them to add to it. They got back to me and said it didn't sound traditional to them, it sounded like classical music, and they had no idea what to do with it! That was an eye-opener for me. And I think I still have a certain sense of chord structure and melody that lends itself more to classic music than contemporary.

I went to Nova Scotia, Canada, when I was 19, and that was my first full-on exposure to jigs and reels, etc., although my dad was always proud of our Irish heritage. He'd noodle around on his harmonica sometimes and we kids would dance around to the music -- probably a cross between an Irish jig and the Highland fling then because we knew no better! That's about it for the direct family influence.

Q: How did you get started doing the Ireland tours?
A: A friend of mine had taken a couple of the Inishfree Irish Music Tours and kept telling me -- and them -- that I should do those, so that's how it started. It's an outfit based in Wisconsin and the whole idea is that you spend 10 days with your artist -- me -- on a bus on the West coast of Ireland, taking day trips, and hearing traditional Irish music every night. My third one is coming up in September -- which is already booked with a waiting list -- and I have dates now for spring 2018.

There are many small stories about the trips and I wrote a song called "All for the Song" that I'm sure I'll do on Sunday, all about seeing people who were strangers a few days earlier becoming friends -- and in some cases, very good, lifelong friends. The music being the reason we were all there in the first place.

Q: What's going on with your soundtrack work and has it been hard to crack that market?
A: I'm just getting really started in the field of pitching and writing for soundtracks, although I do have some songs being used in small productions. It is a big field, but I have a good friend who does a lot of that and he's being very helpful as a mentor. Stay tuned on that one!

Q: But you did manage to crack the children's book market.
A: The Henny and Benny book came about from a one-page story about them in a project I put out 30 years ago called Bunyan and Banjoes, which are all Michigan songs and stories. I always thought it would be fun to bring the characters back, so I finally did.

Q: Tell us about The Yellow Room Gang and how that group has helped you as a songwriter and musician, and what it means to be part of a collective after being a solo artist for so many years?
A: The Yellow Room Gang is great -- and not just because we've all become better writers over the past 10 years, but also for the great friendships that have formed among us. I probably wouldn't even know most of them if it weren't for the group. We meet in David Tamulevich's very small yellow living room and there literally isn't room for one more person, so we just keep it at the eight of us. Theoretically, we all meet once a month at David's, share a potluck dinner, and bring a song that's in process. We pass the guitar around, sing what we have, and the gang weighs in with ideas. Nothing stressful but very helpful.

Christopher Porter is a library technician and editor of Pulp.

The Strayaway Child Concert Series presents Kitty Donohoe & Friends to celebrate the release of "The Irishman's Daughter" on Sunday, April 30, at Conor O'Neill's, 318 S Main St., Ann Arbor. Doors open at 5 pm; show starts at 5:30 pm. $10 general admission; kids under 10 are free.