Cherish the Ladies,
An interview with Joanie Madden
by Jamie O'Brien

Two come from New York, one from New Jersey, there's a Californian, a Philadelphian and one from Tipperary: six women sharing a common love for playing Irish music. They are known collectively as Cherish The Ladies.

"This is our 13th year," says co-founder, flutist and manager Joanie Madden. The roots of the group, however, go back even further, to a project initiated by fellow musician and folklorist Mick Moloney. "He said to me he was going to organize a concert series and feature women." Irish-American women, specifically, many of whom had made their mark in the traditional music competitions of Ireland. Madden was central to the performances, playing flute and whistle, acting as emcee and even coming up with the name, the title of an old Irish jig.

Following two successful albums, rather than let the idea fade, she picked up the organizational reins in 1987. Over the years, Cherish the Ladies has served as a training ground for some of the finest Irish-American musicians currently on the scene, including Eileen Ivers, Winifred Horn (of Solas) and Cathie Ryan among its alumni.

The current lineup has been together for four albums and over four years. Madden, guitarist Mary Coogan and fiddler Siobhan Egan have been part of the setup since the Moloney days. They are joined by Irish-born singer Aoife Clancy, who is continuing the musical tradition her father and uncles, as the Clancy Brothers, helped establish in America four decades ago. Accordionist Mary Rafferty rounds out the band with Donna Long on keyboards. All the musicians play second, even third, instruments, extending the sound of the group.

"Basically, we're just a bunch of Irish-American kids, very proud of our roots," continues Madden. "Even though we were born and raised here, we have something to say. We're just carrying on what was passed down to us."

Their current release, At Home, reinforces that point as they are joined by their fathers, established musicians in their own right. "The only one person who doesn't have her father playing is Siobhan Egan and her family certainly makes up for it." Her brother, Seamus Egan of Solas, sits in on flute as does her concertina-playing sister, Roryann. The CD echoes the second Moloney release in 1985, entitled Fathers and Daughters, though the band has come a long way since then.

"There's not really anybody who sounds like us and we don't sound like anybody else," Madden says. "We have a different stab at arrangements and within the group there's a lot of powerful composers." Lead melody lines are driven by strong flute, whistle, fiddle and accordion playing, while the rhythm is tightly held by guitar, piano and bodhran. The band never loses sight of the music's dance origins and dancers feature as part of the performance, both live and on recordings.

One of the strongest elements of the group is the vocal work. Aoife Clancy comes from a highly musical family. As a child, she learnt well from the singing of the Clancy Brothers, but went on to develop her own repertoire. Both Madden and Long also add their talents with intricate and intriguing harmonies.

"When it comes to material," says Madden, "it's very much a democratic band. We get together, sit down in a circle, come up with ideas. It's definitely everybody involved. At the business end, I run the show, but when it comes to material, it's everybody's ideas. All the musical memories come into force to create the sets and the arrangements."

Hard work and long tours have seen Cherish the Ladies become established as an important part of the Irish music scene not only in North America but also throughout Europe. The band was also one of the first to perform in Argentina. Australia is one place they have not yet visited.

"We had to make a choice between the Guinness Tour of Australia and doing an album with the Boston Pops," Madden recalls. The band chose to take part in the orchestra's The Celtic Album, a move which proved highly advantageous. "(Conductor) Keith Lockhart went (to RCA Victor) and said, 'They're the next Chieftains. You'd better hire them right now!' And that's what happened."

With two albums already released on the label and two more planned, the support of such a major organization has helped expose Cherish the Ladies to a worldwide audience.

"We've had to overcome so many obstacles. First of all, just by being a girl group. People would say, 'Oh, you're just a cute little girl group.' That's the last of our problems now. At this stage of the game, we've garnered the respect not just of music lovers but of our peers as well."

Individual members have recently issued CDs: Madden has a top-selling album, Song of the Irish Whistle; Clancy also has solo recordings; and Rafferty has just released an album of traditional music featuring herself and her father. The band is preparing for its next release, playing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and has also started work on another featuring a number of male performers ranging from The Dubliners' John Sheehan to Liam O Maonlai of Hothouse Flowers to Luka Bloom.

The logistics of running a group is the hardest part of Madden's work. Six musicians, a sound man and dancers have to be taken care of, itineraries coordinated, bookings made, recordings organized. "The easiest thing is to get on stage and blow the flute! But every night, when I'm playing, I think I was born to be up there playing. I really love to be in front of an audience."

At a time when Irish culture is in the international spotlight, Cherish the Ladies is recognized among the leaders. A distinct sound and hard work have combined to help establish the band, but something more is always needed. "There is always pressure at every development and every angle," says Madden, "but it's been great. This has been what we've always wanted to do. And I think a lot of it has to do with dreaming and believing."

[ by Jamie O'Brien ]