The Maggie Drennon Band:
nontraditional Irish traditions

An interview by Tom Knapp,
July 2002

All it took was hearing "Tell Me Ma" and "Danny Boy" in the same night.

Maggie Drennon is of Irish descent, but she knew little of her heritage until she was 18 and heard her first traditional Irish singer at work. "It struck me like lightning," Drennon, who fronts the Maggie Drennon Band, recalled. "It changed my life, and I haven't wanted to do anything else since."

She spent eight years in an Irish duo called Ceili's Muse. "I also started going to Ireland each year and bringing back more music," she said. "And I started studying Gaelic." But Drennon wasn't content to sing in a traditional Gaelic style. "The stuff you hear sung in Gaelic is often pretty dirge-like," she explained. "I'm focusing on serious entertaining and a kind of funky, weird, eclectic Gaelic music."

She also toured with Ireland's Furey Brothers before forming the Celtic rock band SixMileBridge in 1997 and shifting her base of operations from Texas to New York.

The band quickly earned a national following. In 2001 Drennon pared the project down to a tighter unit, losing the bagpipes, pennywhistle and mandolin and focusing more on an edgier rock sound as the Maggie Drennon Band.

Drennon sings and plays fiddle and bass. Anders Johansson adds screaming electric guitars and Jared Pollack provides percussion.

"I have an obsessesion with carrying on this heritage. Rock is the music that 22-year-olds listen to, and I want to be a part of it," Drennon said. "I love traditional music so much. I imagine when I'm 50, I'll still be onstage, but in a traditional context. I'm doing rock when I'm young and have the energy. I want a chance to make a mark on the genre."

Drennon certainly believes she is making a mark. "We're like Sarah McLachlan meets Lenny Kravitz," she said. "I like the sound of a pretty soprano voice and raunchy guitars. Throw in the fiddle and some really cool drums, and that's a unique sound."

Besides, she added, "I don't see much rock music out there in Gaelic."

When Drennon looks for new songs, she looks primarily for an emotional connection.

"It's got to have really meaningful lyrics," she said. "I'm devoted to the lyrics in such an important way. It's gotta say something that is culturally unique or is extremely emotional. The Irish are such emotional people, and when I'm picking out music it has got to be fiery in some direction. Really sad, very intense love, that's how I pick it."

That doesn't mean she balks at changing a piece to suit her style.

"I feel justified writing new music to old words," Drennon said. For instance, much of the traditional Irish music has been Anglicized over the years. Drennon writes music that has a darker feel she believes is truer to the tradition.

Setting words to music is a gradual process.

"The lyrics usually stay in my pocket or my head for months," she said. "I'll read 'em a few times, get familiar with them and then ignore them. Eventually, a melody will come to me. To turn it into a rock song, I give it to the guys. They are brilliant beyond words. I hum a little melody and the next thing I know, there's this fabulous beat going."

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 27 July 2002