THE WHILEAWAYS, In All Honesty
The Whileaways are Noelie McDonnell, Noriana Kennedy and Nicola Joyce, each of whom earned solo spurs on the Galway scene a decade back. But together they now offer a nourishing stew, their voices often blending so well you can barely see the join.
There’s an obvious emphasis on melodic folk, married to intelligent lyrics and tasteful instrumentation, which includes some tracks nicely banjoed-up. All songs, for this, their fourth album, are written by band members, sometimes solo, sometimes in tandem.
On the opening track ‘The Milking Parlour Bar’, McDonnell evokes the soft vocal delivery of Christie Hennessy. Nicola Joyce takes the lead vocal on ‘Toss The Bobbin’ to tell of individual female struggles, and ‘In Your Company’ has a Saw Doctors-like charm. ‘West Window’ is Noriana Kennedy’s turn to shine, on a song about a woman with a touch of wanderlust, while the title track is a biographical reflection on rural Ireland in times gone by.
THE WHILEAWAYS, In All Honesty
Irish Music Magazine
In All Honesty
Own Label, 12 Tracks, 47 Minutes
Since bursting on to the Irish folk scene ten years ago, taking it by the scruff of the neck, the Whileaways continue to mesmerise with the new album In All Honesty. Songs that will work by the campfire or in Carnegie Hall, on a drive through Montana wilderness, under a vast Californian sky or on the Wild Atlantic Way, the music composed here by Noelie McDonnell, Nicola Joyce and Noriana Kennedy is enchanting, genre-defiant and something else!
To be expected from these professional musicians, the instrumentation and arrangements are high-calibre, the songs lyrical, thoughtful expressions of the skill and creative imagination shared by the trio.
Noriana’s ethereal voice in Home is perfect, knowing home as a balm against life’s rigours; “come back on in, be yourself again”, the voice of the loving nurturer, provider of “quiet and healing”.
All throughout the profound experience of love is explored; in relationships, over a loss, awareness of the natural world and human sensuality. Noelie’s Milking Parlour Bar has it all, a refreshing stream-of-consciousness narrative, the sleepy devoted lover “so happy” he “could weep”, gorgeous, non-sentimental.
Tough As Nails by Nicola, pays homage to the much loved mother, in memoriam, in admiration, she had “a heart that could take break after break”, powerful imagery.
Toss the Bobbin is a standout, a personal, cultural and historical document of four lace-making women from Headford in north Galway. Their story is universal, an intergenerational intricate craft handed down through hands, through necessity, for little reward; “I make my living here a few pennies at a time…” Mary says, “they call me widow since he died,’ oh for that back-story? The merchants of the aristocracy come but “hardly pay” for the lace. Nicola’s voice is a delight, the instrumentation flawless, the magic in the melody lingers.
Anne Marie Kennedy
WHEN The Whileaways – Nicola Joyce, Noelie McDonnell, and Noriana Kennedy – first took to the stage together, they had arrived after a number of life events, personal and cultural, that mapped out the path to the microphones and the adoring audiences in front of them.
For Noelie, it was the tsunami that hit Ireland in the form of the Saw Doctors that decided him on a musical career.
"I've been involved in music for all my life really," he explained as all three Whileaways joined me on a hugely enjoyable Zoom call last week.
"I'm from Tuam in Co Galway and when I was a young boy, the Saw Doctors were the biggest band in Ireland. They had just brought released N17 and I Useta Love Her, both huge hits and they were the first few songs that I learned to play.
"But from that age, I could see that this could be a legitimate way of life, that these these guys from my little Galway town were tremendously successful in what they were doing, touring all around the world and playing music so, ever since then, I've always taken music very seriously.
"I went and did other things but it doesn't surprise me that I have found myself here at this point in my life, involved in music, bringing out albums and doing all that makes me very, very happy."
For Noriana Kennedy, who only started playing music as a social thing with friends in her late teens, it was the economic recession which decided her on heading to the west of Ireland to pursue her musical career.
"It was actually by default in a way because I'd studied environmental science and had a job but when the recession hit, it guided me further into music really. It was great to be given no option but to do it," recalls Noriana.
"I'm originally from Lucan in Co Dublin but I'd heard there was a great scene in the west and so I moved to Galway for that reason."
Nicola Joyce, on the other hand, had already tasted success with the Irish-New Zealand band Gráda with whom she was a member from 2004 until it went into hiatus in 2010.
"That kind of happened by accident when I finished college," she explains.
"They were already an established band, and they were touring all around Europe and Australia and America and all that craic.
"So they had a success that I had absolutely nothing to do with but they they needed a singer. And it was my brother, actually, who coaxed me into going for the audition as he knew a couple of the lads in the band. And I went for it so that's what I was doing up until The Whileaways."
"But before that, there was always kind of music in our house, my dad's a great singer, and a great collector of songs and parties and that kind of craic," Nicola reminiscences.
"He had a pub as well so I was always around sessions and around music growing up."
These various life experiences in different places at different times have led by some musical alchemy to The Whileaways, a band of "perfected simplicity", who combine their respective voices in sublime harmonies, singing songs the have mined from their own lived lives and the lives of others. By extension, they sing about the lives of all of us who have known family, love, loss and/or who have a sense of place.
Their fourth album, In All Honesty, has just been released and the title comes from a phrase Noelie's father – and many others – would often use.
"It's just a little phrase that fitted nicely into a sound that I had rattling around in my head, and it worked as a chorus too. And so when all those things come together, you end up with a song," he explains.
"I suppose that one song started with those three simple words and the idea of what those words represented, and then I had to work out how would I express those in a song that's about my father and about my family and about, hopefully, other people's fathers and families."
It really is a gorgeous song that struck a chord with me but another of my own favourite songs on the album is Blackbird.
It's the kind of song, where, if you are lucky enough to be alone at home, you can play loud and dance a waltz with yourself until it ends whereupon you fall onto the sofa, laughing at its sheer beauty.
On Home, Noriana Kennedy draws from a poem written by her father Jim, a former Columban Missionary priest and published author who passed away in 2019. She explains that "turning one of his poems into a song is another way to hear his voice again".
On her track Walking on the Wall she beautifully reveals memories of her life, threaded together with a celebration of the sheer joy of singing: "Without it I'd be a very empty soul."
But while the trio are undoubtedly standalone talents, the sum is more than the sum of the parts, especially when it comes to harmonies.
Noelie explains: "Music is the great leveller. It's a way for us all to communicate with one another without necessarily having to say too much but it's not just lyrically, either.
"It's a melody which can transport you from where you are to maybe some place in the past, make you think about stuff that happened before or it can make you hopeful for things that are about to happen. It can do all these magical things, in all sorts of different environments too I think.
"When you do harmonies, you might be aware that another voice exists, it just happens naturally but then when you get three or more voices singing together. another thing starts to happen where you enter into... it's almost spiritual if that's not too strong a word, but it's that feeling that there's something else going on above the song itself even - as Nicola says, there's that connection and there's that grounding feeling of being together."
So great singers? Tick. Great harmonies? Tick? Great songwriters? Tick? Great musicians? Tick?
All that's left is putting the album together and for that The Whileaways made the journey up to Bann View Studios in Portglenone to team up again with producer, Sean Óg Graham, and this time round, with Alex Borwick, to give the songs a more contemporary edge.
In All Honesty is now available and the band are playing across Ireland in the next few weeks, including a gig at the Duncairn Arts Centre in Belfast on July 2.
They will be back in Belfast on November for a reprise of their show with Pauline Scanlan, Bird on the Wire: The Songs of Leonard Cohen.
THE WHILEAWAYS, From What We’re Made
Ever since they formed in 2013, this Galwegian trio have forged a formidable reputation for crafting deceptively simple, deeply affecting Americana-tinged folk. Their third full-length album, From What We're Made doesn't stray from their admittedly successful formula too massively and the 12 track release is laden with absolutely stunning melodies and harmonies. Successfully capturing the intimacy and excitement of their live shows, fans of kindred spirits The Staves and First Aid Kit will enjoy what The Whileaways are cooking.
'Mother Says' kicks things off strongly, a flawless marriage of banjos and harmonies. From there on, the likes of the handclap-infused, skiffle-tinged 'Roll Down Your Window' and the super sweet 'Loneliest Girl' help make album number three their most impressive yet. It's the vocals that really make The Whileaways stand out from the crowd: Noelie McDonnell, Noriana Kennedy and Nicola Joyce stake their claim to being among the finest singers in the country on 'Julia' and 'Hardworking' in particular. Whatever they're made of, I want more.
THE WHILEAWAYS, From What We’re Made
Irish Music Magazine
Recorded and mixed by Seán Óg Graham, The Whileaways’ new album From What We’re Made is innovative, contemporary, and relevant to writing and recording in the modern world. With twelve original songs, their themes are concerned with family, relationships, travel and love songs that are heart warming and heart breaking in equal measure. There are no down by the sally garden lyrics here, this band who describe their own style as ‘Irish roots’, descriptive enough, fitting, but the Whileaways’ material could be more genre defying than that.
There’s great originality here, in the ethereal singing voices of Norianna Kennedy and Nicola Joyce and the earthiness, honesty and lyricism of Noelie McDonnell’s work. Mother Says is Kennedy’s sweet, personal poem, an inverse blessing, from child to mother, a child who was ‘never left crying, never left alone/never left wondering where is my home’, the melody is rich and sustaining. Accompaniment on five string banjo, double bass, guitars and percussion is tasteful throughout, never getting in the way of the singing. The human voice is everything here, the phrasing unusual, the imagery realistic. Nicola Joyce’s Loneliest Girl, a nod to the fantasist existence, ‘she makes up her face for the lovers in her head/she makes up her bed’, an unapologetic rendering of isolation, beautifully delivered. Julia, from Noelie McDonnell’s pen is philosophical, something moody but giving in it: ‘And every heart you meet will softly beat/and meet a heart that’s true in you’, the song has uniqueness of message, simple yet profound and insightful. I Am A Hill is terrific, the soundtrack for a small movie telling the love story within the song.
The solo voices, the harmonies, straight up and collaborative, all are robust. The work is tightly woven, experimental, fresh and energetic, a listening delight.
Anne Marie Kennedy
THE WHILEAWAYS, From What We’re Made
The Irish Echo
I love Irish Americana—Eirecana as it’s sometimes called—because it sounds like home. The home I’m talking about is not a physical domestic space or a region on a map but rather the feeling of an imaginary pseudo-nation in which I, like so many other Irish Americans, feel most comfortable, most like myself. I like to think of this imagined nation-space as somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, halfway through the Aer Lingus flight, where the idea of singing “The Fields of Athenry” after Thanksgiving turkey is not so incongruous, or where “March madness” means both basketball games and an endless itinerary of St. Patrick’s Day parades. It’s a place of perfect liminality, the bedrock of Irish-American identity and indeed, of Irish Americana. It’s at this point in the flight, or perhaps when I’m feeling like an outsider in either Dublin or Boston, that I listen to the Whileaways, a band that represents the best of Eirecana today. Their latest album, “From What We’re Made” (2018), gave me that comforting feeling of home while also reminding me this home space of in-between, neither fully American nor “really” Irish, is also a place of subtle, dulcet melancholy. Because of course, when you feel most at home in the liminal, it also means you don’t fully belong on either side of the divide. “From What We’re Made,” at every turn gorgeously gloomy and sweetly nostalgic, makes that sadness of being in between beautiful and palatable.
The Irish Times - Siobhan Long - The Whileaways Album 2013
Americana has always found firm purchase round these parts, and this newly hewn trio mine a rich seam that owes something to Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. But mostly The Whileaways deal a hand all of their own making. With a seven original songs and a refreshingly spirited take on the hoary old The Banks of the Ohio, Noriana Kennedy, Nicola Joyce and Noelie McDonnell cut a confident trail through the undergrowth of roots music. Kennedy’s songwriting is the highlight of this set piece, with opener Dear My Maker managing to both set and steal the scene in a few short minutes. Kennedy and Joyce harmonise with sibling-like ease, while McDonnell adds a six stringed backbone to the mix. This is an audacious debut (which hollers for a chance to be heard in a live setting, so rich is its lyrical tapestry) from musicians whose experience pays ample dividends here.
The Irish Times - Siobhan Long - Saltwater Kisses 2015
The intuitive quality of the harmonies on the Whileaways’ debut collection suggest a sibling kinship, but it’s marriage and friendship that bind them so intimately. Longer in gestation than they’d originally planned, this is music made for long, lazy evenings on the porch where finger-pickin’ patterns cast sprightly shapes across the melodies.Shades of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Be Good Tanyas colour the Whileaways’ essence, with Noriana Kennedy’s feathery vocals intertwine with the darker tones of Nicola Joyce, the pair revelling in their own inimitable double helix. Noelie McDonnell brings a deep southern sensibility, in the style of Eric Bibb: languid and unforced. Lyrically the trio manage intimacy without oversharing. You’re Home is a glorious bedfellow to the band’s earlier, wistful Dear My Maker.
The Irish Echo - Colleen Taylor
One of my favorite Eircana bands, the Whileaways, are back in business. I fell in love with their sound after hearing them at Whelan’s in Dublin two years ago, and their self-titled first album quickly became one of the “most played” on my iTunes. Now the Whileaways, comprising Noriana Kennedy, Noelie McDonnell, and Nicola Joyce, are gearing up for a sophomore album release. Kennedy had been on tour with Solas over the summer, but she’s returned to her Galway roots and her hometown band. “Saltwater Kisses” is the band’s new album, and it doesn’t disappoint. It reflects an array of music simultaneously traditional and inventive, inflecting the old balladeer tradition with modernized rootsy flare. “Saltwater Kisses” showcases this band’s musical penchant: perfected simplicity. The songs avoid superfluous ornamentation and let the harmonies and instruments speak for themselves, proving each one of this trio’s natural talent. In particular, I can’t stop listening to “She Waits” and “Wake Up Sleepyhead.” They’ve also included some gorgeous instrumental arrangements on the album as well. Not to mention, the band sounds even more polished than they did in their debut record. This time round, the Whileaways add even more sophistication to their harmonies and collaborations. This trio was meant to play together. This autumn, the band is promoting their new album with an Irish tour. Fingers crossed for an American invasion soon.