The bandmates of RUNA, one of the area’s best-known Irish musical ensembles, have toyed with the idea of a winter album for a very long time. It never happened because—fortuitously for the award-winning supergroup—they were always busy, frequently on the road as a band or pursuing their own independent projects.
Last year, the project finally got off the ground in a small way, with an EP (a mini-album) of about five songs, with every intention of finishing it off as a full-fledged album in 2020.
Along came the pandemic, putting an end to band members’ otherwise ambitious plans. Complicating things a bit more, all the members of RUNA live some distance from each other. So on the one hand, they had some time on their hands. But on the other hand, they couldn’t be together.
Thanks to recording technology and the skill of Dublin-born guitarist Fionán de Barra, one of the group’s leaders, that long-delayed project has come to fruition in the form of a new release, “The Tide of Winter.”
“This is an album that we started talking about over 10 years ago,” explains the group’s singer, Shannon Lambert Ryan, who is married to de Barra. “I think Fionán and I were talking about it before RUNA even existed. We always said we wanted to do it somewhere down the road, but it was always ‘somewhere down the road’ because we usually are not touring as a band during this time of year, but we’re all involved in various other projects. And that’s been consistent since the beginning of the band. So this project always wound up getting shelved until a future date.”
Because of the pandemic, it turns out, the time for the new project is now.
“Tide of Winter” also offered an opportunity to record an album with the band’s (mostly) new lineup. Percussionist Cheryl Prashker isn’t new to the band, but multi-instrumentalist and singer Caleb Edwards and Jake James on fiddle are relative newcomers.
Work concluded on the EP last year, which the bandmates developed together.
With the EP in the can, 2020 presented a golden opportunity to finish the project, featuring a range of tunes: “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” “Gaudete,” “Silent Night,” “The Wexford Carol,” “In the Bleak Winter,” a killer instrumental mix, and more.
Wrapping up the project, given the distances involved, posed more of a challenge, but, says Lambert Ryan, it all worked out well.
“We’d done a couple of things this year where we had to work separately,” she says. But finishing an album was quite another thing altogether.
Over the summer, the band worked on a couple of other projects that involved both audio and video. de Barra, who has a home studio, decided to ship out some of his microphones to the other band members, with assurances that he would help them resolve any technical difficulties they ran into. In turn, they returned their tracks to de Barra, who blended them together into a seamless whole. The results were encouraging. “It all worked well for the stuff we did over the summer, and we were really able to capture the energy that we create on stage,” says Lambert Ryan.
With that experience behind them, they agreed to pursue “Tide of Winter” in the same way.
For the new album, de Barra and Lambert Ryan worked on the arrangements and structure of the tunes, deciding how many verses they wanted for each, how long they wanted them to be, and the general vibe.
The band members communicated back and forth, trying out different approaches, exchanging tracks via file sharing, and critiquing each. It was a painstaking process.
For a normal album in pre-Covid times, that fruitful exchange of ideas could take perhaps a half an hour or so in a studio. Working remotely was a very different experience, where the process could take five or six days.
“We found that in some ways, the remote communication allowed some of the process to be compartmentalized,” says Lambert Ryan. “As frustrating as that was, we also found it to be helpful because it allows you to focus on exactly what you wanted and you were able to remember specific ideas and hear certain things. I would say, ‘That’s exactly what we’re looking for’ or ‘Try this’. Or ‘That’s close, but maybe try it on this instrument and see what color it gives it’. Sometimes that’s hard to listen to when you’re sitting in a room together at the same moment, but when you’re able to listen to it in context with everything recorded, there is something about taking a step back and being able to hear everything together. I don’t know that we would get to do it in the same way on a normal project.”
There were some negatives to the process, she adds, but there were far more positives.
Once the album was mixed and mastered and ready for release, there was the question of what to call it. “Tide of Winter” rose to the top, inspired largely by the dreamy cover graphic, which comes from the woodcuts of Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen.
“The bottom part of the woodcut looks like the person is standing either just on drifts of snow or snow on a beach, and it looks like the frozen tide is going out in front of him,” says Lambert Ryan. “So that was part of it, the ocean side of things in that particular artwork, but also Christmastide, Yuletide, and the play on words for those ‘tidings of comfort and joy’.”
She was also inspired by memories of her childhood, when she took part in theatrical productions. One of the poems the kids recited, she remembers, was called “Villagers All, This Frosty Tide,” from Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows.”
“And so it all just came full circle,” Lambert Ryan explains. “I can’t remember now if it was Fionán or my mom or somebody else in the band who said, it’s not just Christmas music, there are a couple of other things in there, too. And somebody came up with the title of ‘winter,’ and we all just said, we just love that.”
After more than a dozen years in the making, the band members of RUNA believe they’ve created something worth waiting for. Lambert Ryan thinks audiences will feel the same way about the project, which she says symbolizes hope, love, joy and celebration.
“Everybody celebrates the season in very different ways,” she says. “Some people have very specific traditions, whether they are religious or secular traditions. We wanted this album to be something that was appealing or that felt accessible to everyone, regardless of what your rituals and traditions might be. That’s something that was important to all of us, especially in a year like this, when people aren’t able to practice lots of those traditions and rituals in the same way. We hope it might be something that carries people through what seems to be an extremely dark point for all of us individually, and for all of us collectively. The year comes to a close on the shortest day of the year, on the solstice, and then it always gets brighter again.”
“Tide of Winter” is available for download on Bandcamp. The CD is also available for pre-order on RUNA’s website. The band also plans a virtual release party on Friday, December 11, at 6 p.m. Eastern. Details here.