A few months ago, a friend gave me a stack of Irish CDs she liked. “You have to listen to Don Stiffe,” she said as she handed them over. “You’ve never heard a voice like his.”
It was a busy time so I stuck the CDs in a cabinet and didn’t pull them out till a few weeks ago when I was taking a car trip. I unwrapped Don Stiffe’s solo CD, “Start of a Dream,” and popped it in the CD player. Stiffe, a singer-songwriter from County Galway, was barely through the first few bars of the first track– Richard Thompson’s “Waltzing for Dreamers”– when I realized I had goosebumps. And it wasn’t the air conditioning.
Virtually unknown in the US, Stiffe is an up and coming folk singer in Ireland where he’s worked with the likes of Frankie Gavin (who produced and played on his CD), Sharon Shannon, and Lunasa’s Kevin Crawford. He’s poised to join the Keane family (Dolores and Sean), Dessy O’Halloran, and Sean Tyrell as Galway’s gift to Irish music.
Stiffe will be sharing that gift with Philadelphia audiences for the first time on Tuesday, July 20, at the Irish Center, accompanied by Gabriel Donohue, another of Galway’s finest.
“Dolores Keane was a big influence on me growing up,” he told me a few weeks ago on the phone from Ireland. “I don’t live far from the Keanes—maybe 15 miles. I also loved Luke Kelly [one of Ireland’s greatest folk artists] though I would never try his approach to the music.”
Yet, like Keane and Kelly, Stiffe’s voice has that same complex mix of smooth and rough, like an Aran sweater. Like them, no matter what he’s singing—there are a couple of Richard Thompson tracks on his CD, four of his own songs, and even his take on Nat King Cole’s classic “Mona Lisa”—it becomes an irresistible siren song, rich with emotion, stirring, soul-satisfying.
Unlike many Irish singers, Stiffe does not come from a family of musicians. “Oh, my Mum and Dad will sing a song if they’re out at function, but I’m not from a musical family,” he says. “My Dad bought me a guitar when 7-8 years old. I had two lessons. I kept thinking, how am I going to get around all the stringy things on the guitar? After a few years came together. But I was always singing. I played in a local brass band in Galway City and I was always listening to an abundance of music.”
I asked Stiffe about the songs he chose for “Start of a Dream.”
“Most of them are diaspora songs—songs about longing for home,” I said.
“I lived in the States in the 90s,” he told me. “I was in Boston for two years and in St. Louis for a few months. I worked for a few different companies, doing landscaping, doing contruction as we all do.” He laughed. “But while I was there I was playing the circuit around the Boston area and in St. Louis.” While in St. Louis, he played with legendary accordian player Joe Burke who dubbed him “The Bard of Bohermore,” acknowledging the poetry of Stiffe’s lyrics.
Take, for example, “Grosse Isle,” which tells the story of the Irish immigrants, fleeing Ireland’s An gorta mor—the Great Hunger–who landed on this little island (Grosse-Ile) 30 miles east of Quebec City that was designated a quarantine station to prevent the spread of cholera. Today, a tall Celtic cross greets visitors to the island where an estimated 6,000 Irish are buried.
“In their thousands they died on the island of sorrow
Not from the under, but the feverish course
They left pillage behind them, in the land they loved dearest
But to land is Gross Isle, to die in the dirt.”
“I had been reading about the people who left Ireland in the coffin ships, only to land in Gross Isle and die there,” he explained. “I was really moved by it. . . I could go months without writing a song because it can’t be fictitious. It has to be the truth of the story.”
It’s my favorite track on the CD—that and Stiffe’s take on Richard Thompson’s poignant, “Dimming of the Day.” I first heard the song on a Bonnie Raitt album and loved it. Stiffe’s version is just as good. He’s joined on the track by singer Fionnuaula Deacy.
“That one got an award from Irish Music Magazine,” he acknowledges. “It’s a tricky slope doing a cover song. People listen to it and they want it to sound like the version they heard.”
Even if it’s your favorite song, Stiffe—who promised to sing it on Tuesday—you won’t be disappointed. And even if it’s 98 degrees and steamy, don’t forget your sweater. For the goosebumps.