What happens when the Celtic music of three artists (Shannon Lambert-Ryan, Fionan de Barra and Cheryl Prashker) from three different countries (the United States, Ireland and Canada) comes together? RUNA happens.The trio, in the relatively short time they’ve been playing together, has found a way to take traditional, and non-traditional, songs that haven’t been played in awhile and “Celtic them up,” in the words of singer Lambert-Ryan.
Take the song “Jealousy,” the title track from their recently released CD. “Jealousy was the first song we worked on last summer. Our arrangement isn’t the same as everything that’s out there…it’s edgy, quirky, fresh. All three of us have our own influences that include classical, jazz and musical theater. We don’t want to re-perform what’s already been done; we want to recreate the music and give it our own kick.”
The name RUNA means “mystery” or “secret lore,” and when the three are onstage together, there is truly a mystical quality to their playing. Prashker’s percussion, de Barra’s guitar and Lambert-Ryan’s vocals create a lyrical sound that is at once unique as well as seamless. Frequently joined by Isaac Alderson on the flute, whistle and uileann pipes, there’s a sense that the music is coming from one source instead of three different musicians.
Offstage, RUNA members share a similarly close connection with each other. Lambert-Ryan and de Barra were married in April of 2009. They met at the 2006 Philadelphia Folk Fest where de Barra was playing with the Scottish band Fiddler’s Bid.
“There was a performer’s party Saturday night and I bought her a lemonade. We met again on Sunday, and spent the day hanging out. We were friends for a long time, then when Shannon said she wanted to record a CD [her 2008 album ‘Across the Pond’], I said, ‘You have to come here [to Dublin] to record it,’” explained de Barra.
That could be arranged because de Barra, who has been Moya Brennan’s guitarist for over 10 years, had merged his own recording equipment with Brennan’s to form Mo Studios in Dublin.
“My first professional gig was with Moya and Riverdance, at Radio City Music Hall…it was purely by chance. I got asked to fill in for the guy doing it, and then got invited to play more afterwards.”
The Dublin-born de Barra claims a family full of musicians. Four out of the seven offspring make a professional living at it: brother Cormac plays the harp; Eamonn plays flute, whistle and piano and is part of the band Slide; and brother Ruairi plays guitar and whistle.
Lambert-Ryan is a Philadelphia native who spent a lot of time at The Irish Center growing up. “I took step dancing there, and then I studied voice and theater at Muhlenberg College. I fell in love with music and performing at an early age.”
It was while performing with Guy Mendilow that Shannon met up with percussionist Cheryl Prashker.
“Shannon and I both were a part of the Folk Alliance, and had met up a lot of times. I sat in with the Guy Mendilow Band, and I sometimes put together a little show where I invite other musicians to sit in. I asked Shannon to play because of her Celtic music,” explained Prashker.
Prashker, the Canadian native of the group, now calls Philadelphia home. She and husband Charles Nolan collaborated on songs that she performed while she was with the group CC Railroad. Prashker has an acclaimed background as a drummer with groups like Full Frontal Folk and Jonathan Edwards. Her CD, “It’s All About the Drums,” is a compilation of songs she’s performed with a multitude of artists over the years.
But it’s the three of them united as they play together that has created the RUNA sound.
“It’s how we play off one another, how Cheryl and Fionan play together,” Lambert-Ryan said. “Sometimes it’s changing the chord progression, or the rhythm. We’ll take something we like, and hasn’t been done too much, and change the arrangement to make it our own.”
Like, for instance, the song “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves”
“I came home one day and Fionan said, ‘We’re going to do a Cher song,‘” Lambert-Ryan laughed. “It’s on the ‘Jealousy’ album.” And, as unexpected as it might sound, the song works completely, fitting in with the band’s repertoire and begging to be listened to on repeat.
One of RUNA’s most engaging and addictive songs can only be experienced live, it’s not on their album…a version of the traditional song “The House Carpenter” interspersed with the chorus of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”
“We were playing around with the ‘The House Carpenter,’ working through the verses. There are many versions of the song, and a lot of verses…we wanted to craft the song to fit our style without changing the song. At the same time, we were listening to ‘Jolene.’ One day Fionan and I were in the car and started chatting about what to do with them, and I started humming. I realized I could sing both of them in the same key, and Cheryl could add something percussive underneath,” explained Lambert-Ryan.
Fortunately, there are opportunities for the Philly audience to experience not only this version of “The House Carpenter/Jolene” but all of RUNA’s songs beginning Saturday, February 13th 8:00PM at Concerts at the Crossing, Titusville, PA. Tickets are $20, for further information call 609-406-1424.
And on Sunday, February 28th 7:30PM, RUNA will be opening for Maura O’Connell at the Sellersville Theater in Sellersville, PA. For tickets and other information, call 215-257-5808.