Karan Casey returns to Ithaca for benefit concert at CSMA
Acclaimed Irish singer Karan Casey returns to Ithaca on Thursday to perform a benefit concert at the Community School of Music and Arts. Proceeds from the show will support the Ithaca Catholic Worker, an organization whose mission is “welcoming and befriending marginalized people, advancing racial and economic justice, and speaking up for peace.”
It’s Casey’s first visit to Ithaca in several years, and she’ll be accompanied by fiddler Sheila Falls and guitarist Matt Heaton to perform songs from her deep repertoire as well as her just-released 12th record, “Nine Apples of Gold,” which is described on her website as “a dynamic and enchanting album of songs that speaks to healing, camaraderie in times of strife, finding enrichment and new life in campaigning for women, and of course death.”
Casey worked on the new songs with her long-time collaborator, Sean Óg Graham, through the pandemic. “We essentially swapped a lot of ideas on Dropbox,” she said in a recent Zoom interview from her home in Cork, Ireland. “He'd send me a musical idea, and I'd send him some words. And then we basically worked out the songs.
The pandemic definitely informed their songwriting, as did her brother’s passing in 2020. “It was challenging enough times,” she said. “So there's a lot of allusion to the power of nature and the power of healing found there. I think people can find a lot of solace in looking after the Earth.”
She’s delighted to be performing another benefit show organized by the Grady family, which has played a longtime role in the Ithaca Catholic Worker.
“It’s important to have that musical element because campaigning can be tiring and exhausting, and you can at times feel depleted,” she said. “So I think it's really important to remember the good things in life, and that by coming together around music it's possible to build trust and love in a room through song.
“And to remind ourselves, if it's possible to do that, then potentially we can do it outside the room because it's really needed at the moment,” she continued. “I love the way the Gradys and all the people make these benefits work. But there’s the music side to them that is very important, and hopefully very enriching.”
In 2018 Casey helped found FairPlé, an organization devoted to achieving fairness and gender balance for female performers in Irish traditional and folk music. In 2019, she completed her Ph.D. in music at the University of Limerick.
“I had a lot of relearning to do and I won't lie: it was very difficult,” she said. "But I suppose now I'm beginning to look back on it with a better outlook. And I'm also looking at the books on the shelves without being sort of terrified of them. I can read them now at my own leisure.”
Speaking of college, after earning an arts degree in Dublin, Casey moved to the U.S. 30 years ago to study jazz at Long Island University.
“It was pretty wild,” she remembered. “I was thrilled to be in the States. I came over and I was working a variety of jobs: I was a waitress, I also painted houses, I was a nanny, I worked at Scholastic editing children's science books… I suppose it is a bit of a culture shock living in a big city and navigating life on your own as a young person, but I found it really exhilarating and really thrilling, and I also liked the idea that I could be whatever I wanted to be.”
Casey soon started going to Irish music sessions, where she met Winifred Horan and Séamus Egan, with whom she founded the Celtic band Solas in 1996. The group’s quick success led to extensive touring, though it meant dropping her jazz studies.
“I couldn't do both,” she said. “But I was very fortunate, really, and that became kind of another whirlwind of experience, which set me off on this path.”
“I didn't have a 30-year plan or anything,” she added. “I just got in the van and said, ‘Yeah, sure, I'll go sing a few songs.’”
If you go
Who: Karan Casey
What: a benefit concert for Ithaca Catholic Worker
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Community School of Music and Arts, 330 E. State St., Ithaca
Cost: $25-$35 sliding scale, available online here, at Mama Said Hand Pies in Press Bay Alley, and at the door