Lisa O’Neil on The Music Show

Lisa O’Neil

Lisa O’Neillis a singer, songwriter and musician from County Cavan. Her latest album, Heard A Long Gone Song, is filled with characters, stories and traditional songs from her native Ireland.

These stories range from the life of Violet Gibson, an Irish woman who tried to assassinate Mussolini in 1926, to the dockland workers who lost their jobs to mechanisation in the 1950s and 60s.

The instrumentation on the record is sparse, which allows more room for her mighty voice.

Music played in this interview

Title: The Lass of Aughrim
Artist: Lisa O’Neill
Album: Heard A Long Gone Song
Comp: trad.
Label: River Lea
Cat. No.: RLR001CD
Dur: 2.12

Title: Rock The Machine
Artist: Lisa O’Neill
Album: Heard A Long Gone Song
Comp: O’Neill
Label: River Lea
Cat. No.: RLR001CD
Dur: 5.16

Producer Ellie Parnell

Heard A Long Gone Song is Lisa O’Neill’s fourth album, and the first to be released on Rough Trade Record’s new traditional folk imprint River Lea that releases “beautiful and strange traditional music from Britain, Ireland and beyond.”

Grassroots music: the rebirth of political folk 


In 2019, British and Irish folk music is more exciting and urgent than it’s been for years. Much of it sounds powerfully raw and immediate, with many groups recognising the politics of our times in their songs, and incorporating contemporary stories within more ancient musical motifs. Here are bands confronting the legacies of abortion rights; the oppression of women, homosexuals and other minority communities; the loss of minority language; the refugee crisis; and stories of people who have stood up to hate. They’re not doing so in browbeating, bluntly obvious ways either. Some are uncovering small but powerful stories of overlooked people, whose achievements we can learn from. Others are creating more oblique and moving work, highlighting the injustices that linger in our society.

Many younger makers of modern folk grew up during the turn-of-the-century indie-folk revival, where taboos surrounding less popular singing styles and traditional songs started to disappear. A steady flow of reissues by the likes of Bert Jansch, Shirley Collins and Lal and Mike Waterson has since revealed how much of our country’s folk culture had been neglected.

We could call this explosion “woke” folk – though there’s much more to this disparate collection of acts than a slogan. Some have an experimental edge, incorporating influences from other genres such as krautrock. Some are more accessible and rousing, but all of the British and Irish artists that follow here share a common musical sensibility: they sing in recognisable voices, without varnish and sheen, delivering messages straight and sure about who we were, and who we are now.

Grace Petrie

Leicester-based singer-songwriter and activist who found her calling as a political folk musician after the 2010 general election

It’s rare that an interview can vindicate the wishes of an artist. Rare, but possible. In 2016, the self-proclaimed “radically feminist and radically leftwing” musician Grace Petrie released the song, I Wish the Guardian Believed That I Exist, in response to an article in the paper lamenting the current lack of protest singers in folk music.

In fact, by that point the Leicester-based singer-songwriter had been making politically charged protest music for six years, since the release of her breakthrough single Farewell to Welfare. In that fierce, guitar-driven number, Petrie found a new calling as a political folk musician, spurred by the 2010 general election and the Tories’ subsequent coming to power, propped up by the Liberal Democrats. “It was when the government changed in 2010 that I started thinking a lot more about austerity and there seemed to be much more to protest about,” says the 31-year-old, when I speak to her over the phone from Leicester. “It hit closer to home how things would change, to impact my life and those of the people I knew. Nine years on and this regime of austerity has left Britain unrecognisable.”

Before the explicit political references began appearing, though, Petrie describes the music she used to make as “abstractly political”. “When I was a teenager I was writing what I saw as pop songs – songs about my love life, because that’s what pop songs are about – but my love life concerned girls, since I wasn’t in love with boys,” she says. “I never saw that as a political act initially, but now I see it as a really political thing; the visibility of queer musicians and centring that in lyrics.”

This visibility still sits on the fringes of the music industry. Having self-funded her first eight albums, she released last year’s Queer As Folk through crowdfunding, still eluding major-label interest. “My career has been completely outside the mainstream and I’ve never known it to be any different,” Petrie says. Even the folk traditionalists were proving hard to win over. “The content of folk songwriting at the moment can be amazingly radical,” she continues, “but I’m not sure the audiences are with them all the time. You have your very wealthy, white, Telegraph-reading folk-club regulars who are happy to hear a song about the peasants’ revolt, but if you talk about food banks in their town, that’s seen as really uncouth. You notice this awkward shuffle go across the room.” Continue reading