The prepubescent Alison Bools began her musical career in 1963 at Dublin’s Holy Child Convent School, with a couple of ten-year old classmates, Clodagh Simonds and Maria White. By the late ‘60’s, the girls had succeeded in attracting the attention of Radio Luxemburg DJ, Colin Nicol, who passed their demo tape along to Yardbirds manager, Simon Napier-Bell, who had recently started a label with the actor, David Hemmings. Simon released their debut 45 on his own SNB imprint in 1968, and by the turn of the decade, the girls had lost White, but picked up a couple of fellows and named themselves Mellow Candle. Their lone contemporary album (‘Swaddling Songs’) is often considered one of the rarest major label releases in the UK. Unfortunately, both the album and band soon sank without a trace, and Alison and her husband, Candle guitarist David Williams, relocated to South Africa and formed Fibbertigibbet. Over the ensuing decades, Alison (now using her mother’s maiden name, O’Donnell) has been involved in numerous projects, from the traditional Celtic project, Éishtlinn to the jazz-inflected Earthlings and the all-women vocal group Oeda, who perform songs in French, Flemish and English!
Jeff Penczak recently caught up with Alison to review her c.v. and discuss her hectic schedule that includes recent recordings with The Owl Service, Agitated Radio Pilot, United Bible Studies, Greg Weeks and other Terrascopic favourites.
T-O: Where did you, Clodagh and Maria first meet? Did you know each other before Holy Child Convent school?
A-O: No. We were in the same class. We started making music when we were about ten years old.
I understand you originally called yourselves The Gatecrashers. What type of songs were you singing when you first got together – the typical Hit Parade of the day?
We sang songs like ‘Angel of the Morning’ (Merilee Rush), ‘A Little Help from My Friends’, ‘Universal Soldier’ (Donovan), ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’, ‘Bang Bang’ (Sonny & Cher), ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ (The Rolling Stones), ‘America’ (Simon & Garfunkel) and others.
Who inspired you to start singing together – was it just something for a group of friends to do for fun after school or did you have high ambitions right from the start?
We gravitated towards each other because we loved music. We had high ambitions pretty soon after we started rehearsing together.
Do you remember (and still have) the first record you ever bought?
I still have a dusty copy of ‘Keep Searchin (We’ll Follow the Sun)’ by Del Shannon.
What prompted the name change to Mellow Candle (and whose idea was that)?
Mellow Candle was a more grown-up name and more in keeping with the psychedelic and mystical folk and rock music that was springing up in the late sixties and early seventies. I can’t recall exactly, but probably Clodagh’s idea.
What were your earliest recordings like – just fooling around with personal tape machines?
We fooled around in a very organised way. We recorded songs when they were perfect enough, without mistakes.
I understand you have some acetates of your early recordings. Where were they recorded?
There are some early tapes recorded on a friend’s machine and a session at RTÉ, which must have been wiped.
Were these songs later used on Swaddling Songs?
A lot of the songs we made various demos of ended up on Swaddling Songs.
You actually released a single of Clodagh’s original tunes quite a number of years before the album was recorded – ‘Feeling High’ c/w ‘Tea With The Sun’. OK, now, so what do a couple of teenage girls from convent school know about getting high and drinking tea with the sun? I’m sure you didn’t learn that from Father’s Sunday mass homilies!
Our imaginations took flight very early on once we started putting original material together. We listened to a lot of music also, new stuff coming out of Britain and America. A number of our early songs reflect our Irish Catholic upbringing.
How did a bunch of teenagers manage to get a record deal with Simon Napier-Bell?
We were persistent in sending tapes to DJs outside of Ireland and one of them, Colin Nicol, responded. He had been with Radio Luxembourg and told us that he could get us a record deal with a CBS subsidiary.
Was it always understood to be a one-off, or had you hoped that additional recordings might be in your future?
No, the fact that there was only one official album had everything to do with adverse circumstances. We had hoped for a reasonably bright future, and it was a bit of a tragedy that it didn’t work out.
Do you still recall the circumstances of your trip down to London? It must have been so overwhelming?
Our first trip to London was fantastically exciting. We had heard all about The King’s Road and Carnaby Street. Colin Nicol kept looking over his shoulder and telling us to look straight ahead when we walked through Soho, in case we were corrupted by spivvy looking men leering out at us from sex clubs.
So now you are in a studio actually making a record. Did you have a number of songs written from which to choose, or was it just the two tracks?
It was just the two tracks.
Do you recall where the musicians who backed you came from? Were they studio musicians that Simon hired?
We had an orchestra and Cliff Richard’s backing singers, The Breakaways. We were somewhat overawed by their professionalism and sophistication.
Did you only record the two songs that ended up on the single, or were other tracks recorded during the session, and if so, what happened to them?
The two songs were arranged and then recorded for both sides of a 45 single. We just walked in to the studio and sang them (a few times).
Do you still have a copy of the record? I noticed that Acme included them as bonus tracks on their CD version in 2004. What was the thought behind the decision to leave them off the Esoteric version?
Yes, I still have a copy of our first record. I think Esoteric must have wanted to do just the album, which has been remastered for this reissue.
So what happened after the record was finished and released? Are you aware of any other releases on Simon’s label or did it fold straightaway after your single came out!
Well, there was a little PR and press and we heard the record on the radio a few times under the bedclothes when we were supposed to be asleep. I can’t recall other SNB releases. I don’t remember when the label ceased operating but I don’t suppose our single helped them much financially!
[Note: I contacted Simon for a brief overview of his label and his recollection of the Mellow Candle single. He told me there were “about 25 to 30 releases all together, starting with 'No Need To Explain' by Flamma Sherman - five sisters from Liberia. The label stopped towards the end of 1969. I started SNB Records alone (with CBS Records). I knew [actor] David [Hemmings] from having worked on movies he starred in – “Some People”, “Alfred the Great”. He was interested in pop and asked if he could come in on the project so I agreed to split it 50/50 with him (and I got some crossover benefits from his other businesses – Hemdale, etc). David actually made one of the first records for the SNB label, a duet with an actress whose name I've now totally forgotten. It didn't get released because she just couldn't sing well enough.”
As to Mellow Candle, “I don't remember who bought the girls to my attention - if they'd already been bought to David's attention then naturally he would bring them to mine. Their single was produced by Ray Singer (who had produced Peter Sarstedt's 'Where Do You Go To My Lovely'). Why they should be recorded with Cliff's backing band and a 22 piece orchestra would have been strictly an artistic decision - presumably down to Ray Singer and the band. I obviously thought they had potential or I wouldn't have signed them, although I never liked the farty tuba in ‘Feelin’ High’.”
When pressed about whether he ever considered managing them or if he thought they were too young, Simon replied, “I never thought of managing them. Being young wouldn't have been anything to do with it. Just didn't fancy managing anyone at that moment.”]
Tell us how the album deal came about. It seems that you traded Maria for a couple of blokes, Pat Morris and David Williams. Were they also local friends?
Dave Williams was born in South Africa. His father was a geologist who had lived and worked in Africa, Mauritius and the New Hebrides. He was appointed as Director of the Geological Survey in Dublin and Dave enrolled at Trinity College where he did very little study and played a lot of music. Clodagh met him when he was playing in a band at a party (which I later joined for a year or so when I was sixteen. It was called Blue Tint) and he later brought in Pat Morris, who was a carpenter by trade.
The band wrote all your own material for the album. Was there a surfeit of songs that everyone brought to the band meetings to discuss which ones you were going to record?
We tackled each new song as it came along and didn’t record all the songs we had arranged in the early days of the group’s history. The best of them at the time ended up on ‘Swaddling Songs’.
You had the honour of the leadoff song, ‘Heaven Heath’ and also wrote ‘Messenger Birds’. Did the band have any say on the running order or was that selected by the label or producer (David Hitchock)?
And I wrote ‘Sheep Season’ with Clodagh and Dave. I can’t remember exactly but David Hitchcock made most of the decisions. We did have creative input.
Were those the only songs you had written up to that time and were there any songs that the others wrote that were recorded but left off the album or were there songs that were never recorded at the time that may have ended up on future projects?
Dave wrote quite a few songs that didn’t get on to the album, although some of them ended up on ‘The Virgin Prophet’, which was a bunch of demos and unreleased songs from early seventies rehearsals. Clodagh had songs also and was writing new ones when the band split up, which I don’t think have ever seen the light of day. Then there were songs going way back to The Gatecrashers days, which were never developed.
Had you played any gigs prior to recording the album?
We played gigs in Ireland prior to recording the album: pubs, folk clubs (because we didn’t have drums in the early days and could do semi-acoustic gigs), and a few festivals.
Was there anyone looking after you from a managerial standpoint, or were you handling all your own affairs?
In the early days Brian Tuite and Ted Carroll looked after the band. When we went to London Ted was already living there and managing Thin Lizzy.
Were there numerous labels offers to choose from and, if so, what prompted the band to choose Deram?
Junior Campbell, a founder of the group Marmalade (who did a successful cover of Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da and who later had a hit with ‘Reflections of My Life’) came over from Britain to see us at a gig in Dublin but was unimpressed. This unfortunate incident was due to the fact that Terry O’Neill, who was working with us at the time, was tripping and became fascinated with the lights, thereby making a hash of our sound. We were all a bar or so out with each other on stage because we couldn‘t hear anything. We were furious and disappointed afterwards because of what might have been. But perhaps, in retrospect, it wasn’t that big a deal.
About fifteen years ago, Kissing Spell released demo recordings from around this time period (‘The Virgin Prophet’). Was this an “authorized”? Do you own the copyrights or were they retained by someone else? Were you at all involved with the release?)
‘The Virgin Prophet’ was instigated by me, put together from material Ted Carroll and I had in our possession. The songs have been registered by the three writers in the band.
Several of these songs would later appear on the album. While these demos sound quite complete to my ears, what did you want to change with the material or arrangements by the time you got to recording the actual released versions?
A number of people felt we would fare better with a drummer, so that was the major change in the evolvement of our music from demo to final product stage.
The album apparently disappeared rather quickly – I’ve read claims that it ranks as one of the rarest major label releases from the early 70s, with mint originals exchanging hands for nearly £500! I don’t suppose you still have one of those mint copies locked up in a vault somewhere!
It is very rare and therefore prized. Mint originals can go for around £500 and several years ago a copy in North America sold for around $2,300. I have a battered, personalized copy, but I know quite a few people who have mint condition copies and most aren’t selling, although I’d venture to say that the next generation might.
Did the band realise any money from the album?
That’s a sad joke. Anything made from sales went to pay back a modest advance, and Universal are not keen to renegotiate our 1971 contract. We do earn some royalties but not so much as the bank manager would notice.
Did Deram offer any tour or promotional support for the album? If not, why do you surmise they abandoned you?
We didn’t know at the time, but Deram didn’t really have the resources to promote everyone to the degree required to get a new band off the ground. As a result, Mellow Candle fell by the wayside. Further to that, half the band wanted to go with new management. A tour of The Netherlands was proposed but ultimately never materialized because the new manager had a breakdown and everything fell apart. It was another nail in the coffin.
So what happened next? Did the frustration of dealing with the music industry turn you sour on a music career and did you consider going back to complete a degree and get a “real job”?
Dave had a degree and we’d all had ‘real jobs – nine to fivers’ for short periods of time. We felt very battered by our bruising encounter with the harsher vagaries of the music industry. But we all eventually dusted ourselves off and had another go.
Somewhere along the way, you decided on another name change (Grace Before Space). Tell us how this came about and were any of the original Candle members besides yourself involved with this project?
The name change was a last ditch attempt to keep the band on track. The end was in sight. Frank had left the band and Dave and I had to go together because we were a married couple. Steve Borrill was supposed to join but that never happened. Grace Before Space never got the legs to get going.
Eventually, you and David married (was this during or after Mellow Candle?).
Dave and I married in January 1972, at the height of our work with Mellow Candle. We were onstage on our wedding night.
You moved to South Africa after Mellow Candle dissolved. What prompted you and David to choose such a location?
We felt very wounded by our experience so we decided to get as far away as possible. Dave was born in South Africa and they were looking for people to go there. It was a depressing time in Britain with the three-day week, strikes etc. One night we stayed someplace and had only newspapers to cover us. That was the last straw really.
Just before that we had worked in an Irish bar in Brussels for a short period and for a few months had a band called The Word with recently deceased, legendary Irish rock and blues guitarist, Jimmy Faulkner. He was in the grip of heroin addiction at the time so we walked away from that.
Can you still listen to yourself on the ‘Swaddling Songs’ sessions or do you prefer to concentrate on your new projects?
I didn’t listen to ‘Swaddling Songs’ for a very long time, but now I don’t mind hearing the songs. Mostly, though, I love to sing and write new material for my numerous projects.
For an album that never sold on initial release, it sure has been reissued a lot – several UK issues, Japanese, Korean, Hong Kong, et.al.! Do you have a copy of any of the earlier editions?
I have copies of the See for Miles reissue, the Japanese gatefold import, Si-Wan Records on vinyl, Acme, and the Esoteric remastered reissue.
Tell me a little about how Flibbertigibbet came about.
After a few lonely years settling in to Johannesburg, Dave and I started going to Mangles Folk Club where we met a lot of local musicians, including an English couple who were in a group called Orion. We joined forces with them when their band came to an end.
‘Whistling Jigs To The Moon’ subsequently appeared about four years after your relocation. Was it recorded in Johannesburg?
There was a small circuit for traditional and folk music in South Africa. We were doing a mix of trad songs and tunes, and also original songs. Dave Marks, a songwriter and musician from Durban, well-known in the folk community as an archivist and chronicler of songs and political speeches, gave us an opportunity to record through his company, 3rd Ear Music. He was also a sound technician who recorded a number of excellent singer songwriters for posterity both live and in concert. No one else would have given our rather non-mainstream brand of music a chance.
Did you tour the LP at all? If so, did you perform outside of South Africa, or were they mostly local gigs?
We didn’t exactly tour the LP, but we did play some gigs outside Johannesburg and a few in Botswana.
By now, you were concentrating on more traditional Celtic material, which you would return to with Éishtlinn after you moved to Belgium. But before that, you wrote and recorded an album with Terry Dempsey’s band, Plastik Mak (‘Love Connection’). How did this project come about and was it also based in South Africa?
Actually the album songs with Terry Dempsey were written mostly by him. There were three of us session singers hired to perform the songs and look good. I did it for the invaluable, in-depth and extremely professional recording experience which stood me in very good stead later on when I started doing a lot of sessions for other people’s songs. I sang back-ups for Tina Turner once, although I never met her. We did the vocals around 9am so that we would sound a bit sexy and scratchy on the single.
Some jazz recordings followed with The Earthlings. My, you kept yourself busy. Did you go into these projects knowing they were probably one-offs, or did you envision that they would hang around for a while?
I played with Earthlings for over a year. We did quite a few gigs. It gave me a very good grounding in various levels of vocal improvisation.
Have any recordings emerged from this project?
It was all original material but never ended up on an official recording. It fizzled out for me because I decided to leave South Africa early in 1986.
You moved once again – to Belgium this time – how romantic. What attracted you to Brussels?
I went back to London immediately after leaving Johannesburg, and joined the rat race. For ten years between 1985 and 1995, I stepped away from music. That period of suppressing everything I stood for has resulted in a burning drive to write, sing and perform which has not abated to date. I then took off for Brussels.
Éishtlinn presented an opportunity to return to your Celtic roots. How did that project come about?
I decided not to let the grass grow under my feet and got stuck into performing and teaching singing very quickly after arriving in Belgium. I heard of two very good musicians who might consider working with me. One of them was the superb DADGAD guitarist Philip Masure, who is very well respected throughout Europe. I got out the map to drive over an hour to Kalmthout, where he lived. We thrashed through half a dozen songs, had an intensive discussion and decided to form a band immediately. Philip found the other musicians fairly quickly. I hooked up again with him after my return to Dublin on my album with Isabel [Ní Chuireáin – see below.]
Kissing Spell (who also released your demo tracks from the ‘Swaddling Songs’ era) issued an Éishtlinn album in 2001. How was this received? Did you get any fan mail from your old Mellow Candle and/or Flibbertigibbet fans or were you starting to develop a new fan base?
The album ‘éist linn’ (“listen to us”) by Éishtlinn gathered some good reviews but Kissing Spell is mostly a reissue label and doesn’t have the resources to promote new bands. Fan mail from Mellow Candle fans has really come about from my MySpace page in 2006. I have a smattering of fans from all the bands I have been in, but obviously most of them come from my Mellow Candle connection. I’ve struggled for ten years to get people to listen to what I’m doing currently. It’s been very difficult to get music industry people interested in anything new. I’m finding it a little easier now because I’ve been collaborating with other people who are attracting music industry attention.
Whilst in Belgium, you returned to your roots of sorts – an all-woman band (Oeda) performing original compositions in French, Flemish and English. Where did you learn all these languages?!
I learned French but I read the lyrics in the three languages. I have a good ear so pronunciation was no problem.
Have Oeda been recorded for commercial consumption?
We recorded a few tracks but didn’t do anything with a label. There are a few recordings out there. We came joint second in a nationwide competition, which resulted in one of our songs ending up on a compilation CD.
Recently, you recorded an album with Isabel Ní Chuireáin (‘Mise agus Ise’ – ‘Myself & Herself’, Osmosys, 2006). Your tracks seem very personal and I believe I read that you finally reunited with Dave and Frank (Boylan) for the first time in three decades. Was it uncomfortable at first or did you all fall in as if no time had passed at all?
‘Mise agus Ise’ was an outpouring of pent-up music, so the songs were very personal. Working with Frank and Dave was a pleasure. Dave did everything in Cape Town but Frank came to the studio. He, Isabel and myself later ended up working in a band for about a year with a Dublin singer called Michele Ann Kelly. It was pleasantly weird standing on the stage with Frank after all those years.
Have you had a chance to play out with the new material and do fans still call out for the odd Mellow Candle or Flibbertigibbet track?
I frequently perform new songs, even ones that are only now in the early stages of recording for a solo album. I have started doing ‘Messenger Birds’ very occasionally and sometimes I sing the Sonny Condell song, ‘Mariner Blues’ from ‘Whistling Jigs to the Moon’. I even sing it a capella occasionally at the singers’ clubs and festivals that I frequently attend.
You’re also quite the Renaissance woman, Alison – I see that you’ve written a book tracing your O’Donnell and Bools geneology all the way back to the late 17th century (and excerpted on your web site – a fascinating story).
My maternal grandparents were both involved in music. My grandmother was a singer who lived in China and who led a fascinating double life. My grandfather and his two brothers, O’Donnells, were highly respected conductors and composers operating in British military circles in the latter part of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century. Their lives through music have very definitely been a factor in shaping the singer and songwriter I am today.
Your grandmother, Nina, figures prominently in ‘Mother of Pearl’ from your recent collaboration with Isabel. Do your incorporate a lot of autobiographical details into your songs and does that help you come to terms with, perhaps, sad or difficult times in your life – a sort of liberation?
The song ‘Mother of Pearl’ is full of sorrow because of the separation of my grandmother from her first two children. I always write about what I feel, including current events that I have strong opinions about. ‘Seals in the Sound’ is about a carefree childhood in Ireland, but then the pain of having to leave to work abroad like so many Irish over the centuries. I went away for 28 years and between the years 1976 and 1986 I didn’t see my mother and extended family at all. I used to weep every time I flew or sailed away between the years of ‘86 and 2001. It made for a good song though! Writing songs about difficult times is an effective way of dealing with emotion.
So what is on the horizon, Alison? I see a few upcoming gigs, including a set with our good friend Steven Collins of The Owl Service, with whom you’ve just completed a new EP. Can you tell us a little about that project and what it was like working with Steven.
I haven’t met Steven Collins yet. We connected through MySpace. He sent a guitar and piano tracks to me and I wrote some songs with him and Dom Cooper. We built the songs up, sending them back and forth and the EP, entitled ‘The Fabric of Folk’, is due out mid-July on Static Caravan. There are two original songs, two traditional songs which have not been widely recorded and a wee instrumental. It worked so well that we decided to do some gigs in the summer. Our musical ideas seemed to fit really well together.
I noticed that Clodagh continues to record (most recently with Fovea Hex) and run her own record label (Janet). Have you remained in touch over the years and do you ever foresee a day where you might record together again?
Clodagh is extremely active with her collective, Fovea Hex, and a number of collaborations. The growing cult status of Mellow Candle has ensured that we remain in regular contact. Because of our long history together, we have a mutual interest in each other’s welfare and work. She doesn’t wish to wind the clock back, and we’re both looking forward with more than enough projects for us not to feel we would ever want or need to recreate Mellow Candle in any way. However, personally, I like to record with lots of people, have always been interested in teams, collectives etc, so I wouldn’t say never to recording a track or two together, but I imagine Clodagh wouldn’t want to go there because I’m bound up with her past.
You’ve also done some work with Terrascope favourites, Agitated Radio Pilot, United Bible Studies and Greg Weeks (from Espers). How do you manage to keep so busy – do these artists track you down and ask you to participate or did you approach them with some ideas for a collaboration?
All these musicians came along via MySpace and our respective websites. Some of them invited me to work with them and I approached others. I did three tracks for Dave Colohan’s collective, Agitated Radio Pilot (double album entitled ‘World Winding Down’), and have worked with him onstage and live radio a number of times. I also did three tracks for United Bible Studies for their forthcoming album, ‘The Jonah’. I have worked as an experimental vocalist with them onstage also. They toured the U.S. this summer [including a fantastically well-received stop at Terrastock VII in Louisville, KY]. I work here [in Dublin] occasionally with Isabel Ní Chuireáin and Jonny Tennant. We’ve done a couple of tracks for my new solo album, which is going to involve a lot of co-writing of songs with most of the musicians I’ve been recording within and outside of Ireland. This also includes Dave Colohan, Gavin Prior of United Bible Studies, Michael Tyack of Circulus (I gigged with him a number of times in 2006), Kevin Scott of the Canadian band, Mr Pine (I recorded a track entitled ‘Sleep of Ondine’ for their forthcoming album), Steven Collins of course, and maybe one or two others. There will also be some interesting contributions from musicians in the psychedelic folk and folk rock genres. Then there is a whole album with Greg Weeks, which I’m really excited about. The material was written in a very short period, and I’ll be going to Philadelphia to work on it sometime this year. I’ve only got this busy in the last year, as predicted by Rick Tomlinson of Voice of the Seven Woods.
Written and directed by Jeff Penczak. Artwork, Production and layout: Phil McMullen, © Terrascope Online, 2008
Thanks to Alison O’Donnell, Simon Napier-Bell, and Vicky Powell at Esoteric for their invaluable assistance and cooperation with this interview.
Alison O’Donnell Selected Discography
Mellow Candle ‘Swaddling Songs’ (Deram, 1972); reissued on See For Miles (UK), 1994; Edison Records (Japan); Soma Records (Korea); Si-Wan (Hong Kong); Acme Records (UK), 2004; Esoteric (UK), 2008. Read the Terrascope Online review here
Jigs to the Moon’ (Stanyan, 1978); reissued on Kissing Spell (UK, 1997);
Si-Wan (Hong Kong, 2004)
Plastik Mak ‘Love
Connection’ (Flash Records, 1981)
Mellow Candle ‘The Virgin
Prophet (Unreleased sessions 1969-1970)’ (Kissing Spell, 1994)
Flibbertigibbet ‘My Lagan
Love’ [Live/Demos from 1978], (Kissing Spell, 2004); (Si-Wan, 2004)
Eishtlinn ‘Eist Linn’
(Kissing Spell, 2001)
Michele Ann Kelly ‘A
Breakfast Affair’ EP (Self-released, 2005)
Alison O’Donnell & Isabel Ní Chuireáin ‘Mise agus Ise’ (Osmosys Records, 2006)
Alison O’Donnell & The Owl Service ‘The Fabric of Folk’ EP (Static Caravan, 2008)
Agitated Radio Pilot – ‘World Winding Down’ (Deserted Village, 2007)
United Bible Studies – ‘The Jonah’, forthcoming on Deserted Village
Greg Weeks – ‘Sheer Cliff Off Elka Park’, forthcoming; label TBA.
Finally, you may contact Allison at her website