With his ultra-rich vocals and large repertoire of traditional Irish songs, Iarla Ó Lionáird (pronounced ear-lah o'linnard) has taken the world of Celtic folk music by storm. One of Ireland's leading singers of the traditional old-timey style, Ó Lionáird has continued to build on his traditional roots. In addition to recording as a soloist, he's helped to bring the Afro-Celt Sound System to international attention. In a review of his solo album, Seven Steps to Mercy, www.Ink19.com wrote, "[the album] centers on the pure and shimmering vocal qualities of Iarla as he sings of immigrant memories, alcoholism, rivers, crucifixion, and love songs."
A native of the Gaelic-speaking village of Cuil Aodha, Ó Lionáird has been singing most of his life. The son of a school headmaster who knew influential choir director Sean O'Riada, Ó Lionáird began attending rehearsals of O'Riada's group, Coir Cuil Aodha, at the age of five. His vocal talents were sharpened even further by Peadar O'Riada, who assumed leadership of the choir following his father's death in 1971.
Recording for the first time at the age of seven, Ó Lionáird continued to evolve as a vocalist. Throughout his early teens, he placed first in every competition that he entered. While attending college in Dublin during the mid-'80s, he continued to build his reputation as a singer and vocal teacher. In 1989, he became the host of a traditional music series, The Pure Drop, broadcast by RTE Television.
Frustrated by his inability to secure the support of a record label, Ó Lionáird temporarily left music in the early '90s. He took his first steps toward a return when he wrote a six-page letter asking the RealWorld record label for an audition. The letter and accompanying demo tape impressed the label so much that he was invited to participate during RealWorld's recording week marathon at their studios in western England.
The release of Seven Steps to Mercy, his debut solo album, recorded with the sole accompaniment of uillean pipes, was held back when Ó Lionáird agreed to record with the Afro-Celt Sound System. His debut appearance with the group came on the 1996 album Sound Magic, Vol. 1; Ó Lionáird continued to work with the multi-ethnic group. Ó Lionáird has also collaborated with Shaun Davey and accordionist Tony MacMahon, with whom he recorded a live album, Aislingi Ceoil.
While most of Seven Steps to Mercy was recorded with Grammy-nominated producer Michael Brook, tracks spanning his full career were included. The earliest recording was a rendition of "Aisling Gheal" that he recorded at the age of eleven with Peadar O'Riada producing. Ó Lionáird's second solo album was the soundtrack for the film I Could Read the Sky, based on the book by Chicago-based Irish-American novelist Tim O' Grady. The album also includes fiddler Martin Hayes and Irish vocalist Sinead O'Connor, with whom he recorded a duet version of "Singing Bird." Ó Lionáird toured with Faith of Our Fathers in 1999. ~ Craig Harris