The Irish folk artist talks to Jane Coyle about how living on the Armagh-Monaghan border has shaped both her life and her songwriting
Dani Larkin (photo: Sarah Pannasch)
Singer-songwriter Dani Larkin knows what it’s like to live on the edge. Born and raised in the Irish borderlands, she’s attuned to existing slap bang in the middle of two jurisdictions, two systems of government, two arts scenes. She says she has been shaped by the border, a fact that is inherent in many of her songs.
Larkin is also an experienced peace builder who has worked in Palestine, Israel, Romania, Indonesia and Colombia. She was a youth peace ambassador for Beyond Skin, a Belfast-based organisation that empowers activists and peace workers to channel the arts into forging a more equal, intercultural society. Larkin places music at the core of her conflict transformation work, using it to access creative routes into sensitive mediation and honest conversation.
She grew up in a family where music was important, whether it was her grandfather playing the trombone in a showband or “my granny singing old-time folk and soul songs in the kitchen,” Larkin says. “When I began discovering music for myself it started with Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, Fleetwood Mac, Peggy Seeger, Nina Simone, Paul Brady, The Breath, Sigur Rós and instrumental guitarists like Newton Faulkner, Thomas Leeb and Rodrigo y Gabriela.”
My first encounter with Larkin was her performance at the Global Youth Peace Summit concert in Belfast in March 2017. Slight and urchin-like, almost hidden behind her guitar, she spoke and performed with a confidence way beyond her years. In the intervening time, her virtuoso acoustic guitar playing, rich vocals and thoughtful lyrics have matured, leading to support appearances alongside artists like Rufus Wainwright, Joshua Burnside and Lisa O’Neill, whose “truthful storytelling style” she much admires.
Following a Folk Alliance International showcase in February, Larkin is about to release her debut album, Notes for a Maiden Warrior. One of two recently released singles, ‘Love Part Three’, concludes a trio of songs, reflecting on the process of falling in love with one’s self, on falling in love with someone else and, finally, revealing how that love transforms with a longing for kinship.
‘Samson and Goliath’ is a remastered and reimagined version of a haunting, bittersweet confession, which she first performed in Haifa in 2015. Its title evokes the nicknames of the towering twin cranes in the Belfast shipyards, but it was its Old Testament subtext that first struck a chord with the largely Israeli audience. She explains how the album’s themes evolve out of the ancient province that is her home.
“Ulster is known as the warrior province. Its history is filled with heroic myths, many involving powerful women like Macha and Queen Maeve…There is a strong narrative structure [on the album], beginning with a sense of wildness and darkness, with a focus on harmonium and banjo. It moves towards a lighter tone, reflected by guitar and viola, and ends with a mysterious a cappella track. Notes for a Maiden Warrior is a deeply personal record, capturing the experiences of wildness, loss, queerness, love, and mystery.”