Francis McIlduff on the Music, Ideas & Lineage Behind his New Album 'Theodore Street'
Maybe one hidden ingredient as to how the McPeake family have managed to create generations of musical talent, is that they don’t really try?
Francis McIlduff is a son of the McPeake’s, and renowned as one of the highest calibre uilleann pipers in Ireland. He’s part of renowned Irish trad outfit At First Light with John Mc Sherry and Dónal O'Connor, and a regular at sessions in Belfast’s Sunflower Bar.
Before his long awaited debut Theodore Street is launched at The Duncairn on Friday 17th May, he spoke with us about where it all came from – the music, the ideas, and the lineage, offering a fascinating insight into the lifetime’s journey that underlies the release of his first solo album.
“The instruments were all around the house as a child,” he recalled as we talked over the phone about how his passion for music started. “You just kind of picked them up and started playing and messing around with them until somebody sort of showed you something. So, it's not really as if I was being sat down and shown. It was more of a fun thing; I was free to just pick it up when I felt like it. It was more like hanging around and having some fun.”
The bodhran was the first instrument he was taught to play (by his mother), but it didn’t take long before the young Francis McIlduff moved on. “My grandfather taught me the tin whistle and I didn't really get into playing pipes until later on, probably around 14.” Indeed, it was his grandfather who taught him for the first year of his piping lessons, and this was an important year as sadly his grandfather passed on when McIlduff was 15 years old.
The Theodore Street home of McIlduff’s grandparents was a home-from-home for Francis and his brethren. The lessons learned, the growing up, the music, the day-to-day rhythms of a happy family base were ultimately to have a massive impact on the life and the music of Francis McIlduff. “We grew up in my grandparent's house,” he went on to explain. “We were always there, every day, playing football matches outside. It's just that’s where we always were, and there are always good memories, you know… It was just a normal environment - people gathering around for a party at Christmas and they would all have a wee sing-song together. That’s the kind of vibe, that's what it was like.”
A black and white image of a busy Theodore Street adorns the front cover of the album, and as we talk it makes growing sense that the music McIlduff has created here is a gathering of memories and markers starting from those times he spent at his grandparents’. “[it’s] basically a collection of tunes that are influenced by what’s happened over the years with my family and friends,” he continued. “That’s the whole thing about Theodore Street, I have my music from playing in there, in that house that’s pictured on the cover, that was my grandparent's house where I learnt how to play music.
Theodore Street has been an enduring project for McIlduff who spent eight years working on and off on the album, with the “unbelievable” help of his family, particularly his brother who recorded the album on the equipment that they’ve set up at home. This ongoing support is a point that McIlduff is keen to express: “I just have to say that I am the genius that created this thing all on my own - but it's actually not that true,” he laughed. “My brother and I are very, very close and I wouldn't be able to do anything without him.”
With the music on the album named after the individuals and happenings that have surrounded him, such as “Rollin Reel/Uncle John’s” or “Christie’s,” McIlduff has created a world mirroring and masterfully documenting the people that matter, the places, the simple things. “It's all original, I play everything, but I just find it really hard to describe the music that's on the album,” he explained as he searched for the words. “I think I would say that it is rhythmically interesting, or maybe interesting and unique in the style of Irish music that it is. It’s a little bit different - obviously I'm not re-inventing Irish music or anything, this is just my take. I love Irish music; I love dance music. It's a great thing, it's a part of my life. I grew up with it. But also, rhythms are very interesting to me - I started playing drums before anything, and my father was a drummer.”
Indeed, rhythm is generally the basis from which he starts working on the germ of a tune. “Usually I come up with a rhythm and put a tune to the rhythm. But sometimes if it’s the tune … I’ll just go and sit in a room and toot away on a whistle and record it onto the phone. Then probably come back to it and put the rhythm on it, the drum on it, the guitar on it.”
“The show will be easy enough to understand.” The virtuoso musician assured me. “You won't have to strain to understand where the beat is, and it's not too complicated. Hopefully it has a bit of swing and a bit of feeling to it - that it feels natural enough.” There will be a four piece band on the night with musicians including singer, song-writer, producer and multi-instrumentalist David Preston, and singer-songwriter Jim Rainey on guitar and vocals.
Theodore Street is available online on sites including Spotify and Amazon, but people lucky enough to attend the launch will have the chance to not only be the first to hear this unique collection live with a full band, they can also actually buy a physical copy of the album. “I've got boxes of them,” he told me. "I'm actually sitting on them right now. That's why I need to get rid of them.”
So, help Francis McIlduff shift some of those discs and grab tickets while you can for what is obviously going to be a very special show: Click here for tickets