Songs of the sea
October's full moon will see a trio of Crosshaven musicians perform together as Crosswinds for the first time, in very special surroundings.....
The ruins of St Matthew’s Church, Templebreedy, perch high on a hill above Church Bay in Crosshaven.
Built in 1778 and torn down a century later, throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, its whitewashed gable wall, facing out towards Roches Point on the other side of the mouth of the harbour, was used as a landmark by mariners navigating into the Port of Cork.
Three musicians stand looking out the window at the blue expanse of bejewelled sea, glittering in the mid-morning autumn sun.
“Imagine, if you had looked out this window 110 years ago, you would have seen the Titanic right out there,” singer-songwriter Billy Kennedy says. There’s a contemplative silence as we digest this notion.
“It waited there for an hour and a half before setting off on its final journey. The Lusitania happened ten miles up the coast that way,” he says, pointing up the coast towards Kinsale.
For Kennedy, who has lived in the area for the past seven years, the sea is a source of songwriting inspiration, rooted in the life-changing journeys taken by those leaving Cork harbour.
“I look out at the harbour every day and it brings up a lot about emigrating,” he says. “I was an economic migrant in the 1980s. I went to London, but I resented having to leave because I wasn’t ready to go. I came back in 1990, but almost had to leave again in 2008, and then I was really angry.”
For classically trained flautist Katrina Emtage, St Matthew’s history as a navigation landmark is what strikes her first about the ruin.
Katrina, originally from another great deep-water harbour, Sydney, moved to Crosshaven in 2005. As well as playing flute and teaching in Cork School of Music, she is also a sailor of considerable experience: she and her Irish husband have circumnavigated the globe, taking four years out from life in Crosshaven from 2013 to 2017 for the voyage of a lifetime, sailing around the world.
The position of St Matthews as a landmark for those returning to the safe haven of land, then, is what draws her the most.
“The white gable end was a major landmark, that was on all the charts, one of the main points to look out for for anyone coming to Cork harbour,” Emtage says. “I know that because I have the old charts. It’s been a landmark and an important place for a very long time.”
Ruti Lachs is the most recent arrival to Crosshaven: she moved here just over two years ago. A multi-instrumentalist who plays the accordion, piano and trombone and is best-known for her Klezmer music and quirky one-woman shows, she raised her sons in Kerry, where the sea always played a part in their lives.
“I was in Kerry for 28 years, and my sons grew up surfing and diving, and I’ve always loved the sea,” she says.
“It’s just totally amazing to live so close to it now; when I first moved here, I’d just spend all this time standing on the beach staring at the sea and just absorbing all the detail. One of the songs I’ve put together is very dreamy, and I don’t write dreamy things normally: it’s all sailing, surfing, floating…dreamy stuff.”
On the full moon, some Crosswinds…
It’s only a week until October’s full moon, and Kennedy, Emtage and Lachs are planning a very special event, to take place in the atmospheric surroundings of the ruins of St Matthew’s: an outdoor gig where the trio will adopt the name of Crosswinds.
All three are consummate musicians of very different styles and backgrounds and all three have composed songs and tunes that they’ll perform together, melding Emtage’s classical background, Kennedy’s rock origins and Lachs’ Jewish folk music.
All the music is inspired, of course, by the sea and the surroundings of Cork harbour.
“In sailing, a crosswind is a disturbing, disruptive wind,” Emtage explains. “So as our name, it’s about breaking convention a little bit: it’s not in any one mould, but fusing traditions and coming from different traditions.”
They’ve been practising….”lots!” Lachs says with a laugh. “There will be songs and tunes and improvisations.. It’s not all ‘verse-chorus-verse-chorus.’ There’s a lot of creativity, some audience participation too. There’s a story running through our show and here’s some history to some of the songs. There’s a lot that could be said about the development of the songs, but I think that the main thing is that people will come away having had a really immersive experience as well. They’re going to walk out of the church at the end of the night and go, ‘what just happened?’”
“We just got together and said, right, what have you got?” Kennedy adds. “And it turns out we’d all been working away, and before long we had a programme kicked into shape and we’ve been practicing loads, but it will probably never be ready.”
October’s full moon, the moon after the Harvest Moon, is known as the Hunter’s Moon and is particularly brilliant, useful to our ancestors in extending the time-frame for last-ditch food gathering for winter. The full moon actually falls during the Northern Hemisphere’s day on the ninth, but still promises to add atmosphere and aesthetics to the Crosswinds gig on Saturday 8 if skies are clear.
First, and last, chance to see?
Crosswinds may only ever do this one site-specific performance: all of the trio are busy with their other musical work.
Kennedy, who released a debut solo album in 2012 and then worked on eight other albums with other musicians, has released four singles in the past two years and is “halfway through” recording his own second solo album.
Lachs is busy teaching, performing with The Fresh Air Collective and picking up the thread on her unique one-woman pieces of musical theatre.
Emtage teaches and performs with Hifilutin flute quartet and CAFE (Cork Amateur Flute Ensemble), a flute choir of 15 for whom she has recently been composing and arranging.
St Matthew’s Church had its roof torn off in the late 19th century, when it was decided by the Church of Ireland to move its worship to the newly constructed Holy Trinity Church.
St Matthew’s, as the Cork Constitution of November 1st 1866 stated, "possessed this disadvantage, that from its exposed position, subject as it is to the fury of every winter storm that blows upon the southern coast, its roof became uncomfortably leaky, to such an extent indeed that often on a windy and wet day the congregation had to patiently endure the inconvenience of several pluvial streams coming down either upon them or about them."
Crosswinds are acutely aware of the potential for “pluvial streams” to disrupt their autumn performance, but they have a top-secret Plan B in place in case the weather really won’t play ball.
The Crosswinds gig has been funded by Cork County Council under the LLPS (Local Live Performance Scheme) founded during the Covid crisis to help struggling musicians.
All three members of Crosswinds have become adept at adapting, both with the aid of the LLPS grants and under their own steam: with venues all closed and musicians essentially prevented from earning their living in any indoor setting for a year and a half, Kennedy took to arranging gigs at his home and at beach locations, both for himself and for others.
“I got a lot of experience from that and I lost the fear of putting on gigs,” Kennedy says. “Nothing seems too scary now, when it comes to locations.”
Not even a roofless ruined church in the middle of a graveyard on a full moon, it seems: it was Kennedy’s idea to stage Crosswinds’ performance here and the staging of it is no mean feat of organisation, and will include generators, lighting, portaloos for patrons.
But moving away from dependence on pub gigs has, despite its enforced start, become an empowering phenomenon for the guitarist and vocalist.
“Giving yourself permission to just go and play a gig, if that makes sense? That’s been very empowering,” he says. “Not having to ask permission from venues, not going, ‘can I come and play in your bar?’ Normally you might ring 30 venues to get three gigs, and you’re haggling prices on top of that.”
Emtage points out that an experimental new endeavour like Crosswinds might never see the light of day if relying on pubs and other music venues, because bookers may not want to take a chance on something experimental.
Lachs had founded The Fresh Air Collective with fellow folk musicians Eileen Healy and Edel Sullivan specifically for outdoor performances under Covid regulations and occasional LLPS funding.
She works as a piano teacher and community musician in different settings, and so she has welcomed the move away from pubs as the only conceivable venue for performances, she says.
“We were playing at beaches, outside cafés in the middle of winter, places you don’t expect. The whole concept of music popping up in different places has caught on, and I think it’s great for people: they go to a shopping centre or a beach to do an activity and then they realise there’s music there too. It’s great to have live music now be part of normal life.”
Crosswinds will perform at St Matthew’s Church, Templebreedy, Crosshaven on Saturday, October 8 at 7pm. You can book tickets here.
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