Luka Bloom's sixth album, Between the Mountain and the Moon, is his first collection of new, original material since Salty Heaven, released in the U.S. in 1999. Not that Luka has left his fans wanting. In between, he managed to put together Keeper of the Flame, a highly personal homage to his favorite classic and contemporary songwriters, and he also found time to tour the world, playing to sold-out crowds in Australia, the U.S., his native Ireland, and continental Europe, while road-testing the tunes that would make up this gorgeous new set.
Luka has truly lived with this material, refining it on tour and gently polishing it to perfection in the studio. Although the process took almost two years, the songs show no signs of wear and tear; Between the Mountain and the Moonsounds like one seamless session, intimate, impassioned, and musically, lyrically, and thematically unified, an album in the classic sense. While Luka was concentrating on the cover songs he radically retooled for Keeper of the Flame, he said he learned "to trust myself more as a singer." And it shows here he fearlessly stretches himself vocally, as well as instrumentally, especially on tracks like the otherworldly "Gabriel" and the hushed "Moonslide," which he delivers in a beguiling bedroom whisper.
Most importantly, Luka has learned how to enjoy life in the recording studio. He's always been comfortable on a stage with just himself, a couple of guitars, and maybe a vase of flowers. The challenge for him in making records has been how to capture both the exuberance and the intensity of his performances. Luka has tried various approaches, from the stunning, live-in-the-studio simplicity of Turf in 1994 to the lush, labored-over orchestrations of Salty Heaven. He channeled New York City edginess to make his 1990 in-your-face debut, Riverside, then went to the emerging bohemia of Dublin's Temple Bar in 1991 to create Acoustic Motorbike, importing Manhattan musicians to mix up it up with some of the coolest locals.
Despite his innovative tactics, Luka was never quite satisfied. Until now. "This is the first time I felt confident in a studio," he confesses. "I've finally found a relationship with a studio and an engineer, where I feel capable of expressing myself without (too much) fear."
The studio is the legendary Windmill Lane in Dublin, where everyone from U2 to the Rolling Stones has recorded. The engineer is Brian Masterson, a veteran of sessions with the Chieftains, Van Morrison, Altan, and the Corrs, among many others, who first worked with Luka on Turf, bravely allowing him to bring a potentially unruly live audience into the studio for a handful of evenings. Brian subsequently co-produced Keeper of the Flame; those sessions resulted in arrangements of well-known songs that were as unexpected as they were austere.
"I began recording some songs in September 1999, did a week or so in Windmill, maybe nine songs," explains Luka, recalling the beginnings of Between the Mountain and the Moon. "No plan, no rush. Then in 2000, I decided to make a CD of other artists, songs and recorded Keeper of the Flame. Every now and then I'd quietly slip into the studio and do a day or two with some of these songs. Little by little, the songs took shape, different musicians coming in to play, all very relaxed, no pressure. Right up to the end I kept my mind open for new songs and for new ideas. Each person who plays on this CD brought something very special to the songs. Almost every note people performed remains in the mix. Every session was essential, and something beautiful happened each time. "
Between the Mountain and the Moon is a collaboration among several musicians, including Luka's gifted nephew Connor Byrne, a flautist and recording artist in his own right who accompanied Luka on Salty Heaven. For many, perhaps the most noteworthy participant will be Sinead O'Connor, a significant but last-minute addition to the lineup, who came in to lend her voice to one track but, following the free-form spirit of the project, stuck around to contribute subtle but stirring vocals to a few more. As Luka told an Australian reporter, "The record was finished and I was listening to the songs and I thought, 'God, wouldn't it be great if Sinead could sing on this.' I happened to have her number, and I phoned her to ask if she'd do it, and she said, 'OK.' It's not always possible to take the direct route, but I was lucky with Sinead! To have her on the record is quite a blessing for me."
He was also lucky to find a room to record in that felt more like a second home than a utilitarian studio, a place where he felt he belonged. "It's a beautiful room to sing in," he reveals. "If you listen to some old jazz records, like Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald, you can hear the drums, the bass, and the brass. You can hear the session. You can hear the room. That's the reason why Windmill Lane is important to me, because you can capture the sense of people performing."
Luka's Australian fans got a jump on their compatriots in other countries because Luka decided to release the album there in late 2001, in anticipation of an early '02 down-under tour. (Look for Luka to arrive in America in the late spring.) The critical response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, a harbinger of things to come around the rest of the globe. A reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald called Between the Mountain and the Moon "arguably the best and most coherent album Bloom has ever produced." "A starkly beautiful recording," declared a critic from the Herald Sun. And a writer for The Green Guide rhapsodically described it as "a majestically romantic collection of ballads that, from the opening paean to love, 'Monsoon', just sweeps you along on its powerful, poetic current."
Love is definitely on Luka's mind here, be it sensual ("Monsoon") or spiritual ("Gabriel"). But Between the Mountain and the Moon is about more than that. It's about playful pride for a home and a heritage ("I'm A Bogman"), the courage of commitment to faith ("Shoshin," dedicated to Maura O'Halloran, an Irish-American woman who became a Zen Buddhist monk in Japan) or to a cause ("Love is a Place I Dream Of," dedicated to Christina Noble, a Dubliner who has devoted her life to sheltering homeless children). It's about extraordinary characters in an exotic land ("As I Waved Goodbye," inspired by the book Seven Years in Tibet) and humble heroes in a more familiar setting ("Hands of a Farmer," a tribute to County Clare singer and storyteller Micho Russell). Finally, it's about the simple pleasures of picking up the guitar ("Perfect Groove") and those moments when everything just feels right ("Rainbow Day").
Between the Mountains and the Moonis full of moments when everything just feels right. It's Luka Bloom's most mature work, yet it's as fresh as his decade-old debut, a soulful, occasionally joyful, consistently moving album that was definitely worth the wait.
Reviews"Among other outstanding ballads are the swooning Here and Now, while As I Waved Goodbye celebrates the Tibetan ideal. Bloom turns to a jaunty, Indo-Celt beat on Perfect Groove, and I'm A Bogman revels in sheer Irishness."