Through the course of nine albums, the core of Celtic-rock group Gaelic Storm—frontman Patrick Murphy and guitarist-vocalist Steve Twigger—have lived, written and recorded in the United States, far from the overseas environs of Patrick's native Ireland and Steve's birthplace of England. So when it came time to find inspiration for Gaelic Storm's new album, the group's chief songwriters decided a trip back across the pond was in order.
The result is the dazzling #1 Billboard World Album Chicken Boxer, a heavyweight record that comes out swinging with a mix of empowering anthems and traditional ballads, and the fifth to be released on the band's own label, Lost Again Records.
"Twigger and I returned to Ireland, driving around the entire coastline in search of Irish music," says Patrick. "Going back was great and we got some good stories and ideas for songs."
"That was a really important trip to us," agrees Steve, who produced the album with help from Patrick and drummer Ryan Lacey. Steve says the journey back to their musical home informs the new album. "The idea of home is all over Chicken Boxer. Whether home is where you were born or where you make your living, that theme runs throughout the album."
Rounded out by drummer Ryan, piper Pete Purvis and fiddle player Jessie Burns, Gaelic Storm has earned a reputation as one of the world-music scene's preeminent Celtic bands. With catalog sales of more than 1 million, the group has now had three albums debut at #1 on the Billboard World Albums Chart, 2008's What's the Rumpus?, 2010's Cabbage, which remained parked in the top slot for three consecutive weeks, and 2012's Chicken Boxer.
The group's ability to deftly incorporate a rock sensibility into their sound affords them rare crossover appeal. In recent years, they've performed on the same bill with acts ranging from Zac Brown Band and the Goo Goo Dolls to Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett, at events as varied as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Milwaukee's Summerfest.
"At the end of those shows, I was like, 'Lads, that was unbelievable!'" Patrick says. "We fit in very well with those other artists and we're definitely moving more into the mainstream. Our music is Celtic and Irish, yes, but on this album, we see just how far we can take it."
That sense of musical adventure is well represented in Chicken Boxer's lead-off track, the live-every-moment rocker "One More Day Above the Roses." Hammered out by Steve and Ryan during a particularly rewarding jam session at The Zone studio in Austin, Texas, where the band records, the song is a defiant boot-stomper, with Patrick announcing: I'm done with you begrudgers; You pushers and you shovers; The scurrying, the worrying; I'm gonna have some fun.
The lyrics are a tribute of sorts to legendary Irish folksinger Paddy Reilly, who gave the group some invaluable advice when Gaelic Storm was adapting to the instant fame brought on by their cameo in the 1997 blockbuster "Titanic."
"We were encountering a lot of resentment from other bands, and Paddy leaned over and said to us, 'F--- the begrudgers!'" Steve recalls with a laugh. "Those were very important words for us back then and I wanted to get that message into the song: Don't let people drag you down. Just celebrate the fact that you get up in the morning."
In the springy "Rag and Bone," it's a fond memory from his youth that Steve chose to celebrate, that of the good-natured junk pickers who'd roam the streets outside his family's home. "The rag-and-bone men went about picking up scrap. You'd hear him and his donkey cart coming from a long way away," he says. "We'd get excited when we heard him coming, because he'd give out candy to the kids. This was before everybody was afraid of taking candy from strangers. It was a happier time and I wanted to preserve that."
Indeed, much of Gaelic Storm's material hearkens back to an older age. While songs like the tropical "My Lucky Day," the stark "Whichever Way the Wind Blows" and the Dylan-like road ballad "I Can't Find My Way Home" would fit comfortably on contemporary radio, the band also has a knack for writing songs that sound as if they've been sung in Irish pubs for generations. Tracks like "Marching Free," "Dead Bird Hill" and "Stone by Stone" all lend an air of the traditional to Chicken Boxer. But it's the epic "The Bear and the Butcher Boy" that sets the bar.
One of the last songs to be recorded for the album, "The Bear and the Butcher Boy" could easily have been a story resurrected from long ago. Instead, it was painstakingly composed over time by Steve. "I really wanted to write an old-fashioned story-song," he says. "I researched folk songs and the Alan Lomax field recordings and I think they seeped into my head. It all came out in 'The Bear and the Butcher Boy.'"
The song may have even set the stage for the followup to Chicken Boxer. "It felt like the first song of our next album," Steve continues. "We made another breakthrough in the band's sound and it got me very excited to record again. Maybe the next one will really have a traditional feel."
But any such plans will have to wait. Now, a reinvigorated Gaelic Storm is focused on bringing the music of Chicken Boxer to their fans around the world—and explaining the album's unconventional title. (Just ask Patrick what it means!)
"This is our ninth album and every one seems to be better than the last," Patrick says. "I think this record will take us to another level. It's another step in the journey."
A journey that, for the endlessly touring Gaelic Storm, is furthered every time they step onstage.
"If you see our show, we have fast singing-and-clapping songs. We have ballads. We have instrumentals. We tell stories. A variety of things can happen," says Steve. "And that all comes out on this album."