by Michele Zipkin
The four sisters who compose the Irish band Screaming Orphans are unique in all the world. No one else can quite create their pop, rock and Gaelic-influenced songs. “As a band we’re very much the sum of parts. If something happened to one of us, we’d cease to exist. Nobody can play the way we play together,” explains Gràinne Diver, the band’s guitar player.
The quartet of ladies from Bundoran, Ireland, have had music in their lives since the get-go. Joan plays drums and sings, Angela plays bass, fiddle and classical violin, Gràinne plays guitar, and Marie Thérèse plays keyboard and accordion. They all started studying music from an early age and were strongly encouraged by their vocalist mother and music-loving father. “There was constant music- my mother was always singing, you couldn’t escape. My father’s mother loved music but didn’t play. Our father was a great influence not being a musician, because he just loved it,” says Diver of her childhood.
Having played traditional Irish folk music as children and having grown up listening to bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Indigo Girls, these ladies write songs that are based on diverse influences. They will be returning to the Penn-Mar Irish Festival in York, PA this June, and seem to have a particular connection with Pennsylvania because they play here pretty frequently.
“There’s a really good crowd of musical supporters in Pennsylvania. A lot of the festivals have invited us back as well, and we’ve played a lot of colleges in PA. They have a lot of programs that show their students other cultures, not just your typical band. Also, there’s something about the food of Pennsylvania, it may stem from a European influence- I like the chips and the cookies,” shares Diver.
The Screaming Orphans are a very genuine band in that they don’t pretend they’re something they’re not. Some bands put a lot of emphasis on appearances and personality, but these gals are very true to themselves. “We are very much what we are. There’ll never be four in the world like us, we’re weirdos. People think I talk a lot when I’m on stage, but I do that all the time. Angela, the bass player, is not really a people person, but you can still be a ‘not people person’ and love to play music. You can be yourself. ”
And the experiences these four unique spirits have had as musicians, especially when they were young, have taught them a lot about the ways of the world. They played in a hotel in their early teenage years and got into the nightclubs, which served as an eye-opening endeavor for them. “It was great for giving us life experience. Just watching people… even seeing people drunk. We became very streetwise at a very young age.”
The girls grew up listening to a mixed bag of music that helped to shape the kinds of songs they write. Influences of traditional Irish music can be heard in their tunes, though they write mainly rock that stems from many genres of popular music as well. The Indigo Girls, Hank Williams, The Pixies, Camper Van Beethoven and surf music made their way into the four sisters ears as children and young adults.
“We grew up listening to a lot of Irish music, Gaelic music. Our dad was a massive country western fan. He loved Hank Snow and Hank Williams and Boxcar Willie. Our mom used to love Strauss. We also listened to the radio. And Angela loved The Pixies, that was her influence on bass. And the Violent Femmes! Mom used to hate it – ‘that’s terrible music, she’d say, turn that off’,” Diver recounts. Their native Bundoran was and still is a very big surf town. A lot of American surfers would come, and the girls got a kick out of it. “We’d play a lot of surf festivals, and they used to give us tapes.”
As the band continued to perform more and more and hone their musical chops, they encountered more opportunities to play with major artists. One opportunity was the chance to open for Sinead O’Connor on one of her American and European tours. O’Connor had heard the girls singing when she made a guest appearance with Irish folk artist Christy Moore in Ireland on St. Brigid’s Day, and invited them to sing with her.
Initially the band was skeptical about going on tour because they were just starting out, they had no management and essentially knew nothing. But ultimately they accompanied O’Connor on tour, and it did wonders for their career. It took them from playing in their hometown and surrounding areas to playing for thousands of people in America and Europe.
“The record company wasn’t very happy because they lined someone up for the first leg of her American tour, and then Sinead just scrapped everything and said- the girls are doing it. We had five songs written at that point (they were terrible), but we had great spirit. It’s all about believing in yourself.”
They also sang backup for Joni Mitchell in her song “Magdalene Laundries” on The Chieftains’ album Tears of Stone. “The thing with Joni, she was very particular on who she’d let sing on the Chieftains’ album,” explains Diver. “But then she heard us singing, so that was really cool.”
When asked about the most meaningful song the band has created, Joan, the lead singer, says it has yet to be written. They write a lot about break-ups, but Diver explained that things like the loss of a family-member would lead to much more of an emotionally intense song. “A lot of our pop songs are about broken relationships because we’ve always been dumped by boys because we’re never there. But it’s a heartbreak that you get over. It’s not like the death of a parent… we’re extremely close to our parents. I think things like that might really trigger [something meaningful].”
On more of an upbeat note, this November the Screaming Orphans are doing something that not many bands do- they’re going on a bus tour of Ireland with their fans. They’re starting in Bundoran, and then taking the group to Ashford Castle (a medieval castle-turned-hotel), and then Blarney. Gigs are on the menu, of course. They took a small tour of people three years ago, and this year their fans asked if they would do one again.
“We always found it kind of bizarre, touring Ireland. But I said- we were born and raised in Ireland, we know everything about it. It’s a much more interactive tour. Bundoran is the surf capital of Europe, we like to think. Although there’s a couple other towns fighting with us saying we’re not, but we think we are. There’s kayaking as well… we’re an activities haven. ”
One of the most significant things about traveling and playing music for people around the world is giving them something that they can relate to, something beautiful to hold onto. There’s no better way to do that than through music. “It’s so great to be able to give happiness to people. People have troubles… I love it when I hear people say ‘you lift my heart’ when you’re playing.”
The Screaming Orphans recently recorded a collection of covers of Irish folk songs entitled Sliabh Liag. You can listen to excerpts of this album, as well as snippets from previous albums on their website.
Want to win passes to see the Orphans at Penn-Mar Irish fest? A great line-up including the girls, The Elders and plenty more bands to make you dance all day long! For your chance to win a four-pack of tickets (a $40 value) email That Mag (firstname.lastname@example.org) and include your name, e-mail and phone number. Then be sure to like our Facebook page! Contest ends JUNE 1ST!