Sharon Shannon: Genre-Defying Irish Musician

Sharon Shannon with 'The Sharon Shannon Band' at the Doolin Folk Festival 2017 - The Irish Place #doolinfest #theirishplace
Sharon Shannon performing on stage with 'The Sharon Shannon Band' at the 2017 Doolin Folk Festival.

Sharon Shannon grew up as part of a musical family in Ruan, County Clare.

She is renowned throughout Ireland and far beyond both for her rare skill as an accordion player and her wonderfully idiosyncratic fiddle technique.

She is a multi-instrumentalist who also plays the melodeon and the tin whistle. Her 1991 self-titled debut album was the most successful traditional music album ever released in Ireland.

Sharon Shannon’s Early Years

When she was just eight years old, Sharon Shannon kicked off her performing career by appearing with local traditional music band Disert Tola, and at the tender age of fourteen, she travelled with them to tour America.

During the 1980s, she worked on the playing skills she would later draw on as a solo musician, studying with Frank Custy (fiddle) and Karen Tweed (accordion), and she also helped to found a new band – ‘Arcady’.

Going Solo

In 1989, Sharon began off her career as a solo musician, working with the producer John Dunford and artists such as Mike Scott and Steve Wickham of ‘The Waterboys’.

This led to Shannon’s joining the band and working with them for the next year and a half, playing on their successful record ‘Room to Roam’ and going with them on a world tour.

Eclectic Style

Her eclectic approach to music is what marks her out from other Irish musicians. She pulls together styles and influences from across the world and interprets them in a wholly unique way.

During her time playing and touring with the with The Waterboys, she became accustomed to playing every genre of music – from classic Irish reels or jigs to Punk, Jazz or even the Blues.

For Shannon, no style of music is off limits.

Noted Entertainer

Over the course of her long career, she has entertained such luminaries as US Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as well as Irish Presidents Mary Robinson and Mary MacAleese.

She has also performed for the Sultan of Brunei in Sydney, Australia.

Word Musical Exploration

When she parted ways with The Waterboys, she continued on her road of world musical exploration.

Though her first solo album (released in 1990) was mostly made up of traditional songs inspired by her native County Clare, listeners were also treated to snatches of music reminiscent of Portugal and America’s Deep South.

In 1991, she featured on ‘A Woman’s heart’, a best-selling collaborative record that served to enhance her reputation.

Sharon Shannon performing at the Doolin Folk Festival 2017 - The Irish Place
Sharon Shannon performing on stage with ‘The Sharon Shannon Band’ at the 2017 Doolin Folk Festival.

She explored reggae rhythms as well as calypso and dub sounds on her 1994 record ‘Out the Gap’, an adventurous approach that perfectly complemented her singular talents as both an accordion and fiddle player. She has continued on this eclectic musical path ever since.

Going forward, she continued to dip her toes into the global music scene, experimenting with music from France, Argentina, and America, to name but three.

Sharon Shannon’s Collaborations

While Shannon is certainly acknowledged for writing her own Irish-inspired compositions and her beautiful arrangements of traditional Irish songs, she has long been open to working in collaboration with other musicians. Perhaps most notably with Steve Earl on the fabulous and wildly successful album ‘The Galway Girl’.

This record went four-times platinum, and the title track won her two consecutive prestigious Meteor Awards for the most downloaded song.

She has also worked with Bono, Sinead O’Connor, John Prine, Jackson Browne, The Chieftains, Nigel Kennedy and Willie Nelson. A list of industry grandees that reflects her huge popularity amongst her fellow musicians, as well as her unrivalled versatility.

Sharon Shannon’s Discography and Achievements

She cemented her growing reputation with her 1996 release ‘Each Little Thing’, on which she adroitly switched between wildly divergent musical styles, most notably hip-hop, Cajun, and rap, all the while maintaining balance and flow due to her wonderfully lyrical playing technique.

Her next record, a ‘Best Of’, was released in 1998.

Her 2001 record ‘Diamond Mountain Sessions’ was recorded on the west coast of Ireland in Galway. Here we are treated to Celtic influences as well as those from the alt-country scene in America. By the time this album was released in America, it had already reached triple-platinum status in Ireland and had won Shannon two prestigious awards in the country: Best Traditional Female and Folk Artist of the Year.

2004 saw the release of ‘Libertango’ with guest appearances from the late great Kirsty MacColl and also Sinéad O’Connor.

In 2005 she collaborated with Judy Murray, Frankie Gavin and Michael McGoldrick on ‘Tunes’, and she then released an album celebrating fifteen years in the music business.

In 2006, Sharon toured Ireland with her ‘Bog Band’ and assorted special guests, receiving a rapturous reception everywhere she went.

It soon became clear that there would be very high demand for a live recording of one of these sets, and thus the double-album ‘Live from Dolan’ was born, capturing two nights of shows at Limerick’s Dolans Warehouse.

Guest stars include Jon Kenny, Damien Dempsey, Dessie O’Halloran, Declan O’Rourke, Jon Kenny, The Brennan Sisters and Mundy.

Listening to this record is akin to being at an intimate ‘sesiun’, a traditional Irish musical get-together in a small club or pub. This truly is an extraordinarily atmospheric record.

Shortly afterwards, in 2007, Sharon buddied up with Mike McGoldrick and recorded her first solo studio album since 2003 – ‘Renegade’.

This was followed by ‘Galway Girl in 2008 and then 2010’s ‘Saints & Scoundrels’, a studio-based selection of multi-genre tunes that featured a diverse set of collaborators, including Jerry Fish, The Waterboys and, of course, the incomparable Shane McGowan.

In 2012, Sharon Shannon, still best known perhaps for her skill as an accordion and fiddle player, released ‘Flying Circus’ – a collaboration including some traditional music with the RTE Concert Orchestra.

As prolific a composer and fiddle and accordion solo musician as ever, Sharon Shannon is still happily defying genres. Her most recent release, 2017’s ‘Sacred Earth’, calls on a plethora of influences, most notably African traditional music as well as strands of reggae and rap.

Sharon Shannon receiving the Lifetime Achievement award from Eoin O'Neill at the Doolin Folk Festival, 2017 - #doolinfest
Eoin O’Neill presenting the Lifetime Achievement award to Sharon Shannon at the Doolin Folk Festival.  Photo: Bob Singer

At the 2017 Doolin Folk Festival, Sharon was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to traditional music by Eoin O’Neill.

Leave a Reply