Swaddling Songs (Deram, 1972), the sole album from the mysterious Mellow Candle, has both the virtue and the stigma of being Britain’s rarest major-label release of the folk-rock era — circa £ 500 for a mint-condition original. Is it any good? No, it’s brilliant. Dynamic arrangements, exquisite harmonies, lyrically intoxicating and mischievously mysterious, the voices, songs and vision of the writers within Mellow Candle are, like a wardrobe into Narnia or the sleepinduced faerie of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the gateway to another world. Often compared, erroneously, to Renaissance — with whom there is only the superficial comparison of piano-led arrangements — Mellow Candle occupy a unique place in the prog pantheon, an Irish group with almost no Irish reference points and bearing more relation to Jethro Tull as fronted by Siouxsie Sioux and Judy Dyble with Vincent Crane on the keys. It’s crazy but it’s true.
     The tale begins at Dublin’s Holy Child Convent school in 1963 with three pre-teen girls — Clodagh Simonds, Alison Bools (later O’Donnell) and Maria White — singing Helen Shapiro covers and subsequently Simon & Garfunkel material alongside Clodagh’s earliest compositions, and enjoying a virtual block-booking on the music room at lunchtime. As much as the similarity of line-up suggests it, the trio were determinedly uninfluenced by the contemporaneous showband-interval-act success of another Irish schoolgirl trio, Maxi, Dick & Twink: ‘At first we were The Gatecrashers and then, from when we were about twelve years old, we were Mellow Candle,’ recalls Alison, over coffee and scones in a suitably elegant Dublin tea-room. ‘I’ve actually got an acetate and other material from that period of us singing when we were ten or eleven, which I’ve been offered quite a bit of money for. But I’d never part with it. I saw something recently on a Website asking whether we would have been so creative had we not been “repressed” in a school run by nuns, but it wasn’t like that at all because those nuns gave us free rein. They encouraged us and when we were sixteen they said, “Leave school, because you’ll only want to do this — do it now.”’
     But even before that, as fifteen-year-olds in the summer of ’68, the nascent Mellow Candle had released a UK single, bankrolled by hip actor David Hemmings and Yardbirds manager Simon Napier Bell. How? ‘We sent tapes to everybody,’ says Alison. ‘We even sent one to RTÉ and they told us to bog off! I remember us getting on a bus and thinking, Well, it’s their bloody loss! We were very young, about thirteen, and God knows what we looked like, dressed in kimonos and whatever. But Clodagh was very single-minded about it.’ One tape, sent to Radio Luxembourg DJ Colin Nichol, scouting for Hemmings’ production company, Hemdale, hit the jackpot. The girls went to London: ‘The three of us were completely overawed with how swinging it was. We were allowed to buy some clothes on Carnaby Street and we thought this was the bees-knees. Colin Nichol was looking after us, walking in front of us through Soho saying, “Come on girls, keep up, stay behind me,” — very strict — with all these people leering out of doorways! So we went to meet David Hemmings and Clodagh’s eldest sister, who was a model at the time and had this mews house and we were just absolutely bowled over. And then we went in to record with this 22-piece orchestra and The Breakaways — Cliff Richard’s backing group, backing us! This was just heaven! It was a great song — great for its time, very dramatic. “Feeling High” it was called, with the other side called “Tea With The Sun”. People said, “How old are these girls? What are they taking?” But it was a one-off thing — I guess they probably thought, quite rightly, that we weren’t ready to do anything with them.’
     The single, released on Napier Bell’s own label, SNB, failed to set the hit parade alight, though a copy today, unavailable as the recording is in any reissued form, would certainly light up the eyes of any self-respecting Candle fan. So back to Dublin and the drawing board it was, via a year-long sabbatical: ‘The only things we were interested in,’ says Alison, ‘was being in the school musical, the school choir — anything to do with music. So my mother said to me, “Tell you what, what you should do is a secretarial course — I’ll never ask you to do anything else but it’s something for you to fall back on.” She made me do it and I’m bloody glad she did! I did it for a year — bunked off half the year and forged various absence notes, but I passed. Clodagh’s mother made her go to Italy to learn Italian for six months and I think more or less the same thing happened: she just drifted back into music. This takes us up to 1970 — when the boys came in.’
     Pat Morris, a huge Jethro Tull fan, came in on bass and David Williams on guitar. During her loosely defined year out, Alison had performed with Dave in a covers band, Blue Tint. By the time the new Mellow Candle came together, Dave was trying his best to finish a degree in philosophy and psychology at Trinity College: ‘He wasn’t paying much attention to that but he got through it — passed with a 2:2,’ says Alison. ‘Could have done a lot better but we were all obsessed — music was what we wanted to do.’ Maria White had drifted away and there was as yet no drummer. Not that this mattered, as attested by the stunningly complete-sounding demos from this period, on the posthumously released The Virgin Prophet (Kissing Spell, 1994): ‘We practised six hours a day — and socialised afterwards. People were now coming over to look at us because they’d heard about us. We had some very good helpers then — people like Pat Egan at New Spotlight — who were behind us all the way. Maybe all they could do was write about us every week, but they did and we got noticed.’

The first gig was supporting The Chieftains at Dublin’s Liberty Hall; the second a John Peel-compered festival in Wexford including esoteric English underground act Principal Edwards’ Magic Theatre — an act whose sound, heard from a distance of 30-odd years, bears striking if coincidental similarities to that of Mellow Candle: ‘When we saw them we were fascinated,’ says Alison, ‘especially because they were so theatrical. That was something we hadn’t seen before and we thought they were wonderful. But we had a whole repertoire before we ever saw or heard them. That whole festival was very interesting. There were some very, very good acts — Principal Edwards’, Continuum and Fairport [Convention] of course, who we were jealous of because they had it in their contract that they had to have a crate of beer at the back of the stage or something. How can we get a contract like that? we were thinking. Not that I ever drank beer in those days!’
     Ted Carroll, then managing Thin Lizzy among others and latter-day head of reissue specialists Ace Records, became their manager. The following year, 1971, would prove more fruitful, with a number of Irish festivals springing to life, but in 1970 there still weren’t many gigging opportunities in Ireland, even in Dublin, for anyone outside the showband formula. ‘We went for a gig once and got it,’ says Alison, ‘and the next thing we heard was that Horslips had got it instead ’cos their manager undercut us by five quid or something — and I remember for a long time thinking, Bloody Horslips! How could they do that?! But of course it wasn’t them, it was the manager.’
     In Dublin, on the folk side of the fence, one of the best gigs of the time was the Mug’s Gig, at Slattery’s on Capel Street: ‘That’s where we met Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine [the club’s organisers],’ says Alison, ‘and started going to trad sessions and jam sessions with them — and that’s where the trad thing started for me. It came from them. Neither Dave nor I had really “Irish” backgrounds — my mother’s English, my father’s Irish. So we weren’t brought up with traditional music and there really wasn’t [in our writing] a slant in that direction, yet later I assumed it, in a way that I couldn’t understand. I have a grandfather and two great-uncles, military men, who were all conductors and composers and they came originally from Galway — all from an Irish-speaking, music-playing family. I only found this out when I was 21, way past the Mellow Candle situation. So there was obviously something there that beckoned me.
     ‘But Andy was exotic because he [had] travelled a lot and his songs about his time in the Balkans were a very strong presence. You’d hear it through everything he played — his experience and what he had lived through. It came out all the time. But Andy was very reserved in those days. Donal Lunny was a bit more forthright. They used to hang out together a lot and we’d run into them at sessions — and they liked what we were doing. They’d come to see us, and so did Luke Kelly — he used to hide behind a pillar but you’d see him there, watching the whole show. And Thin Lizzy liked us — Phil asked Clodagh [guesting on piano] to do Shades Of A Blue Orphanage. [Decca, 1972] because he liked the band.’ Jamming one week with Andy Irvine and the next with Skid Row, Mellow Candle were the clergy of their own broad Church: ‘In fact, the very day that Dave and I got married, in January 1972, we played that night with Thin Lizzy [at the Royal Dublin Stadium] — and that was a great gig.’ Eamon Carr, at that time leading a double, if eminently sensible, life as daytime employee of an ad agency and free-time observer and partaker (with the newly formed Horslips) of the Dublin underground music scene recalls wondering, of art-school-ish musos and Mellow Candle in particular, ‘how on earth these people made a living.’ One might still wonder.
     ‘Clodagh was living at home for a long time as her mother was fairly welloff,’ says Alison. ‘Frank was just “the hippy” — I don’t know where he got anything from but whatever he needed in life just seemed to materialise. Dave used to sometimes go off and work on the oil rigs or the roads for a few weeks. But it was very much a hand-to-mouth existence, unless we managed to scavenge off our parents. I remember Clodagh and I once went to sign on the dole — 1970, the only time I’ve ever done it — ’cos we didn’t have any money. We had to sign on for six weeks or something and in the last week, as we got to the counter, somebody came and said, “Excuse me, can you come to the manager’s office?” So we went in there and on his desk, open, he had an article from New Spotlight magazine. “What is the meaning of this?” he said. “You’re obviously earning some money,” — although we were actually barely getting by! — “If I ever see you in here again I’ll call the police!” So that was the end of that! We scarpered from that place with our tails between our legs.’
     Penury or otherwise, the various demos revealed on The Virgin Prophet demonstrate that not only the songs but the devilishly involved arrangements which would ultimately make the group’s sole album proper so revered were already in place. So could the Candle replicate on stage what became the record? ‘Yes, because we were so well rehearsed,’ says Alison, emphatically. ‘But we were a bit precious onstage. Ted Carroll used to say to me, “Alison, you look like a fishwife with your hands on your hips.” Nowadays, of course, I bounce around all over the place but in those days I was Miss Cool. But that wasn’t put on — we were just so focused on the music.’
     Having visited London to record demos for the label, with a session drummer (Caravan’s Richard Coughlan), Mellow Candle signed to Decca’s progressive imprint, Deram, in April 1971. Perceiving it a necessity following the Deram demos, the group recruited Willy Murray as drummer — a Glaswegian then living in Highgate. Another change occurred at this stage when Pat Morris, a carpenter by trade and not entirely at one with the group’s hippy lifestyle, opted out, with fellow Dubliner Frank Boylan, from another Ted Carroll managed outfit, The Creatures, stepping into his shoes. The new line-up in place, Mellow Candle left Ireland and relocated to London’s Belsize Park, briefly occupying rooms in a boarding house with Gay and Terry Woods.
     With occasional trips back to Ireland for events like the RDS’ Headland Festival, the Dublin Arts Lab’s open-air gig at Blackrock Park and the Ballyvaughan Festival in County Clare, there were also UK support gigs with Lindisfarne and Steeleye Span, interspersed with periods of extreme poverty: ‘I can remember once that we had to ring up Lindisfarne’s roadie,’ says Alison, ‘and say, “Look, can you lend us some money ’cos we have nothing to eat?” He said, “I’m not going to lend you any money,” but he came round and brought tons of food and gave it to us. That’s the way we lived for a lot of the time, we really did.’
     With Decca’s ‘house guy’ David Hitchcock on production, Swaddling Songs was eventually recorded at the end of the year, in December 1971: ‘I do remember we had to record it in a very short space of time,’ says Alison. ‘It was all done very fast. But having said that, the circumstances were very conducive: dimmed lighting, plenty of dope probably. And the only track we had trouble with was “Heaven Heath” because it has a harpsichord on it — and Clodagh had never played one. It’s got a delayed action and in those days you couldn’t shift it around half a second with an edit button. There were 23 takes. We ended up playing it live, with her playing slightly ahead of everyone else. There was not much overdubbing generally, though I do contribute three voices to “Vile Excesses”. I’m very proud of the album but it could have been better.

Because we were tired when we did the vocals at the end there’s a couple of places where the intonation’s a bit off. But it’s simply because we were absolutely exhausted — recording from ten o’clock in the morning ’til three in the morning. You just can’t sing for that long.’
     Imperfect perhaps, but only to the most demanding ears. To the layman the finished product remains a masterpiece, individual songs or arrangements redolent perhaps of this or that artist of the time but the whole resembling nothing before or since. Even comparisons involving individual components of the album are almost certainly coincidental — for example, a certain similarity in aura between Alison’s ‘Messenger Birds’ and quintessential English folk-rock goddess and former Fairport Convention vocalist Sandy Denny’s The North Star Grassman And The Ravens album of 1971: ‘I hadn’t heard that then,’ says Alison. ‘I wrote that song when I was sixteen or seventeen. Clodagh also liked Sandy — and Willy [later] played with offshoots of Fairport and knew that whole set very well. They mixed with them all at one stage, whereas I didn’t.’ Willy would indeed go on to work with both Sandy Denny and Richard & Linda Thompson in their post-Fairport careers, but whilst the Fairport circle may not have been a particularly strong influence on Clodagh’s approach to writing, The Incredible String Band were another matter entirely — particularly the enigmatic Robin Williamson: ‘He was very much one of her idols,’ says Alison — ‘A bit of a god to us all in those days.’
     If nothing else, the tantalisingly unreachable opacity of Clodagh’s lyrical concerns bear the hallmark of the mischievous and mystical Williamson, though Alison maintains there was always a real-world truth beneath the wordy abstractions: ‘She was very into — well, we both were in those days — mystical, spiritual things. Clodagh’s writing from her imagination and experience in a way where the premise is true but everything else is invented around it. She’s never too obvious. There are kernels of truth, but she has imagined a lot.’
     Housed in an arcane if not entirely unsuitable Heath Robinson-style sleeve design — a strange decision given the presence of two obviously photogenic women in the group — the album was released in April 1972. To quote a Simonds lyric, it, and the accompanying single release of album tracks ‘Dan The Wing’/‘Silver Song’, ‘sank like a stone’. The NME murmured ‘tax loss’. Either way, Deram put no support behind it or the group. ‘We were never able to actually do anything with it [touring-wise],’ says Alison. ‘The record company just didn’t follow through, didn’t do anything for us. That’s the truth of it.’
     Perhaps inevitably, band and label parted company. Perhaps unwisely, if indeed there was any choice in the matter, the band also left the safe hands of Ted Carroll’s management. Although Ted was the frontman in the management of both Mellow Candle and Thin Lizzy — who were beginning to break through in the UK at this time — he was in fact in partnership with Brian Tuite (who ran a sound-hire business) and another individual, a ‘sleeping partner’ back in Dublin. Between them they were effectively subsidising these careerbuilding gambles. It was around this time that Ted set up his now legendary second-hand and rare-records business, initially as a market stall (referenced affectionately in Thin Lizzy’s classic 1973 single ‘The Rocker’), primarily to keep himself above water.
     With Mellow Candle, Ted thought that by bringing in Willy Murray they would have access to a wider range of useful contacts, but these didn’t materialise. Ted had tried very hard to get work for Mellow Candle but getting people interested in a non-club band, as they clearly were, was extremely difficult. Thin Lizzy on the other hand were a three-piece who could play the clubs and keep themselves going, for quite a lengthy period as it transpired, until they finally became a cash-generating concert act. This was a game plan not open to Mellow Candle who were, in a musical sense, already a fully formed concert act but without the profile to justify a leap to that level. From time to time even Thin Lizzy, more so than Mellow Candle, returned to Ireland for live work at a higher level which would, aside from morale-boosting, subsidise further groundwork in the UK until eventually they were in the right place at the right time with their break-through 1973 hit single ‘Whiskey In The Jar’.
     Even at the time, and certainly in retrospect, both Ted and Brian believed that the band should have stayed longer in Ireland — even six months longer — building up finance, support and experience. But, eager to find that yellow brick road, the members of Mellow Candle had persisted in requesting to go to the UK. For better or worse, the management relented.
     Losing the contract with Deram and having difficulty in finding a booking agent for England, morale in the band began to sink. At the same time internal frictions were appearing amongst the band members, all of whom, with the exception of Frank, fell under the spell of Scientology. For some, the spell lasted longer than others and for Frank the resulting tension in the air was too much. He left. Morale went from bad to worse.
     Pete Harmon, the individual who stepped into Ted’s management shoes — and who had come in, as far as anyone can recall, either via Willy or the new bassist, ex-Spyrogyra man Steve Borrill — ended up having a nervous breakdown and somehow blowing money set aside for a Dutch tour. Things could hardly get any worse. By then even the name had changed to Grace Before Space and, with Clodagh’s writing moving in a more complex direction and with Willy and Steve — both of whom shared a strong background in progressive rock — bonding well and becoming, in effect, a kind of musical axis of their own, the band which had once been so focused now became prey to those dreaded ‘musical differences’. It fell to Clodagh to bring things to a head: ‘I was probably the biggest space cadet in the band,’ she says, ‘and at nineteen my experience at handling such delicate situations diplomatically was pretty limited. But, in a way, I was the one who had to handle it, because I was the problem. The material I was writing at that time was pretty challenging, and also very different to what had gone before. That was something I had no control over — it isn’t something you can just switch off and pretend isn’t happening. I just started writing in a different style and it wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea. The various internal tensions were becoming unworkable. I think we were all pretty much at rock bottom at the time, what with one thing and another — no manager, no money, no gigs, no label. It was certainly a bit of a mess. The only workable solution I could see was for Dave and Alison to go one way as a self-contained, easily expandable unit and for me, Willy and Steve to go the other way. It meant that we’d have to find another guitarist and another singer but all in all I felt it was the only thing that would keep everybody happy. I was wrong. I was such a hippy, and the acrimony and bitterness that followed came as a huge shock to me. I remember saying to Willy a few days after the split, “Let’s forget the whole thing — I never want to be in a band again,” and we just let Steve drift away. It was a very sad parting, and not without bitterness, but at the time it seemed completely inevitable.’
     Things in Mellow Candle were indeed far from mellow, and there wasn’t too much grace filling the space either: ‘We also had a debt which we had to pay back,’ says Alison, ‘which a friend of Dave’s family had taken out. [When the split became inevitable] I had to go with David ’cos I was married to him! But Clodagh and I had been making music together since we were ten, forged together, and that was a very difficult wrench.’
     Mellow Candle/Grace Before Space finally called it quits in 1973. Dave and Alison moved to South Africa where they embraced Irish traditional music with a new band, Flibbertigibbet, recording the 1978 album Whistling Jigs To The Moon and working on local television and radio. Alison subsequently became active in the unofficial anti-apartheid movement, touring in a musical, working in a series of satirical-theatre revues and helping to run a club in Johannesburg as a platform for free expression. During the mid-Eighties she wrote and performed with Earthlings, a contemporary jazz group, before relocating to London where she spent some time in public-sector administration. At the same time she was active in making available on CD and promoting some of her earlier recordings, including the Flibbertigibbet album and previously unreleased Mellow Candle demos. In 1997 she moved to Brussels for a period, working with jazz and folk musicians and, once again, in musical theatre — appearing as principal boy in pantomime and coaching principals for several subsequent seasons. Alison now leads a double life — geographically, between Ireland (where she returned to live in 2001) and Belgium and, musically, between fronting the virtuoso Belgian-based Irish trad group Éishtlinn and, until recently, being a member of an even more unlikely act, Oeda: ‘Four women singing in French, Flemish and English — all original songs — and three instruments: fiddle, guitar and double bass. Oeda was a Flemish princess — who couldn’t sing. She was tone deaf, but very beautiful!’ Currently a member of Dublin’s Goilin singers’ club, Alison remains an extremely proactive player in the city’s traditional music scene.

     Dave and Alison separated in the early Eighties and he currently works as a sound engineer and music producer with the South African Broadcasting Corporation in Cape Town. ‘We’re still good friends,’ says Alison. ‘He’s a terrible correspondent but I do often e-mail him.’ Dave continues to be involved in music-making, playing mostly fiddle these days and gigging with an Irish band called Shanty. He is also involved in regular releases of MP3 collaborations, with a political edge — including one, ‘Sherriff Bush And Deputy Blair’ credited to the Nukular Stompers, which caused a tremendous stir in both the MP3 scene and the international media when it became available during the build-up to the 2003 war in Iraq. Despite the interest, Dave and his colleagues were disinclined to release the track commercially.
     Of the other members of Mellow Candle Frank Boylan worked with Gary Moore and various UK rock bands during the later Seventies and then disappeared. ‘Every time something’s in print,’ says Alison, ‘we always hope he’ll see it and say, “Ah, that’s where they are!” and pop up. But he never does.’
     Clodagh’s career since the demise of Mellow Candle has been somewhat shadowy to the casual observer but she is, at the time of writing, back to being a full-time participant in the world of music although, even during odd periods of work in administration — including a period in London as one of Virginsupremo Richard Branson’s personal assistants — she never, in a spiritual sense, really left it. Guest appearances on the Mike Oldfield albums Hergest Ridge (1974) and Ommadawn (1975) gave her the courage to pursue a place within music — a very new concept in the mid-Seventies — where composition, multitracking and the studio as an instrument could replace the (still relatively standard) imperative of live performance.
     ‘I felt very bruised and hurt from the whole experience of being in a band,’ she says. ‘It left me with enormous questions about how to be true to your muse, how to be true to your passion, and yet never upset anybody. I still don’t know if that’s possible.’
     Working with Willy on some demos, produced by Tom Newman, and then taking them to America in 1976 there was a chance of a fresh start. The pair had ostensibly gone for a three-week holiday, but Clodagh ended up staying for ten years and Willy for twenty. Frustrated, despite label interest, by being unable to persuade anyone to take them on with the proviso — daring if ahead of its time — that there would be no touring in band format, both worked briefly for Virgin Records. In 1977 Clodagh composed the music for a theatrical adaptation of Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonte and, the following year, for The American Mysteries — both written and directed by Matthew Maguire, and presented at New York’s leading off-Broadway theatre, La Mama ETC.
     Following The American Mysteries she spent the best part of a year in West Virginia, again writing music for theatre productions. Returning to New York in late 1979 she briefly studied Persian music and, a little later, composition and theory. And then, of all things, she found herself once more the member of a band: ‘Willy and I formed this band called The Same,’ she says, ‘performing all original material, varying in line-up from gig to gig — anything from a basic team of four to a line-up of eight or nine, with back-up singers, additional percussionists and so on. That’s one of the reasons we called ourselves The Same — we never were!’
     Never viewed by Clodagh as anything more than a fun thing, the band nevertheless featured several future musicians of note, among them Stan Adler (Lydia Lunch’s bass player), Steve Bray (Madonna’s drummer) and Carter Burwell, who went on to score film music for many of the Coen brothers’ films, amongst others. Spanning 1981—82, and with the cachet of residencies at CBGBs and the Mudd club, Clodagh and Willy decided to opt out before it became a fully fledged touring and recording outfit, with all the requisite problems and obligations that entails.
     Between 1982 and 1986 Willy worked extensively as a fashion photographer in New York, LA and Dallas (also, much to his delight, reaching the dizzy heights of Playboy Recruitment Officer). During the same period Clodagh took various day-jobs in New York, but kept her musical interests alive with an informal choral group and the continued study of music from other cultures. She returned to London in 1986, studying orchestration for a while with John Bonnar — a member of Dead Can Dance and an associate of Brian Eno, whom Clodagh and Willy had befriended in London before their New York days. While Clodagh performed with Bonnar during this period — at a showcase evening at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for artists on Eno’s label, Opel — and recorded more demos with Tom Newman, the years spanning 1986—92 were to be fallow in terms of her musical goals.
     ‘I wrote very little,’ she says — ‘Partly because I didn’t own a piano, partly because I was completely exhausted most of the time. I was working full time [once again for Virgin], which I hated though I had no choice. It was very draining. I’d just go home of an evening and watch TV, open a bottle of wine...’
     A sustained yearning for music eventually compelled her to resign from the day job and retreat to west Cork, where she lived for the next six years ‘poor but a lot happier!’ Whilst there she worked with an a cappella group and began a project (yet to be completed) setting ninth and tenth-century Irish poetry to music. Once again, in this volume, the Zelig-like figure of Donal Lunny appears, in this instance helping an old friend with the demo-recording first steps of this unusual project: ‘He’s amazing,’ says Clodagh. ‘He’s one of those rare people who puts friendship ahead of business. He’s such a source of encouragement, always full of compliments and positive remarks.
     ‘But around that time, when I was so broke I couldn’t afford a bottle of gas, I put an ad in Record Collector [hoping to sell an original copy of Swaddling Songs] and one of the responses I got was from a Japanese guy, a Mr Fujisaki. It transpired that he ran a little record label and asked if I had any material to do an album. And of course I had tons of material. Tom Newman was up for it and came over with some equipment for a few days and we did a very, very simple six-track mini-album. Strangely, it got very, very elaborately packaged [as ÁøÞSix Elementary Songs] with a beautiful sleeve. The whole thing is pretty rough but I suppose it’s of interest to collectors.’
     In 2000 she recorded a version of Syd Barrett’s ‘Golden Hair’ with multimedia artist Russell Mills, which featured on his album Pearl & Umbra (on Bella Union). Currently based in Dublin, she is now devoting all her time and energy to recording a collaborative album with Mills and his associates Tom Smyth and Mike Fearon, collectively known as Undark. During the early months of 2003 she also completed her first film score, for Dublin director Graham Cantwell’s A Machine That Works, a short film set in New York.
     As for Willy, he returned to Dublin in the Nineties and died in 1998 of pancreatic problems. ‘He and Clodagh were great mates, and she was there at the end,’ says Alison. ‘He was only 47 or so. Thing is, when we first met him in London he was a real health nut. He introduced us to Earl Grey tea, which we thought was very grand! Perhaps his lifestyle became less healthy after he went to New York.’
     Suggesting some comparison to Susan in the final Narnia story Clodagh, in Alison’s view, now ‘looks on Mellow Candle as something that’s all very nice, but it’s way back when and she doesn’t want to have much to do with it. I often have to call her and say, “Look, I’m doing this or that interview, do you want to join me?” — “Nope, you go ahead.” It’s gone, in her mind. She’s not sentimental about people or things in her past, whereas I am!’
     Yet, for all that, Clodagh’s view on the Mellow Candle adventure isn’t entirely unforgiving: ‘I’m not ashamed of Mellow Candle or of the album,’ she says, ‘but I suppose most people find what they did when they were eighteen a bit embarrassing. The album was quirky and unique all right but we had a great producer in David Hitchcock, who I sometimes feel doesn’t get enough credit. To be honest, in retrospect I don’t think we were destined to be majorleague players. The album was unique, yes, but we weren’t particularly brilliant live. We were more concerned with the music than with being entertainers, which was all very noble. But at a time when all around us the beginnings of glam-rock and theatricality were starting to blossom, it just might have been a fatal error of judgement! We were probably in the same league musically as, say, Trees — we were never in the league of Steeleye or Fairport or Pentangle because we didn’t have a virtuoso. I think our strength was in the songs rather than the performances. I was never a particularly good singer or much of a keyboard player, and I’m not really a performer by nature — more of a writer. Personally, I’d be quite happy in a box under the stage! Dave and Frank were both very respectable players, but I think probably Alison and Willy were the strongest performers. It’s a personality thing.’
     For those who had long admired the group’s one album (reissued on CD in the UK on See For Miles in 1993, and currently available on import from Japan) the emergence in 1994 of another album’s worth of material — albeit chiefly, if not entirely, studio and home-recorded demos of material that would end up on Swaddling Songs — was a rare delight. We must be thankful that former manager Ted Carroll bore no grudges and that, at the time, Clodagh, Dave and Alison needed the money: ‘Ted provided half the material [for The Virgin Prophet],’ says Alison. ‘He helped me significantly with that. He made it available, didn’t charge any money, did it as a labour of love, got his company to put it together in decent sound. Clodagh hadn’t much money at the time and we got a little bit of money for doing that, just a little bit. But since then she hasn’t been too happy about the reprints of any of these things. But it’s out there in the public domain now. [When the band split] we had three new songs in the pipeline, one of which I can still hear in my head to this day. It was about Dún Laoghaire and had di-diddlies in it, like “Boulders On My Grave”. But we never did it. So it’s all “out” now, unless anybody has a secret live recording.’
     Eighties neo-hippies All About Eve once covered ‘Silver Song’ and Steven Malkmus, frontman of Nineties alt-rock-band Pavement, did ‘The Poet And The Witch’, but are there any other Candle covers out there? ‘I’m not sure,’ says Alison. ‘Maybe there are in Japan — because that’s where we get our royalties. We keep getting played on the radio out there but it’s so inscrutable: “What’s the station, who’s playing it!?” But I’ve never performed any of those songs again myself. It’s a sacred thing. And yet the stuff I did with Flibbertigibbet I still do to this day. I don’t know that I’d like to hear myself sing it now — I wouldn’t be able to sing that high on “Messenger Birds”. I was eighteen then and my voice is lower now. However, technically, I’m a much better singer now but I couldn’t sing it in the original key.’
     And yet, in the final analysis, to have once been a part of a magical, unique piece of work must be a source of great pride: ‘Yes, it is,’ says Alison. ‘And I think it’s stood the test of time. I do look forward, I do new projects and they’re all different but I am, still, the keeper of that flame. I did once worry that the rarity aspect would overshadow how much it’s a stand-alone piece of work. As you yourself wrote, and I wrote a song about this, “It’s dated but still lovely.” I was very struck by that phrase and I think that’s right.’ ‘It baffles me,’ says Clodagh, reflecting on the undiminishing cult of the Candle. ‘But I suppose there is still a thread from then to what I’m doing now. I’ve always been interested in voice, in what you can do with harmony, and while I’d like to think I’ve grown up a bit lyrically there is a lyrical thread that runs through my work. But Mellow Candle does all seem a very, very long time ago.’

From "Irish Folk, Trad & Blues: A Secret History" by Colin Harper and Trevor Hodgett
Published by The Collins Press, 2004
Reproduced by permission.