These days, new bands come and go with monotonous regularity. Many of them are young, fixated on instant celebrity and possessed with an obsessive desire to see their name in lights. But the formation of Raglan has been a long, slow burn, based on many years of friendship, family ties and a complex web of musical connections.
The four band members – Petey Doran (bodhrán, drums and vocals), his sister-in-law Joanna Doran (violin), Terry Conlon (piano accordion) and Stephen McNulty (singer/songwriter) – came together just a year ago, and will be launching their debut album at the Market Place Theatre in Armagh on 14 September. Their debut single, 'My Belfast Love', has just been released and is a fine example of their melodic, silky-smooth style.
You have to have your wits about you, however, to keep up with the conversation that ricochets between them in person. They go back such a long time that they can finish one another’s sentences, and have a tendency to drift into tall tales about the people and townlands of their south Armagh home patch.
Names like Van Morrison and Brian Kennedy and country singer Big Tom – Conlon’s neighbour – pepper the exchanges, along with hilarious stories of pub gigs and sessions in Belfast, Armagh and Carrickfergus during the height of the Troubles.
'We don’t have huge ambitions, we just like to keep things simple,' admits Conlon, whose anecdotes rely heavily on his dry wit and sardonic persona. 'Our dream is to continue to play to enthusiastic audiences, write and record new material, tour Europe, America, Canada and maybe further afield, have a lovely lifestyle and make our living doing what we do best: entertaining people.'
Conlon hails from Cullyhanna and describes himself as 'a rolling stone gathering no moss. I got a degree in maths from the University of Ulster – a first class Honours, actually. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. A recruitment agency put me into a job as an accountant and I worked as a tax expert for 12 years. I hated it.
'So when my brother decided to take up mushroom farming, I went in with him,' he recalls with a smile. 'It was like getting out of prison. That was the last time I wore a suit. Since then, I’ve done all kinds of thing – driving lorries, farming – but always playing music and storytelling too.'
Petey Doran, meanwhile, is an electrician from outside Camlough. For 16 years, he has taught percussion to competition bands in Cavan, Monaghan and Armagh, winning many All-Ireland trophies with musicians aged between five and 25 years.
He and Conlon describe McNulty – who travels the world for a company that refurbishes cruise ships – as 'the Voice'. But it was the unexpected arrival of a fourth musician – and a female at that – which prompted them to put things onto a more formal footing.
Joanna Doran is a classically trained violinist who studied at the Royal Irish Academy before moving to the less structured environment of an applied music course.
'There was always some niggling doubt in my mind,' she says. 'I have a great love for classical music but it was a bit too formal for me. I’ve always been drawn to traditional music and I love performing. When I started playing with these guys I realised that that was what I wanted to do. This is me at my happiest.'
Her male companions freely admit that the missing link in their half-realised sound had been sitting right there in front of them all along.
'Joanna is married to my brother Seamus,' explains Petey. 'And they have a big front room where we used to practise. She was the tea maker, and a fabulous musician. She makes me sick with envy. There are lots of great fiddle players around, but Joanna is a violinist. She even holds the instrument differently. When she started playing along with us, it was clear that her style and her talent could really make a difference.'
Conlon agrees and looks back fondly on the magic moment of Raglan’s first gig. 'When we went on stage together for the first time, it was just incredible. It was at the Market Place and, of course in a venue like that we had a sound man and all the technology. We had nothing to worry about except the music. It all came so easy. There was no doubt that there was real chemistry between us.
'We were the support act of the night but at the end of our performance the audience went crazy. They wouldn’t let us go. We were completely overwhelmed and suddenly realised that maybe we did have something special.'
Since then, the Raglan quartet have been writing furiously and attempting to capture their live sound in the studio, working with producer Dave Molloy at Cellar Club Studios in Forkill. Northern Ireland's newest traditional outfit certainly has a sound all of its own.
'Dave has been a huge influence and has helped us craft this distinctive sound,' concludes Conlon. 'With Joanna’s classical input, we are taking a new approach to traditional music and we hope we can continue to gather audiences and bring them along with us.'
Raglan launch their debut album on Friday, September 14 at the Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre Armagh.