The feeling of community

Lila Schmitz on The Job Of Songs, storytelling, community and the Cliffs of Moher

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Musicians Eoin O’Neill, Kieran O’Connell, Adam Shapiro Christy Mc Namara and Beth Tipton at Fitzpatrick’s Bar in Lila Schmitz’s The Job Of Songs
Musicians Eoin O’Neill, Kieran O’Connell, Adam Shapiro Christy Mc Namara and Beth Tipton at Fitzpatrick’s Bar in Lila Schmitz’s The Job Of Songs Photo: Anika Kan Grevstad

In my discussion with Lila Schmitz, following the World Premiere of her debut feature The Job Of Songs in the DOC NYC Sonic Cinema programme (a highlight of the 12th edition), she mentions first seeing the Cliffs of Moher in Harry Potter films. The Doolin, County Clare community of storytellers/musicians (including Katie Theasby, Eoin O'Neill, Ted Mc Cormac, Christy Mc Namara, Kieran O’Connell, Adam Shapiro, Christy Barry, Jon O’Connell, busker Tony Baird, Anne Rynne, Davoc Rynne, and Luka Bloom, aka Barry Moore), Ireland and Sam Shepard, grace in Bruno Dumont and France, and the shot of cows walking in time to Yvonne Casey’s Kieran Jig played over Clare FM by radio host Eoin O'Neill all came up.

Lila Schmitz with Anne-Katrin Titze on stepping into a session: “Being allowed to witness the community that the musicians are creating for each other and for anybody who cares to listen.”
Lila Schmitz with Anne-Katrin Titze on stepping into a session: “Being allowed to witness the community that the musicians are creating for each other and for anybody who cares to listen.”

Director/writer/editor and her producing partners, cinematographer Anika Kan Grevstad and sound recordist Fengyi Xu, show us the people who decided to live in this most western spot of Europe and for whom music is an intrinsic part of being. We find out about the job of songs, discover connections to the past and into the future, and why storytelling and hospitality go hand in hand.

From Los Angeles, Lila Schmitz joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on The Job Of Songs.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Nice to meet you, Lila!

Lila Schmitz: So lovely to meet you, Anne-Katrin!

AKT: The first thing that made me notice your film was the location, the Cliffs of Moher, because I was there as a child and very impressed by the landscape and the people. Not so much the pubs, as a child obviously. What was the beginning of this film for you? What’s your connection to that part of Ireland?

LS: I mean, the Cliffs I had seen in movies like Harry Potter. The Cliffs are throughout tons of media, that is always something that draws people in, I think. But for me it was the music and my ancestors are from County Kerry, and I had gone to Ireland and stepped into a session, one of those long-standing traditional Irish music sessions, where people come to play and sit down next to each other. They have done it for 40 years or just met - and there was this feeling that just overwhelmed me and that I couldn’t explain. And this film is an attempt to explain that, I think.

AKT: A personal connection to the past, that before you didn’t really know you had?

LS: Yeah, I think that’s a part of it. And this feeling of community and being allowed to witness the community that the musicians are creating for each other and for anybody who cares to listen. That is really special because I can’t play the fiddle or anything like that, but I can come in and sit and be a part of it nonetheless.

Luka Bloom in Lila Schmitz’s The Job Of Songs: “The magic of the west of Ireland is the time.”
Luka Bloom in Lila Schmitz’s The Job Of Songs: “The magic of the west of Ireland is the time.” Photo: Anika Kan Grevstad

AKT: Joining any community for even a short while should not be underestimated. Where are you now by the way?

LS: I’m in L.A. right now, I live here, but I’m from Austin. What about you?

AKT: I’m in New York.

LS: Is it cold?

AKT: It’s cold, yes, and we’re preparing for Thanksgiving.

LS: I was there for the [DOC NYC] festival. It started out really lovely and then it was so freezing, and I was like, okay, never mind.

AKT: You speak about community - I found it very funny how you introduce the people in your film, as those who were originally from County Clare and those who were only there for 40 years. The only is implied.

LS: That’s interesting. I love to hear how everybody reads it. To me, none of them have been there for fewer than 20 years, so that’s a while. They’ve all been immersed in it. There are people who were born there and those who get stuck there, because they want to be a part of it. They talk about arriving and never leaving, thinking they were going to travel all of Ireland and end up being there for 20 years because it just pulls you in.

Katie Theasby at the Roadside Tavern in Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, Ireland
Katie Theasby at the Roadside Tavern in Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, Ireland Photo: Anika Kan Grevstad

To me it’s not so much distinguishing between them and the folks who were born there but rather showing that Adam Shapiro from Cape Town in South Africa is as much a part of the community, as is Eoin [O’Neill], who has been there since he was 15, 40-something years, and Kieran [O’Connell] and Jon [O’Connell] - these are all guys from the same band - who were born there. They all connect to music in a similar way and to me it’s about the fact that it could be anyone.

AKT: I thought it was a charming distinction, the outsider who has been integrated for only 40 years. The 1840s famine still has a hold over the community. There is a timelessness in the songs as though time got stuck somehow on the cliffs.

LS: Part of it was figuring out my own ancestry and how it affects me. Because I also love the sad songs and the sad stories, as Eoin says. People talked about the colonization and how that affected the Irish people. We know that trauma is passed through generations. I try not to go too heavily into that because it’s not my area of expertise.

AKT: But you also didn’t ignore it, which is good.

LS: Thank you, it is. You can feel the pain of the people who have come before. Also the joy, but trauma specifically is passed down, we know.

The Cliffs of Moher in all their glory
The Cliffs of Moher in all their glory Photo: Anika Kan Grevstad

AKT: One of the most profound moments is when Luka Bloom talks about his relatives leaving for America in 1984. It felt as if it were a century earlier to him, as if he would never see them again.

LS: I mean, that song [City of Chicago] has had a huge life. That song has touched tons of people. His brother [Christy Moore] has sung that for many years. Luka wrote it and it continues to be absolutely loved because it’s this feeling of letting go and leaving people across to the other side of the world. I think there’s some truth to that still.

At least Luka Bloom would say that this technological connection is by no means the same as your brother living right over there and being able to sit on his stoop and have a cup of tea. The people he was imagining in 1847 and this story coming to him in the moment, I think adds to this idea of what’s being passed down through the ancestors. Some of those tunes go back very very far, but also just this feeling that he’s carrying with him.

AKT: Especially now with COVID, certain emotions come back to the fore. Yes, there is the connection of talking on Zoom or the like. But COVID, I think, also functioned as a reminder of the past. You think we are done with pandemics? Well, think again. That’s what we’re learning. I like very much how you move with the same song from one performer to another. Did you know that this would be a structuring device?

Kieran O’Connell performs with Adam Shapiro at Fitzpatrick’s Bar in Doolin, County Clare
Kieran O’Connell performs with Adam Shapiro at Fitzpatrick’s Bar in Doolin, County Clare Photo: Anika Kan Grevstad

LS: No, not at all. We just went and we witnessed and we chatted and we took in what was there. I love that you point that out, because I think it’s not quite as obvious because the songs sound so drastically different. It’s Spancil Hill that Tony Baird sings on the streets of Inness and then Kieran O’Connell sings it in the pub in Doolin.

And that is just emblematic of the whole deal. That song is about longing for Spancil Hill which is a place in County Clare that somebody had gone off to California and dreaming of Spancil Hill and that’s what the song is about. To have multiple people singing it in such different ways but holding on to the same feeling, is what’s going on through the whole community.

AKT: The people you interview come across as so nice. I remember that even as a child I thought, man, these people are so friendly. I spent an afternoon with Sam Shepard talking about Ireland, among other things. He had just come back from directing a play in Dublin and he kept going on about the people in Ireland. You can actually talk to them, they are not always on their phones, and they make sense. Was that part of your experience as well?

LS: Yeah, they’re so welcoming. Every time we showed up at somebody’s house, bringing all our camera gear in and coming into their space, they’d offer us tea or they’d make us a sandwich and tea, or pie we got at one point, rhubarb pie. This idea you come in and you’re like family and people are willing to sit down for three hours and just have a chat with someone they just met. I was so touched and moved by everybody’s willingness to share their story.

The Cliffs of Moher, with the harsh Atlantic winds blowing from the sea.
The Cliffs of Moher, with the harsh Atlantic winds blowing from the sea. Photo: Anika Kan Grevstad

AKT: What you said about time - Luka says at one point “The magic of the west of Ireland is the time.” That’s it, giving time to the quotidian. Yesterday I had a conversation with Bruno Dumont about his latest film France [a highlight of the 59th New York Film Festival] and he is again reflecting on Charles Péguy and the idea that grace is found in the quotidian, in the everyday. Then as a filmmaker you frame, let’s say, a field with sheep. That’s where the grace is. You don’t have to refer to religion, you don’t have to go anywhere else. You find grace in the everyday, that sums up our existence.

LS: Absolutely. We have an entire scene that is just a tune under a shot of cows walking. I think it’s a minute.

AKT: I noticed they walk in rhythm!

LS: They walk in rhythm! All together in this field and that was my goal. To get to a place where we could include that scene and have it work. Somebody said to me after the premiere, “That is when I started sobbing.” I guess it worked for that one person. Yes, I think, the grace, that’s a beautiful way of saying it. I’m not much for words but that is really everywhere. I would say in Ireland but I would say you can find it in most places, if you’re looking.

AKT: Oh yes, that’s the point. It might just be easier in Ireland because there’s all this storytelling as well. People telling each other folktales about changelings and all kinds of mysterious events.

The Job Of Songs poster
The Job Of Songs poster

LS: They’re like songs, there’s a rhythm. We filmed a few and none of them really fit into the film. But they are like these memorized stories, which is another way of including people who are not musical in this practice. This makes me think of the dancers too. You can be a dancer or a storyteller or a listener and not a musician, and be part of this.

AKT: Luka Bloom says: “The job of song is to give people permission to feel things that are deeply ingrained in them and that they don’t completely intellectually understand.”

LS: That’s the title of the film because that’s what it’s about to me. It’s this idea that you don’t have to understand it intellectually. That’s my go-to, how do I emotionally understand? That’s how I approach all my storytelling. In the edit to just keep going until we can capture that feeling. For the music it’s that, giving people permission to feel things that they don’t intellectually understand. Allowing people to access their heart instead of their head?

AKT: Yes, and people need permission. We don’t live in a world where that’s easy to do. What are you working on right now?

LS: I am starting to write a scripted piece about women in Irish ancestry who have emigrated.

AKT: Thank you, it’s a beautiful film.

LS: Thank you, it’s so great to get to talk about it. I hope I answered your questions.

AKT: Definitely, you did. Happy Thanksgiving to you!

LS: To you too! I really appreciate it, have a great one!

DOC NYC in-cinema screenings of The Job Of Songs took place on Sunday, November 14 and Monday, November 15.

The Job of Songs is screening online through Sunday, November 28.

DOC NYC 2021 in cinemas (IFC Center - SVA Theatre - Cinépolis Chelsea) ran from November 10 through November 18. Select films are screening online in the US from November 19 through November 28.

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