Niamh Hyland may not always have been sure what path her life would take, but she knew that it would involve music. Tall, with short-cut auburn hair, Hyland is an accomplished performer and songwriter, who wowed a crowd at the OurLand Festival in the Lincoln Center earlier this year. She sang “Hard Times Come Again No More” without accompaniment, and her performance struck a chord.
“It was a combination of Irish traditional and then soul and fusing both of those together,” Hyland said when I met her a few weeks later. “For me that’s what a lot of people hear when I sing. It’s this combination of being very true to Irish traditional music but also bringing in other influences.”
Hyland grew up in Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim, and music ran in her family. Her grandfather had played tin whistle and accordion, and she first learned to sing from her mother around the family table. “When we would finish dinner, she would sing a verse and go round the table and everyone would sing a verse. That’s how we learned all the old Irish ballads; that’s what I think trained my ear because there was no music, you had to hear it,” she explained.
There is something chameleon-like about Hyland’s vocal abilities, which span traditional sean nós Irish song, as well as rock and soul. She is the lead singer in Lily Sparks, a rock band with an assertive attitude, fond of glittery guitars and skin-tight denim. (A comment on the band’s website suggests that "Lily Sparks creates music that makes you want to crank the volume all the way up and sing along.”). By contrast when we met over a coffee at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan, she was understated and elegant, wearing jeans and a simple black top.
Her early trajectory pointed towards a career in classical opera. After starring in some high school musicals, she won a scholarship from the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin, her parents regularly taking her on the three-hour drive from Leitrim. She studied there for a year under a teacher from Russia. “He was strict,” she recalled, “and strict is what you need, as you weren’t going there to have a party.”
The teacher was excited by her range and thought she would become a successful opera singer. Instead though, the 17-year-old found herself drawn towards other genres. “I felt like there was a part of what I loved about my voice that was getting a little lost in the training because you have to train in a certain way,” Hyland said. “I liked some of the things that weren’t necessarily correct.”
After that, Hyland turned away from music temporarily to study business and law at University College Dublin. Her parents were shocked, but then got used to the idea that their daughter might not be a musician after all, and for a few years Hyland focused on gaining her academic degree. It was when she finished her studies that she decided to return to music and come to New York. She has U.S. citizenship, since her parents had met and married here.
With its flourishing music scene, New York seemed like the best place to be. “Everybody wants to live here; everybody wants the opportunities that are here,” Hyland said. “It’s a number of years that I’ve been here now – and I pinch myself and think, ‘Wow, I actually live in New York.’ I’ve dreamt about it for so long. I grew up in the country on a farm and now I live in one of the biggest cities in the world.”
New York is also a good place to be Irish. Hyland lives in Floral Park, which she described as Ireland’s 33rd county, so packed is it with people from the old country. The first time she visited the area, she saw an older gentleman on a bicycle, wearing a cap and cycling the wrong way down the street.
She has kept her more practical options open, sitting (and passing) the notoriously difficult New York State bar exam and obtaining a job at a management consulting firm in the city. This has allowed her to avoid a penniless artist’s fate. “You have to pay your bills,” she pointed out. “It’s ridiculously expensive here.”
Right now is a time of transition for Hyland and she has gone part-time in her day job to focus on music. She wants to record Irish songs and is working on two albums, one with Lily Sparks and the other a solo project. “Life is so short,” she said.
“You get to go round once and you don’t get a second go at it. Good, bad or indifferent, you might as well do something that you really love.”