Ursula Burns – 2013 Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award nominee and dangerous Irish harpist – has just posted online the video for a new song – about being a comedian. So, obviously, I Skyped her about it this afternoon at her home in Belfast.
“It really is a serious song about comedy!” I said.
“Yes,” she laughed, “It is, isn’t it? The whole new album is serious. It’s not comedy.”
“What’s the album called?” I asked.
“The Dangerous Harpist.”
“Of course it is,” I said.
“It’s a collection of songs,” she explained, “that got sort of swept aside when I was on the comedy circuit for three or four years. There was a backlog of songs written along the way. I wasn’t just writing comedy stuff in that time. Some of the songs were written when I was on the road with the circus; some are more theatre-based, about when I was writing for theatre. I wrote a musical: we did 41 performances. So the album has theatrical, circus, comedy elements in the songs… and there is actually one happy one!”
“What’s it about?” I asked.
“It’s about crying in the toilet,” she laughed. “But it’s a very happy song. The songs are all slightly different flavours – snapshots… I suppose it’s like taking a picture wherever you are. Lots of songs had built up. It’s five years since I made an album and the last one was so different.”
“It was really kinda Celtic and there was an esoteric aspect to it. It was inspired by a book of poetry I found in London by a poet called Fiona McLeod, who was actually a Scots guy called William Sharp, who was actually a mate of W.B.Yeats. The poetry was very spiritual, very nature-based. It was almost like John O’Donohue in his book Anam Cara. It was very Irish, very Celtic, very poetry, very musical, intensely musical.
“It was just before I wrote the Comedian song – There was that kinda crash of the dark side, going to somewhere. It was like I went from the light to the dark.”
“The light was the Celtic,” I asked, “and the comedy was the dark?”
“Sort of. Within myself. I think the thing about being funny… I think you have to tell the truth and, for me, it felt like a darker aspect – engaging with something dark.”
“You mentioned writing for theatre,” I prompted.
“Little Red Riding Hood,” Ursula told me, “for the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. I composed the music. I wrote the wolf’s songs in the style of Tom Waits and Little Red in the style of Kate Bush and Björk.”
“And your album is called The Dangerous Harpist.”
“Are you dangerous?”
“No,” she laughed.
“The Comedian track,” I pointed out, “says you are ‘dangerous on the inside’.”
“Well,” Ursula replied, “you know the stereotype of comedians being depressed? It’s this on-the-edge feeling. I’ve been operating as a self-employed artist for 20 years and it’s about how that kind of really takes its toll on you. The aspect of smiling on the outside – making people laugh – but, behind it all, on the inside, there’s an intensity or a dangerous on-the-edge aspect to how you are living and how you are feeling.”
“When is the album being released?” I asked.
“On May the 4th – Star Wars Day.”
There is a video for the Comedian track on YouTube.
…and here she is as a harpist.