Barbara Tresidder Ryan of Iona Speaks About The Music of the Celtic Nations

Barbara Tresidder Ryan

Silver is the new album by Celtic band Iona. With amazing arrangements of tracks and interesting choices of materials, I am sure listeners would like to hear the ‘behind the scenes’ aspects of this album. And of course, the band as whole. It is quite an achievement to maintain that rush of creativity for decades.Barbara Tresidder Ryan, Bernard Argent, Chuck Lawhorn,  James K. Queen and Kathleen Larrick continue to make the music fresh and relevant in today’s generation. I am glad to be able to have a chat with Barbara Tresidder Ryan and the creative force behind the music. There is also a glimpse of her own musical life in the interview.  And oh, check out that video at the bottom of this post. She is an amazing player. So are the other members of Iona! So read along and enjoy.

 IONA as a band has been around for more than two decades. This is remarkable because it shows the member’s dedication to music! How does it feel releasing the new CD Silver?

Releasing “Silver” was just the natural progression of a long and passionate musical journey.  It has been bittersweet in some respects as the power of recorded albums has waned, giving way to the more diffuse acceptance of downloadable music, and the high tide of Celtic music, which peaked in the 90’s and early aughts, recedes.  CD sales, which were always a banner of success, are no longer the immediate gratification.  That being said, all of us in IONA are thrilled with the album as a production.

I love the music of the Celtic nations and I always make it a point to represent the many colors of the Celtic world. IONA is close to my heart being able to represent the music of the Celtic nations. Do you always make it a point to have this in mind every time you go to the studio to record new tracks for an album?

Celtic music, like Celtic design, has themes that resonate from one culture to the next.  Bernard Argent and I set out a long time ago to investigate and pursue the modal and rhythmic themes that wind through the music of ALL the Celts.  It’s freeing to launch into the ancient traditions where time signatures don’t have to conform to modern meters but to the movement of dancing feet, or sing a song that is in a mode that doesn’t even have a name!  When we choose our material, we do so by ear and what seems to fit together, borrowing from one tradition to complement another – rarely by intention: an Appalachian song just sometimes insists on being coupled with a Galician tune – we can’t argue!

 You have danceable tunes as well as ballads in Silver. I love IONA’s take on Dans les Prisons de Nantes which I iona silverfirst heard from Tri Yann. Will we be hearing more Breton music in your upcoming projects?

We always have lots of Breton music in our arrangements.  Many thanks to the fabulous Nolwenn Monjarret and her father, Polig, for introducing us to such a wealth of Breton songs, tunes and dances!

Manx music is really fascinating and the track 10 ( Moirney ny Cainle/Arrane y Guilley Hesheree/St. Ives Fer Moh ) is worth an applaud. How do all band members keep the authenticity of the language and a tune being from the United States where English is the primary medium of communication?

Having majored in languages and lived overseas all my young life, I’m attracted to all language sounds.  Jim Queen has also taken on language study more recently and has the ear.  We both speak French fairly fluently.  We are fortunate to have speakers of most of the Celtic languages in the Washington, DC area and are coached by them in the languages with which we aren’t familiar.  My background is Cornish and Scottish, and I traveled to Cornwall many years back to consult a Cornish bard on the re-emerging language of Kernow so I could sing with some authenticity.

 Your voice is unique because it sounds natural. How did you decide to maintain your vocal style while others want the more operatic, airy kind of voice?

I started out as a folk singer in the 60’s.  My mother was from Kentucky and I grew up surrounded by what we knew as American folk music which also happened to be the folk music of the British Isles.  A quick aside here to say it’s always been odd to hear, when we’ve toured in Scotland and England, that we’re singing “their” music when I’ve always thought of it s “mine”.  I trained for 10 years in my twenties and have used that training to keep my voice strong and healthy, not operatic.  At 63, I can sing 4 or 5 shows a day, even acoustically, for days and not tire.  I now teach these techniques to singers of all ages.

 Your live shows are not just appealing in the listening sense but you also have Celtic dance thrown in the mix. How is IONA different now compared to when you were all starting out?

When we started out, we were playing mostly Irish and Scottish/English music, since that was what we knew from childhood.  We traveled a lot and discovered that there was a whole lot more to Celtic music.  We played in sessions, contacted musicians from all the “nations”, founded a great Celtic festival, the Potomac Celtic Festival, bringing together all the elements, and just continued to grow as we absorbed all the amazing influences (as you seem to be doing as well!).  We have been fortunate over the years to have dancers, who have also been musicians, be part of the band, and to have learned Breton dances that are integral to our performances.  Highland dancer Susan Walmsley danced with us for 5 years, followed by Kathleen Larrick who grew up with Irish step dance and clogging, who has been with us for 6 years.

 Where can listeners buy Silver?

Silver is available on our website at and also from CDBaby and itunes.  We recommend for the highest quality digital downloads.

What are the exciting things waiting for all of you in terms of live shows this year?

We’re always working on new material that we’ll be introducing at our shows.  This year, we’re not touring too far afield, this being a time for developing arrangements.  Our schedule can be found at

The DVD called Live! At the 333 has been released already. Do you have other DVDs ?

Not at this time, although there is an interesting compilation of 3 different performances of “Dans les prisons de Nantes” available on youtube at

 What’s your message to our readers?

Open yourselves to all the Celtic influences around you: listen for the commonality and rejoice in the differences.  We’re so lucky to be able to hear and experience such a broad range of music informed by the Celts worldwide!



4 thoughts on “Barbara Tresidder Ryan of Iona Speaks About The Music of the Celtic Nations

  1. Lovely and interesting interview about a really fabulous band, Bax! Singing the Seven Nations takes a lot of training and dedication unlike popular music and I am constantly amazed how they are often highlighted so little on the music scene today. After all, there is a great deal of history, language, and the techniques needed to successfully travel the road of the full Celtic music scene!! She really shared a lot here and I found your questions were so interesting too. They led to make a really solid interview that is totally fascinating!


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