Iona: The return of the Celtic group

Thursday 1st June 2000

The Sabbatical's over, they're readying themselves for the Cross Rhythms festival and Mike Rimmer even got them to interrupt their rehearsal. IONA are back!

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I suggest that in their live shows, there does seem to be moments when God shows up! How would he describe that? "As an agnostic I have a different experience but it is a spiritual thing for me but it's not a specifically Christian thing. I am no atheist but I am definitely agnostic. The beauty is in the music and it touches the core of who I am, whatever that is, and it frees a person. It frees me to be in there and if people see that as part of God that's brilliant. For me it's part of something wordless and intangible that I could never touch with words but it's very deep and a spiritual thing."

Frank has been listening and adds, "You also have to keep in mind that Christian music doesn't exist. Music is a language that transcends all beliefs but it is a very strong vehicle for a Christian message. I think that God himself chooses what and who he wants to use to speak to people's hearts whether they are Christians or non-Christians. In the Bible God used a mule to speak to people and he probably wasn't a Christian!" He laughs and continues, "God is sovereign and in his sovereignty he decides and chooses who he wants to use and what music he wants to use at a certain moment to speak to people's hearts. He has given Troy and all of us a gift in music which he can and will use for his purposes."

Thematically, Dave Bainbridge explains the concept of the new album. I suggest that we're used to lona incorporating grandiose themes into their music. He responds dryly, "It wasn't really a grandiose theme this time. It was basically about unity between people and between man and God. We were just trying to write music that would bring people into God's presence. So nothing much really!"

He laughs and continues, "It's four and a half years since we recorded 'Journey Into The Morn' and shortly after that I was reading a book which I first heard about through Cross Rhythms magazine. It was called Song Of the Lord by Tamara Winslow who is an American singer who plays at conferences and often God will give her specific songs for those occasions and there will be an incredible anointing of the Holy Spirit on what she does. That really inspired me. One of the chapters was about Songs Of Ascent, the Psalms that the Jewish people sang as they went up to Jerusalem for the Passover. She was saying that with each song of ascent the intensity of their fervour in the way they were singing and praying became greater and greater until they reached a point when God's presence came really tangibly. Although God's presence is with us all the time, there are times when you become really aware and focussed. That was a real inspiration for me to write the track "Song Of Ascent" and to try and capture some of that idea in a piece with the band."

One of the most moving songs on the album is "Hinba". In 1997, on the 1400th adversary of St Columba's death, Joanne Hogg rowed from Ireland to lona. She confesses, "That was the last song to be written. Some of the tracks were inspired by stories about Columba. I felt we needed a song lyrically that would tie in with the theme of 'Song Of Ascent1. It was inspired by Columba's pilgrimage to Hinba. He made these trips to Hinba to have time to pray and seek God. There were accounts of people observing that when he went into this little stone hut for three days and nights and didn't eat or drink, people reported that they saw bright light coming through cracks in the walls and they could hear wonderful heavenly sounding music and singing."

Bainbridge adds, "Columba was actually heard to sing spiritual chants and songs that had never been heard before. When he came off the island he said that during that time God had revealed to him many of the mysteries of the Scriptures and he wished he'd had a book to write it all down." Joanne concludes, "So that was the idea behind it. I was looking for a song that would fit in with that and imagining his journey there. Having made my own journey rowing from Ireland to lona and experiencing what it was like rowing a curragh, sometimes in difficult conditions against the tide and sometimes in beautiful calm conditions, the song was also inspired by my memories of that trip."

On a more personal note, Joanne wrote "Wave After Wave" on a trip to the west of Ireland in June of 1999. She remembers, "After a very sad personal time I experienced the most incredible, uplifting, joyful, wonderful thing and even wave after wave isn't an adequate expression of what I experienced. I just got a whole new appreciation of life and new sense of wonder. I just felt that after my time of sadness, God restored my sense of wonder at so many things and I found joy again. The song captures the whole motion of life and the cycle of life - the pain of bereavement and death, the joy of birth and new life. These experiences come to you in waves and you can't escape them. They're always there. You can either walk into it and embrace it or run from it but it always comes after you."

The cycles of life have certainly turned during lona's musical journey and now that the band are fully back in business after their sabbatical, 'Open Sky' starts a new chapter for the band. Whether the band will ever be totally understood or fully appreciated for what they are trying to achieve remains to be seen but they continue to make stunning, moving music that deserves to be heard.

And as Joanne grabs an altogether different kind of cycle to ride home and the rest of the band face another day of rehearsals tomorrow, 'Open Sky' provides the perfect musical backdrop for my journey home. Personally, I can't wait to see them play live!

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Mike Rimmer
Mike RimmerMike Rimmer is a broadcaster and journalist based in Birmingham.

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