There are thousands of quiet voices in the world that choose to draw a new friend meekly into its presence, only slowly unearthing itself to the guest’s curious ear. Robbi McMillen’s sympathetic vocal is as such.
Born in Bóthar Seoighe, West Belfast’s urban Gaeltacht, Robbi and his brother were surrounded by traditional and folk music while in their mother’s womb, just as they were the Irish language. Nineteen years later, Robbi has published two small poetry collections and has written, presented and appeared on Raidió Fáilte, BBC, Raidió na Gaeltachta, The Irish News (An tEolas), Lá Nua, Foinse and Féile FM. He also acted for BBC Jam, an educational series for children, produced in Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and English.
His most memorable performance is still as a shy and reserved fourteen year old with his first band, Cabéal, in Belfast’s Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich along with seán-nós singer and childhood friend Róise Nic Chorraidh. His interest in old Gaelic music sprouted almost instantly after that performance, leading to a rediscovery of Ireland’s musical torch-bearers Nóirín Ní Riain, Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, Máire Brennan and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh.
Robbi’s first project, ‘Aisling Bhán’, launched just before this new discovery, made under the direction and with the support of German multi-instrumentalist Rüdiger Reinhardt (An Taisdeal). The project consisted of Irish and Scottish Gaelic songs with two newly written English pieces, ‘Aisling Bhán’ and ‘Banba’s Enemy’.
In 2008, Robbi McMillen published his first collection of Gaelic poetry, ‘Gol na mBan’ (‘The Women’s Lamentations’), under pseudonym with the help and support of Aberdeen-based graphic designer Ecosynth.
‘Façade’ (2006) featured a real-world rendition of ‘Gaoth Barra na dTonn’ and a cluster of harmonies ending in the solitary, single voice on ‘Caoineadh na dTrí Mhuire’ (‘Lament of the Three Marys’). The most heart-warming of praises came from one teacher in Caledonia, Minnesota, actively teaching her kindergarten students the Gaelic song ‘Dúlamán’ with Robbi’s recording of the piece and an Argentinian student, touched by the soundings of “conviction and subtle contrition” in ‘Veni, Veni Emmanuel’, in turn, countering that with laughter at the excitement and looseness of ‘Acoustic Puirt a Beul’ (‘Mouth Music’).
The album was remastered in 2007 by Newcastle-Upon-Tyne based artist, Chris Leary with newly recorded tracks.
Since the ‘Façade’ collection’s release, Robbi has taken time out to write and encourage health. He writes regular prose under his own Moonchild imprint, most lately “Purgatóir (Purgatory)” about the Zimbabwean disaster under Mugabe. Robbi also actively participates and volunteers in charitable events and has recently designed the artwork for Dónal O’Connor’s ‘Live at Maddens’ project (with proceeds benefiting Lighthouse Ireland, a suicide prevention organisation).
Robbi McMillen, as a graphic artist has also worked closely with Féile an Phobail (Ireland’s largest community festival), Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh (of Irish band Altan), Leo’s Tavern (the home of Irish singer Enya), T with the Maggies (Moya Brennan – also of Clannad; Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh – also of Altan; and fellow Donegal-hearted singers Maighread & Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill – each of them personal heroes), size2shoes (now recording with Russell Crowe), Nóirín Ní Riain and At First Light, and has had the honor of working and performing with Kathleen Deignan, CND, Fionnuala Gill and Ann Deignan on the ‘Spirit Seeking’ concert tour in the United States. In 2011, Robbi worked with Ulster singer, songwriter and academic Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin on her Irish Song website, and an online archive of Oriel songs, A Hidden Ulster.
Now recording a new album of newly-written Gaelic songs for release in 2012, Robbi McMillen is definitely one of those quiet voices, a renaissance man with a deep sense of love and admiration for both the friend and the ‘perfect’ stranger.