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A Long Career on the Brink of Fame

Irish-born singer Katell Keineg has a fervent cult following, but she's never caught a big break.
Irish-born singer Katell Keineg has a fervent cult following, but she's never caught a big break.

When The New York Times Magazine did a feature story on Katell Keineg in July, it looked as though the singer-songwriter with the fervent cult following was finally getting a long-deserved break. The article quoted several well-known artists, including Natalie Merchant, as they talked about Keineg's talent. It documented her years of struggle after a short tenure on a major label. It told of the struggles faced by artists who don't catch on instantly, and who are often discarded by a business that can no longer afford to build careers one step at a time.

Those rooting for Keineg might have finished the article sure that this major exposure would change her situation — or, at the least, open some doors — but it hasn't happened yet. The Irish-born singer with the husky voice remains virtually unknown, and her three albums are hard to find. Spend a moment with Keineg's 1994 album O Seasons O Castles, and it's hard not to be puzzled by its failure to reach a large audience: Here are wildly inspired songs filled with literate and mystical images, songs that aspire to the sprawl and sweep of epic novels. These turn on unusual chord progressions ("Cut") and plaintive melodies ("Hestia"), as well as languid "what if" daydreams (the hypnotic "The Gulf of Araby," an extended meditation on the distance between "what is and what can never be.")

Though she can come across as overwrought at times, Keineg has a way of bringing listeners inside whatever emotional tableaux she's describing. The song could be a purely fictional account of a relationship in free-fall, but she never seems professionally detached from it: As Keineg alternates between gentle weeping whispers and enraged shouts, the pain sounds like her own — like it matters. Though it's messy and unresolved, it contains wisdom worth sharing.

Listen to last week's 'Shadow Classic.'

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Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.