In a song by R.E.M. called ‘Untitled’, Michael Stipe proclaims his love for his parents.
I made a list of things to say But all I want to say All I really want to say is Hold her and keep him strong While I’m away from here.
In April, Mum attended the funeral of an old family friend online with my wife Sharon. She couldn’t attend in person. The eulogy that morning was a moving account of a life well lived and Mum said to Sharon, “I wonder what they’ll say about me”. Two weeks ago, I held her hand and I asked her what she would like us to say. But I had waited too long and she couldn’t tell me. So I tried to tell her what I would say.
I told my Mum I would say how much I loved her. How much we all loved her. How much we appreciated her. What a wonderful mum she had always been. How grateful we were that she and my dad, Tom, had founded and shaped our close and happy family. That all this closeness and happiness was her doing. I told her I would talk about her happiest moments.
When I think about these moments, I think about photos of Mum across the decades.
The one I’ve been thinking about most is a picture of Mum and Dad in Dublin in Spring 1969. They have just come out of the cinema. There was a man on O’Connell Street who would take your picture as you passed by, and you could go back and buy it off him. Dad told me that he only took photos of the handsome couples. Looking at this picture, you’d well believe him. Dad is dark and dashing and Mum is so beautiful. She had just turned 21. Her hair is pulled back by a band and it is hard to look away from her face. Conjure in your mind the brightest smile you can–now brighten it. She is luminous.
Many of Mum’s happiest moments were in Mayo. Mum was born Mary Lavelle in Westport in 1948 and was lovingly reared by Paddy and Nora. She had one sibling, Michael, who is still in her phone as Little Brother. When they were young, Mum dearly loved Michael and also found him annoying, because that’s the deal with little brothers. Mum moved away and Michael stayed in Westport but he would drop everything in a heartbeat for her. Some of Mum’s sweetest smiles in her final few days were for Little Brother. The corners of her eyes would crinkle up when she saw him.
During her Westport childhood, Mum developed her remarkable gift for friendship. There are school photos from the Fifties of Mum with her best friends Mary Mulhern, Maureen Moore, and Bernie Conway. Photos from sixty years later show the same quartet, thick as thieves, in hotels around Ireland, sharing afternoon tea and a sneaky G&T.
Mum moved to Dublin to go to Carysfort in 1965. She met Dad on Halloween night 1966 and they married in Westport in August 1969. Mum and Dad have always lived in Dublin, but she retained dual citizenship. Mum and the four of us boys would head down to Mayo during 1980s summers and luxuriate in western freedom for two long months. Dad had to work and I felt so sorry for him heading back east on Sundays. Something we learned from Mum that we never unlearned was that dread of the return to Dublin after a trip to Croy.
Mum taught primary school for over thirty years. She taught in Rutland St from 1967 and loved it. She started in Our Lady’s Girls after her first baby boy arrived in 1970 and the fledgling family moved to Woodpark in 1971. She taught here for the remainder of her career. She loved when a child she had taught greeted her as an adult and told her what she was up to now. She loved to help people flourish.
Mum never lost her gift for making friends: in her schools, in Chestnut Grove, on holidays with Dad, and even on John Houston Ward in St. James’s, where she spent a couple of months last year, becoming the matriarch of her six-bedded room. I work in James’s so during a visitor ban I could still sit with her and get the gossip. She knew everything that was going on for the ladies in her room. She was endlessly interested in other people and when she trained her attention on you, you felt you could tell her anything.
Another joyful picture shows Mum and Dad in Malawi in 2007, when they came out to visit me and Sharon with Sharon’s mum, Geraldine. Mum loved to travel but she was not fond of flying, and Malawi meant flights from Dublin to Amsterdam to Nairobi to Lusaka to Lilongwe. At least those four were all on proper passenger aircraft.
We then took them to Nyika, a mountainous national park in the remote north. Nothing that you could reasonably call a road went into Nyika so Mum had to fly again, this time in a tiny six-seater Cessna, bumping and swerving around clouds. Mum dreaded this, but she did it. The joyful picture is of Mum in a jeep on a bright blue day on a game drive to spot leopards and zebras. Dad’s arm is around her and her smile expresses ease and affection and fulfilment and shared adventure.
I keep coming back in my mind to that picture of Mum and Dad on O’Connell St in 1969.
I sometimes wonder, when I see an old photo of a beaming young person, how they would feel then if they knew how their life was going to turn out. So I’ve been imagining a conversation between Mum at the end of her life and her younger self.
Here’s what I think Mum would say to young Mary:
You’re going to marry this man. You are going to keep teaching. You will nurture generations of kids. You will nurture your own children. You will have four boys. Your home will be filled with laughter and music and books. You will rear your boys to be secure and happy and they will all do fine. They will have their own families.
Young Mary asks: Will I have a daughter?
No–but you will have four daughters-in-law who become your daughters.
Now–It won’t all be easy. There will be sickness and sadness. You will suffer a serious depression after one of your boys is born. But that does not rupture your bond with that boy. If anything, it makes it stronger. Your grief when your mother dies will be hard to get past. It will take you a few years to recover. You will recover.
Young Mary says: Listen, I know life can be hard. I accept it. Can we get back to the good stuff?
You will have nine grandchildren. When your grandchildren arrive you will thrive, and you will help them thrive. You’ll be a hands-on, go-to Granny. You and those kids will dote on each other. You will give and receive an astronomical amount of hugs. You really enjoy living, Mary.
Young Mary says–that all sounds pretty good. But what about Tom?
Oh, but Mary. That’s the best bit! He is by your side every step of the way. For the fun and craziness of raising the boys. Through all the harder times. For all your travel. For sunsets in ancient cities. For cocktails and cruises. You navigate your lives arm in arm. You have the romance of the century. And when you get sick for the final time on the day of your 51st wedding anniversary, he is there with you, and he is there for you to the very, very end.
And young Mary says: Sign. Me. Up.
Now, we are here and we are stunned and we are so sad. Mum was the beating heart of our whole family. We have no concept of a world without her in it. We have a lot of fumbling around, finding our way, ahead of us. But I also want to remember to be grateful, to be happy for her and for all of us who got to be with Mum and experience that boundless love of hers.
I want to mention Mum’s final few days. An Irish Cancer Society nurse who cared for Mum on the last two nights of her life told us that witnessing how Mum was while dying made her less fearful of her own death. Mum modelled a way of living in her final moments that could give anyone courage. She stayed so plainly herself. She kept minding us. In her final week, when she opened her eyes it was to beam that luminous smile and tell us, so tenderly, that she loved us. We told her too. Nothing was left unsaid.
Three days before she died, Mum turned to Dad, seated a few feet away. She said “Tom–don’t be afraid”. I have to say I gasped. Mum was days from dying and she knew it. She was accepting our care and still bestowing her care upon us. The way she stayed present and nurturing, to the end, was her final and greatest lesson in love and bravery.
I sent Mum a poem last summer. She shared the poem, so I have taken that as her blessing to end with it here.
Late Fragment. By Raymond Carver. And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.
I met Dave Couse in Ryan’s of Sandymount on April 2nd 2003, just as his first solo album Genes was coming out. The resulting interview was published in Hot Press but a lot had to be omitted. You have about 1200 words in a two page print interview and you have about 15000 words in a ninety-minute Couse conversation. It is rapid-fire stuff and I was transcribing for days. We both thought there was good material that we had to leave out so we published the transcript on his then-website designbyte.net/couse, only for it to disappear during a site redesign at the time of his next record The World Should Know. I didn’t keep a copy of the transcript, so disappeared I thought it was until Paul McDermott quoted from the piece last week on the I Want Too Much episode of his fantastic podcast To Here Knows When. Paul has bewildering internet archaeology abilities—he somehow remembered a comment Dave had made about the ranking of A House records (“I suppose our three albums would be I Want Too Much, I Am The Greatest, and No More Apologies”), remembered this comment was from an interview of mine, and figured out how to find the quote and piece here. So I’m really grateful to Paul for finding this. I think it is a nice interview. I did OK in the conversation given the ridiculously high esteem in which I held and hold Dave Couse, and Dave was in generous reflective humour right from the off. I have posted here everything that was on the old Couse site. I considered editing it down a touch, but figured if you are at the end of this paragraph you are already in pretty deep, so I left it all in. I did want to mention that Martina Brady, Dave’s wife, about whom he speaks here with such love and appreciation, passed away in 2013, just over ten years after this conversation took place.
If you have read the necessarily truncated version of this interview in Hotpress, you know that Dave and I met in early April in Ryan’s of Sandymount, the pub near his work that his father Greg Couse used to frequent. Greg died last summer and Genes is dedicated to him. In fact Dave’s disarming first words to me, as we stood on the street having just met for the first time, were “I cycled over thinking it might be a nice idea to do it here. The old man’d be with me, you know?”
Before we begin, a correction, to make a point. Early enough in the interview I asked Dave about his cover of ‘Close Watch’, the John Cale song that I first heard him do in the Temple Bar Music Centre last year, when I nearly had a stroke I was so happy. Now the penultimate track on Genes, it’s a song of astonishing beauty, lovestruck and grief-stricken, and could have been written for Dave Couse’s voice, so my question was: how can your own songs here match up to this perfect thing?
Of course he had an answer, and had I waited a week longer in the company of the LP the question would have been redundant—play ‘For Sale’, ‘I Almost Touched You’ or ‘Everybody’s Got Their Own Troubles’ a few times and come back to me—but the episode illustrates a couple of critical constants that have resurfaced in the reviews of Genes: Subtle songs are never given their due, and quietly happy albums are inevitably minor works. “Low-key” is faint praise.
It’s not that I could not have imagined Dave Couse equalling John Cale’s finest hour. It was ‘13 Wonderful Love Songs’, not ‘Close Watch’, whose words were inscribed in diaries in my late teens. Never was I, and never again will I be, so sharply pierced by a song as I was by ‘When I First Saw You’. But these were grand operatic cries of anguish, easy to feel and recognise and relate to. They’d have you in tears from ten miles off. The new songs are different: time has passed and Dave Couse has no business bemoaning unrequited love anymore. He’s writing about his baby and his wife and how your feelings for your family and friends fulfill you: you live for them. The songs are appreciative and affecting. And the hardest thing to do is write a song about contentment and not cause a mass coma.
I don’t mean to criticise critics—but I don’t want Ian O’Doherty to be the only one saying that this is Dave Couse’s best work. If you can compare these things, which you can’t. A House fans fucking worship that band, and I think find it difficult to imagine anything up there with I Want Too Much. I know I did. And the songs of Genes will not have you in tears. These songs don’t pierce your heart: they fill it.
Dave—You said that you walked in here and you felt your dad.
Oh yeah definitely. The last few times I’ve been here, you know what I mean? There’s a real sense that he’s here. You can hear him laughing. That’s the kind of character he was. He was very sociable. You could imagine that his meetings with all his mates would pretty much revolve around him. That’s the kind of character he was. So I get a real sense of him. I haven’t had that since . . . since the day he died.
How long is that?
It’s about ten months now. It takes a long time to settle in. The realization of the whole thing. There’s no songs written on this album about that situation. That will be next. It takes that long for your feelings to become… to become sensitive to those feelings, even. You’re just left numb when something like that happens. In the next album he’ll be featured in the way of a song. This time all I could do was honour his memory with the idea of it. The whole genes thing.
Is that his face just as you open it up?
No . . . it’s the second one. He’s the second one, as a 21-year-old man. The man with the banjo in 1900 is my grandfather; 1935 is the old man. Then me in ’64 and then there’s my daughter.
I didn’t even know you had a child until today.
It’s the weirdest thing about life, death and birth; it’s a very scary thing. When you realise that, because up to now, life’s just great, you just doddle along; you’re in your twenties, you’re in a band and you’re touring the world, it just seems… great. Let’s have some more of this! Until you realise the bigger plan, you know (laughs). That you’re only here for a little time, so try and make the most of it, I s’pose. You hear people saying it all the time and you go ‘Oh go on, go away out of that. I’m infallible, I don’t die!’ Then when something like this happens you realise you do. You’re next.
Well there is that about it. There’s no longer a generational safety net.
That’s it, you see, yeah, I don’t have a buffer zone any more, you know what I mean?
Will you write songs about your dad?
Oh, undoubtedly, yeah. I’ve already written one, in my head. Got a lovely little title for it and everything. Yeah, I mean it’s a big thing, I’ve never ever experienced anything as big—well, the birth of my daughter was pretty massive. Add it all together, not long after that he died, it’s a pretty bizarre experience. To have two such massive events so close together focuses you as a human being. I mean, I was a no-nonsense person anyway; I’m undoubtedly that now. Because you realise what life’s about, when something like that happens. And as I said, here, I can feel him in the place, and it’s amazing really. I used to pick him up from here every now and again, bring him over to his mates at Christmas. So I remember him from here as well.
I was wondering if you had a physical memory of him from here.
Oh yeah, lots of them. And he’d always have stories from here, and conducted most of his business from here. It was one of those things, you’d sit in the back garden and he’d give you all the stories about Gus Ryan and all that kind of thing. Just his life, you know? And now that he’s gone . . . and then the strangest thing was, I was going down to the girls, and I had proofs of the artwork in my bag, and I had taken them out, just to check them and look at them, and it was like I brought him back in for one last look, if you like. Because unfortunately, he had a long illness, he died of cancer, it took a long time, it was pretty horrible. But it was weird when I took out these things and . . . there he was. Back, and I know it was only a photo of him, but he was here again.
I couldn’t cover it because I was too close to it. All I was, was numb, you know. That’s all I felt from it. You have to get in touch with your feelings about something like this, something as huge as this; and realise what the loss is. Exactly what you want to say. I know what I want to do now. I think you must cover this. That’s what music’s all about. If you’re lucky enough to be able to do that, to express your feelings in song, and make an emotive song about it that might touch somebody else, somebody else may empathise with the way you feel or the words—I mean, Jesus, that’s great.
And are these feelings you can express in song? In words?
Yeah, they are. Always simply, as simple as possible. You just blurt out what’s in your head, right, and then try and tidy it up a bit, so it’s not written by a four-year-old. You’ve just to tidy it up a little bit, but the honesty has got to be at that level, like a four-year-old, nearly, because young kids have this amazing knack of honesty, which I’ve found with our little one. They don’t hold anything back at all. There’s a beauty, and freedom, and strength. I always try to apply that, well not always, ’cos sometimes I do wordplay and all that nonsense, but always, on any album, there would be songs where the lyrics were incredibly simple. A song like ‘Satisfaction’. “Loving you is easy, and that’s the way it should be.” It’s almost a Westlife line. Obviously it’s in the delivery. The hardest thing in the world is to write a simple lyric and make it not sound embarrassing.
The same thing, when I wrote ‘For Sale’, for Eva. I remember seeing her for the first time, when she was born. That’s what ‘For Sale’ is about. I just felt this bang. If you listen to the lyrics, it’s all about: seeing you now, the whole world is here for you, and it’s my responsibility to look after it for you, and if you just hold on to the truth, and love, and passion, you’ll get through life. Without preaching to the child already. ‘Now listen!’ The child’s still red, you know. Blue! ‘You listen to Daddy!’
It means, now that I’ve seen you I will never ever be the same person again. So as long as I am here on this earth, it’s always going to be there for you, no matter what. Under any circumstances. People say that, and believe it or not, when it happens, you become a bigger person. They say that. I don’t know if I have or not. I try! I mean life is so simple. We complicate it.
How old’s your daughter now?
She’s two and a half. There’s four generations of the Couse family in the hundred years. I’m sure it’s the same in most families. It is fascinating, really. And the artwork is built around the whole idea.
Fergal did all that, didn’t he?
He did, yeah. That’s totally, totally personal to me, which I could never do with A House, obviously, representing a band. But when you’re doing a solo thing, the freedom that you have, just to be totally yourself, is great. You get to veto everything—I like that, I don’t like that! It doesn’t have to be passed by this, or passed by that, which is of course the strength, though, and weakness of a band. You need a leader in a band, obviously, to guide it, but it is a band. A voting thing, nearly, you know what I mean.
Everything on the artwork—when you pull the disc out, the tree underneath, that’s the tree out my back garden. Yeah, we got a bit anal with it. We gilded the lily! Even, if you look down the side, the spine? A DNA strip. So when you file it, ’cos I have a big record collection, and I never ever end up playing what I go looking for, which is exciting, but annoying at times. I tried that A B C nonsense, but two years later, it’s just back to chaos again. They slip down in between each other, and so I’ve always been fascinated to try and find a way that something will be instantly recognisable. I thought how, and it just happened to be the DNA strip. So I tried it in mine, in a few different places, and, like, from the back of the room, it’s ‘There it is!’ If you look at it you’ll see what I’m talking about.
You don’t have much to do with your time, do you, Dave.
Ha ha, no seriously, ah no. That’s what I’m saying, though, like, every single square millimetre of artwork was scrutinized, and agonised over. It was the same with the music—well, the music wasn’t as much, really, to be honest. That moved at a nice quick pace. Edwyn likes to work that way, and so do I.
You were saying this is more personal than A House.
Oh yeah, completely, it’s completely and totally personal. 100%, like. It’s all about me. Even the trees. The family tree. It’s getting out of hand. Even the 1’s and 0’s on the disc itself, that’s the binary code, which Ferg thought was, like, the genes of the computer age. I thought ‘I like that idea!’ We actually had to stop at some point. ‘We’re going to overdo it now.’ So we drew the line. But there’s so many ideas! I’m delighted with the idea, I really am, I think it’s a great title for an album. I mean, the album title is conceptual, but the music on it is nothing to do with it. The music was all written beforehand.
I certainly remember these songs from late 2001.
Yeah, the music’s about a year ahead! I haven’t written a song now in about ten months.
For obvious reasons?
No no, not even that. I’ve been so busy putting this whole thing together. Getting it recorded. Everyone’s been so fantastic that’s worked for me, because they’ve all worked for nothing! Nobody got paid on this. They’re just fans. If you go on to www.davecouse.com (now defunct – NC 2022) a fan did that for me, designed the whole thing—it’s just fantastic. I’ve had so much good will, from fans and from the media, which is fantastic. I did of course have to deliver a strong record. If I’d delivered a weak record, it’d be meaningless, it’d be gone.
It’s a couple of years since we started expecting the record now—since the first return show in Whelan’s.
Well yeah. It was a very slow return. Getting the album finished and written, and getting it recorded! Edwyn’s obviously a very busy man, and again, he was doing it for me for nothing. What a gift! Not only did he give me all his time, and everything, he gave me his studio—with him in it. And all his equipment, and all of his instruments, and everything, and he plays most of them. He’s on this album as much as I am. Which is fantastic! You don’t get friends like that too often.
Edwyn does it just out of love of music and no other reason. He’s certainly not a commercial producer, as such. I don’t think he has any interest in being that. I think he’s a musician at heart. He just loves making music, you can see him, he’s one of those characters. He’s passionate about sound to a point of obsession. He got me really into guitars. He’s moved on now, he’s into microphones. Takes them out of boxes, ‘Dave, look at this!’ I’m like . . . yeah, it’s a microphone. He collects them and he collects all this really old equipment, he got bucketloads of it when it was cheap and nobody wanted it—the birth of the digital age and all that, everyone was getting rid of all their old analog stuff. He collected loads and loads and loads of it and now, of course, it’s coming so much back into favour. He’s the man in town! He’s got all these producers ringing him, ‘Jesus, Edwyn, you know, any chance of borrowing this or borrowing that’, like, so for him to be able to do that for me was remarkable.
’Cos I think myself there’s a beautiful sound off the record, it’s that gorgeous valve clarity. If you listen to all the modern records, the skater boys and all that—even though they are fantastic-sounding records, they do sort of start to sound the same, with digital sound. I think there’s much more nuance in valve music. You can hear it.
Tell me a bit about valve technology. I know nothing about this stuff.
It’s just the old technology. In his control room is an old valve desk, on the EQ there’d only be about three buttons. They all go (mimes turning a creaky old dial) and they’re all phenomenally expensive now. Really, really hard to get your hands on. They just give a real quality. Like everything in the old days. They’re better, they had a lovely warmth. You can push the music much more. There’s much more give in it. I think. It doesn’t distort, you know, it lets you into that territory where digital won’t let you in, where it starts to crack and fizzle at the top.
Is this what Neil Young talks about? I remember him comparing digital sound to sensory deprivation.
Yes, it is, a bit, yeah. A lot of people are very passionate about valve recording. None more than Edwyn. I think I came over to the studio at the perfect time because he and the studio are one, they’re like two people. If something goes wrong he knows what it is, and how to fix it. He knows the full capabilities of the studio. I think if an engineer was to come in fresh, they wouldn’t have a clue how it worked. It just works completely around him. He has learned it and really optimises everything in there. And I just came in with a bunch of songs, and he put the whole thing together.
Now I brought musicians with me, they’re really young guys, they’re 22, 23. I brought them over for two reasons—number one, they’re really really excellent musicians, but their youthfulness too, you just cannot get that off a seasoned hack. It just doesn’t work.
And what were they doing when ‘Kick Me Again Jesus’ came out? Being born?
Well who knows? Dave Couse and sons. Well they’re going ‘Aw Dave, ha ha, you’re 38 now’ and I’m going—Oh yeah? Listen boys, when I was 22 I was going to America to tour ‘Call Me Blue’, so shut up. Puts them in their place quick enough. But having said that—they were willing to leave their jobs, in order to take up the opportunity to go to London, to work with me and Edwyn. And you don’t get that, you know. And again, I think that comes out in the record. Their belief in this and their really wanting to do it. And again, they got paid no money. That youthful exuberance, you just can’t capture it, it’s either there or it’s not. You can hear it on the bass and drums. It’s there, you can hear it, it’s at breaking point, you can hear the keenness, nearly, which you wouldn’t get from a real pro, like. And it’s so vitally important when you’re making a record. People maybe discard that kind of thing, but it’s vital. I think it is, anyway. I could be wrong! I have been before.
That leaves a lot of responsibility with you.
Yeah! I had a huge responsibility making this record too. Because when you’re coming off the back of A House, and some people regard the No More Apologies album as one of the finest albums made ever by an Irish act, it does get those kind of glorious reviews. So when you’re coming off that, it’s a tall order, like, you’re thinking, ‘God, I could do this, I could make an album . . . and it could be piss-poor’. And everyone will go ‘Ah well, you know, there you go, look at him now—it was obviously very much a band situation’… and Dave wasn’t a big part of it.’ So I had a big thing to prove here. And I did! I think.
How do you know that when you’re doing it? That it’s not piss-poor.
You don’t! You have no idea, you’ve just gotta go with it. I thought that I had everything in place, I thought I had the songs, thought I had the musicians, and I needed Edwyn so badly. I had to wait on Edwyn. And finally the whole thing just worked and we recorded it in two weeks. Kind of strange. Just record, record, record the whole time. Fascinating, and interesting, and fun. Recording as it should be. It shouldn’t all be laborious nonsense, you know. You know when it gets too earnest. You can’t wander into that territory, you know, because then you end up just going up your own arse.
But this is an album about serious things. If you can’t be earnest, how does that work?
You see, earnest, when I’m referring to earnest I just mean just taking yourself too seriously, like ‘I’m a real artist’, you know, ‘I’m a cerebral artist, I’m going to take myself very seriously’; you can’t do that. It’s just got to come out of you effortlessly. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. You can either deliver the goods or you can’t. So you just go in there, you do what you’re supposed to do. You don’t take yourself too seriously. You give of yourself. You don’t overdo it. You don’t…
… gild the lily.
Exactly! That’s OK for the artwork, right? But not when recording. You know, some people have to have themselves in a nice frame of mind, they start a vocal, they go into a certain space, they have to do all this head nonsense. You go in there, you’ve got a job to do, you’re supposed to be able to deliver it. It’s part of your being, it’s what you are. So just get in and fucking do it, like.
You really need to know what you’re doing. You need to know exactly what you’re saying.
You do, yes. You have to know those two things. You don’t have to have an exact plan of where you think you’re going because the music, an awful lot of the time, will just carry you. On the day, you’ll invent a new sound, that will lead you to another thing, and another idea. When you’ve got an amount of creative people in a room, it just keeps going! One thing leads to the next, leads to the next, and you can’t be precious about how you thought it was supposed to be…
You can’t be a prima donna.
Yeah, you can’t. Exactly, you can’t. You can’t be, like, an earnest prima donna! You’ve got to keep running with it. Once it’s going in a direction you like. If it’s turning into Limp Bizkit, obviously, you’ve got to pull in the reins: ‘OK boys! Hold on! I’m 38 here’. But if it’s going where you like…
I’m really, really pleased with it, I have to say. And I love the country flavours on it, as well. The little flavours that come out. Songs like ‘Everybody’s Got Their Own Troubles’, as well, that’s just got a beautiful kind of a Glen Campbell country rip-off. That’s what I said to Edwyn, I said ‘Look, I want this to be Glen Campbell!’ And he goes ‘Oh, I know exactly what you mean, Dave’. And it’s great when you know, and you can get on with somebody at that level. So you go for it. You don’t get it, of course, but you aim for that, and that’s what you use as your goal. Of course you end up with something totally different, but that’s great. That’s what you’re supposed to do.
The vocals, as well, this time round. Before, in A House, I used to labour the vocals a lot. There were perceptions of A House, and we had to deliver a certain thing. With A House lyrics, as well, there’d always be a twist in the tail, usually a negative one. This time round, I didn’t, I had that sort of freedom to be more me, like. I didn’t have to represent anybody else.
But getting back to the vocals, I had a whole new approach. Every single song on that I just sang once. I just went in and sang it, like a singer, like you’re supposed to do. Whereas beforehand, I’d do four or five, compile the best bits of each one, and then repair the last one, say there was a line or two you didn’t like. So what you ended up with was a fine vocal, nicely in tune, and everything in place, but at the end of the day, it loses something as well. There’s nothing like the delivery of one vocal performance. Even if some notes are a little bit flat, a little bit sideways, a little bit sharp, it’s all part of the delivery. Record, stop, and there’s the voice. And I realise I can do that now.
Is that a question of confidence?
I don’t know! I think so, yeah. I’m more confident now, I suppose, than I have been in a long time. I can actually sing now. I never, ever had confidence as a singer, because I’m not really a singer anyway. I’m never referred to as a singer, either, it’s always Dave Couse, the songwriter or Dave Couse, the lyric writer, or the miserable bastard, or something like that. Never EVER as a singer.
It’s great this time around, ’cos my voice is louder than it would have been on A House stuff as well. We pushed it up there, and built the music around it. I did all my vocals really early. We used to always do it the other way round. We’d do a guide vocal, which is an insignificant thing there ticking away in the corner telling everybody the chorus is coming up, here we go into the middle eight section, so no-one really gives a toss about the vocal until all the music is recorded, right, and you go in as the vocalist and sing over this lovely piece of music or whatever. I see now that that was probably the wrong way to do it, because working towards a beautiful vocal is a lovely thing. It’s there, and you love listening to it while you’re recording, so you work the music around the voice the whole time. The voice, in songs like these, is paramount. It’s the most important thing.
And I can’t wait to get on to the next record now. Having finished it, when I finally got this album made, and got it back from RMG and it was in my hands, of course I was so excited that day, because this has undoubtedly been the greatest achievement of my life. Because I mean it’s been so difficult for me to come back, with the pressures I’ve been up against, two failures I’ve had, back to back, and also people would expect a lot of a solo album. But having to form a band, write the songs, find the musicians, find a producer, then put on a business hat and get artwork done, get distribution, manufacture, form a record company, do everything basically.
I am now chief executive of the record company, the CEO, I am the A&R; department, I am the artist. I’m the talent. But I’m also the post boy. Yesterday I got a phone call from the PR people, the Late Late Show need the DAT, and I had to jump on a bike from Rathfarnham over to Donnybrook and back again. It’s just a bizarre situation, you’re dropping the thing in to these people behind reception and you’re the person going on, then, later on. It’s a really weird position to be in and I’ve never been in that. I’ve always been, you know, the star.
So there, again, there’s been a whole learning curve, but fascinating, and really good for you, you know. It’s good for the humility levels as well. It humbles you again and brings you back down to earth. It makes you see, like—I had nothing but disdain for record companies. Now of course I have the greatest respect for them! You learn a lot, like, and you’re much more in touch with the entire thing. Like this interview. Before, I would have had a different attitude about this as well. Whereas the whole thing is the whole, every single thing is vitally important. You must get it all right.
So when I got the album, finally, as I said, it was one of the greatest days ever of my life, but also there was a sense of closure, because now it’s done and I’ve delivered it, I can never go back. And now, I can just start again, because I do want to get writing again. I have lots of ideas. I know where I want to go on the next record. I dream to be able to make the next record quickly, like, get it out within a year. I mean that’s not going to happen, I’m sure. I’d love to be able to do it, and then just move on, do three or four albums as a solo artist, see what happens after that. Maybe call it a day after that. Just leave it. You know, with A House, it was really important that we did a body of work and we had a number of albums and then we finished, and that was it.
As distinct from what? What’s the alternative? Going on and on and on?
Yeah. On and on and on. I don’t think you can. I think it’s very difficult. It’s very difficult to maintain the standards that you set yourself, and I set myself, like, really really high standards. Like, I don’t compare myself to anything other than all the great records that are made. When I make a record I want to make it as good as Astral Weeks or better. I’m not interested in making the new Coldplay album. D’you know what I mean, I want to make classics all the time. When I start out making a record, I’m going for Pet Sounds. I see no point in doing anything other than that. You must reach that high. Whenever I’m in the writing process, these are the albums I listen to all the time. Not for inspiration, but to compare.
And when you put your albums on, when they’re made and they’re finished, do they…
Do they stand up?
Yeah, in my eyes, they do, yeah. To the absolute limits of my abilities, when I have brought them as far as I possibly can. I’m not saying I’m any Van Morrison or any Brian Wilson, but…
Well are you? Are you or are you not?
I’m not! I’m not, you know—Brian Wilson made one of the classic albums of our time; but I would love to get there.
The next question then must be: If you put a cover of John Cale’s ‘Close Watch’ on your album, how hard is it for your own songs to stand up?
That’s another thing there, because ‘Close Watch’ is such a fantastic song, that I was under pressure there. I couldn’t have ‘Close Watch’ be the best song on the album. So it was great for me to have it.
That’s tricky. ‘Close Watch’ would be the best song on almost any album.
Yes! It’s a beautiful, beautiful song. I put in a nice treatment to it. I tried to put this big boom on the end of it, just to give it some mark of my own. I think that big end really works. I think if John Cale hears it, I’m sure he will at some stage, I think he’ll like it. It’s with the greatest respect I have treated that song. Lyrically, it’s beautiful. And I can deliver it effortlessly. I sang it, again, once, with Simon on piano. It was done in two and a half minutes, and that was it, then we designed the end around that. Then Edwyn bowed all these weird guitars and I sang into a Fender Telecaster. I was sitting at the desk, I was talking to Edwyn, he was in the control room, and I could hear myself coming back through he guitar. So I started singing ‘Aaaaah’, he fed it back through the amp and that was the noise. That’s probably one of the special moments on the record, when that moment comes in, it’s a great moment and a great, great song. I don’t think that many people get to that level. I still get shivers when I hear the record. I don’t know whether that’s completely arrogant, or—but I know Ferg does as well! He’s told me he does, so that’s OK. But I do think, it’s such a good song. And it’s not the best song on the album.
You don’t think so.
I don’t think so, no. ‘Will It Ever Stop Raining’, I think, is beautiful. ‘For Sale’ is a beautiful song. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s up there. But there are songs there that match it, anyway. And I think if you have a yardstick like that on an album, then you’re always reaching for it. You’re always pushing it.
Is there something about the emotional pitch of ‘Close Watch’ that is easy for you?
It’s easy, yeah. I could identify with that song. I loved it, I adore the song myself, and when I realised I could do it, it just suits my voice. So, why not do it, you know? I never did covers as A House. Well, one B-side, but never on albums. I didn’t need to do a cover on this album either, but it was really good for two reasons. One, it’s a great song, and two, it kept standards up. There may be one or two people who think that it is the best song on the album but, genuinely, it’s not. It’s certainly one of the better, stronger songs. Of course it is, it’s fucking John Cale’s crowning moment! It should be. And it’s never been covered! It’s phenomenal. So when I heard that, I thought, I have to. I’d love John Cale to hear it. He will—I’ll send him a copy of it. There’ll be a small royalty cheque in it for him. I’m sure he’ll be concerned. ‘Here you are John, here’s your fifty quid. That’s more than I got out of the album.’
It’s at an important point in the album too.
You must keep an album strong! You must because a lot of people let it peter out near the end. It’s very important to have a strong ending. To me, an album should be a complete thing. Ian O’Doherty, as he said, ‘Satisfaction’ is as good a choice and as bad a choice as any single can be from this record. And I think that’s a great thing because each track feeds off each other. And it is an album. And I can do albums, ’cos I’ve done them before, and they’re vitally important. And I wouldn’t sacrifice, again, ever, polishing up some song to be a single, have it sticking out on the album. That’s not really that important any more. It’s important that the album is a thing, and it lasts, and it’s really really important that it’s strong enough that people don’t just fucking fast forward to the next track, next track, and there’s four or five good songs on it, I hate that!
The album lyrically works together and musically it feeds off each other, goes in and out of moods. This album definitely starts quite rocky, more like the old days, really, the old A House stuff. I got that out of my system, nearly, the first four songs. And then it moves slower down with ‘I Almost Touched You’ and ‘For Sale’, and turns then, the songs are slower, more country. That’s where it changes, where I change. The album takes a different mood and it goes off somewhere else. It’s great that an album does that. They should. So, I mean the attention to detail is very important… he said.
You talk quite a bit about the difference between now and then, the freedom now and the apparent restrictions on you in A House that we didn’t hear about at the time. I’m always slightly suspicious of comeback interviews like that.
Well I had to represent six people. I mean I couldn’t have done Genes. Think of it! How could I present that album to the boys? Listen boys, this is all about my family, this is all about me, and these songs are completely and totally about my relationship with my wife and my daughter. You can’t do that and so, there were restrictions. You worked around it. You had to represent all the people that were A House.
Not lyrically. I couldn’t. You couldn’t let it get that personal, you know. I don’t think so. I mean, it did, I did let it get personal on songs, of course I did. Those songs in A House, I mean they are all essentially about me and my life. It is my story, that’s the history of me in there, but within the confines of not being embarrassing for the boys! They had to stand there and do their own thing, with me banging on about songs that were intensely personal to me.
VERY personal. There were songs that were capable of being very personal for me and for people like me.
Well, every now and then, I got into, like, ‘Sister’s Song’.”
But even songs that weren’t explicitly about people close to you. Songs that were about emotions that are close to the bone; that speak to people’s vulnerabilities and do so partly by exposing your own. It’s not important ultimately whether a song is about your personal life, but think of ‘When I First Saw You’. That’s not just something you dream up over a few pints, that’s something you have felt.
Yes of course, it comes from you, it comes from the heart. It’s the truth. That’s what I’ve always done as a songwriter. I’ve always given that much of myself. I must have a lot to give! Six albums later, we’re still goin’. Jesus, how many stories can one person have? You know, you do undoubtedly regurgitate stories, you have to, but undoubtedly getting in touch with your feelings as a writer is, for me, where it’s at, like. Giving something of yourself. I think that’s the greatest thing you can do. And I think if you have the gift of being able to put that into an art form, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to do. Just put yourself in there. And people really can connect with that, and they connect with you, and the person, and the lyrics. They may see themselves in there as well, and it really means something to them, you know? I’ve always been that kind of a writer.
So it makes it easier for people to access those feelings themselves.
It does. I think that’s what people like about me, isn’t it, as a writer, is that. You undoubtedly feel, I don’t know, part of the team! A sense of me, they must have that. That’s obviously what they get off it. I presume, I don’t know. I don’t care, really, I mean I do what I do, and I hope that people like it. I mean what’s the point in doing it if people don’t like it? I know people say ‘Oh man, I do it cos I need to do it, and I don’t give a shit if anyone doesn’t like it’. I really hate when people don’t like it! I take bad reviews really badly! Especially from writers that I would respect. If I get slated, I just feel really hurt. Something so personal to you, someone taking a stab at you. I mean, someone referred to No More Apologies as ‘a mediocre swansong’, you know. And you’re going Jesus, how can you dismiss a piece of work like that, so, so easily.
Because there’s so much in that album, you know. It’s anything but a mediocre swansong. You either hate it or you love it, like. It’s a very polarising album. It’s not mediocre. That’s a really bad word. I don’t mind if someone hates it! If someone hates me, that’s OK. I can live with that! At least it’s a reaction. If someone thinks I’m mediocre, though; patron saint of mediocrity, you know. I don’t want to be him. I hold myself in a little higher regard than that! Just. And with regard to A House, what you said earlier, no! I am so proud of that band. I never ever would diss them or feel that, like, now is the best thing I’ve ever done. A House is still, to me, the greatest thing I’ve ever done. Five albums! To be part of such a great band, as well. I still love playing those songs. I will always do them live. Why would I not do them?
You’re not doing the Morrissey thing then.
No! I love them. They are my words, so why would I not sing them? I mean I’m never going to re-record them, obviously, and I suppose as my catalogue of new material builds, I’ll cut down the numbers. It’s nice to do the more obscure ones, as well, for the fans that come along. I know if I went along to see someone I was a fan of, and they didn’t play something from the back catalogue, I’d be well pissed off.”
The second album seems a particular favourite.
I Want Too Much? Yeah, people love that album. It’s a complete album, you know? It’s like I was talking about earlier on, it is an album, and it all feeds off each other, and it’s got one sound. We went to Inishbofin to make it, we made it with Mike Hedges, and the whole thing comes together. We were, of course, coming after ‘Call Me Blue’ and ‘I’ll Always Be Grateful’, and the record company had no interest in us, and we were only 23, 24, so we had have that kind of youthful angst as well, and something to be pissed off about. We were pissed off at the fact that we weren’t hugely successful! So the only way to react to that was to make I Want Too Much, to make us even less successful. It gave the band, I think, the credibility that we needed to regain. We lost a lot on the Merry-Go-Round album. Then of course Keith Cullen became interested in us as a result of I Want Too Much. Then we went on to make I Am The Greatest. I suppose our three albums would be I Want Too Much, I Am The Greatest and No More Apologies.”
Not Wide-Eyed and Ignorant?
It’s very disjointed. There’s a lot of producers involved. You know, we took on a major record company, and when you take the money, you kind of have to take the shit that goes with it. There were remixes here and remixes there, and try a different producer, and it did lose something as a result of all that. The album did. You know, we gained some really nice songs.
Maybe that’s it. There are moments on it. ‘The Comedy Is Over’, ‘These Things’—great moments.
We really tried to make that album work. The songs you’re referring to are the ones that got mixed and remixed, and ‘Here Comes The Good Times’, of course. ‘Why Me’ was another one. These were the songs that everyone thought were going to be big hits. It’s funny they turn out to be big hits later on. Seven years or eight years after the event! Joe Dolan’s done it now, as well, you know. I haven’t heard it, like! I’d be really keen to hear it, I have to say, cos I’ve never heard anyone cover any of our songs.
You’ve talked about ‘For Sale’, about Genes; we’re here in Sandymount because of your dad. As you get older has your family become the thing? Do other aspects of your life fade in significance in comparison?
Well, family and friends, yeah. In that song ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’, I’m just going on about people in general. “Can’t you love him like I love him”, that line, is about a friend of mine, about how much you love your friends, male friends, how much respect you can have for them, and if you see someone treating them badly, you know, it’s upsetting. Again, that honesty. And again, how important people are in your life and that’s really all there is to it, and getting on with them, and standing by them, and having them stand by you. There is a strength that you need to go through life, and generally it is people, and I would hate to be going through this life without people really close to me. It must be difficult not to have people you care about. People who care about you also.
Yeah, it is. But there are people who do it. I’m sure there are. Just live in a vacuum. I’m sure there are, I could be wrong, but I judge the book by its cover quite a lot. I’m very bad for doing that kind of thing. I’m probably wrong most of the time, but you know, I just find it fascinating. Even when you’re sitting in a pub watching people, trying to figure out what’s going on in their minds. What they’re like. The song is all about people, isn’t it, if you think about it. ‘Everybody’s Got Their Own Troubles’. You know, why do you want to be somebody else? What’s the point? There’s absolutely no point. So many people waste so much energy on wanting to be someone who’s richer than them, or lives in a better house, or has a better car…
Surely they’re unhappy.
Oh yeah, of course they are. They’re always wanting more, but they don’t realise that with that more, comes more trouble. ‘Look what that person has, look at them over there’. OK, the guy in a massive big house, with fucking two S-class Mercs outside, I’m sure people pass the house and go ‘fucking lucky bastard!’ I know I do. But when I go past I go ‘Who fucking cares, I’m on my bike. I’ve got my own thing going on’. But there’s some people don’t get over that. There’s people pass that house and it stays with them. And they let that kind of thing eat them up. And they don’t realise, the person in there probably has problems way beyond what they have. That’s essentially what that song is. It’s really simple. “What’s the point in wanting?” There’s none.
And Ferg did the artwork, as well, he’s been very supportive. He always has been. He and I are best friends and have been for years, ever since we were four. He lived right beside me. He has been a great inspiration throughout this record as well. He was always the man in A House with the attitude. He nearly gave the band its credibility. I was always the buffoon. I suppose I still am. He was always the stronger character, quiet. And of course he has been a great support on this record as well. He chose the tracks, he did all the artwork.
He did what?
He chose the tracks. Which songs I did.
Yeah. I just gave it to him. I gave him all the demos and he says look, do that, that, that.
That’s a large responsibility to abdicate.
Yeah well I kind of trust him that much, you know what I mean? He’s got a great innate sense of what’s right. And he was absolutely right. Every single track that he chose was undoubtedly the strongest song. So in that way, he’s been a great help. Spiritual help, as well.
Why did you delegate that job?
Because he and I are close friends. We go through everything together. I go through it if something goes wrong in his life, and he goes through it with me. I asked him… I don’t understand…
My question is why would you give that job away at all on an album like this.
On all the A House albums I would write 30 or 40 songs but this time round I didn’t. I concentrated more on the idea, and I binned them as I went along. I didn’t go through the effort of writing all these songs. So I only wrote about 18 or 19. I was doing quality control all along. I got to the stage where I had that many songs and they were all on demo tapes, and at that stage I knew which ones I really liked, but Ferg was there listening to the demos as well. I really value his opinion. So he knew it nearly as well as I did. I asked him ‘Will you put an album together? Out of these songs. I would be interested to see what you would choose.’ So he did. He did that really quickly, and I looked at his list. I didn’t tell him it was going to be the album, I didn’t put that responsibility on his shoulders, I asked ‘What would you put as the album?’ He came back with those thirteen tracks, and I looked at them, and I remember going, Jesus, you know, you’re right. I suppose I must have some ego problem. I probably would have chosen different songs, because it’s hard to admit that one song is weaker than another, ’cos you’ve put so much into them all. You’ve finished them all. Lyrically they were all finished as well. He’s a bit removed, it’s much easier for him to go ‘Well that’s just not as strong, Dave’, you know. Then, looking back, I agreed.
So you’re talking about insecurities there.
Yeah, it is. Of course it is. And it’s great to have someone that you can rely on, on that level. To come up with the goods. So in a way, I mean, he is there still. Because I was so alone, doing the whole thing. And you do, every single day I was stopping, thinking can’t do this, it’s too hard. It was bad timing as well, and I’d come off two failures. I don’t have the strongest nervous system.
The failures—I’m not sure what you mean.
Brianna and Ferg. They never saw the light of day, so I would judge that as being a failure. And, you know, two of them, back to back. It’s really really difficult, where do I go from here? Every day you’re stopping. You’ve no idea what makes you go on.
When did this project begin?
Two years ago. That May gig that I did must be two years ago. Sketches of this album. I only started writing the album a month or two prior to that. Lokomotiv and Brianna took three years between them.
So two years. And there are times through that that you think this isn’t going to work. What got you over those days or weeks?
Well when I realised the Brianna thing had gone, Ferg had spent a year and a half doing this Lokomotiv thing. I thought it was fascinating music. He put it all together on computer, he lifted all these samples off all of his record collection, so it was from him, and the sounds that he loved. He’s very big into a whole lot of guitar bands and rap, and he got very big into jazz, as well. So he just took all those samples and he put loads of music together, and it was fascinating. So I jumped in on that level then. When the thing with Brianna stopped, he was half way through it, so I jumped in, started forming them into songs. That kept me interested, kept me going, kept me open. And I really thought Lokomotiv was going to be something. I knew it wasn’t going to be commercially successful, but I really thought it could be, critically. I still think it can. I really hope that some day it will see the light of day. If I could just get my act together and get something rolling, something happening, get involved again. Ferg wants to make a solo album. And he should—he really is quite a gifted man.
It was a workshop, there were five or six different singers. Brianna was involved in that as well, I did some singing, and all to the backdrop of Ferg’s music, which was really fucking kind of weird, you know. In a really really good way. Very left of centre and very interesting. We messed with the boundaries of the songwriting process, to see how far they could be pushed. And you can push them quite far! On ‘Next Time Round’, the single we got released on Shifty Disco, we put this three-minute musical break in a different time signature in the middle of the song, and it worked beautifully. The song’s 4/4, it’s going along nicely, then all of a sudden it just floats into ¾, which is a fucking waltz! Virtually impossible, you would imagine, to do, and we managed to pull it off. And it goes off into this big huge orchestral arrangement, you know, and massive big Led Zeppelin drums, loads of other sounds, and then falls back into the song again. It’s about 5½ minutes long, and again, it was just a great thing to have done. I remember singing it on New Year’s Day of 2000. I must have been the only person in the world with nothing to do that day. I was up in my parents’ and I remember going down to the house and singing it, ’cos I thought it would be a good idea, actually. First day of the millennium, to sing a song called ‘Next Time Round’. It’s so unusual, and it got really good reviews in England. It was their biggest selling single that year. Shifty Disco are dedicated to releasing a single every week for the 52 weeks of the year. I thought it was a great idea, and ours came in November or October or something, and it was the biggest selling single that they had all year. Couldn’t believe it. Which was fascinating, but they wouldn’t commit to doing the album. ‘Next Time Round’ is rather special. I think the album needs to be finished but there’s undoubtedly an album in there and a really interesting album too. You see, if I was to have any level of success, now, with this as a solo career…
You’d be able to get that going.
I would. People would take it seriously. And if we were to get it finished, and I was to put it out, just get it out, press 500 copies even, just give it to the journalists, even that would be an achievement. Even that is a sense of finishing the project, so it’s out there, somebody’s got it in their record collection and somebody loves it, like. And who knows where it’ll lead to, you know? Unless it’s out there nothing’s ever gonna happen. Hopefully we will get that done, Ferg’ll finish it. It really is interesting because, as I say, I don’t think anyone’s ever pushed the boundaries in songwriting so much. That helped me with this as well, because as a songwriter you gain knowledge all the time. You know the ingredients: obviously, it’s got to have heart, it’s got to have meaning, some lyrics, melody. It’s a very set format. Intro. First verse! Last verse. You know what I mean? The story. The chorus, the middle eight section. So what can you do? It is restricting. It’s a beautiful format, it’s worked forever and will continue to work, on this new record, but we just did everything arse about face. Started with the end. It’s something I’m very very proud of.
There are two tracks on it, the other one’s called ‘Intercourse with the World’. I thought that was a lovely title myself. It’s all about a sad, lonely old bastard. He lives an insular life. ‘These strangers are my only friends’ is the opening line. Again, lyrically, it was a bit left-of-kilter as well.
I would go drinking on my own; I did live a lonely life for a while, for a year or two. While I was writing this album, as well. By choice—I wanted to. I just enjoyed it, you know. I would go to my local there and sit with all the lads, sat there drinking on their own. And just sit there with the paper or whatever. I didn’t want anybody in my life, I was happy with, just, space.”
Is that what ‘Peaceful’ is about? “You know I love you/You know that I do/I just need to be left alone”.
Yeah, I think so. It probably is—it is, really. I love being on my own. I love going out on my own, even. I’m a very contented person on my own. I don’t really need conversation. I find—nights when I’m out meeting people, nights that there are gatherings, I’m uncomfortable on those nights. I don’t know why; I’m just not the greatest mingler in the world. I think, with ‘Peaceful’, myself and Martina have such a strong relationship at this point in time, we know each other. I can say something like that and she won’t get offended. ‘You know I love you, I just need to be on my own’, and there will be no offence taken. Which is, I think, testament to how strong the love between us is. And she knows the song.
So it’s not news to her.
No! And a lot of people, I would imagine, feel that.
But it’s more maybe difficult to accept earlier in a relationship.
But why? I just need tonight, like, you know? Not just tonight, I need a lot of nights, I need time, on my own. I think everyone does, I think it’s a really healthy thing. For your inner peace, isn’t that what we all search for, that?
Has that changed as you’ve gotten older?
I think I’ve always been like that, just never allowed to believe it. I always thought I was a social type of character because, as I said earlier, my father was a very social man. Always the centre of attention. He was always the man with the stories and the jokes. I suppose, on some level, I thought that was me as well. But it’s not, like, it’s not me at all. I was always the focus in the band. I was the lead singer, so the centre of attention was always put on me.
And did you find, then, at times that you would have been touring and promoting yourself, did you have to curl up afterwards? Did it take a lot out of you?
It does. You’re emotionally drained, and physically and mentally drained. And I don’t have, I’ve realised, the strongest nerves in the world. I find it hard sometimes, and I suffer a bit with anxiety, For someone who suffers with anxiety being the centre of attention is not a great situation to be in. Again, maybe that’s that ‘Peaceful’ thing. My life and what I do is a real conflict of interest, because I’m trying to sell myself, as a musician. It’s a bizarre thing to do, because you’re talking yourself up the whole time. I sell Couse. I proof artwork with my name written on it. Like these things, fliers that are going to be all over town, I’m in the printers going ‘Yeah, that looks nice’, and that’s me, you know; you’re looking at yourself all the time. Ferg says to me, “I’m sick of looking at your name and I’m sick of your fucking family!” It’s a pretty bizarre place to be, for someone who doesn’t essentially like being the centre of attention. It’s a conflict. A paradox.
And how do you overcome that?
I can’t overcome it. I can stop making music, and I could go off, but then, after a year or two of doing my thing on my own I’ll go: ‘I really need to make a new album!’ And it starts all over again.
So if you could just make the album and let it sell itself, would you do that?
Oh yeah, oh absolutely, yeah. Really. Totally. If I could do that I would do it. Oh Jesus I would have no qualms, I would love to be able to do that. I would love to take a back seat, be imageless, and be nobody. Just send the music out there. I’d prefer if people didn’t even know what I looked like. Unfortunately, you just can’t do it, it’s impossible. You’ve got to create this image, and you have to look vaguely interesting, because it’s demanded of you, on some level, if you’re going to compete. And I want to compete. I want my music to be heard. I see no point in making it unless people are going to hear it. I’m not that kind of an artist. ‘I don’t care, man, I just make it for myself’.
It is, of course, the whole thing is just a contradiction. Life’s a contradiction. A lot of people, you’ll find, are the same, in the same situation. I mean how easy would it be, I would love to be able to make music and then yeah, great, out you go. But then again in music people want you. People hear this record, they want me, they want to know about me. They wouldn’t accept the record just on the basis of the music. We all do it. Like when I say to Edwyn ‘I want that track to sound like Glen Campbell’, he’s so part of the music, so when I refer to Glen Campbell, I’m talking about the man, I see him, his face, you see the hat. I see him singing the song, the interviews. He is the music. It’s so woven together, there’s no separating it. It’s the same with my music. It has to have a face, and a personality. And that personality’s mine. I’m not moaning here, I’m just accepting that.
But you would imagine that people who write serious songs are likely to be introspective and therefore unlikely to enjoy being at the centre of things. That personality often goes hand-in-hand with social anxiety and self-doubt.
Jesus, definitely. Oh yeah. If there’s anything typical of writers, it’s that every single day is just filled, racked with doubt. It’s very hard not to pass a mirror and go ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ You do, seriously. I can’t imagine any writer thinking that they’re just God’s gift. It is such a fucking weird thing to be doing. There’s no answer, there’s no real way of doing it, there’s no applied science. So it’s a very strange place to be. I take these ideas out of the air and I turn them into something.
In my own way.
Yeah, in my own way. The only way I know how, because there’s no absolutes, there’s no fucking rule book. It’s really really important that you try to be unique.
Surely you have to. You must use your own voice. Otherwise what’s the point?
Well yeah. Exactly. What is the point? Self-doubt is massive.”
There’s no objective measure. No-one who can pat you on the back and say ‘full marks’.
Yeah. ‘Well done. Good job. We’ll sell that, that’s lovely.’ There is nothing, there is no answers, there’s no solutions; it is what it is. But it’s a beautiful thing, now, in fairness, to be able to do that. Because I once—I thought about getting into advertising there for a while. I thought maybe I can apply my skills to making some money for a change. ‘I can write ads!’ I mean Jesus, you know. When I went into these advertising agencies and I met these guys, now they met me for who I was, they knew me. So I sat in these meetings and of course informed them that I thought that advertising was undoubtedly the lowest form of art. Strange I never got taken on! I thought, art is not something that you can be restricted in. If you’re working to a client’s requirements, it’s very very difficult to have the freedom to be artistic. You go ‘Ta-da! This is my idea! That’s it, and I’m not coming up with another one, ’cos I wrote this one!’ Then the client goes ‘No no, fuck off, that’s crap’. You see, I couldn’t take that. I couldn’t take that level of refusal. So I realised I could just never fit in, I could never be in advertising, you know? That would be me, I’d be going, I’ve thought about this, I’ve thought about every single angle, ’cos I do, and this is undoubtedly the best way to go in selling this tin of beans.
Talk a bit about being a songwriter in our economic climate. The rewards are very different to the rewards everybody else has wanted in Ireland in the last ten years.
I’ve never been, ever, money-motivated. Money has always been a means to an end for me. I’ve never ever been impressed by people with money, what it can buy or its powers. I mean, there’s much bigger powers in the world than money. Creating an album is infinitely more powerful. What are you going to leave behind you? Buy a big house, then will it to your family and they become crackheads and spend it all in about four years. End up on the scrapheap.
Now of course that’s a little shortsighted I know! And I’m a very fortunate man in that I have a wonderful wife who has been totally committed to what I do. She has a good job, and she has never once asked me to get a job! Never once, and I’m going out with her now, like, sixteen years. Never once, not even in a row, has she ever turned to me and said ‘Would you ever get a fucking job!’ Which I’m expecting. Any day! And even if she did, I wouldn’t blame her. So money is just a means to an end, and you get to leave something behind you. Like that body of work of A House, you have to be proud of that. What a great thing to have achieved in your life! And now Genes, and now we’ll move on and do something else. And then stop, at 45, and get a job! I don’t think I could get a job, actually, to be honest. I’m unemployable at this stage.
I’m sure there’s loads of jobs I could do, but no-one’s going to take me on. I mean, who’d take me on? Jesus, this odd, quirky, maverick type of character. I mean I couldn’t take orders from anybody, ’cos I’ve always been so much in control of what I do. I tend to be a bit of a control freak that way sometimes. So I would be virtually unemployable, I would imagine. Now mind you, having said that, like, two years from now, I might have to get something. If I can’t do it with music. I don’t see how you can make money. This has cost me so much, even though everyone has done it virtually for nothing. If I was a record company, it would have cost the guts of a hundred thousand pounds. If I was to pay everyone their dues. But I haven’t, I haven’t paid anyone, and it’s cost me a fraction of that, maybe a tenth of that, to get this far—which is a remarkable result. And all credit, I mean, if I ever do get an award for this, I’m going to be up there for a long time! ‘I’d like to thank…’ I’ll do it alphabetically. Having said that, there’s a very short thanks list on the album, and I couldn’t have made the record without those people. My wife, my mother, Edwyn, his wife, Ferg, and all these people who were just so important and played a huge part in it. I mean, without those people where would you be? What’s money, what’s money when you compare it to that?
I don’t know if that answers the question you asked, what’s it like for someone like me at a time that everyone’s got fucking BMWs, you know. I mean I’m 38 and if I’d stayed in normal employment I’d probably be—I don’t know! A successful businessman or something like that. I’d have my top of the range Beamer, you know. What kind of character would I be, though. Jesus!
It begs the question.
I’ve no idea. I think what’s coming around now is, there is a global change, obviously, economically, and money is becoming a lot more tight, right? And I think, now this is my theory—and it could be fucking horseshit for all I know—that music, music does really well in hard times. In the eighties, when it was hard, that was when bands were getting big advances. I was wealthier in the recession than I’ve ever been. Then the boom came in the early nineties and we started running out of money really fast. So I’ve kind of ridden this boom time pretty much as a pauper. So if there is less spendable income for people, to be into music is really cheap! It’s a really cheap hobby. In fairness, say you want to be a fan of mine, it costs you 18 quid for the CD, and 14 or 15 quid to go to the gig, right? So that’s it, you’re done and dusted for thirty fucking quid. Then you wait until I’ve released another album, and say you do ten or twenty people in a year—that’s so inexpensive, isn’t it? And it’s such a great thing to have, for such little money. Sell the BMW, and you could be into music for the rest of your life.
So the economic downturn has its up-side.
I’m praying for a recession, yeah! ‘Please God make the recession come quicker.’ Everyone else in the world is going ‘Please God, Jesus. . . if this recession comes in, I’m homeless!’ I’m going, ‘Make them homeless, Lord!’ At least I’ll be successful!’
Circuit des Yeux is the band led by the dizzyingly talented Chicago singer-songwriter Haley Fohr. In October 2021, Fohr released -io, Circuit des Yeux’s sixth album, which is named for the innermost moon of Jupiter. Wire magazine described -io as “a suite of baroque avant-pop songs delivered in [Fohr’s] mesmerising contralto with smouldering intensity”. The WashingtonPost compared Fohr’s singing to Anohni, Scott Walker and solo Beth Gibbons, and in its operatic, fractured beauty, -io reminds me of all these artists and of John Cale’s haunted and heightened Music for a New Society. As I’m writing, I can hear Cale’s ground-glass voice: “If you were still around / I’d hold you / I’d hold you”.
-io’s opening track, ‘Tonglen/In Vain’, sets the tone. Tonglen (“sending and receiving”) is a Tibetan meditation practice about which Pema Chödrön wrote, “Put simply, the practitioner breathes in the bad and breathes out the good, taking on the suffering of other sentient beings”. This might sound squishy, like loving kindness practice can, sitting there wishing well to the world. But Tonglen practice is fully realised when the meditator, off the cushion, acts to alleviate suffering out in the world. For Fohr to open -io with a Tonglen meditation signals an intention to use songs to transform suffering into healing, which is what -io sets about doing.
Fohr wrote and recorded-io in the aftermath of the death of her grandmother and the death of a friend by suicide and the songs are suffused with grief and love. They are generous, expansive songs. Fohr, her band, and a 24 piece orchestra perform with grace and dynamism and Fohr sings with extraordinary intensity. She is a virtuosic singer, with a four-octave voice, and on the penultimate song ‘Stranger’ she hits the C two octaves above middle C, which, take it from me, is high.
The first song I properly connected with on -io was the song that precedes ‘Stranger’, called ‘Neutron Star’. The central image of that song is of a supergiant star that has collapsed, so that what was radiant is now dark and frozen. It can only be an elegy for Fohr’s friend as she sings “You became atrophied astronomony”. Pretty bleak, but then you learn that a neutron star, though no longer emitting light or heat, has all the mass and gravitational force of the supergiant it once was.
So Fohr’s friend has died and nothing can change that but these relationships don’t end. What one can hear in ‘Neutron Star’ is that we navigate our lives orbiting suns that continue to shine and other suns that we no longer see but that still keep us close. You can hear that the people we love who pass on are imprinted in us, epigenetically, still steadying and guiding, and that is a comforting thing for a song born out of suffering to say.
As the penultimate song, ‘Stranger’ occupies a particular space on -io. ‘Stranger’ is to -io what ‘Northern Sky’ is to Bryter Later, ‘Turn Me Down’ is to Crushing, and ‘This Woman’s Work’ is to The Sensual World: an ecstatic peak that brings the record to its emotional conclusion and cannot be followed, but also can’t end the album, because the listener would be stranded, so the record needs a settling out-breath (‘Oracle Song’, in this case).
‘Stranger’ opens with a sustained piano chord and Fohr’s voice arrives as it dissolves: “What a woman I passed / On 21st Street”. She opens in a lower register, cradling the words. “Just passing by”, she continues, “But if our eyes did meet”. 21st Street, Chicago, is a busy neighbourhood—this must be the stranger. (And here you might in your memory hear Scott Walker harmonising: “Do I hear 21, 21, 21?”)
The melody line moves upwards and Fohr moves from observing the stranger to addressing her: “I might have tried what you tried / I might have cried what’ve cried / I might have lied what you’ve lied / I might / I might have seen what you’ve seen / And I might have known what you’ve known / But I don’t know much of anything”. Fohr elongates that final “know” across seven syllables and lands on “much of anything” with humbled resignation, as if something terrible has taught her the limits of understanding.
In the second verse, still addressing the stranger, she sings “You’re my sister / You’re my sister”. Fohr then takes a moment and again sings “What a woman I passed / On 21st street”. But when she sings “street”, this time, she can’t move on. She sings the word “street” four times—each enunciation of the word is stretched across two bars of music while Fohr calls upon her four octaves of vocal range, percussive piano races in sympathy up and down its registers, and a valiant cello grounds it all. I think why Fohr invests all this energy in an ardent repetition of the word street is because the meaning of the word isn’t the point. That word is just where she is in the song when the wave of grief, love, and longing hits her.
I mentioned the high C in ‘Stranger’ earlier and the precise pitch of a note is not normally something I would even think to check, but that high C is a moment of potent somatic connection. Every time Fohr approaches that note, I find I have to pause, straighten my back, and take a breath in till it passes. This response is not deliberate and it feels like my body independently making itself spacious enough to accommodate all the sound and feeling in Fohr’s song. It feels like being filled with light.
The song ends with Fohr vocalising wordlessly—keening, ululating, channeling sounds that are ancient and ancestral to express a fathomless grief that comes from further inwards than language can go.
So: what is going on in ‘Stranger’? Well: who knows. Everyone will bring something different to and hear something different in a song like this. But you can hear the work of healing.
As I hear it, Fohr articulates in this song both the unmooring earthquake shock of the death of friends and family and the dazzling gift of being alive alongside other people in the first place.
Fohr addresses the stranger as if she knows her and she sings “You’re my sister,” so the stranger is, paradoxically, per the rules of poetry, her sister. But how? Certainly, the singer may think that the stranger is her friend who has died. It’s so familiar:that illusory moment when you recognise a person walking past, only for the pit of your stomach to remind you one second later that it cannot, under any cirumstances, be them. Like when you wake from a thrilled relieved dream (“There you are!I heard you’d died!”) to relearn the grey fact that they are gone.
But just as possibly, the intensity of the singer’s grief has broadened and heightened her awareness of the preciousness of life; the splendour of every breath. The stranger is not a stranger because every woman alive is, in both a poetic and a concrete sense, her sister. Death’s looming imminence alerts the singer to the stupendous unlikeliness of two beings being born on the same planet at the same time who can recognise, understand, and appreciate each other; who can connect, if only for this vanishing, unrepeatable moment.
When you think how many forms the matter that makes up two people passing by in Chicago could have taken in the billions of years since the atoms that form them formed, how many light years could separate them if the Big Bang had banged slightly differently, then the distance between two humans on a street seems very small, and the use of the word ‘sister’ to describe a so-called stranger seems not so out of place. So Fohr allows the listener into her grief to remind us to rejoice because we are here, alive, together. John Cale sang “If you were still around / I’d hold you”. Circuit des Yeux sings: You are still around. Hold each other while you can.
-io is available at Circuit des Yeux’s Bandcamp page. Circuit des Yeux plays the NCH on Friday April 15th and tickets are available here.
Tamara Lindeman has returned, having barely been away, her gongs for Ignorance still gleaming. An email that both brightened and quietened last Tuesday brought news of an imminent Weather Station album How It Is That I Should Look At The Stars and a new song to hear now, ‘Endless Time’.
‘Endless Time’ is a quiet, subtle song that feels huge. It feels hard to move on from. It is a love song and an act of witness as things fall precipitously apart. The arrangement is simply Lindeman accompanying her own voice on piano, the sound of each softened as if outside in the snow.
Despite the hush there’s a palpable urgency from the opening bar. Lindeman’s vocals arrive simultaneously with the opening piano chord, as if settling introductory chords are an extravagance. She sings “It’s only the end of an endless time / I wake up in my own bed, the curtain open wide / To let in what light the sky has to offer today”.
Lindeman is Canadian and I first imagined the skies darkened by last year’s summer fires rather than winter rainclouds, but it is winter in the song: “We could walk out on the street and buy roses from Spain / lemons and persimmons in December rain.” Lindeman returns to this scene towards the end of the song: “We can still walk out on the street and buy champagne grapes / strawberries and lilies in November rain / It never occurred to us to have to pay.”
So, not to read too much into one word choice but that “still”, from this singer, at this time, surely says: Lytton, British Columbia, literally burned last summer, and in response we are so inert and careless that we are still prepared to fly some fruit ten thousand kilometres so we can throw it in the bin.
So I suppose any question I had that new Weather Station songs would still have climate breakdown as a central theme is already answered by those lines. This song occupies a space in which catastrophe is here and life just carries on: “They don’t put that in the paper / You won’t hear it on the news.” The disconnect derives partly from denial (“Maybe at first, you can’t believe your eyes”) and partly from nihilistic malevolence: “You have to use your eyes / And it’s so painful how everybody lies / Nobody tells it straight / They try so hard not to meet your gaze.” As I write about denial I reflect on my own first sentence in this paragraph, my own use of “still”, as if one climate album is all you get: are you still going on about that?
When you could easily argue that all art in 2022 occupies the same teetering existential space Lindeman is singing from and the artists not explicitly acknowledging climate breakdown should be the ones being questioned: why are you not going on about that? I mean, there are reasons. There are other themes! But when I hear The Weather Station or read Richard Powers and Amitav Ghosh I can feel an impatience with those other themes: if there is any chance that the world is literally not going to be liveable in the lifetime of our grandchildren, then I might look askance at art that disregards this.
In the end, ‘Endless Time’ is a love song. I think it is addressed to a former lover: “We laughed so much we wore lines around our eyes”. The singer remembers a photo of the pair of them. In a song steeped in colour I imagine the photo faded and orange, like the photo in ‘Nightswimming’, taken years ago. Lindeman sings “You can see it in that picture of us from long ago; how we changed”. And it feels that in the time since that photo was taken, since the ‘Nightswimming’ photo was taken, not only have those people changed but everything has changed and the act of remembering has changed.
When the natural world is collapsing, every old picture is an elegy. Listening to ‘Endless Time’ I can’t help but reflect that a photo taken five years ago was taken in when Northern White Rhinos still lived. A photo fifty years ago captured a world in which were three times as many wild animals as there are now. We made it impossible for two thirds of them to survive. Though I know those numbers are true I can’t absorb them, they are too much: Maybe at first, you can’t believe your eyes. And all the evidence is that the future will be worse.
It does seem there might not be any turning back and I think ‘Endless Time’ starts from and bravely ends in that dark sad unforgiving place. What ‘Endless Time’ might be saying as it ends is that we can still have songs, we can even have love songs, but they will be songs in a time of dying.
Stephen Shannon is a musician, composer, and producer who grew up in Wicklow and is based in Dublin, where he built and runs his studio Experimental Audio. He has had a somewhat stellar career in recording and producing music since he started out in the early Nineties, when the organisers of the Dublin indie club Dazed asked him to be their live sound engineer. (Stephen told me, “They asked ‘Can you do this?’, and I said ‘No’, but they had nobody else to do it, so that was where I started”.)
Shannon’s list of production credits includes Chequerboard’s The Unfolding, Barry McCormack’s The Tilt of the Earth, and Slow Moving Clouds’ magisterial Os. In the last five years he has moved more into music for film and TV; I won’t list his credits like IMDB but I will say I’m a fan of the soundtrack to The Lodgers, on which he continued a fruitful collaboration with Slow Moving Clouds’ Kevin Murphy. Shannon might be best known as half of Mount Alaska, along with Cillian McDonnell. Mount Alaska’s Coordinates EP came out this year and ‘The Subterranean Heart’, from 2019’s album Wave Atlas: Season One, featured on the soundtrack of Lenny Abrahamson’s Normal People.
Shannon also records as a solo artist as Strands and it was because of brand new Strands music that I was keen to talk to him now. Strands’ only previous album came out over ten years ago and I had assumed that this musical identity had been shelved until a new album called Inner Spaces popped up on Bandcamp on October 1st. Inner Spaces’ nine songs of rich, textured, emotional electronica, inspired by the memory of long walks in Wicklow and a locked-down longing for open spaces, have since soundtracked my own less ambitious rambles across Dublin 8. I’ve been playing Inner Spaces too on the evening drive to Kildare, sometimes detouring past the West Wicklow mountains, closer to the scenes of the songs, to add some crepuscular poetry to the spin home. I haven’t yet walked up Kippure listening to ‘Kippure’, but it’s on the list.
NC: Stephen, the new record came as a lovely surprise. I wasn’t expecting it, then found it on Twitter and Bandcamp, and soon I was listening to it a lot. Is this maybe your third release as Strands?
SS: About ten years ago, I released an album and two EPs. The EPs were a collaboration with some other musicians I admire: Chequerboard (John Lambert) and Thomas Haugh, who was making music under the name of Húlk at the time. They’re two old friends now. So maybe the second proper release.
Then how this new album came about is that around December, January of this year, I suddenly just hit upon something, I was just incredibly prolific. I just started making so much music. I got a new Mount Alaska album finished as well, at least all the composition. I finished about sixty pieces of music in the space of about six weeks.
So I was making music non-stop and I really wanted to release some of it. But I didn’t want to just throw it onto Bandcamp under a different name or under a pseudonym, so I decided just to dig up that old name again—Strands. Then a little label called Remote Town came on board, and they’re based in Wicklow and all my songs are about walking in Wicklow, so I just thought it was perfect.
Did the lockdown suit you in some way in terms of creativity?
I enjoyed some aspects of the lockdown. My wife and I get along really well so we didn’t mind getting locked up together. She’s creative as well, she’s a writer (Sinéad Gleeson). When I wasn’t making music, we were jamming together, we’d have a couple of drinks and it just happened very organically that we just started creating things.
We’ve done a couple of creative pieces together. We just finished doing a piece for an exhibition in the Rua Red gallery: there’s a giant textile map that Alice Maher and Rachel Fallon created, and they invited us to come up with an accompanying audio piece. So Sinéad wrote the words for it and I did all the music and soundscapes and sound design for it. And that was really enjoyable.
And so this whole lockdown for me was just about creating things, when there’s nothing else to do. The Strands album came from that as well because during the lockdowns, you weren’t allowed more than five kilometres from your house. And I’ve always been a hill-walker. So I’d go up to Massey’s Wood or Cruagh Wood or Hellfire at the very nearest, and go walking there for three or four hours and just put on headphones and listen to music. And I just couldn’t do that. So if you look at the album sleeve, it’s a photograph of the sky. In lockdown, the only clear space I could see was when I looked up at the sky, and whatever was in my imagination. So I just made music and titled the songs after all the places I’d love to walk. It was a way of escaping.
Remember when before it was five kilometres it was two kilometres.
Well, I live in Crumlin—total suburbia. You can walk five kilometres in any direction and you won’t get to an open space. But I was still trying to go for long walks, just so I could have a bit of peace and quiet. Like if you go to Ballymount Industrial Estate there’s loads of fields and commons there. So it feels like you’re in a little bit of an open space, it’s nice. So I do have a real hunger for that kind of thing.
It’s a bit of a contradiction, because when I was a kid, I used to love going for really long walks over hills and mountains and by the sea. I grew up in a little village in Wicklow. But what I always did was I compiled tapes of music and listened to things really really loud, so I’d be walking in this cute, peaceful, beautiful place and listening to Billy Idol (laughs).
As I got older, I suppose I carry that with me and if I really like a song, I’ll get it even more if I’m sitting by a lake or walking in a forest or something. So I do still listen to a lot of music when I go for walks. It is about peace, but it’s more about solitude, I suppose.
You mentioned to me the other day that you liked Wormhole back in the day.
Yeah—I love Wormhole!
So we must have been getting into bands around the same time, early to mid 90s?
The path I’m on now, my career, I was just starting out then. I ended up doing live sound for Wormhole at least once because I used to be the sound engineer in a club called Dazed. It was an indie club on O’Connell St, a quarter of a century ago now. I used to do live sound there and there were indie bands there every week. The likes of Sunbear, In Motion. I would have done live sound for all those bands. And that was the first time I had the controls, manipulating sound.
I was just given a shot at it by the guys who ran the club. They asked “Can you do this?”, and I said “No“, but they had nobody else to do it, so that was where I started. That’s where my journey of putting sounds together started. So I remember that time and it was a very exciting time, and I was a big Wormhole fan. I thought they were amazing live. Really big energy. Some great bands from that era, amazing bands. I was a big fan of this band called The Idiots. They were a big drone rock band. They did two hour jams on stage. They were amazing.
Funny you mention them. I don’t do a lot of interviews but I did one with Brian Brannigan two years ago and he mentioned Brian Mooney of the Idiots as one of his favourite songwriters of all time. Then of course Brian Mooney started releasing stuff as The Next New Low and he’s releasing new music now every month.
And it’s really good. It’s great. Yeah, I love Brian Mooney’s stuff. He’s a lovely guy as well, I’ve known him from back then more or less. There was another guy in that band called Jimmy Eadie, and he produced and recorded Jape’s album The Monkeys in the Zoo Have More Fun Than Me. He produced ‘Floating’. I really admire Jimmy as well. He’s working full time in Trinity now, teaching sound design. That’s his job. But for a long time he was, I would say, the best engineer / producer in the country.
I’m keen to talk about the new record but could you just talk a bit about the journey and turning points from being an indie sound engineer in Dazed to now?
I think there are a couple of turning points for me, that made me a little bit atypical, I suppose. I was playing in a couple of bands, I ended up in a punk band called Paranoid Visions, who became Striknien DC. And I think I grew tired of the Dublin scene and I emigrated for a few years. I went to Sweden and I ended up playing in a couple of bands in Gothenburg. And those bands had access to recording equipment, analogue equipment. Reel to reel recordings and mixing desk and some decent equipment.
That was where I really learned my craft, because I ended up recording a lot of local bands in Gothenburg. And for free, because I was just so excited and so into it. So I really learned how to record and mix and work with music while I was there. Then I came back here and I just got myself a basic setup, just an eight-track machine and a couple of microphones and ended up recording a couple of indie bands here. I just slowly started breaking into the Irish scene and recording and mixing bands, and ended up eking out a career for myself just from recording and mixing. And from that I built a studio.
My intention when I built the studio was: I just want to be able to record bands forever. I just love recording and mixing and producing. But in the last five or six years, even after the first Strands album, I just felt the itch that I wanted to not do that as much. I guess it’d become a bit repetitive for me. And I grew into making soundtracks for TV and documentaries and I really enjoyed that because I guess I realised that I’m more of a musician than I am a producer or an engineer or a studio engineer.
So with that I was using all my skills—I was playing guitar and piano and making sound but I was also mixing what I did and recording it, so it felt like a perfect combination of all the skills I’d gained over the years, and I just really enjoyed it. Just before you called me there, I have a deadline and I was working on a piece of music and it’s so engaging, I just love it, you know? And I think what I really love to do is just to work with sound, and the Strands album is part of that and working with soundtracks is a part of that. And of course when I worked more with bands, that was a core part. But somehow I managed to eke out a career for myself along the way, and I do make a living from it and I love it. My golden rule, you should always have a job where you don’t feel like you’re working (laughs). And I do have that, luckily, you know.
So the Inner Spaces album was recorded during the pandemic in your studio from where you are talking to me now. Each song is titled for a different place in Wicklow—the mountains and the sea. Can you talk me through the origin of the album?
Well, the core of the record is basically me imagining walking in those places. How I feel on the way, how I feel when I’m there. And just the experience of being there.
For example, there’s a track called ‘Seefin’. In County Wicklow, not too far from Kippure, there’s this place called Seefin. It’s an old tomb—apparently over 5000 years old. And the tomb was empty when they excavated it, nobody knows who made it, what kind of people they were, or anything about it. When I’m there, every time I’ve been there, there’s never anyone there. But it’s totally breathtaking.
It’s a big mound, but it has a sealed door. And it is an amazing place to be. I think it’s made all the more exciting for me because I’ve only ever been there alone. So in many ways it only exists in my mind, if you know what I mean. So I literally thought about the approach to Seefin tomb and made a piece of music. And then if you listen to the track, there’s a transition point where, in my mind, I’m there, and there’s a shift in the music.
Then there’s a track called ‘Silver Strands’. And that’s a play on the name Silver Strand, which is a beach in Wicklow. But it was also a place I used to go to a lot in the late 90s, because there were loads of parties there, techno parties where everyone danced and took drugs and had a good time. When I go there now, that’s totally burned into my memory. So that music is about the memory of a place. If you were standing at a place and you’re alone but something significant happened there, somehow you might hear echoes of the sound that was going on. That place was bustling and there were hundreds of people there all dancing, and all these people have grown up now and they’ve got families. But it’s that same space, and there’s that question: does that place hold any of that memory?
I suppose it’s taking little journeys in my own imagination and having a fixed theme or a place or a journey to help in the composition and the construction of a song. So you’re working on the arrangement, but it’s always something you return to as a stepping stone on the way, you know: you think of a place you’d love to go and you imagine being there. And then if you reach a lull in the song, in some ways that’s significant as well.
For example there’s a track called ‘Sugarloaf’, which is the most obvious one. That is literally about the walk to the peak of Sugarloaf, and I have this habit, when I get to peaks of hills or mountains, I just do a panoramic shot with my camera. And of course because I shot little videos when I got there, I did accidentally, or maybe not so accidentally, record the sound of the wind up there. And I use that sound in the song.
I was wondering about the other locally collected sounds that ended up in the songs. I’m not sure if I would call them found sounds, that’s probably not the right phrase, but, like—there are bird sounds on the song ‘Tay’, isn’t that right?
Yeah, there are. I did record that but I can’t remember where I recorded it. I have a little recorder I carry with me; I love recording the ocean for example.
You know Strandhill in Sligo? There’s a beautiful beach along there, but further in towards Sligo town the beach gets very rocky and when the waves go back out the water sizzles through the stones, and it’s the most beautiful sound. And the one day my wife and I were there, I didn’t have my handheld recorder. But I was standing there listening to the sound of the water just sizzling through the stones—just so beautiful.
But you know, there’s been a couple of times, in Leitrim— a relative has a little house and we go and stay there sometimes —where I used to go on really late night walks to record night sounds. And it’s so quiet, where our house is, that there’s no sound of traffic or anything. So I was walking through a field with a torch and a handheld. And I had it turned up loud and I had headphones on and a fox howled. I think that’s where the mythology of Banshees came from, that fox’s howl. It was so loud. And I had the sound turned up so loud in my headphones, that I completely terrified myself. I was shook.
I’m sitting there kind of wondering what it must be like to pay attention to the world the way you do: you must have a slightly different way of experiencing the world in the sense that it sounds like your ears are more attuned to what’s going on than most ears. I’m sure we’re all walking past interesting sounds every day that we miss and you don’t.
Well, I know that I’m far more focused on sound than I am sight. The guy who I make music with in Mount Alaska, Cillian, he’s a really old friend, and I love what we do, but he generally looks after the visual aesthetic of the band, as well as working on the music with me. I don’t think about that, or track titles, till the end of the process. This Strands album is an exception but I generally work with what I hear as my focus.
That’s probably one of the reasons we’re having this conversation, because I’m fascinated with how a non-auditory experience ends up as sound and it’s so strange and magical to me. It makes me think of synesthesia. You have a particular experience in, say, Kippure, and there’s a musical rendering that captures that experience in sound. I’m fascinated how that musical capture comes about.
Well, I think if you asked anybody to do their musical version of Kippure, every single one of them would be different. Somebody else would come back and it would just be a one-note drone. For me, places like that have such significance because, for example, Kippure, I made a commitment to myself when I hit 40 to walk up Kippure every year on my birthday. I just set myself this challenge to walk to the top of Kippure. It’s about a seven kilometre walk to the top and it’s uphill all the way. So it’s not an easy walk. It’s fine.
And so I have this emotional attachment to Kippure as a challenge. And when I listen to the music of ‘Kippure’ now, it has that kind of resonance as a challenge. If you listen to the song, there are stages to the journey. There’s a final approach where it’s a lull, and then the happiness of reaching the top. So for everyone it will be different but for me, it’s a propulsive, tough-sounding thing.
There’s a lot of motion in the songs; I didn’t at all want to do something pastoral, you know, a sunny meadow on a beautiful day. I wanted to do my version of the place.
You’ve said about two songs now, ‘Kippure’ and ‘Silver Strands’, that they’re each a representation of the place, but they’re also representations of associations that you have with the place.
It’s definitely me in that place. It isn’t a song about Kippure, it’s about me and Kippure. It’s my experience of it, it’s my attachment to it. And then of course it was me missing it, because I couldn’t be there. I couldn’t be there on my birthday this year. I couldn’t go there. So it’s about me and those places.
Luggala is another one that has some non-musical recorded sound in it. Is that a train?
No, it’s the sound of a piece of metal, like a bell. It’s a piece of metal and it’s blowing in the wind, and it’s knocking off something. So it’s making a sound. ‘Luggala’ is a really small mountain; it’s a steep hill more than a mountain. And again, it’s a place I go to where I’m nearly always alone when I get there. So I was imagining a place during lockdown where I was nearly always alone when I went there. I was certain in my mind that there was nobody there at all. So I was literally trying to make a piece of music imagining what a place would sound like if there was nobody there at all. I was trying to put music to that, the music of a place that’s been abandoned or been left for whatever reason. Pandemic being the main reason for us, but just imagining a space making a sound with no-one there. But it’s also a place I love. You can see a view of Lough Tay from a much higher place and if you look down It’s totally breathtaking. You rarely see something so beautiful.
I want to ask you about ‘Lobawn’ as well. It’s funny that ‘Silver Strands’ has those techno party associations. When I heard ‘Lobawn’—of all of the places on the album I’d never heard of Lobawn before—when I heard the track not knowing the place I thought, well this has got to be somewhere that Stephen was at a rave because it really goes off.
Ha! No. It’s just that it’s a really hard walk. I was trying to get across how tough it is. You’re totally breathless, you have to stop for a few breaks and it’s a big peak. There’s no climbing involved, but it’s a tough walk. So it’s just about the joy of getting there. It’s a celebration. It’s beautiful and it’s just—it’s a total win to get to the top of Lobawn.
What it was, was that about three, four minutes in, there’s that build, and then it kicks in—the way that if you were standing in a field at a party in your twenties, when that came in you’d be giving it loads.
I’ve experienced that of course. I mean, there’s more than a little influence from that time in my life as well, going to those parties. I DJ’d at those parties as well and I was very much part of that scene. It’s part of who I am. And so when I make music completely freely, with no influence of any kind—I literally tried to leave everything at the door and make the record myself. I didn’t play the songs for anybody while I was making them, I just made it. And then I got the label support and put it out. So it was a surprise to almost everyone who knew me. I just wanted it to be very personal. And I suppose that’s the way it came out. So that part of who I am and my past came to the fore a little bit.
I’m always interested in the records and musicians that were important to people early on or important now. Who’s pivotal or influential or who do you really love?
There’s a few. Did you ever hear of a guy called Rival Consoles?
Yes. I like him a lot.
His second last album was from 2018—Persona—and it’s probably the best album I’ve heard in the last 10 years. He’s totally amazing. What I did with the Strands album, I suppose it’s the more artistic approach to electronica and beat-driven music. A bit more abstract, still propulsive. So that Rival Consoles record was a real touchstone for me.
And then there’s loads of stuff I listen to when I’m working with Mount Alaska as well. (Opens Spotify). It says here the last two albums I listened to were Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and Sufjan Stevens (laughs). There’s an artist called Lorenzo Senni, he’s Italian, he made an album called Canone Infinito—he’s amazing. Julianna Barwick, Niklas Paschberg, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Ben Lukas Boysen. Of course Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Another guy I love is Max Cooper. He’s from Northern Ireland and he’s made some beautiful, beautiful music. He makes quite propulsive beat-driven music as well as abstract gentle music. The thing I love about him most is if you spend a bit of time listening to him, especially on headphones, his attention to detail, I’ve never heard anything like it. Just tiny little moments and fragments happening bar to bar; totally beautiful. Every time I listen to it, it just brings new things. So that’s an influence as well, his approach to music.
And then some of the classics. I always go back to Steve Reich. I love repetition in music. So I find Steve Reich relaxing to listen to—the longer the better, and the more repetitive the better. And there’s so many things I listen to all the time. I love Boards of Canada, just keep on going back to Music Has the Right to Children. So dark and beautiful.
Have you ever heard of that Nigerian guy William Onyeabor? Like Fela Kuti but poppier. He was brilliant. There’s a song of his called ‘When The Going Is Smooth and Good’, and if you listen to that, and then listen to my track ‘Lobawn’, you’ll hear there’s a big influence. It’s almost a tribute to him. It’s like a William Onyeabor hats off.
I’m just thinking what it must be like to release music like this. You talked about how solitary a process this was: making music by yourself about trips you mostly take on your own. Music from your memory and imagination. So it’s something very personal, completely yours, then suddenly it’s out there in the world, and you don’t have that much control over it or how people respond to it.
Yeah, I’ve experienced that before—that short period just before you release something. It’s a scary time! It’s a strange thing. You’re about to relinquish all control of it; it’s going to be gone and, love it or hate it, it’s gone. It’s out of your control. It is kind of scary. But once it’s out there, it actually feels really good. It’s gone now; it’s available for anybody who wants to listen to it or not listen to it. It is quite panicky leading up to it, but I feel really positive about it once it’s gone.
The singer Susan Anway died in early September. She had sung with a number of bands since the 1980s, including The Magnetic Fields, who announced her passing on September 9th.
Anway sang lead vocals on The Magnetic Fields’ first two records, The Wayward Bus & Distant Plastic Trees. “Susan Anway sings Stephin Merritt songs” went the credits on the sleeve; it was just the pair of them in the band back then. “She was a lovely person and will be missed by all of us”, wrote The Magnets last week on social media, alongside a video of the Wayward Bus song ‘Dancing In Your Eyes’: “When we walk hand in hand in the rain / When we’re young and in love once again / We will dance in the autumn with the leaves in our hair / When I look, I’ll be dancing in your eyes“.
I remember, or I think I remember, Merritt saying in the 90s that he asked Susan Anway to be The Magnetic Fields’ singer because her voice did not have too much personality. I understood that he meant that a voice with more personality, even his own lugubrious baritone, might distract from the song. Anway’s clear, composed voice read the melody line and delivered the words: job done, no distractions. And I can not swear that Merritt said this and if he did so he may have been joking. But the thought of that quote has left me thinking about Susan Anway’s contribution to those records.
In those days Merritt’s songs were too much. His arrangements were kitchen-sink synth-pop Spector, ornate and wired and sweepingly melodramatic. His lyrics scaled scarcely credible heights of emotional enormity. ‘100,000 Fireflies’ opens: “I have a mandolin / I play it all night long / It makes me want to kill myself“. (Excuse me?) In ‘Summer Lies’, Anway sings: “All the sweetest things you said and I believed were summer lies / Hanging in the willow trees like the dead were summer lies / I’ll never fall in love again“. It wasn’t enough for the story in an early Magnetic Fields song to be sad, it had to be ‘The Saddest Story Ever Told’: “Once upon a time we fell in love or at least that’s what you said / You say I can find someone else but I just wish I was dead… And then we’ll quietly grow old / The saddest story ever told.”
Susan Anway’s job here was to ground these songs; to steady them in such a way that they hit home. Merritt’s huge arrangements veered close enough to Spector that it could have been emotionally distancing – was this a PhD in pastiche or a heartfelt set of songs? Even Merritt’s depictions of extreme woe could have been alienatingly arch, more than the songs could withstand, but Susan Anway sang his aching words so earnestly, so free from any taint of irony, that every line landed.
As I’ve been thinking about Susan Anway this week I’ve been thinking about a poem by Ada Limon called Instructions On Not Giving Up. The poem (from poets.org) is as follows:
More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees that really gets to me. When all the shock of white and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath, the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin growing over whatever winter did to us, a return to the strange idea of continuous living despite the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then, I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
And I don’t want to over-explain but I’ve been thinking a lot since Susan Anway died about that final couple of lines. About the fuchsia funnels and candy-colored blossoms of those early Magnetic Fields songs. (The Wayward Bus even has a song called ‘Candy’: “Candy, it’s been really nice, but I’ve got to go / Cos I can’t be the part of your life you don’t wanna know“). Those Wayward Bus songs glistened and shone and oscillated wildly and that was all great; and Susan Anway sang in counterpoint, caring and experienced, ready for anything, like that leaf unfurling.
I think about how Merritt specialised in longing and Anway voiced that longing and made it liveable with. Merritt wrote about “diving for a girl you’ll never find“, which I’ve always heard as “diving for a pearl you’ll never find“, and to be honest I prefer my version. Susan Anway’s voice took the longing and loss in that line and accepted it; relished it. Diving for a pearl you’ll never find: that’s what life is, right? Who ever finds the pearl? What would you even do with it if you found it? I’ll take that, said Susan Anway. This may be the saddest story ever told, she sang, but it’s all we have, and I’ll take it all.
Brendan Tallon from Ballinteer has been a restless creative force in Irish musical life for more than thirty years now. Good Friday just gone saw the release of ‘Old Man Superman’, his first new song since 2012’s Saturday Captains, made with Barry O’Mahony, once of Luggage, of whom Tallon speaks highly below. After a solid thirty-plus years as a band leader and collaboratorーCrocodile Tears, The Coletranes, Revelino, Saturday Captains, and Beatclub, the cover band that has kept him in business as a full-time musician to this dayー’Old Man Superman’ is Tallon’s first ever solo release.
Tallon gets into ‘Old Man Superman’ in depth in the conversation below so for the purposes of this paragraph it’s just necessary to say a couple of things. Firstly, ‘Old Man Superman’ is Tallon’s response to the story of the Skilled Veterans Corps, a group of older Japanese men who volunteered to enter Fukushima in 2011 so that younger men with more to lose would not have to. Secondly, ‘Old Man Superman’ is an irresistible song ー punchy, soulful, effusive, incandescent. The inkling to write this piece arose when on a drive home on the day of its release I put it on for the first time, then immediately had to put it on again for the second, third, fourth and fifth times. When that instant electric connection is made I’m always curious to figure out what just happened.
Although I’ve known who Brendan Tallon is since The Coletranes went Top Ten with ‘I Wake Up’ in 1991, and although I’m from Ballinteer myself, I’d never met him and I didn’t know what to expect from our Zoom chat. I had suspected, possibly through one too many listens to ‘Don’t Lead Me Down’, that I might be interviewing some brooding melancholy character. He is… not that. He was buzzing with energy and ideas and associations and with a profound, moving, and infectious love of the song. It was a joy to listen to Brendan’s enthusiastic explication of the art and craft of songwriting.
‘Old Man Superman’ is now out on Bandcamp. A further two singles are planned for release over the next couple of months and an album Love In TheseTimes comes out this summer.
NC: Brendan, thanks for doing this.
BT: This is the first one I’ve done for a long time now, except for Alan Corr’s thing the other day, so I might be a bit rusty.
Was the last time you did one of these for the Saturday Captains album with Barry O’Mahony?
Yeah. Did you hear that?
I only discovered that album literally this week.
It was one of those records. I mean, I don’t know what you make of yourself, but I’d still consider it a real gem. A lot of people missed it. You know, Barry and myself wouldn’t be the greatest as far as publicising ourselves. We were good at doing the music and then the writing but when it comes to anything else we would have been like: we’ll make the music and that’s about all we can manage. So the album definitely slipped under the radar, but I know a lot of people who did actually give it a listen have grown to love it. I’m personally very proud of it.
I didn’t know Barry O’Mahony was still active. I remember him from Luggage, who always had this great lost band status to me. There’s this air of mystique about them, and then suddenly, I’m finding that he’s still writing and recording new songs. I know it’s a few years ago now.
Yeah. Luggage played with Revelino, they supported us a good few times. I knew Barry. We used to go to parties and stuff together but we wouldn’t have been great friends. But since then we’ve become great friends and now I see him all the time.
In fact, I ran all the songs from the new album by Barry first. He’s kind of my lyrical editor and he taught me a lot about writing lyrics. When we were doing the Saturday Captains record he said to me ‘Look, I’m going to look after the lyrics, you look after the music’. And you know, I think he’s one of the most unique writers around that we’ve ever had. He’s a master lyricist. And a completely unique voice and a unique vision and a unique way of using language.
He taught me a lot of things about writing lyrics, because during the Revelino years, I tried to come up with my own kind of voice and my own language. And when Revelino broke up I never stopped writing songs. But Barry taught me to write in a more conversational tone. That’s what he would always say to me: make them more conversational. Remember, my lyrics for Revelino were described once in the Melody Maker as “portentous”ーnot pretentious; portentous. And I thought, yeah, that’s accurate, you know? That’s what I was kind of going for. But after that, I wanted to be more direct with my lyrics. And working with Barry taught me a lot because, talking about the album I’m just about to release, some of these songs were written in the year or two after Revelino broke up.
You’ve talked about being in bands and collaborating, but on the new record is it all you?
Well. I’ve described it a few times like trying to climb Mount Everest on your own, you knowーdoing a solo album and playing absolutely everything. The two things I wasn’t able to do was play the drums and I had Fintan Jones, who plays in my cover band, and is a fantastic multi-instrumentalist, to play sax, clarinet, flute. And he helped me with singing a lot of the harmonies together. The lion’s share of it was just myself here tearing my hair out half the time. But, you know, got there in the end.
You said there are songs on the current record that you wrote just when Revelino broke up. Didn’t Revelino break up the guts of twenty years ago?
Well, I wrote two songs in the few years after Revelino. I wasーI’m always writing songs. That’s what I do. Since the first time I bought a guitar. I did a few guitar lessons years ago withーyou know David Kitt? His father Tom Kitt was my guitar teacher in primary school.
Right! So there you go. So he gave me a few guitar lessons, but then the guitar went under the bed until I was 16 or so. Then I took it out. And the first two chords I learned were G and C and I wrote a song straight away. Before I actually went to learn anybody else’s song, I wrote a song with the two chords I’d learned. So I’ve pretty much been doing it ever since. But when I wrote a couple of songs after Revelino broke up, I realised, OK, I’m going to have to do a solo album. But I was hoping a band would somehow form and I could bring these songs to them, because I just like the togetherness of a band, or brotherhood, or whatever. Then Saturday Captains came along, and that distracted me, but even during Saturday Captains I was writing tunes. In fact, I presented ‘Old Man Superman’ in its earliest form to the lads in Saturday Captainsーwhat do you think of this idea?ーand they didn’t know what to make of it, really. They were likeーno, that’s one of yours, Brendan.
Can you talk about how ‘Old Man Superman’ came about?
Sure. So normally, when I’m writing a songーdo you play guitar?
Do you write songs?
Well, no. I tried, in school, and they were not good enough to encourage me to continue to try.
Right. Well, funny enough, as I was saying to you, the first song I wrote was just G and C. I remember the tune of it and I remember playing it to friends. And they went “Oh, that’s catchy”, you know. So like, straight away, I knewーnot that I knew I could do it but there was something in the songs that I was writing that caught people’s ears or whatever.
But the way I write songs is I pick up a guitar or I sit at the piano and I start playing around with chord sequences. That’s my thing. And singing on top of them, just making up rubbish on top. Gobbledygook half the time, it’s not even English. And if I get a little chord sequence, or a couple of chords that interest me, you’d be amazed how many times the first two or three lines of the song with the melody and the chord sequence just come out of you at the same time. The theme is there, the first lines of the chorus or the verse is there. And this interesting chord sequence.
What always interests me about writing songs, or listening to music, that I don’t think is discussed enough, are chord sequences. And I think any of the bands that come along that make a difference, quite often they use unusual chord sequences. They combine chords in a newish way.
I mean, a classic example is the Beatles, right? Take ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. They’re doing rock and roll, Chuck Berry shuffle, but it’s a G to D to E minor. That’s a folk change so you would expect it to go to B minor but instead it goes G, D, E minor, B major so straight away that’s a new thing. That’s an unusual thing. Having a G, D, E minor, but a B major instead of B minor, that pricks up your ears straight away. And then in the middle eight, there’s a D minor, which is really a show tune chord change, it’s kind of a Cole Porter-y thing to do. It’s a bit slightly jazzy from that original idea. So they’re doing a Chuck Berry rhythm with Everly Brother harmonies to a rock beat, throwing in a Cole Porter thing in the middle with handclaps on it, and it’s all over two and a half minutes. So your ears, I mean at the time, it must’ve beenーWow!
Then something like ‘I Am The Walrus’ has a deeply unusual chord sequence that just works. And then, Bowie’s a classic. If you look at Bowie’s chord sequences like ‘Quicksand’, it’s outrageous, and ‘Ashes to Ashes’ is such an amazing song and underneath it all is this deeply strange but beautiful chord sequence. Then bands like the Pixies come along, and they’re using chordsーthey’re not using weird chords, like jazzy chords, like Steely Dan, but they’re using ordinary chord sequences in unusual ways.
There’s so many examples. Take ‘Here Comes The Sun’. It’s just D, G, and A, right? The simplest chord sequence in the world. But in the chorus, he goes D, G, and E7, and that’s the moment where it just becomes something. It’s just one chord. And I’m really interested by those changes that are very sophisticated but totally instinctive. None of these writers probably studied theory. It’s just all instinctive. And that’s what I kind of try to do.
So ‘Old Man Superman’ was one of those songs that I sat down with the guitar, and I started playing the opening riff of it, thought that’s cool, where can I go with this? Next section came along then next section, next section, and it was all done in five minutes.
Pretty much. Five or ten minutes. I don’t know if you noticed that song is in four sections?
Yeah, it starts off and not to get too technical because it would be boring people who are reading thisー
No, go onーI can worry about the readers.
OK, good. So it starts off in A, D, and G. And then it goes into major seven chordsーEmaj7, Amaj7, Dmaj7, B. Then is the riff, which is B, A, G, E, D, and then it jumps into the sax break in C. And it resolves by going to F sharp, back to B, to A. So it’s a really, really weird chord sequence, but I like playing around with those kinds of chord sequences, and making them seem seamless. So you don’t notice that these things are happening. That really interests me. So I had the chord sequence pretty much done, it came amazingly fast, because there is so much to it. But it just seemed so natural.
And so my next step would normally be that I would play around with it, try and sing, but nothing was coming as far as a theme or a melody. So I normally just put it up onto Logic, you know, record it onto Logic with a basic drum beat, stick a rhythm guitar down and a bass guitar. And then every time I go back to the computer to work on a song, I’ll put that on for 10 minutes, I’ll fiddle around with the arrangement of it. I still had no lyrics, so I didn’t know what the song was about, you know. So I had the song and it sat there for about two years. And I tried different melodies and different lyrical ideas and nothing really hit me. And I still had no theme.
And then I took a break. I was just surfing around, reading some articles on the Guardian, various newspapers, you know, and came across an article about Fukushima. And the story wasn’t about the Skilled Veterans Corps, but it was about Fukushima. There was a paragraph that, as an aside, just mentioned these guys. So it just hit me really hard. You know, it was a very Japanese thing to do. But it’s also a very human thing to do. A very logical thing to do. I don’t want to get too heavy into this because it is a pop song at the end of day, you know? But at the same time, I was reading a book called The Closing of the Western Mind? Have you ever come across that one?
It’s by a guy called Charles Freeman. And the idea is, it was about the struggle in early Christianity between the Greek and Arab tradition, which was scientific, and the new Western tradition, which was more mythical. In the Greek and Arabic tradition, the direct translation of the first line of the Bibleーwhat’s the first line? First there was…
In the beginning was the Word?
In the beginning was the Word. But in the Greek translation, the beginning was logic. Logos meaning word, which directly translated is logic. Greek philosophers believed that logic was something that could be found, like gravity, that was an immutable force in nature. That in the beginning was the law of immutable logic. This was God’s mind. The other word that they had was Muthos, which is where a myth comes from. And in Greek and in Arab traditions, these things live side by side. Logic the scientific tradition and myth the ceremonial tradition. And when the battle was engaged, the Roman tradition, which was more into the myth, said that God’s mind was more powerful than the logic, his Word is more powerful than the logic, the myth won over from the logic, and in that way, we were kind of flung into the dark ages. No more learning for two hundred years, and the Greek and Arab tradition was kind of destroyed.
So I was reading this book and the idea that logic was an immutable power was in my head. Then I read the story about this guy, and what he said in the article was that he didn’t see it as brave, this was just deeply reasonable. It was the only logical thing to do. That’s the way he saw it. In the song that became “Logic was his superpower”. So I just went for a walk with this thing in my head and the first two verses came to me while I was walking around Marlay and I just came home. So I had the song then.
There’s something in the song that made me reflect on grandparents in general, specifically my Dad, and a self-effacing generosity I associate with older people. The notion that Mr Yamada would head into a nuclear reactor to save a younger person seemed familiar.
Well as I said, it is very Japanese, but we’ve discovered through COVID that it is quite a universal thing. People will do things for the younger generation that are so selfless.
I also wanted to make a song that defended scientists and the sciences, because you had climate change conspiracies, you had vaccination conspiracies, you have all these conspiracies. Suddenly scientists were all in this evil cabal, you know, trying to form a one-world government. Where growing up, we always thought of them as idols and heroes. And so I wanted to write a song and put it all in there that defended science and celebrated that idea that people will do that. And as I said, not in a sentimental way. Mr Yamada said, this is not sentimental. I’m just thinking that I will get radiation poisoning, and I will get cancer, but I’ll be 85 or 90 years of age. I don’t want somebody who’s starting out their married life, who has young kids to get this. And that played in a lot with my worldview.
So I understood immediately when I read the story, but I was telling Bren Berry, who’s been with me and helping me and my family, my biggest champion, since the early days. He’s been in all the bands with me. And when I had the record ready, I contacted him and said, listen I need help here, you knowーlisten to the songs, tell me what I need to do next. And so he said, ‘What are the songs about?’ So I told him about ‘Old Man Superman’, he thought that was fantastic, you know. And then I sent him the song. And I told him all this, what I’m saying to you here, you know about the book and about my feelings about science. And he goes, ‘Well, you’d never know it from the song, Bren’ (laughs).
But my feeling is that you can’t put all that stuff in, even though that’s what goes through your head when you’re writing a song. You still want the sound to be fun, you still want the song to be something that people can read into themselves. I don’t want to put every word of my thoughts and feelings into it. You distil it down into imagery and if it’s a great fun pop song, it might even travel further with a message than it would if I had written a thirty-verse heavy protest song. So that’s my thing. I just love the power of a pop song.
It’s interesting when you say you’re not trying to dictate what people hear in the song. At work I run a group where we read poems together and a constant in this group is the variation in perspectives on the same poem. If I brought ‘Old Man Superman’ into this group, and I’ve five or six people in this group with me, I know that everyone else will hear it differently than I’ve heard it.
Well the thing is I don’t consider songwriting to be a high art form. I consider it to be a craft. And for me songs don’t have meaning, you know. I always compare it to a furniture maker. If you carve a great table out of wood nobody asks what’s the meaning of the table. They just know that’s a beautiful tableーit’s something we can sit at, that we can have our dinner at, and we can chat around. And songs are like that. I like the fact that ‘Old Man Superman’ is out there because the final creative act in music is the listener hearing it and getting their own thing out of it. Whether that means they want to dance to it, or sing along with it, you knowーsongs should be used, they should be used at parties, they should be used to relax, they should be used to entertain yourself when you’re driving in a car. They should just be out there. They are not things to be hung on walls in fine art galleries.
One thing that struck me about ‘Old Man Superman’ was its confidenceーits willingness to use loads of ideas in one song as if ideas were in endless supply. I was listening to it today quite closely, and even in the first one minute and twenty secondsーa lot happens.
Yeah, a lot happens, and it goes through those four stages I was telling you and it goes through those chord changes, and it goes through different ideas and different themes and different moods. And not every song on the album is like that. But I’ve never been really short of ideas musically. And I listen to lots of different kinds of music. I love classical music and I’d listen to Leonard Cohen and then I’d go and listen to Sex Pistols. I’d be listening to the Pixies or Simon and Garfunkel or Schubert and Eddie Cochran. You’re like a little magpie: I never sit down and try to copy but I just have a broad enough appreciation and influences that I don’t mind picking from here and there. I think that’s the way to do it. I mean, pop music is really like a traditional music now, isn’t it? It’s almost like a folk music: it belongs to all of us and all musicians take ideas from each other and that’s how it develops.
I find my listening has changed quite a lot as I got older: has your listening changed?
To be honest, no, because my job at the weekend is playing music, you know? And then during the week, I’m either with the kids or I’ll be grabbing a few hours to make music. So I don’t have a huge amount of time to sit down and devour albums. If I’m recommended an album, I’ll definitely go and seek it out. But I’m not a record collector so much anymore.
And you know, the place that I listen to new music is in the vanーwhen I’m travelling back from gigs back in the day, when we were doing gigs. You could be travelling at three or four o’clock in the morning and I’d be listening to Late Date and I’d be listening to the Tom Dunne show. And I just love hearing that variety of new music, you know, and it’s so fantastic. It’s all really strong stuff. And especially when you’re travelling, and it’s night-time, it’s a great way to listen to music.
It’s funny because I was mixing the album down in Meath in Ballivor. So it’s in the middle of nowhere and I’d be travelling home at 3AM and I’d be putting on Late Date, or Fiachna Ó Braonáin would be on, or Cathal. And I’d be wondering, you know, would my song fit in there? Some day will it be on there? And it has been played on there. So it means a lot to me that those shows have taken it up and played it because I listen to them so much. I just love the stuff that they play, but I find that I can’t get too obsessed with anything because I find that it does get in the way of my own workflow.
I mean, the last time I got really floored by an album was Joe Chester’s Murder of Crows. That stopped me in my tracks, you know, and it stopped me working for about a year. Not because of the songwriting but don’t get me wrongーI think the songwriting is and the singing is exceptional. But what stopped me in my tracks was the quality of the production and the quality of the recording. And I realised, OK, if I’m going to do an album, that’s where I’m going to have to aim. I don’t know if I’m going to get that high, because I was only learning the ropes as an engineer and learning basic recording techniques. But that’s what I aim for.
And I really wanted the album to sound good because I’m obsessed with sonics as well. Sam Phillips said the first thing people hear is the timbre of a song. It’s not the tune. It’s not the beat. It’s just the overall sound. I was doing a wedding a couple of years ago and there was a song on the radio and I immediately went Oh my God, the sound, just the sound of it. I had to go and find out what it was. It was ‘Across the Universe’ by The Beatles, which I’ve heard a million times, but because it was on a different side of the room I just couldn’t quite pick out the tune. But the sound! The sound was what hit me first. So that’s something that I’m kind of obsessed with.
Because to be honest, I know I can write a good song. I’ve learned a lot more about lyrics, I’ve learned a lot more about my own voice and how to use it. As opposed to Revelino: we just went into the room, it was like playing live, you just played your live set and it was fantastic. And it was great to have a band to work with like that. But now you’re on your own it’s a different work technique. And one of the things about writing for myself was that, subconsciously, I think when you’re in a band like Revelino you know there’s three electric guitars, you know that you’re going to play these songs in Whelan’s. So you know the venue: subconsciously you’re writing songs with that in mind.
In David Byrne’s book How Music Works he talks about that. If you write a song and you know it’s going to be performed in the National Concert Hall it’s going to be different from CBGBs or a little folk club. Even if you don’t know, you’re conscious of that, and subconsciously I was aware that, you know, we’ve got a practice session on Thursday night and if I’m writing a new idea I’m gonna have to bring into this group of lads who are standing there with the electric guitars plugged in the big amplifiers. So you know, there are certain boundaries, which is a very positive thing because you’ve got your rules, you write within the rulesーit doesn’t mean you can’t write great songs. I think boundaries are a great thing and limitations, in writing, and this time, the boundaries were different. I was on my own.
Can you say more about that? What are the limitations now? If you’re free to do whatever you want to do, you’re at home recording by yourself in your own time, then what kind of limitations apply, orーwhat’s the palette?
That is a good question. I suppose I’m limited with what I can do recording here in the apartment because it’s all recorded here. It was all recorded in the apartment, even the brass, and the only thing that was recorded outside was the drums and a little bit of some cello.
I suppose It’s great when you have a full band, because you go into a rehearsal studio, everybody plays the sound together, you can almost immediately get a feel for the entire arrangement. Whereas when I was working on my own, I mean some of the songsーI probably recorded ‘Old Man Superman’ fifteen times. You’re constantly having to build a track up from nothing, until you get to a point where you can judge whether it’s the right tempo or if it’s the right key for my voice or whatever. So that’s limiting you in a way because you’d have to do so much work, you’re not instantaneously hearing the sound of the song. I mean, with a band you can go, OK, let’s go in and do it, it’s this tempo in this key and record it. And immediately, you can kind of hear what that feels like or sounds like. It’s a huge amount of work if you’re doing that on your own. But it also gives the songs time to ferment.
I found that what I’m always trying to do with songwriting is: it’s like you’re going around and you’re clearing dirt off the ground, and you’re looking for slabs with stuff written in them. You’re looking for something that’s always been there. And you’ve just found it; you’ve just discovered it; you haven’t created it. But when I sit down to write a song, I always think, wow, this is exciting. Who knows in ten minutes what’s going to exist. I don’t feel like I write it though. I just feel like I’m discovering it. It’s just chords and it’s words. So I’m just scrambling around the dirt clearing a bit here and goingーwell that doesn’t look good, that looks okay, but it’s a bit cracked. And then you’re looking for something that seems like it’s always been there. And, when you get that, then I’m looking for the right tempo, for the right arrangement. I’m looking for everything to seem like it always was, if you know what I mean.
I know you talked about songwriting as a craft but this feels different: songwriting as uncovering. I love that image of wiping the dirt away and finding what’s already there. There’s somethingーI mean, I don’t want to use the word mystical, but that idea that you can find something that’s always been there but just hasn’t yet been expressed yet, but it’s in the ether; that feels very different from craft.
It is. I often thinkーand I write songs every day. I can pick up a guitar and write a song any time I want. But I’ve never sat down and gone, OK, pen, paper, I’m going to write a song. I doodle, I mess around, I play around here, and if I hear an idea that interests me, I’ll go after it. I stick it down on my phone and I listen to it the next day. And if it still interests me, I’ll pick it up again and try and progress it further. But so many of those ideas don’t go anywhere. I mean, I’ve literally, literally, thousands of unfinished songs that are decent ideas, but the ones that go all the way to being a finished song, something happens that you get the next part, and you get the next part, and it just comes. I do often sit here and think, well, you know, anytime I pick up a guitar, an hour later, that could be a great song, a good song. It could be a song that didn’t exist before I picked up the guitar. And that is definitely a mystical thing. But I do think that there’s a craft to it that you learn. It’s like a sculptor or somebody who builds chairs and tables. You get better at it the more you do it, and the easier it is for you to find things.
One thing that really comes across is just how enthused and energised by this you still are. It’s thirty years plus since The Coletranes and it sounds like you’re still fascinated by what you can discover musically. Like, there’s only so many chords, but there’s an infinite way of putting them together.
Yeah. There’s a guy called Rick Beato, he has a YouTube channel, which anybody who’s interested in music should check out. And he talks about different things, but one of the things he talks about is: what is the mathematical equation if we’re just using eight notes? And it’s infinite. The possibilities literally are infinite. And nothing excites me more than coming up with a new idea. I mean, myself and Barry O’Mahony, that’s what we do for fun. Like, before COVID, what I would do for a night out is I would go over to his place with my guitar, and we would write songs. And that’s what we do, that’s what we find most entertaining. And we can, you know, we’re able to do it. He’s as tireless as I am. He’s the only person I’ve ever met that can literally go twelve hours without eating and never flag.
So in the zone that he forgets to be hungry kind of a thing?
Oh, yeah, totally. We do that. Yeah, we’ve done that many times. And he’s literally been here when we were recording Saturday Captains and he would go twelve, fourteen hours without eating. I couldn’t quite do that now. But I still have the same feeling for it, you know?
OK Brendan, thanks a million. It’s great to talk to you. I love the idea that you and other people who were active when I was getting into bands thirty years ago are still doing it now with as much energy and creativity as ever. It’s inspiring to me, so I’m thankful.
Well, I think we all got into it for the right reasons because we loved music. It wasn’t to become famous. I mean, I never cared about being famous or being a frontman. I just ended up singing because I wrote songs. I just want to write songs the best way I can, produce them the best way I can. And if people get off on what I’m putting out and enjoy it, that’s all I want. And anybody I know who got into music back in those days did because they were just blown away by music themselves when they were teenagers, and the bug just never leaves you. And now every single day I’ll pick up a guitar and write a song and I always feel like God, this could be good. This could be the one!
This is a piece I wrote for State in 2010 on the Louth Contemporary Music Society. In 2010, I loved their first record called A Place Between but other than the existence of that record I knew nothing about them. So on the release of their second album Path I interviewed Eamonn Quinn, who founded the Louth CMS with his wife Gemma Murray, and I was delighted to be able to get a quote from Terry Riley. The Louth CMS have since amassed an immense catalogue of recordings and their festivals and live performances are being recognised by the likes of the Financial Times and the Guardian. A decade ago I thought the Louth CMS story was an astonishing one and they’ve only gone from strength to strength since then, and at every step it’s all been done for the sake of the music.
In 2006, one of the more remarkable stories in Irish music began when Dundalk residents Eamonn Quinn and his wife Gemma Murray had a baby and found that they couldn’t get up to the city for concerts as often as before. Rather than do what a couple in that situation might reasonably do – stay in and stock up on box sets – they decided that no-one was better qualified than they were to bring the world’s leading contemporary composers to their home town. (“I had no idea what I was doing,” says Eamonn.) Thus, with a DIY ethic fit for a punk movement or an Elvis movie, the Louth Contemporary Music Society, or LCMS, came into being.
You could say it snowballed from there. The last five years have seen a remarkable array of composers and musicians visiting Dundalk, writing new work for the LCMS, and contributing to two extraordinary albums. To say that it snowballed, though, implies that it sort of happened by itself; it vastly underestimates the work, force of will, and guts that it took to establish Dundalk as a world centre for contemporary music. Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt are probably the two most acclaimed living classical composers, and they are just two who have visited Dundalk, and would not have done but for Quinn and Murray’s vision, tenacity and willingness to take significant financial risk without prospect of financial gain.
The LCMS went within a couple of years from promoting to producing brand new music, commissioning work by Arvo Pärt (‘The Deer’s Cry’), John Tavener (‘O My People’), Valentin Silvestrov (‘5 Sacred Songs’), and the legendary Terry Riley (‘Loops for Ancient Giant Nude Hairy Warriors Racing Down the Slopes of Battle’). Terry Riley (maybe best known for In C and his collaboration with John Cale, Church of Anthrax) celebrates his 75th birthday in Dundalk at the end of this week.
In 2009, Eamonn Quinn produced the Louth CMS’s first album, A Place Between. From John Tavener’s aching ‘Ikon of Joy/Sorrow’ to Michael McHale’s gorgeous take on John Cage’s ‘In a Landscape’, A Place Between is a meditative, accessible and stunningly beautiful piece of work. The second album, Path, which comes out on November 1st, is probably more adventurous in its programming. Alongside well known and hardly known pieces by Arvo Pärt (‘Summa’ and ‘Von Angesicht zu Angesicht’, respectively) and a brace by Tavener (‘Epistle of Love’ and ‘Sāmaveda’), there are works by young Eastern artists (Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, Aleksandra Vrebalov, Zurab Nadarejshvili) who hardly anyone in Ireland and beyond will have heard of. Path is diverse, brave, and remarkably moving. Eamonn Quinn is at pains throughout our interview not to make value judgments about music but I will: Path and A Place Between are nourishing and nurturing records to put on when the phoniness and irony that passes for most 21st century art is wearing you down. This is music that is not afraid to be serious and (whisper it) sacred.
This week, I asked Terry Riley for a comment on the LCMS. I asked him whether, in his experience, the LCMS was as singular an organisation as it appeared to be, or if there was a network of similarly productive and driven organisations out there, worldwide, under the radar. He replied: “I would say the Louth CMS is particularly significant because of the dedication, love and devotion that drives Eamonn Quinn to seek out special musicians to bring to his corner of the world. These choices are made on musical worth regardless of their commercial potential. It is these kind of risks that keep music alive.”
State: I wondered if you could start by giving us a bit of background. The LCMS seems to have come out of nowhere but I assume you and Gemma both have a pedigree in contemporary classical music, to instigate an organisation like this. Can you fill me in a little on that pedigree?
Eamonn Quinn: We established LCMS to bring world class musicians and composers to perform and educate in Louth. We have never swayed from that aim. And it has been great. A small revolution in a place never exposed to this music; having Terry Riley here, commissioning Arvo Pärt, recording CDs, Kronos Quartet and Ghost Opera, Philip Glass in Dundalk. Mad when you think about it. In terms of pedigree, I have none and there was never any contemporary music on the scale that we have been doing in Louth before LCMS. I’m still not sure how it all happened though I feel blessed.
I have always been interested in music. I have four brothers and four sisters. I am the youngest so all this music just permeated the house. Most of the boys had their own huge music collections: the Beatles (The White Album and Abbey Road), The Stones, Lou Reed, Dylan, Velvets, Love’s Forever Changes, Pink Floyd, from Syd Barrett to obscure things like Bo Henson’s original Lord of the Rings. I absorbed all that, moving to old soul records, jazz and then contemporary music. Gemma and some friends introduced me to John Adams’s Shaker Loops, Kronos playing Kevin Volans, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, and then on to other things. We moved to Dublin and encountered The Crash Ensemble, who were amazing and still are. So it is an ongoing voyage of discovery. I just found contemporary music fascinating and still do. But nobody needs any pedigree. Music is a gift that we all get to share in either making the gift or receiving it.
Can you talk a little about how you got started? The original seed of an idea – and the nuts and bolts of doing it. The entrepreneurship of the LCMS.
Our first gig was Joanna MacGregor in 2006. I found it difficult to travel to Dublin or Belfast as my wife had our first baby and we wanted the same cultural experiences here in Louth. My wife suggested I organise something – so I did. I had no idea what I was doing: booking artists or selling tickets. But with help from the Drogheda and Dundalk Arts Office, we pulled it off.
Then I decided our next performance would be Terry Riley’s first concert in Ireland. I contacted Terry in San Francisco and he agreed to come to Ireland the following year. Terry also wrote a work for LCMS. I didn’t know this was a “commission” and that normally commissions cost money. But being a kind hearted soul, Terry give it to us for free. I then decided to commission Arvo Pärt. He agreed to write ‘The Deer’s Cry’ for us and come to Ireland in 2008 for the performance. I applied to the Arts Council for funding for the above and the Louth Arts Offices also helped.
Following this, I wanted Philip Glass to perform in Dundalk. This was a lot different from previous projects as we had no Arts Council funds for the performance. We had some funds from the local arts office but the financial risk with Glass was huge. I had just lost my job as well but we still needed to sell something like over 700 tickets to break even. Yet we still kept the ticket price low, 30 euros, to enable people to attend. Also, I programmed the Glass performance to allow Irish performers like Ioana Petcu Colan, Gerard McChrystal and the Dublin Guitar Quartet the opportunity to perform with Philip Glass. That was very important.
By the way, he is a lovely man Philip Glass, very gentle and great company. I collected him from Galway and we took the train to Dublin so we had a great chat.
It must have been some feeling when you realised you’d brought these huge figures to your home town – done something extraordinary.
It felt great. But I also felt great for the area and the people of Louth that we had done it. I was the first person to invite Terry Riley to Ireland. He told me he had waited 70 years to receive this invitation. I commissioned probably one of the most important and popular composers in the world: Arvo Pärt. That performance and commission was very important to me personally and professionally. I know when we were told that he accepted the commission, Gemma and I burst into tears, not just out of joy that he had accepted but also as we wondered how much would this cost and how could we pay for it?
Some of the works on A Place Between and Path are well known and established, some hardly known at all. Two composers on Path (Aleksandra Vrebalov and Polina Medyulyanova) are under forty. Where do you find the works?
It’s a long story. Aleksandra Vrebalov I heard through her recordings on two Kronos CDs. I just got in touch, we chatted and she sent some scores and audio and I knew I wanted to record her (Track 6: ‘The Spell III for Violin and Live Electronics’). Great composer and quite young. Polina Medyulyanova (‘Ewige Ruhe’) I heard by accident on Myspace. Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky: I heard his piece ‘Chang Music III’ on the Xenia Ensemble CD (2008’s Eastern Approaches–Music from Former Soviet Republics). I contacted his publisher in Paris and started to study his scores and listen to audio, realizing that he is one of the most important living composers. Amazing.
It’s striking, as Michael Dervan noted in a glowing review in the Irish Times, the extent to which the music on Path comes out of the East.
I thought about this before when I discovered that I had an affinity with music of the former Soviet countries. I know I am more interested in the music from the east than say the US: Arvo Pärt, Sofia Gubaidulina, Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky and Valya Silvestrov are among my favourite composers. Maybe it is the hardship that comes through in the music, there is a lot of sadness and suffering. For me the music has so much emotional depth it never fails to move me. Shostakovich’s Songs from Jewish Poetry or Silvestrov’s Silent Songs are incredibly powerful works.
Plus, the vastness of the geographical space is so unknowable and the diverse nature of each culture is very appealing. Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky is very much a case in point. His music is equally at ease with eastern forms yet he still uses western techniques, creating a unique sound world.
Some of the composers that you have on your albums – like Arvo Pärt and John Tavener – make work that is explicitly religious. I always think of Henryk Gorecki alongside those two. Sacred does not necessarily mean religious and it is possible to be profoundly moved by this music without belonging to a church, but: do you think that people who listen to this music from a secular perspective get the full meaning or beauty? Are we missing something?
It is a good question. I have some friends who are non-believers who love Arvo Pärt’s music so being religious isn’t a prerequisite. To people who are religious, the music can be a reassurance for their faith and possibly even act as an awakening of something dormant.
Most people’s lives are difficult with ongoing concerns about work, money, relationships, family, illness. So how an individual responds to a particular piece of music at that time has to taken into account a myriad set of factors. For example, a person can simply switch off for that seventy minutes of a concert. That is all OK. It doesn’t have to have transform a person, it can simply let them be.
The composers you mentioned are well known to be religious: Arvo is Orthodox, John Tavener converted to the Orthodox though he now seems to embrace perennialist philosophy. Gorecki is Catholic. However, they all write music that is very accessible. And there is a gentleness to their nature which is very comforting and is reflected in their work.
For me personally, music is a sacred art, it is a blessing and a gift.
The Louth Contemporary Music Society’s online festival We Sing for the Future is on April 14-18 2021 and information is on their site here. Their Bandcamp is here.
I only came across Cassandra Jenkins this February through Pitchfork’s Best New Music, when her second album An Overview on Phenomenal Nature was awarded an incredibly precise 8.3 out of 10. I first listened on the drive home from work during which attention can be patchy so the first song I properly heard was the fifth track, ‘Ambiguous Norway’. I heard Jenkins sing “Farewell, purple mountains”, and then “No matter where I go / You’re gone, you’re everywhere”, and I thought, wait: is that “purple mountains” or is that “Purple Mountains”? It was the latter.
Jenkins, I learned, was due to play with Purple Mountains, David Berman’s band, on a tour in Autumn 2019. Berman died by suicide in August 2019 and the setting of ‘Ambiguous Norway’ is a trip that Jenkins took in the aftermath of his passing. (You know this because elsewhere, in ‘New Bikini’, she sings “After David passed away / My friends put me up for a few days / Off the coast of Norway”).
There is a quiet shock to ‘Ambiguous Norway’, which is so hushed and delicate that it feels like a gentle goodbye kiss, that final kiss on the forehead as the person reposes. Jenkins is devastated (“Can’t seem to grasp what happened / I close my eyes”) yet already as this stunned song ends you can hear, I think, early healing. She concludes ‘Ambiguous Norway’ with “I walk around alone / Laughing in the street / Laughing in the street / Laughing in the street”, and I imagine her in the frozen North warmly remembering Berman’s life, friendship, and humour. She would not have repeated “laughing” three times, would she, had she not intended Berman’s famous wit to be memorialised alongside the excruciating sadness.
And it feels all of Phenomenal Nature exists in the shadow of this great loss, concerned either with the loss itself or with healing. The songs allow for the possibility of healing.
In ‘New Bikini’, Jenkins’ family and friends encourage her to use the sea to restore herself: “If you’re bruised or scraped / Or any kind of broken / The water, it cures everything”. By the end of the song she is passing this advice on in turn to a friend: “My friend Grey is sick again / The doctors shell out medicine / And add there might be something in / The mind-body connection / So I told him / Baby, let’s get you to the ocean”.
This manoeuvre一accepting help, then reflecting that help on to others who might also need it一is something Jenkins does again in ‘Hard Drive’, which is as much of a four-act play as anything.
The voice that opens act one of ‘Hard Drive’ belongs to a security guard at an exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in summer 2019. She says, “When we lose our connection to nature / We lose our spirit, our humanity, our sense of self”. A New Age mystic in act two speaks of “chakras and karma and the purple flame / The birth of the cosmos / The ascended masters and the astral plane”. There is a friend, Darryl, in act three, teaching Jenkins to drive at thirty-five, who is unlike any driving instructor I ever had: “Speeding up the west side / Changing lanes / He reminds me to leave room for grace”.
In the song’s act-four finale, Jenkins meets a healer: “I ran into Perry at Lowell’s place / Her gemstone eyes caught my gaze”. It’s not clear if they know each other but the other woman instantly recognises something in her: she says, “Oh, dear, I can see you’ve had a rough few months / But this year / It’s gonna be a good one”. Intuitively she offers: “I’ll count to three and tap your shoulder / We’re gonna put your heart back together”. The songs’ pace seems to slow like a heartbeat on a long exhale as she continues: “So close your eyes / I’ll count to three / Take a deep breath / Count with me”.
Then a guitar makes a metallic sound like a meditation gong and the song acquires this centred stillness; it acquires the character of a heart meditation. Jenkins sings “One, two, three / One, two, three / Just breathe / One, two, three / Count with me”. As the song’s narrator, Jenkins ventriloquises her character Perry, quoting words Perry spoke to her. As the song’s singer, though, any healing words spoken by a character in her song become healing words spoken by her to us.
In this song as it exists within this album, the heart to be put back together was one broken by grief for David Berman. But ‘Hard Drive’ knows that people out there listening have had their hearts broken too, to a variety of degrees in a multitude of ways. ‘Hard Drive’ uses Jenkins’ own experience of suffering to stretch out a hand to anyone who feels fraught, frightened, pained, uncontained. “One, two, three / Just breathe”, says this song’s warm, wise voice; “One, two, three / Count with me“. If I can put my heart back together, the voice says, then you can do yours too. I’ve got you. Just breathe.
One advantage of being into music when you are a psychiatrist is that every so often there is a song lyric that is useful in the clinic. I mean — not that often. But sometimes.
When I get the chance, I like to use a line from a song or a poem or a film to encourage in a patient a sense of being recognised and understood and understandable. The same comforting sense of connection that I got from music growing up and still do. Songs and other texts can provide some concrete proof that a troubling thought or feeling, which may strike one person as idiosyncratic or unacceptable, has been thought or felt by another person, who considered it noteworthy and universal enough to write about.
Recently I was seeing a patient called Róisín*. We’ve known each other a few years through some thick and thin. Róisín told me—among other things that day, and nearly as an aside—that she was experiencing a feeling of unsettling sadness whenever she came across a particular tree. She thought there was something peculiar about this sadness. She didn’t understand the feeling and couldn’t explain it—it wasn’t like there was even anything particularly wrong. She was a little annoyed at herself and this was something she would not have said to many people. Why would seeing a tree make you feel sad? That’s daft!
I was glad Róisín trusted me with this because the feeling she described resonated with me and I did not think it daft. I thought that paying proper attention to the natural world is an emotionally complex act. I thought that fully appreciating the beauty of anything in nature—of a sunset, a snowfall, a songbird, an oak tree—means also reckoning with its transience. What she said reminded me of ‘The Wayfarer’ by Pádraig Pearse, because, though I like to think I can summon poetic verse at will, I mostly summon poems from school. “The beauty of the world hath made me sad,” said Pearse, “the beauty that will pass”. It was that or ‘Advent’.
Around the same time as I saw Róisín, I read Leagues O’Toole highly recommend the new album by Tamara Lindeman’s band The Weather Station, who were new to me. I bought the album, Ignorance, because Leagues has never steered me wrong. When I later read that the core theme preoccupying Lindeman on the record was climate grief, I gave it my full attention. The song that unlocked the album was ‘Parking Lot’.
‘Parking Lot’ is a nimble and careful reflection on the intensity of emotions that the natural world can inspire in us. The song’s context is the degradation of the natural world that is so commonplace that we barely notice it any more. That outline makes the song sound hefty, and OK it is, but it has a lightness of touch that is irresistible — think peak Fleetwood Mac, or The Blue Nile doing Blue Monday. ‘Parking Lot’ is a reflection too on ineffability, on the mystery of emotions that we feel intensely and just can’t account for, like, say, when we pay particularly close attention to a particularly well-loved tree.
Rather than a tree, the focus of Lindeman’s attention in ‘Parking Lot’ is a tiny bird in an urban location that is unnamed but I have taken to be the US West Coast – somewhere dry and unforgiving. The singer starts by describing the scene in the past tense: “Waiting outside the club in a parking lot / I watched some bird fly up and land on the rooftop / Then up again into the sky / In and out of sight / Then flying down again to land on the pavement”. She continues “It felt intimate to watch it / Its small chest rising and falling / As it sang the same song / Over and over and over and over again / Over the traffic and the noise”. Lindeman’s acute attention to the bird’s behaviour inspires compassion. The bird sings to find a mate but the bird cannot be heard and it will not find one. It sings its song “over and over and over and over again”, without hope of success. It’s kind of brutal to witness, which is what the song asks us to do.
Lindeman then changes the direction of her singing and goes from describing the scene to responding to the scene, and the pathos seems to have hit her. She sings in the second person and asks: “Is it OK if I don’t want to sing tonight? I know you are tired of seeing tears in my eyes / But are there not good reasons to cry? / I swear I’m alright / Perhaps you could just let it slide.” It’s not clear who she is asking, but you might consider that the audience for Lindeman’s question is the same as the audience for her singing, and there is something meta about her using her singing voice to ask us to relieve her of her singing duties.
In the following verse, Lindeman interrogates the second-verse emotional response arising from her observations in the first verse. Echoing Róisín’s sentiments, Lindeman acknowledges that the rawness of her response confounds her: “I confess I don’t wanna undress this feeling / I am not poet enough to address this peeling”. The final verse carries on: “And it kills me when I / You know it just kills me when I / You know it just kills me when I see some bird fly / Know it just kills me, and I don’t know why”.
So I like that Tamara Lindeman has made the choice to express this, for a lot of reasons.
In the first place I like that she validates the emotion of solastalgia, which I think is at the core of ‘Parking Lot’—the pain associated with environmental loss, the sorrow we feel when we witness nature changing, suffering, even dying. That climate grief that the Guardian and I mentioned earlier. It needs to be understood and appreciated that if we feel sad and that is the only reason, solastalgia is enough of a reason. Like COVID anxiety is enough, in itself, to be going on with. We don’t need any additional explanations for why we are tired, freaked out, and frazzled, as we sit in rooms wearing masks, as Róisín and I were doing in the clinic that day, so that we don’t virally maim the person across from us.
I like the potential for practical good to be done by this song. Lindeman’s compassion for that little bird, a microcosm of her compassion for all living beings, is going to be communicated to other people, and that transmission of compassion could encourage people hearing the song to act. To be compassionate means to witness suffering, to pay attention to it, and, irreducibly, to work to alleviate the suffering.
And I like that a gifted songwriter and observer of inner worlds like Lindeman has the bravery to say “It kills me and I don’t know why”; that she cannot figure her own heart out sometimes. If she can’t – well there must be times that this just can’t be done. I think it helps people who hear that. I like that she validates a perplexed response to strong emotions and that she models a way of accepting their unknowability.
I particularly like this because I meet a lot of people who are recovering from depression and their emotional experiences have unmoored them and left them constantly questioning how they respond to things. They may have learned, may have genuinely had to learn, that their automatic responses need to be double-checked and unchecked may lead them dangerously astray. This is an important lesson—feelings are not facts, as they say—but constantly second-guessing your own emotions can be destabilising and invalidating and there is a point in recovery when it is important to regain your sense that your instincts are OK.
Songs help us here, I think—they help us navigate emotionally. They set down stable markers. They are guiding lights. Songs that deal in sorrow can help you to relearn that a strong feeling of sadness is not necessarily depressive, not pathological, no longer to be feared. It’s just how a person responds to something sad, and maybe it’s safe to do that again; to feel everything available to you. Pearse concluded, “I have gone upon my way, sorrowful”. Lindeman asks, rhetorically, liberatingly, “Are there not good reasons to cry?”
*Róisín gave her consent for the inclusion of this encounter in this piece.