December 28th was Alex Chilton’s birthday and in 2019 he would have been 69. He died suddenly and young. This is an appreciation of Alex and Big Star that I wrote for State in the doctors’ res room of St Davnet’s Hospital in Monaghan the day I learned of his death—after work, I should add. It was hastily written but deeply felt. My favourite was always Sister Lovers but I’ve grown to love the rest of Big Star—#1 Record in particular—even more since then.
This sounds a bit like goodbye; in a way, it is, I guess.
Alex Chilton, who led Big Star in making three of the most unbelievably beautiful albums in rock’n’roll history, died on March 17th in New Orleans. He died of a heart attack, at 59.
It is hard to overstate his stature, or that of the band he founded in Memphis in 1971 with Andy Hummel, Jody Stephens and the late Chris (‘I Am The Cosmos’) Bell. They are certainly contenders for the title of the best band ever to make popular music.
They never, of course, became big stars. Chilton opened their second album Radio City with ‘O My Soul’ (“I don’t have a licence / To drive in my car / But I don’t really need one / Cos I’m a big star) but by then the first album #1 Record had flopped on a grand scale; Chilton already smelled commercial doom. (He was intermittently an ironist, and intermittently a Romantic of Byronic proportions.) Big Star recorded three proper albums, none of which sold more than a few thousand during the lifetime of the band. (They reformed in 1993 and released a fourth album, In Space, that doesn’t really count for all kinds of reasons.) They were the archetypal posthumously seminal band, becoming legends only long after they disbanded in despair in 1974.
Peter Buck said that Big Star “served as a Rosetta stone for a whole generation of musicians”. The Replacements paid homage with an eponymous song: “And children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round / They sing “I’m in love, what’s that song? / I’m in love with that song.” Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque was famously all but a retread of Radio City, and it was the imprimatur of TFC that prompted my generation to rediscover them. (We read the reviews, we pretended we knew Radio City, we all sneaked off to buy it, and we all went ‘Wow’.) And it’s been said that if everyone who bought The Velvet Underground and Nico went on to start a band, then everyone who bought Big Star albums went on to be a rock journalist. Certainly, stiff whiskies will be swigged by Dublin hacks tonight.
So we’ve established that Big Star were influential. Every floppy-haired indie combo with a tune in its head and a pair of power chords to rub together has owed something to #1Record or RadioCity. ‘September Gurls’, ‘In The Street’ and ‘Back of a Car’ are the benchmark for punchy, soulful, taut power-pop. There is no fat and not a note wrong with them.
But I am not sitting here today with a hole in my stomach because a the author of some seminal academic works of popular culture is no longer with us. My hack friends and I are staring wearily into our single malts because Alex Chilton wrote songs that ignited every emotion and embroidered themselves into our lives.
We will only know just how ingrained in us these songs are in the coming days, now that we are conscious of our bond with them; so every time we unthinkingly hum a Chilton line or remember a perfect moment soundtracked by a song, as we do daily, we will get a little jolt.
I never hear the glistening opening chords of ‘Watch The Sunrise’ without thinking back to a night necking beers with my friends Nick and Lorraine in 1998 in Elliott Smith’s local in Brooklyn; we were there because #1Record was on the jukebox. ‘Daisy Glaze’ reminds me of thundery afternoons in Malawi with no electricity, trying to work out the chords on an acoustic guitar. And the first gig I went to with my wife: Big Star in the Red Box in August 2001. I should probably mention that one.
For me, it was always the third album; the album that never really had a name, that didn’t come out till the band was long gone, Third or FemmeFatale, which most people ended up calling SisterLovers. That record never, ever gets old. There are oceans in it. The songs are finely constructed to make you think that they are falling apart. I don’t know if the rumours about Chilton at the time are true; if he was drinking or on heroin or shooting horse tranquillizers into his eyeball. Sometimes, it sounds like all three at once.
I just know that the songs on SisterLovers fall apart and come back together and all but disintegrate but don’t. You get vertigo from songs like ‘Holocaust’ and ‘Nightime’ and ‘Kanga Roo’, like you are with Chilton teetering on the edge of the world. And Chilton conducted it like a maestro. As Chris Roberts wrote about the Dexys’ ‘This is What She’s Like’, Sister Lovers is the kind of music that you make when you have done perfect pop as well as it can be done and you are moving on to a purer form of expression. It’s Picasso pop.
SisterLovers is really tough in parts. It’s harrowing, and you know you are in trouble if you’re relating too closely to about half of the songs (‘Big Black Car’ – ‘Sunny day, highway / If it rains it’s all the same / I can’t feel a thing / I can’t feel a thing… Nothing can hurt me / Nothing can touch me / Why should I care?”).
But what rarely gets mentioned in discussions of Sister Lovers is that Chilton saved for this album his most simple and pure expressions of uncomplicated love; the kind of emotions we live to feel. ‘Blue Moon’ is the one that is on repeat play in my mind. “Morning comes and sleeping’s done / Birds sing outside / If demons come while you’re under / I’ll be a blue moon in the sky / Let me be your one light / And if you’d like a true heart / Take the time to show you’re mine / And I’ll be a blue moon in the dark”.
Songs like ‘Blue Moon’, ‘I’m in Love With a Girl’, ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ and ‘Take Care’ remind us how to live, which is as good a reason as any why Big Star are so important to us and why we are so very, very sad today. Alex Chilton is dead and that is a damn hard four words to write, but these songs are here forever.
When a song really connects we say it spoke to me but in my experience that doesn’t quite capture it. A song speaking to you must do so from a distance but I increasingly find that when I connect with a song I feel no distance from it at all. I hear Julia Jacklin’s ‘Turn Me Down’, The Blue Nile’s ‘Stay Close’, Nick Drake’s ‘Know’, or Phoebe Bridger’s ‘Killer’, and I’m in the middle of the music, surrounded, swathed, fully present, breathing in time: right there and nowhere else in my mind.
There is not a long list of songs that have this immersive effect. I don’t quite know what qualities distinguish them but it’s the kind of thing I wonder about.
I think they are all songs in which the writer makes it easy to take their perspective or that of the song’s protagonist rather than hearing it from your own perspective.
It is freeing to dissolve into the song’s point of view; to meet its characters on their turf rather than your own; to lose your self in the music. We take this for granted in other art forms but less so in music; the kind of ardent indie I was reared on at least. Music that says nothing to me about my life now sounds pretty good. It’s about somebody’s life and maybe I want to hear their story for its own sake.
They are all songs that are minimally arranged but they are rich with emotional detail, containing layers that reveal themselves and repay time, trust and intent attention. I think here of ‘Know’, with its urgent recurring guitar phrase and the reverberation in the studio of the final word of every line Nick Drake sings. You have to strain to catch each echoing last lyric and it is this effort that transports me into the studio beside him when I hear it.
These songs have no clutter and there is time and space between the bars to process what’s just happened and to anticipate what’s coming. They have moments when you need to take a breath to be ready for a crescendo, like that tingling slowed-down moment that opens the bridge of ‘Turn Me Down’ – “So please just…”
‘Killer’ is enveloping in a few ways. The piano, emphatic yet cloud-soft, the strings that seep in to the second verse then dissipate; the three rising notes Bridgers allocates to the word “all” in the line “And I’ve given a-l-l my love”. The sheer unexpectedness of the imagery: “I can’t sleep next to a body / Even harmless in death / Plus I’m pretty sure I’d miss you / And faking sleep to count your breath.”
The moment in ‘Killer’ where I take a breath and dive in is right before the second verse because what follows is harrowing and comical and extraordinary and I know I’ll get something new from it each time.
A lingering E minor ends and Bridgers sings:
But when I’m sick and tired And when my mind is barely there When a machine keeps me alive And I’m losing all my hair I hope you kiss my rotten head And pull the plug Know that I’ve burned every playlist And I’ve given all my love.
I mean: my rotten head. I ask you.
I knew ‘Killer’ had connected when I noticed that I was feeling those last couple of lines in my body as much as I was hearing them. I didn’t know what I was responding to because it not an intellectual response but it was, I think, to a young person planning how she and those she leaves behind might make peace with her future passing.
I connected with ‘Killer’ around the time this autumn that two long-time friends of mine died, each a beautiful and loved and missed young man. I kept wondering how ready can you be. How ready can you ever be? Do we get readier? I’m not ready.
And I heard “I’ve burned every playlist and given all my love” and, scouring for solace, at first I felt some relief. I heard: when you have given all your love and there is none left to give, it’s time. Like a star, you burn out and you rest. Inconveniently, though, this was nonsense. It was completely backwards. As I get older I don’t have less love than I used to have. If anything every day feels more poignant and precious; I feel fuller.
And yet ‘Killer’ felt right and only a few days after I heard the song first I went to the funeral of one of my friends, John. His sister spoke about him and his unbelievable generosity as he knew he was dying. He lived in Australia but he came back as much as he could to be with his friends and family; not for himself, maybe, so much as for them. He had a huge circle of friends in Ireland and he said his goodbyes and the people who loved him felt the warmth of his presence.
I thought of how John approached the end and the line “I’vegiven all my love” ceased to express the draining away of a person’s supply of love. This does not happen. Love is self-replenishing. The phrase came to express the act of offering love and kindness at every opportunity. I know I don’t do this. And I know I give too much significance to songs but I do trust songs to remind me how to live better and ‘Killer’ can be a little red flag that pops up when I’m failing to show kindness. Be kind, show love when you can, make sure that those you love know you love them, and cast that net as wide as you can. Then you are living well, without regret, and if you live well, then, when it comes, you might, maybe, be as ready as you’ll ever be.
I just reread this piece for the first time in a few years. I do like it. Looking at it now I was pleasantly surprised by the “Whack!” I wrote into the description of Casimir Pulaski Day. And I must have really trusted Hot Press readers that they would know where Islandeady is. It’s the townland halfway between Castlebar and my mum’s home place of Westport, just to the right as you head west — like, obviously. Anyway, Up Sufjan and Up Mayo 🥊🏅
The big news about Sufjan Stevens is that he plans to record a full album about each of the states of the USA. This is number two of 50, barring annexations, after 2003’s ode to his home patch Michigan. Well, this just in: there’s no fucking way.
That the mooted project would take 96 years to complete at his current prolific rate of recording is not the issue. On the evidence of his song titles, he’s a bloody-minded guy (‘To The Workers Of The Rock River Valley Region, I Have An Idea Concerning Your Predicament, And It Involves An Inner Tube, Bath Mats, And 21 Able-Bodied Men!’). He may indeed record 50 albums and name them after states. More luck to him. But if he does, it will be a distraction. Sufjan Stevens is no more making records about Illinois than he is about Islandeady.
True, ‘They Are Night Zombies!!’ – epic violin-driven funk in the manner of Curtis Mayfield — owes something to its home place. And Illinoise is often huge, the size of the state. The scale of the arrangements for choir, strings, and brass makes showpieces like ‘Jacksonville’ and ‘Chicago’ sound like the ‘St Matthew’s Passion’ as sung by the Polyphonic Spree.
Still, Stevens can namedrop Abe Lincoln all he likes (‘Decatur’), or unconvincingly compare himself to a Chicago serial killer (‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr.’). The fact remains that the heart of this album lies outside Illinois; outside geography and biography; outside physical space at all. It lies in ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’, named for a local public holiday and sung over banjo, with the minimum of fuss, in a rock-solid whisper, as an elegy to a lover.
As the song opens they’re hoping for a miracle: “Tuesday night at the bible study/We lift our hands and pray over your body/But nothing ever happens”. She dies of cancer of the bone on a pale March morning and in a scene so deftly drawn that you’re in the room with him, the narrator sits in the hospital, sure he can still see her breathing. He’s dazed, until outside a bird swoops, smacking— whack! — into the window. Startled feathers flying is what he remembers of sitting alone with the body of his young love, and the betrayal of all the hopes they had. (The bird, a cardinal, is the Illinois state bird. Make of that what you will.)
You can set out to write or sing about states or nations or the global sweep of human history. But states are just collections of people and history an accumulation of moments like these. When music articulates the reality and mystery and majesty of the moment, suddenly albums that soundtrack states are small potatoes. We have universes on our hands here.
Ah synchronicity, the brain-wracking writer’s friend. I’m struggling to sum up in a sentence the essence of The Blue Nile when Roxy Music’s ‘Mother Of Pearl’ comes on the radio and does it for me: “The search for perfection, your own predilection, goes on and on and on”. Thanks Bryan: your micro-cheque is in the post.
Paul Buchanan’s search, or, more correctly, eternal quest for perfection is the reason The Blue Nile are only now releasing High, their first album since 1996, and their fourth in a twenty year career. They may be perceived as the Terrence Malicks of pop – brilliant, reclusive, obsessive — but Buchanan is too modest to admit the first of these traits and firmly denies the second. “I think what’s perceived as isolation on our part,” he reflects, “what it actually means is, we’re not on TV. TV is isolation. I’m at the bus stop. I’m really not isolated at all. I’m right in it.”
Still, signs of the third trait —acceptance of nothing but the best, sometimes to a fault — are visible throughout his life story, partly through attempts to temper it.
“When I lived in America, I saw a therapist, and it was great!” he says brightly immediately after we meet. “It was fantastic. He wasn’t strictly a Jungian, but he was along those lines. It completely changed my life, in many ways.”
Asked why and how, he expands. “I think my idealism had got me into troubled waters. I expected far too much, I think, from everybody, and I was disillusioned by lots of what I had experienced. I had gone out into the world, I suppose, expecting it to symbolically reflect my relationship with God. And it doesn’t. People can’t consistently do that. I think I was idealistic, but I was demanding as well.”
He pauses. “I suppose I expected the world to be more perfect, you know; and everybody to be true and pure.”
Did you expect people not to compromise?
“Yeah. And I think also, at times, because I was so intent on being good, and well behaved, that I expected everybody to do that, and I would be disappointed if they weren’t. Not only that, but I would sort of attribute negative motives to them. What my psychotherapist would be arguing was—look, it’s not them, it’s you.”
Now that he says this, it did appear to me when I reviewed High that Buchanan was critical of the characters in the songs, notably in ‘Days Of Our Lives’ and ‘High’. Cue a look of horror on his face—“No!”—and a grave shake of the head twenty minutes later: “I’m still obsessing slightly that you might have thought I was belittling the characters in my songs.”
Ultimately, as Alvy Singer postulates at the end of Annie Hall, we look for perfection in art because it’s just not going to happen in real life. You’ll find this ethos epitomised on High in ‘Stay Close’. ‘Stay Close’ closes the album and it has to, because once it’s over you need silence. Buchanan sings miraculously, pre-verbally; he cries, sighs, intimately exhales, peels off his protective layers to fearlessly and flawlessly convey human frailty.
This purity of expression didn’t come easy.
“I think I probably tried to sing that a number of times,” he ponders.” Obviously, the way that I sing, you know, isnae really about technique, or performance. It’s more about feeling the right way – and is the right thing coming out? It’s a bizarre experience. It’s obviously mental as well as physical. I think it’s about me getting what’s inside me, articulating something emotionally.
“Once you’ve got it, it’s OK then so you know what it is. Up until you get it, you know, you’re kind of looking for it. So when you get it, it’s not generally a consequence of lots of different ways of singing it. It’s just then it happens.”
It’s a moment.
“It’s a moment, aye. It’s like what you were saying about being pre-verbal. We’re so used to getting things dressed up in a way that’s palatable to us, which is often quite short of what a sensory experience is. You need to leave a lot of things aside if you’re really trying to communicate with people.”
This is an interview with Dave Couse I published in Hot Press in 2003. Dave was releasing his solo record Genes, which I listened to that year more than any record except I Trawl The Megahertz. This interview was a big one for me — just meeting Dave for a pint was big for me. I *loved* A House and they sound tracked huge swathes of my teens and early twenties and Dave’s lyrics were central to the connection with the band. The wit, the sharpness, and the lyrical full-throated raw emotion. I was at the last A House show in 1997 and I’ll be at the A House Is Dead show in the NCH. I heard Dave on EoghanO’Sullivan’s TPOE podcast and it reminded me of the esteem in which I held Genes. I also remember the nights of transcribing afterwards. Dave packed a lot of talk into an hour and a half’s chat down the pub.
It’s the early evening of Tuesday April 2nd, and Brian Kerr’s all-new Ireland are pluckily fending off the mighty Albania as I meet Dave Couse locking up his bike outside Ryan’s of Sandymount. Dave knows the venue for our interview well, it’s a couple of minutes from his PR company’s HQ, and you might expect the author of the World Cup 2002 anthem to be aware of the national team’s Euro 2004 timetable, but no: he pokes his head inside the stuffed pub, clocks the crowd and looks disgusted. He had no idea, and anthem or no anthem, he’s not a fan. “I find football incredibly boring. Repetition beyond belief!”
Dave is disgusted because, for the conversation he has planned in this particular pub, we need a bit of hush. There’s a reason the ex-leader of A House has trekked here from his home in Rathfarnham, and it’s not to share an hour of low-quality international football with hotpress. As becomes clear even as we stand on the street debating whether or not to go in, it’s because this is a place with a recently acquired resonance for him.
Dave’s dad Greg Couse, who for years worked down the road and for whom Ryan’s was something of a second home, died last year. Dave’s warm, tender debut solo album Genes is dedicated to him and today his family is foremost in his mind. “I cycled over thinking it’d be a nice idea to do it here. The old man’d be with me, you know?”
As we find a quiet corner, Dave casts his eyes around the room. He says he feels the presence of his father.
“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. He conducted a lot of his business from here, and 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. That kind of thing takes a long time to settle in; the realisation of the whole thing. 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.”
The title and the design of Genes both form a tribute, the artwork largely comprising a touching, time-spanning family portrait. You open the CD sleeve to pictures not only of Dave, but of two sepia-tinted strangers and a bright big bald baby peering out at you.
“My father is there, 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. There are four generations of the Couse family in the hundred years.
“The strangest thing was, I was going down to the office, and I had proofs of the artwork in my bag, and I had taken them out in here, 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, it took a long time, it was pretty horrible. But it was weird when I took out these things and… there he was, you know. Back, and I know it was only a photo, but here again.”
You said you’ll write songs about your dad.
“Oh, undoubtedly, yeah,” he avers. “I’ve already written one, in my head. Got a lovely little title for it and everything. I mean it’s a big thing, I’ve never 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 was a no-nonsense person anyway; I’m undoubtedly that now. Because you realise what life’s about, when something like that happens.”
And feelings this huge, this bewildering: can you can express them in song? In words?
“Yeah, you can. 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,” he laughs, “so it’s not written by a four-year-old. You just 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, you know?
“The same thing, when I wrote ‘For Sale’, for Eva. I remember seeing her for the first time, when she was born. I just felt,” he says, slapping his hand to his heart, “this bang, you know. 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.”
‘For Sale’ will be known to anyone who has seen any of Dave’s comeback shows over the last two years – roughly the same period as Genes has taken to gestate, from the initial ideas through writing, then recording with Edwyn Collins, through finally releasing it on his own Beep Beep label, a move away from the tangles with majors that dotted A House’s career. “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, you know?” he smiles.
As befits the cottage industry supporting it, Genes is an extraordinarily intimate record and, by ‘When I First Saw You’ standards anyway, remarkably happy. The comparison I keep making is with Teenage Fanclub’s spectacular Songs From Northern Britain, an album about the inestimable thrill of waking up beside the same old face every day for fifteen years; the likes of ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Peaceful’ and most immediately ‘Intoxicating’, are the sound of a man supremely gifted in the art of writing pop songs, overwhelmed by love for his wife and daughter, who would like to tell them, and us, all about it with as little fuss as possible.
With any luck at all – and if ‘Intoxicating’ is a single – it could be huge; if not, as long as it’s being heard, he’s not worried if the hit never happens. If he’s reading the economic tea leaves right, he’ll muddle through.
“This is my theory,” says Dave, “and it could be fucking horseshit for all I know – that music, music does really well in hard times. In the ’80s, 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, you know. So if there is less spendable income for people, to be into music is really cheap! It’s a really cheap hobby.”
So, Dave, the imminent depression has its up side.
“I’m praying for a recession, yeah!” He looks imploringly upwards. ‘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.“
A Lazarus Soul are Brian Brannigan, Joe Chester, Julie Bienvenu, and Anton Hegarty. They released their fifth album The D They Put Between The R&L last month, launching the record with a joyous, replenishing show in the Grand Social. They released the single ‘Long Balconies’ on June 14th and they have shows coming up with Damian Dempsey and at All Together Now.
Steve Wickham plays on TheD too, as does Vyvyenne Long, whose cello contributions to ‘Funeral Sessions’ and ‘Lemon 7s’ add further richness and profound beauty to a couple of the greatest songs I have ever heard. Brian Brannigan told me that the band arrived in Long’s house in the mountains of Wicklow on a stormy afternoon. They showed her the songs, he said, and “She was like ‘Holy fuck, this is dark!’—then she got really into the stories.”
Vyvyenne Long’s reaction to The D resonates with mine. The moment I knew I was dealing with a masterpiece was when I felt the shiver of the closing couplet of ‘Lemon 7s’: “Pills ground down like powder, ’til your problems are no louder than / A little infant whimpering for Ma to come and help“. But the same song is at its heart a love song, the lead character “A lady with a love so fine and genuine that only few could know“. Brian Brannigan calls ‘Lemon 7s’ a “love story in darkness”, and that captures something essential about The D: these are songs of love for home, family, and community, in hard times. The songsare deadly serious, with themes of social exclusion, addiction, alienation, and abuse, but they are suffused with compassion and elevated by humour and a battered but hardy hope.
This is a conversation that I recorded with Brian Brannigan on June 10th. We covered a lot of ground. The themes and origins of The D provided plenty of raw material, including enjoyable excursions into musical inspirations like Nick Cave, Nyabinghi reggae, Mark Eitzel, and The Idiots. Brian spoke warmly about his formative years in The Attic in the 1990s and about his friend Dave Carroll, of Wormhole and E+S=B, who had died the week before. Brian messaged me the day after we met to say “We rambled – I forgot we were doing an interview”. I felt the same way, and I hope that ease and unguardedness comes across in the piece.
NC: Congratulations on the album. I am curious what it must be like for you now. We met at the album launch, and that was an amazing celebratory night. But even since then, the reception for the record has been incredible. What is it like to be on the receiving end of all of that?
a bit strange. We’ve been making records for twenty years as A Lazarus Soul,
and we haven’t had that reception before, so yeah – it’s a bit odd to begin
with. But it’s kind of something that’s happening in social media, really, to
me, you know? Because we’re not playing, we’re not out there all the time, and
then I’m just back in work after two weeks or so. I kinda feel that people’s
relationship with the album is theirs now, the album is theirs. Bar playing
gigs, it’s someone else’s now. But it’s nice. It’s good to get that positive
What do you think people are connecting with in the new songs?
I haven’t got a clue. The only thing is they’re more song-based, like ballads, and maybe that’s just in our DNA. And maybe people were waiting for a record like this. I don’t know. People that like A Lazarus Soul can’t understand it (laughs). People that like the other records can’t understand it. They’re wondering like why people are attracted to this record. It’s not really for us to say, you know? It’s just for us to put them out there and we’re just happy that we’ve had a positive reaction. It is, it’s strange.
Something that I think runs through the album, like in ‘Lemon 7s’, ‘Metal Railings’, and ‘Funeral Sessions’, is the attention you pay to the social forces at play in people’s lives that dictate what happens to them, often more than choices they make themselves, and that we don’t really give enough credit to.
You know, I’m probably going to ruin this by saying this, but, the album wasn’t written as a piece. So it was very much an album of circumstance. It wasn’t meant to fit together and at one point it really didn’t fit together. So before we wrote ‘Black & Amber’ and ‘Long Balconies’, the album wasn’t gelling basically. We had it in a different sequence and it wasn’t working.
There was no agenda more than any record that we’ve made before. On past albums, we had a really strong idea of what we were doing and there was a title hanging around and all that. This record seemed to just come together itself. It wasn’t forced. Them social issues and themes: it wasn’t a grand plan. It wasn’t like me going, I’m going to write this record about what’s going on now. And it wasn’t a big statement that we were making.
When I’m writing, it’s very much, I’m writing a sentence and then the next sentence. I don’t ever stand back to examine the songs when I’m writing, and the next song is completely separate. So it just so happened that when it came together, I didn’t even realize it, but it just so happened that when the album came together, I didn’t even realize it until people started listening to it, that there was all these things going on that people were talking about. I didn’t see that at all. I work in a very small way. I didn’t see the songs fit together. And then there was definitely a time where we felt that it wasn’t even sounding like a record at one stage. Then we wrote ‘Black & Amber’ and ‘Long Balconies’. ‘Long Balconies’ went on to the album after the album was finished and mastered.
Yeah. And that kind of changed the whole – you know, I had a sense when we wrote the song, that’d be a great second song. But when you’re writing a song, you can’t tell what anybody’s going to think of it. You have a very different relationship with a song when you’re writing it than does someone listening to it. And you can never imagine what anybody will make of it – nor should you care. You’re just writing the song. So a lot of things that people are saying about this record, we were completely oblivious to.
One of my written questions is “Did you come at the album with an initial overarching vision like a novel” and what you’re saying is that you didn’t.
No, absolutely not. On other records, we have, but on this record, it seemed to write itself. There was loads of little accidents that happened that pushed us in particular directions. You know, I didn’t even realize that the Black & Amber was so close to O’Devaney Gardens. I’d found photos from Last of the Analogue Age, where I’d taken pictures of the Black & Amber and I didn’t even realize it. So there was something subconscious hanging around in my head.
Then I was in Gmail one day and I found the photographs I’d taken five years earlier. Then I wrote ‘Long Balconies’, which was inspired by O’Devaney Gardens plus some early memories of flats where my granny lived. I only realized when I wrote ‘Long Balconies’, and knew it was going to be the second track, that the two things were really close. It’s only up the road. Strange things happened like that.
I didn’t know ‘Long Balconies’ was inspired by O’Devaney Gardens. I had visualised Dolphin House. There are lots of long balconies.
Yeah, completely. It was initially inspired by a short documentary by a film-maker called Joe Lee, who spent a lot of time in social housing complexes and he was filming. But it was inspired by early memories as well of Granny Brannigan in the flats in Ballybough. Those barrelled stairwells are some of my earliest memories.
I wonder if some of what people are emotionally connecting with in the songs is compassion. You are telling stories of people who have difficulties for which they are punished – disproportionately to put it mildly. People for whom things are set up so: you are born into difficulty and struggle, and then we punish you for being born into difficulty, thereby creating further difficulty for you. And you don’t hear these connections being made much in songs, do you?
No. Maybe in Jinx Lennon or Damien Dempsey’s stuff. But yeah, there’s a huge divide in this country, and it’s getting worse. But again, this wasn’t a big statement that I was making. To me, they were very small stories that I was focusing on.
So you take ‘Lemon 7s’ for instance. It was a couple that lived out beside me in Maynooth. They begged for cans outside the shops. I was just telling their story. It’s mostly a true story. A little bit of drama added, but mostly true. And it just so happened that they were sleeping in a tent, which is what’s happening all over Ireland at the moment. But you know, I was just writing their story and that’s what it is. And there happened to be addiction and there happened to be homelessness in the song. But really I was telling a love story in darkness. But what really struck me about that relationship was, they seemed to be madly in love, even as, as I say, they were on the bottom rung. And they had nothing. Actually sleeping in a tent.
So, you know, to me I was just telling a sad, tragic love story. Both of them died in the end. One had died when I wrote the song. Like you’re saying, people don’t tell them stories and that’s my place, to tell them stories.
I’m thinking about homelessness and addiction and the role that we don’t really acknowledge that a person’s circumstances play in their addiction. We treat addiction as if it’s a decision that individual makes.
completely. You know, one of, one of the big struggles I had with this record
was ‘Funeral Sessions’, and it was using the word “junkie”, which I hate. [“All the drunkards they stay local / All the
junkies go to town”.] It dehumanizes people.
went to great lengths on Last of the Analogue Age to tackle this on the
last song, which is called ‘Last of the Analogue Age’. And I was rallying
against people like that who use the term “junkie” or write people off, you
know, so they almost become invisible. It’s like homeless people or people with
addiction and how people just completely ostracize them.
But ‘Funeral Sessions’ came and that line came to me and I thought the best way to say it was to use the word. I struggled for six, seven months with whether I should put that song on the record just because of using that term. But I think in the greater context it worked. It’s a striking term and I was writing from someone else’s point of view if you like, so it kinda made sense to use it. But yeah, I definitely think that society ostracizes these people. They dehumanise them in a way. A lot of the time it is probably a product of circumstance or area or whatever.
‘Metal Railings’ touches on the same thing: how a person’s chances of going to prison depend so much on circumstances of birth and and on social forces for which they’re not responsible. It makes me think about how individuals can represent more than just who they are. You’ve got an individual judge passing down a judgment on an individual person but really what you’ve got is two quite different worlds meeting represented by those two people.
I think you hit the nail on the head. People that are in charge of people that are making them decisions can never fully understand or, in my opinion, don’t care about the people they’re passing sentence down on. They’re part of the problem because the system that we have is fundamentally flawed. Poverty makes money for people and I don’t think there’s any great appetite in this country to fix that.
Those people can never understand jail. They can never. It’s a different story if you’ve come through something and gone on to something else. If you’ve been there and you’ve moved on, you can look back, I think you can understand it. But if you’ve never been there, you can never understand it.
I mean, I grew up in Finglas. My family went on to get social housing. I was the youngest of nine so I used to go with my sisters who were a lot older and stay with them while their husbands were working, in fledgling estates like Primrose Court out in Darndale, and in Tallaght. I loved these places and I’ve seen them grow up and I’ve seen what they’ve become. Fettercairn out in Tallaght as well. So you grow up seeing them and you can understand how they work. Someone in the system can never understand, I don’t think. I don’t think they care.
When you say you love those places and you’ve seen what they’ve become, just explain that to somebody who maybe doesn’t know what that means.
It’s very hard to come out of them places. To me, social housing should be mixed with private housing. You know, you take people who are not well to do, you put them all together, and these places get stigmatized. It’s very hard for people to get jobs. Accents even stop people from getting jobs. They’re neglected.
Ballymun for instance. Not only did they leave thousands of people living
together, there was no bus route out there. When they started there was no bus
route or buses would go out very seldom. It’s almost cutting people off. Until
something becomes real estate, there’s no real appetite to fix them problems
and they just let the places run down.
But in saying that, what happens is that people in them places band together and you get an amazing community. People help each other out, you know, people share, help each other to the next bill, so you get an amazing community as well. But there’s so much social problems around these places as well that ultimately they’re gonna fail. So I think you need to mix up social and private housing.
OK. Can I ask you about Elvis Costello? I believe you were not thrilled about his accepting an OBE [the day before this interview – NC].
Oh, me and Joe [Chester] are just like [sighs dramatically]. It’s like, I grew up a huge Morrissey fan and a massive, massive Smiths fan. And we were talking about how your heroes eventually let you down. Joe mailed me some piece on Morrissey last week and it was appalling. He’s a mad Elvis Costello fan so I mailed him back, he’s like – it’s not quite as bad (laughs), but, yeah, we were both really disappointed. Joe actually adores him. So yeah – it’s just sad when people let you down like that.
Rubbish. It’s rubbish. It’s like Nick Cave’s reason for playing Israel, you know.
What was Nick Cave’s reason for playing Israel?
I don’t know – it was so rubbish (laughs). It was about music –
Transcending something or other.
Yeah, yeah. And I’m a huge Nick Cave fan as well. So.
I am in the middle of reading Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life and a band that keeps coming up as an inspiration to the 1980s generation of American post-punk hardcore bands is The Birthday Party.
I loved, I was absolutely mad about The Birthday Party. Yeah. Just the power and energy and the violence and everything about that band, I was fascinated with.
Hardly at the time?
No, no. I got into Nick Cave on Henry’s Dream. I heard Henry’s Dream outside Freebird on O’Connell Street and I was just completely smitten by it. And I went back and I love The Good Son, Your Funeral My Trial, you know, all them records. Not so much after that. Let Love In is a good record, but to me, Henry’s Dream’s the pinnacle. But sometimes when you come to people, the album you come in on is the one. Like I know a people that came to Nick Cave later, and they love albums that I think are dreadful. But that’s their experience with him.
The Boatman’s Call? You wouldn’t rate that as much?
No, not at all. I’m kind of baffled by people’s love of that record. I think I can understand people liking the first half of the record but I think the second half of that record is dreadful. I think it’s actually really weak. Even if he had have spaced the songs out, do you know what I mean? The first half of it is great. And then just like ‘Green Eyes’ and ‘Black Hair’, I think they’re really poor songs. Where Henry’s Dream is a masterpiece. Henry’s Dream had a huge, huge impression on my writing.
Oh yeah, huge. Probably on this record.
Just talk a bit about that cos that’s not something I would naturally understand.
Cos he was kind of writing ballads but he was writing them… they were like Western ballads. To me, that was the closest Nick Cave ever came to writing ballads. But in his own way.
As in songs with stories?
Stories, and to me they sound like punk traditional ballads. I’d say he was listening to a lot of Irish ballads and I think he’s said in interviews, not particularly about that record, but he talks about Irish folk songs. And I think maybe that was a big influence on that record. I can hear folk songs in that record, even though it’s dark and gothic and punk. The storytelling is very kind of folky.
I think ‘Funeral Sessions’ is very much inspired by that record. That record had a massive impact on me, it really did. And then even stuff like ‘Christina the Astonishing’ and ‘Straight to You’. I can see parallels between that and ‘Tar Road’. And ‘Funeral Sessions’. I mean, we do reference, sometimes when we’re playing, we do say “OK, do this Bad Seed-ish”, we’ll use them terms.
Did you listen to a lot of folk songs or are you steeped in folk songs?
Not at all. Absolutely not. And even when I was writing this record, I avoided stuff like Lankum and that. I saw what was happening with the songs and I tried to stay away from it because I knew where we were going and I didn’t want to be influenced by it. Strangely enough, probably the biggest influence on this record was reggae, old reggae records. There’s amazing melodies. What I’ve tried to do, when I’m writing songs in the last couple of years is write these really strong vocal melodies. So when you bring the music to the vocal melodies it complements it as opposed to the vocal melodies following the music. I listened to some Nyabinghi, Rastafarian music where it’s chant music and the vocal melodies are incredible.
Nyabinghi? [writes on hand]
Yeah. They’re a Rastafarian tribe. They play this really kind of simple tribal drums and they sing over with these amazing vocal harmonies and so yeah, I listen to a lot of that. I say I listen to a lot of it, I have maybe three albums, Count Ossie and Wingless Angels are two that I love. Count Ossie was a Rastafarian drummer. He was one of the first drummers to record that music. And that just has a lot of Rastafarians chanting over his drums and it’s incredible.
Is that like the seventies or sixties?
I think he would be mid to late sixties. It’s like a Jamaican folk music in a way. Mixed with a kind of American gospel. So I think what they did was they would take gospel airs and then put their own Rastafarian tilt on it. And then Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Bob Marley, old reggae, very organic-sounding stuff. That’s a lot of what I was listening to. And then Joe reckons that makes sense cos it’s Jamaican folk music. But Joe was very much influenced by folk music.
So you know, something like ‘Black & Amber’, I wrote ‘Black & Amber’ and I was playing it on the guitar like it was like PJ Harvey or something. Then when I sent it to Joe I just sang it into the phone. I didn’t know whether the song was any good. I hate playing songs to people when I’ve just written them. And I woke up one morning and just as I woke up I took the phone and sang it. So that’s what you’re hearing is me waking up, that’s why the voice is so scratchy. So I emailed it to Joe on the phone. He lined it up on ProTools and played along with it and recorded it on reel-to-reel tape. And he emailed it back to me and I said: that’s it. We did nothing more with it. And that’s the first track on the record.
Something that I haven’t seen you talk about, I haven’t seen anyone ask you about, is the whole Traveller theme on the record. Several songs refer to Traveller themes, Traveller identity, Traveller ethnicity.
Under this record is a story of – I adopted my daughter from Ethiopia. And there’s a story of me moving from Finglas out to Maynooth, only 20 miles, but not really fitting in and not finding the sense of home. And at the same time there’s adopting my daughter, my mother and father died within nine months of each other.
So there was me becoming a father and also having that line cut back to my own parents and a lot of this record is – it was years ago, it was like nine years ago, but I didn’t really write about it then. It was about me finding community through my daughter and finding a home, and the two of us as well because she’d lost so much coming from Ethiopia to Ireland, much more than I’d lost. And her of being in such an inspiration to me to just get on with things and how tenacious she was, and how strong she is and how she just, you know, just made it work for her.
Like she has an incredible energy and, and she just, you know, like for instance, we came back from Ethiopia and she just woke up the next day and just was like, as if this was her home. She met my family and she just jumped into my family’s arms and just was an inspiration to, you know, how to just get on with things.
So all this is kind of going on underneath.
So, and then talking about Travellers – there’s inter-country adoption. Other stuff that was going on, which you would never get out of the album, is the migrant crisis – well, you might obviously in ‘Tar Road’. But you know, becoming a father gives you I think a greater empathy to see that and being the father of a black child and just seeing how those kids were, and families were just left washing up on the beach. That had a massive effect on me.
The picture of that small Syrian child. [Alan Kurdi].
Yeah. It broke my heart. And so, kind of bringing it back to the kind of racism that we have, you know, with Travellers. All of these things, all these strands, were going on in my head when I was writing the record. We grew up in Finglas, so I lived right beside Dunsink, probably the longest Traveller camp in Dublin. We lived side by side for so long with no trouble, just normal day to day. The shop we went to was the same shop the Travellers would go to and they’d get credit, you know. We lived in relative harmony for years. So I suppose all those things are in my head but I kind of see parallels between all these things.
‘Tar Road’ is where do you draw the direct comparison, isn’t it, between the way that we treat migrants, and the way that we treat Travellers.
Yeah. It was actually a John Connors documentary I was watching. They were talking about old Travellers. They were saying when there used to be Travellers all over the country they’d be helping farmers and they were tinsmiths. And they were saying that they’d love a tar road because they wouldn’t cut their feet. And that just started me thinking about the migrant crisis from the east and Africa. These strands just run around my head and end up in songs.
I listened to the album a lot for weeks after I heard it first and I had this feeling as I walked around of being slightly different for having heard it. And this is slightly embarrassing to say, but I found myself, during encounters with some people, maybe trying to be a bit kinder, because of your songs. And that made me wonder about the ambitions that you might have for the effect that your music might have. Are you writing songs so that people enjoy them, and maybe are moved, or is there a part of you going – can’t art influence people to be kinder and more compassionate, and do you imagine that your own art could be having an effect on the way that people treat each other?
On a very selfish level, I write songs because it calms me and it focuses me, and it’s a kind of a meditative thing for me. That’s why I write songs. It focuses my brain more than anything else. And I take pleasure in doing that.
And when I’m writing, it’s about the lyric I’m writing. I’m not taking the weight of the world on me when I’m writing a song. It’s more like it’s a mental thing. It’s like a mental puzzle and it feels right when the right words are in. I’m not always singing. I’m thinking a lot of the time. I’m out walking and thinking. And when I get the right word I can feel it. I’m not even speaking or singing. It’s in my head, and sometimes I don’t even know I’m doing it. So on that level it very much is an enjoyable thing and it’s not, the songs to me don’t seem that dark or heavy.
I suppose if there’s one thing I’d like, it is, like you say, to show the human aspect of these situations. But it’d be incredibly egotistical of me to think that these songs could change anything.
Sure. That’s understandable.
My relationship with music is like: I get up in the morning and even at the weekend I find the reality of life tough. I wake up, and we’re living in a country where it fucking rains, and it’s grey. Even on days off – we work all the time, and on days off you expect to feel differently but when it’s grey out, I find it hard, you know. The realism of life can – you know, it’s hard to actually go, “Oh this is great”. I mean, we should be happy to be alive. But what I find is, especially in the mornings, and I’m not a great morning person, and then I put on a record and it transports me somewhere. So if it’s a reggae record it brings that kind of Jamaican flavour to the house and straight away it lifts me. So that’s my hope when I make a record. If I could do that for one person, to me that’s a success in writing a song.
Transport someone, lift someone, inspire someone – anything. Make anybody feel anything, but changed. To me, music and kids and animals are like an alchemy that makes the ordinary magic. And if a song does that for someone, you know, even one person, it’s a huge success. So that’s my hope because that’s what music does for me. So not so much the content of the song. If I can lift someone in any way.
I was wary of this question because I realize that asking somebody “Do you think that your music is important” is an awkward thing to do and yet you and I and many, many people have all – our lives are different, and we behave differently, because of all the great music we’ve heard.
I suppose, when I’m writing songs, the last thing in my head is “What is anybody going to think of this?” It’s usually when something’s finished. To me, you know, I have a mad idea and it becomes a song and I go with the mad idea. I’m long enough at this to know that a mad idea eventually will turn into a song, or some of them will. Something will click somewhere along the line and the crazy idea becomes a song, but it’s not really until we finish the record that that I start going “What is anybody going to think of this?” And it’s not like, are we gonna inspire people or anything like that. It’s just – I really hope this is not shit.
I want to ask you a couple more things. I’m always curious when I meet people about the music that formed them. You’ve mentioned Nick Cave and those reggae performers. Who else are the big, big people for you?
If you’re talking about when I was getting into music, The Smiths were, Joy Division, a lot of English indie bands. Pixies, Sonic Youth, that kind of stuff. But probably Brian Mooney out of The Idiots had a massive effect on me.
Yeah. His lyrics. He’s a really under-rated lyricist and songwriter. He’s still doing a lot of stuff now that’s absolutely genius. He keeps posting stuff online that’s incredible. Yeah – his lyrics and his phrasing in his placement of words in very, very loud, noisy songs. I was fascinated by his words and his phrasing and the tone of his voice as well. So he had a massive influence. He has a line in the song ‘Pinned’: “I think I’m going to cut thin ice”. And that line alone had a massive impact on me. It had a huge impact on my lyrics.
I don’t know what it was, but that line was always a line that we’re trying to replicate. It’s hard to explain, but to me it was the ultimate. It’s like the Silver Jews, you know, I was talking on this blog the other day and I was saying, “I want to be like water if I can, ’cause water doesn’t give a damn”. That’s probably my favourite couple of lines in a song ever. And every time I write a line, I try and get within four miles of that line, or those couple of lines. Maybe with Brian Mooney, it was the way he said it, it was the delivery; it was, you know, it was what he didn’t say. “I think I’m going to cut thin ice.” Do you know the song?
I don’t. And I feel like I’m really missing out.
They were a really heavy band, you know? It was kind of like a slow hypnotic beat with really heavy guitars over it. And he recorded really lo-fi as well.
Cathal Coughlan and Fatima Mansions. Cathal’s a big hero of mine. In later
years, Vic Chesnutt. I think Vic Chesnutt was the greatest songwriter of our
time, possibly my favourite songwriter. Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse and the
Silver Jews. And Mark Eitzel, they would be who I would consider to be the
Did you say Mark Eitzel? Are you a big Mark Eitzel fan?
Oh yeah. I think Mercury is one of the greatest albums.
Talk about formative. Mercury was not my first album of his because I got Everclear when I was 17. California is probably the album I’ve listened to most in my life. And I started writing about music by writing about Mercury.
And like we were saying, you come to bands on certain albums, I came to them on San Francisco. I think they did a Dave Fanning interview that night before they played the Tivoli. And they played that song on the show, the one with “Mercury” in the chorus… ‘Challenger’. They played ‘Challenger’ and me and me mates were like – what the fuck is this? So we went to see them the next night. And we were just absolutely blown away by it.
When you mention Brian Mooney, that whole period of music in the mid-90s, the Attic scene, was really special. Your Wormholes and Sunbears and so on.
That was my introduction to music. I was 17 or 18 and living in Finglas and I used to walk into town and have two or three pints of Guinness and stand at the cigarette machine on me own and watch The Idiots, Wormhole, Sunbear, Luggage. So that was my introduction to the local music scene and it was probably the greatest local music scene ever.
I mean really. Talk about timing.
Yeah, I just walked into this world and at a time where I was just a teenager and I didn’t have a place in the world, and I found this amazing scene. And there were theses incedible people that invited me in. I’m actually starting to see it again now in Dublin. There seems to be that openness in music and supportiveness.
But back then, you know what, no-one ever thought they were ever going to do anything. Every band was different. It was such great bands. Me and Martin Kelly from Sunbear argue about The Idiots or Whipping Boy. I mean, the Whipping Boy gigs, pre-Heartworm, were probably the greatest gigs I’ve ever seen. There was like eight gigs that I went to where I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that since. There was one particular one in the Project where The Idiots and Whipping Boy played together. And I would say The Idiots were actually better than them. Martin reckons that The Idiots are the greatest Irish band ever. Definitely, The Idiots are up there. Wormhole as well. I was at Dave’s Mass the other day.
You knew Dave?
I used to go and see Wormhole and I didn’t know them then, but then years later I started going see E+S=B and we used to chat. I used to go to gigs and we’d chat for hours and we had similar kinds of backgrounds. My father worked in the same places Dave’s father worked.
I was working on a documentary that never got made and once we went down to the house where they lived. It’s this amazing footage. We went down and they [Dave and his brother Anto, also of Wormhole] were still staying in the house that they grew up in, in Ringsend. They actually were very naive when they released the first album and they put the home address on it so we were able to find them because they were still there. We went down and did an interview with them and I never met a more infectious and passionate person in my life. We were just, he was talking about music and the film crew and all, when we went outside we were like, holy fuck, he’s amazing. Just the most amazing interview he gave.
So then I used to go to see E+S=B and we played with them in The Joinery one night. And I used to go to gigs and we’d just chat for hours. Just one of the most incredible people I’d ever met. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. Life conspired. The Wormholes played two gigs, and we never fucking play, and the two times Wormhole were playing, we were playing. On the night of our launch they were playing. Dave wasn’t, because he was sick. It’s a big, sad loss.
The songs on The D are a hard look at hard aspects of life. Do you generally feel optimistic? Do you think things can be better?
Yeah. I believe in humanity and I suppose I think there’s very human aspects of this record. I think there’s a lot of negativity in the world. The world is in a bad place. But I find day to day human kindness to be very inspiring. I see things around me all the time that I go, all right, that gives me hope. And it’s usually on a smaller level. So you see people helping people. No, I am optimistic. I think there’s goodness in the world and I think if you can find the goodness in these situations, they’re dark situations but I think there’s a chink of light in these songs. You know, the people that find love and find compassion and, you know, in some cases like in ‘Black & Amber’, there’s a little bit of humour in the melody, you know?
“For he comes home legless and he after a fish supper.”
Yeah. And there’s people surviving this. So I think there’s an inner strength in the songs that in those little things, if you look, there’s little hints in there that the people are surviving. And the strength of the community I was trying to get across in the record as well. So there is optimism in there in those dark situations.
I’ve thought about ‘Funeral Sessions’ in this light. The dad is trying to connect. And that itself is hopeful. The song makes me think of all the times that this conversation doesn’t happen. Where there’s a connection that isn’t made, and not because there’s no will to make it, but sometimes people just aren’t able.
I think in families it’s incredibly difficult to articulate these things. It’s almost like – those channels become dead. And it’s sometimes very hard to open them up again. Almost impossible. Families are strange units. We fall out with people, we don’t say the things that we want to say. Even though you know you should say them. It’s almost easier to do it to a stranger. It’s almost easier to be kinder sometimes to a stranger than it can be in families. And especially going back.
I think what we’ve come from in the past — like, I’d a good relationship with my Dad, he was a great Dad, but we never talked emotionally. And even though we had a good relationship, it’s very hard to go, Jesus, he never told me he loved me. Where I tell my daughter fifty times a day. She’s immune to me telling her how much I love her. So I think maybe things are changing, from that generation to us. We’re becoming more open as a people. I think we’re learning from our mistakes.
I interviewed Julia Jacklin in Whelan’s on March 30th 2019. She was at the time my favourite musician on the planet and I was listening to her new album Crushing all day every day, so – I don’t know how well it went from my end. I had to work pretty hard to come up with questions other than “Why are you so amazing?” She was great though – gracious, generous and quite happy to get into some fairly serious stuff with me even thought she was just off a ferry, and heading on another ferry in a few hours after her show. The piece is published in Hot Press and I’m posting this because there were bits that I liked that didn’t fit in to 1800 words. The transcript is tidied up a little bit and divided into themes for clarity. Our meeting began with me giving Julia a copy of Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations, which was out that weekend.
JJ: I’m reading a lot at the moment actually, so this is perfect. I’m trying to not use my phone, so I’ve just decided that if I have the urge to pick up my phone, I have to pick up a book instead. So I’m actually just charging through books. It’s amazing. I feel so much better mentally than I have.
NC: Great. Em – your album is amazing.
JJ: Thank you.
NC: My three year old is singing ‘Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You’.
JJ: Oh no! That’s too early.
NC: Today, while I was brushing his teeth, he was singing it.
JJ: That’s very cute.
ONE: EMOTIONS OF TOURING AND PERFORMING
NC: I’m thinking about the process of being on tour with the kind of songs that you’re singing now. You were talking about ‘Turn Me Down’ in DIY magazine and you said “Gonna be interesting touring it for over a year”. And I have thought about that before with people like John Grant. What it must be like to perform such personal material every night on stage to strangers. How is it?
JJ: Yeah, it’s interesting because I feel like it changes every night
and it changes as you progress through the songs. A song like ‘Don’t Let The
Kids Win’ off my first album, I’ve sung that song hundreds and hundreds of
times. And some days I feel nothing. Like, I’m up there, and I’m definitely not
looking like I’m feeling nothing, but honestly I’m – I’m quite dead inside
(laughs). And I’m thinking probably about the catering or something. But then
like last night I just choked up a bit because it just makes me think of
things. So songs do surprise you.
This album’s been different than last time because the songs do feel
heavier to perform. And it’s not even just me performing them and bringing my
own experiences to the stage every night. It’s more that I know now that a lot
of people have really delved into this album and it’s brought up a lot of
things for them. And so then when I’m performing every night, I feel that
pressure that, even if I’ve moved beyond that feeling, if I’m not feeling it
tonight, that there’s people out there who are going through that and have come
to the show because they are, and I feel like I have to perform with everything
I have for somebody else, you know? So, it’s just odd.
NC: It’s quite a lot to carry, isn’t it?
JJ: Yeah. Yeah, it is. It is quite a lot. Luckily it’s only like an hour
and a half every day. I think if it was for longer than that, it would be
NC: It seems like it’s an important skill to be able to perform without
necessarily having to excavate the emotional origins of the song onstage.
JJ: Yeah. I think this whole job is just, like, bizarre. Whenever I think about it, I’m like: Oh, so I go through something traumatic. I write something privately. I record it semi-privately. And then suddenly you go and perform that version of yourself repeatedly for like a year and a half. It’s very strange. I love it, but it’s strange.
NC: How do you mind yourself?
JJ: I think it’s one of those things that’s not not talked about enough in the music industry and I don’t think there is enough support around it. Because it is quite grueling and especially for someone like me or for anyone who leads the band. Not only are you having to do that every night, it’s kind of your project, so everybody that’s with you is doing it for you. And you’re having to manage a small business on the road and make sure that everybody is financially and emotionally satisfied with the work. I’m definitely getting better. But for the first two years, while there were some wonderful, exciting, amazing times, there was probably some of the saddest and hardest times of my life as well. Just trying to make sure everybody was happy all the time around you is exhausting. You’re not only doing that with your team but then every night you get on stage and you’re like, okay, I’ve got to now make sure that everybody who’s bought tickets is also having a good time. And it can be very easy to just be like, my own feelings will be last on the list. Or I’ll deal with them when I have a day off, and then you never have a day off, so then you don’t deal with it. So, yeah, I mean it’s just not the best environment for people who are struggling as well because it’s also just full of alcohol and like, everybody kind of expects that if you’re a singer-songwriter that you also like to party, or if you’re a musician. So yeah, it’s strange.
NC: On the emotional demands of your work and the lack of supports. I’m thinking of my own day job in psychiatry. Doctors don’t always look after themselves but about two years ago a few of my friends got together and we have this group every month where we meet and reflect on the the emotional impact of the work. And it’s supportive and a really important point in the month.
JJ: Right, great!
NC: But what do you do? Who’s there for you?
JJ: Well I guess that’s the biggest part is that a lot of this job, part of your branding is to maintain this level of fun and enjoyment. So I’ve had wonderful moments on the road where I start talking to another singer-songwriter or another leader of a band. At first you’re like “How fun’s this, how cool’s this?” And you’re both eyeing each other up, being like, who’s going to be the first one to say “It’s not great all the time, is it?” And then you slowly break down those barriers and then you can get to the core of things.
I think a lot of that’s just based around this job is so rare for most people and it’s, it’s got a lot to do with hard work, yes, but honestly, it’s got a lot to do with luck, timing, and the way you look, and your age, you know. So to be able to get to the position that I’m in is actually incredibly lucky. And you know, whenever I say that, people are like, “No, you’re not lucky, you worked hard”. I’m like, come on. I worked hard, yes. But there’s so many factors that benefit me from the beginning.
NC: What are they, do you think?
JJ: I think being young, being, I don’t know, a white person, being, like, moderately attractive, aesthetically pleasing, you know, that’s just the reality of it.
NC: I suppose being Australian and not, say, Zambian.
JJ: Exactly, exactly. I mean the music industry is full of middle class white kids from the western world. It’s not like we’re all like the most talented people in the world. Because of that, you’ve gotta be very grateful, which I am, but then it feels like if you kind of make any allusion towards it not being ideal or something, then it feels like you’re kicking all the people who want what you have down. But I guess it’s like: it’d be nice if we could have a once a month meeting of musicians to be like, “Okay, how are we all?” (laughs).
NC: Are there people that you’ve connected with? Aren’t you friends with Adrienne Lenker?
JJ: I know Adrienne yeah. And Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker, Stella Donnelly and yeah, just lots of female singer songwriters, we can definitely have those moments where we’re like, let’s be real about this. And it’s really nice.
TWO: SIMPLICITY IN SONGWRITING
NC: Can I ask you about the decisions that you made in the album? The songs seem fairly direct, musically and lyrically. So how did you arrive at that decision that you wanted things to be – pretty clear.
JJ: That’s just the kind of record I like, you know? Like a Gillian Welch record. You know what she’s singing about, you know what chord she’s playing. It’s not that mysterious. And that’s just kind of music I’m drawn to, but also, that’s my ability. I’m not an incredible guitar player, I don’t know many chords (laughs). I think I’ve got a great ear for melody and I can write lyrics, but in terms of being a technical musician I’m not one, really. And I think when I came into the second album, initially I was like, oh yeah, my second album’s going to be super-produced, because that’s what I felt like a second album had to be. But then when I got there I was like, “But you don’t know how to do that”. You know? Like, I would hate to have a situation wherein I got an a producer that could do all this stuff that I didn’t understand and then create something that I couldn’t even play. I feel like with music, for me, it’s always just like try and document to the best of your ability at the time whenever it is, and then you can’t ever regret what you do because, you know, I can’t play any better than that. I did my best, I think. And I feel like as well because the lyrics are so direct and stripped back, any over-instrumentation would have taken away from that. And lyrically as well you feel like good songwriting means you have to be very poetic and metaphorical, and have all these tricky things that don’t make sense really but sound interesting. As I’ve gotten older I’m like, oh, that’s not true at all. Like, if you write a good song that people can understand instantly, it doesn’t mean it’s not good just cause it’s easier to process.
NC: [Waffly question about Jacklin’s singing, her voice carrying a lot of emotional information, so the songs surrounding the voice maybe need to be kept simple — not too sure what I was asking here.]
JJ: I think my singing’s changed a lot over the years, especially since the first album. I am surprised that I sing the way I do because I did classical singing for a long time and I feel like that should have stamped out any individuality. That was my experience – of being scolded for ever trying do my own take on anything. Well, I think a lot of that with my voice is that with this album particularly, I really wanted to just have the vocals right in the front and I wanted to record them very intimately with the microphone, whereas with the first album I was just kinda like, can we put a whole bunch of reverb on there? And I just was a lot more self-conscious as a person and an artist, so I just kind of wanted to cover everything with just like a padding of effects and safety. Whereas this new record, I just finally understood. I think when you’re younger and you first started making music, everyone tells you, oh, imperfections make music what it is, you know? And you’d be like, no they dont, shut up! I want to be perfect, you know, I suck and I want to be perfect. And if my voice wasn’t just like perfectly in pitch or whatever, I would just have to re-record it. And then I realized that just makes, especially with my kind of genre, like pretty bland, non-feeling albums. So with this one I was like, I’m just going to sing the way I sing.
NC: Did you have to work your way back to your own voice, in a way, then?
JJ: I think so. I don’t know. I think I was just like, yeah, I don’t know, I just wasn’t afraid of it anymore. I wasn’t worried. I trusted whatever came out of my mouth. I think when I was younger, I didn’t fully back myself vocally. I’d always, every night I’d be like, oh I don’t know what’s going to going to happen. Whereas now I just, I have full faith in whatever happens (laughs).
JJ: I think I tried to read that, but it has a pay wall.
NC: Yes. I was asked to write a piece about predatory men. I cited you at the end in a way that I’m not totally sure was right. So I wanted to check. I ended by saying that maybe we should stop agonizing over whether we can watch Woody Allen any more. And I wrote: “I propose that we use what we can, including our cultural choices, to ensure that women now and in future don’t have to sing songs about their bodies being the property of careless men.” That was a reference to ‘Body’. “And I propose we cease agonizing over whether to keep listening to predatory artists. We can just let go. Perhaps listen instead to the women who survive their predation. They might have important things to tell us.” Is that too strong a reading of your song?
JJ: Ah, thank you. No! I like that. That’s nice. Cause I do feel like that sometimes. When we are agonizing over Ryan Adams, I’m like, man, there are so many better female singer-songwriters and male singer-songwriters than Ryan Adams. I mean, sorry if you’re a big fan. Like when people for years have told me that I need to listen to him because he’s so incredible and Id listen and be like, he’s a decent singer songwriter, but I don’t get it. And then when this came out, a few people were like Oh no, but he’s such a hero. I’m like, I don’t know if I have the time to be in that discussion because I just feel like that would never happen with a female artist. We just don’t get the same kind of leniency. We can’t be disgusting people in our private lives and still have people listen to our work. So yeah: that was very nice. I think we should listen to more women.
NC: One interesting question to me was: if you’re going to decide you’re turning away from those guys, who do you turn to? I read something you said about your song ‘Convention’, which refers to Donald Trump at the Republican Convention in 2016. About why do we pay all our attention to the worst voices. That song is nearly three years old now. Do you think in the intervening period, have we got any better at listening to voices other than that kind of voice?
JJ: Yeah, I think so. Some days I feel very disillusioned by the world, but I do feel like even though we’ve got a long way to go, I do feel empowered as a woman, as to people actually listening to what I have to say. Even with this album, I feel like people really listen in a way that I was worried about. I was worried that I would put this album out and I was going to get thrown under the bus. Written off as like, she did it for the press, or for the #MeToo movement. I did get a few comments like that and they go Oh, Julia’s gone political. Which I find hilarious that if you speak about your experiences, just basic human experiences as a woman, it’s political apparently. But I do see a shift in the way that – it just feels like women in music are getting pushed to the front in a way that I hadn’t seen before. I feel like people are genuinely being believed. There’s definitely a big group of loud people in the Internet who are always going to be misogynists, so I don’t really have any energy or time to try and convince people like that, that they’re wrong. But I think that maybe there’s some people on the fence maybe starting to listen a bit more.
NC: It’s quite a powerful thing, isn’t it, to say to somebody like you that by describing your own experience you have gone political and that somehow invalidates what you are saying. Like: I’m sorry, who’s decided this?
JJ. Yeah, it is silly. Yeah.
NC: But it happens.
JJ: Yeah. It’s a great time to be a female musician, but then it’s also like if you write about like feminism or just your body or whatever, it’s like this hilarious idea that it’s a trend at the moment. It’s trendy to be a woman, apparently, at that this moment in time. I feel better about it though. My stepdad gave me a book the other day. I think its very easy to think that every single thing is totally shit right now because it can feel like that so much. And my stepdad gave me this book about 1960s Australia, and oh my God. Yes, things aren’t great now, but to see actually how far we have come. In Australia you still needed a husband’s signature to get a credit card in 1968 or something. In 1975 you couldnt get a bank loan. So that put things a little bit into perspective for me.
NC: I will finish up because I think we’ve probably done half an hour and you’re busy. But can I ask this: Is the person in ‘Body’ angry, or not angry? Because the song can make the listener feel angry.
JJ: Ha. I don’t know. To me — no. Or at least, not angry because I feel like the person in ‘Head Alone’ is angry. Right? I always feel like ‘Body’ and ‘Head Alone’ are sister songs.
‘Head Alone’ to me is when I’m feeling empowered and when I feel like what I say actually matters and maybe that if I ask for space, or if I advocate for myself, that people might actually listen. And so I feel encouraged, but also, you know, I feel angry about it and there’s nothing else I can do than scream a pretty self explanatory line like the pre-chorus line (“I don’t want to be touched all the time“). Whereas ‘Body’ is more resigned to my fate as a woman in this world, that maybe things would never improve and maybe no matter what, no matter what you say or try to explain or express your humanity to people, there’s always going to be these deep-seated ideas about what I’m supposed to look like and what I’m supposed to do and how I’m supposed to behave in my private life and my public life, that I’m going to essentially die without ever being able to break free from or change people’s minds.
But then sometimes with ‘Body’, I feel like on the one hand its defeated – I’m defeated – then on the other hand there is something quite empowering to me about the end line (“I guess it’s just my life / And it’s just my body”). Because sometimes it’s actually really nice when you realise, especially with a certain person in your life who maybe treats you poorly or treats you differently because you’re female, there is something nice to suddenly just be like, well: There’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing I can say. There’s no amount of communication or anything that I can say to change this person’s mind. And, like, now I can move on.
I think it’s when you’ve got that middle room, when you think, if only I can just show them the statistics of female sexual assault or maybe if I can really show them the facts. Maybe if I can tell them personal anecdotes to make them understand why this certain thing is traumatic to me, then maybe they’ll change. And that is way more exhausting sometimes. And some people are just always going to be the way they are. It’s not my job to convince people or to change people’s minds. It’s not my job at all.
FIVE: FAVOURITE MUSICIANS AND WHY
NC: Let me ask you about musicians or records that you really connect
JJ: Probably my biggest one that I listened to the most would be Leonard
Cohen. Gillian Welch, Fiona Apple, and a guy called Andy Shauf. Oh, he’s very
cool. I toured with him and it was a bit awkward because I was just very
obsessed with his music. They’re probably the four artists that I return to
over and over again, and will always listen to their albums from start to
finish and get completely immersed in what they do. Whereas there’s other
artists I love, obviously, maybe not ones that I will continuously return to
like some sort of little home.
NC: I saw Fiona Apple mentioned elsewhere this week as being very important to another musician. I don’t remember who. I missed the Fiona Apple boat at the time.
JJ: Well, I think I missed the boat at the time too, because alot of people’s perceptions of her were just so different to what my experience was like. I think she was really, she was kind of blown up when she was 18, 19, to superstardom. So I think a lot of people know her just as this young person who kind of went a bit crazy, you know. Whereas I had just kind of followed her personal life and I was too young to know that period. But Extraordinary Machine was one of the first albums I heard, which was her third album and I was 13 and my first boyfriend introduced it to me. It was just one of those moments that I’ll never forget because it was like the first time I heard something that that I really liked and I didn’t feel like I was being told to like it or my mum listened to it or whatever. It was the first thing that I went like, oh, I really like the sound of this and I don’t particularly know why. But then, over the years, it’s just – she’s an incredible lyricist. She has a way of talking about the dissolution of love in a way that I totally needed and related to. I don’t feel like many people write about it the way that she does. Yeah. She’s great. You should have a Fiona Apple period.
NC: You said that when you play these people’s music you get immersed in
JJ: Yeah, completely immersed, and I think it like reminds me of why I
do this. I think it’s very easy to get so lost in this industry, to be like,
why am I doing this? Is it cause I’m a massive narcissist? Is it because I like
the sound of my own voice? Is it because I enjoy socializing? Once you get into
the industry, it can be quite confusing for me. And so I feel like they’re the
kind of artists that I listen to going like, oh that’s right, it’s because I
love songwriting and they’re all masters, just absolute masters of the song.
NC: Did you learn a lot from these people?
JJ: I think so, yeah. Definitely, when I first started song writing, I think most people do this, you basically feel like you’re, you know, deconstructing a meal backwards. I’d listen to Gillian Welch’s ‘I Dream a Highway’, you listen and you’re like, OK, this makes me feel this and this and this and this – why? And I think she in particular made me go, OK, you don’t need a chorus in every song to make people connect with it. Like with ‘Body’. That, I reckon, came from my love of her music because she doesn’t lean into the typical songwriting structures. She doesn’t just give you verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge. There’s definitely a few songs on this record where I think I was just more confident in my ability, so I didn’t feel like I had to squish every idea into that kind of structure. That I felt like I could just experiment a bit and try not to do that a few times. Yeah. It’s nice.
NC: Where else would you say there’s an experiment with song structure?
JJ: Well yeah, like ‘Turn Me Down’ is one, and ‘Body’, and ‘Head Alone’. I mean,that is a verse, pre-chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, chorus, chorus, chorus, chorus. That never really repeats. I think if you heard my first album, it’s a bit more formulaic, songwriting-wise.
NC: I’m thinking about the structure of ‘Body’. It’s got this really nagging quality. Like, I was wandering round the house for days, going what is it about this song? You know the way it resolves? That’s seemed like a deliberate songwriter move.
JJ: Are you saying about ‘Body’?
NC: I am saying about ‘Body’. First of all the chords aren’t all in the same key, and then they are, just when you get to “I guess it’s just my life, and it’s just my body”, which is like, to me, that’s the message of the song. This fucking sad, resigned moment of – you’ve no right to be angry. Just take it. I felt like you did that musically. [I’ve written about this here.]
JJ: I think with songwriting, that for me especially, I’m not, because I’m not a technical musician, there’s no real like: “And then I thought, I will now use this code and that will make this happen!” It’s just like, I try every chord in my small knowledge book and then I’m like: that, no, no, yes, great! Just a lot of trial and error, really. It’s not some wonderful secret craft.
NC: An Irish interest question really to finsh up. In ‘Pressure to Party’, there’s this wordless vocalising at the end – is there a little Dolores O’Riordan in there?
JJ. Oh, no. I’ve gotten that a couple of times, it’s nice. Yeah. It was definitely not intentional, but nice outcome. Yeah. Well, thank you. Thank you for the book!
NC: Hope you enjoy it. Here’s a pic of my son who was singing ‘Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You’ by the way.
JJ: Ah, he’s lovely. [Indulges interviewer by looking at interviewer’s phone wallpaper.] It’s funny the people you find that connect with your songs. Last night in Manchester, I was looking out in the crowd during ‘Head Alone’ and there was this was this old man in a flat cap, punching the air, yelling ‘I don’t want to be touched all the time‘. And I thought: You are not who I thought I was writing this song for.”