“Grief changes you” — Mumblin’ Deaf Ro interview from 2012.

Mumblin’ Deaf Ro (Rónán Hession) and I emailed back and forth for a few days to put this piece together for State. We had never met – it was one of those interviews where you love the album, write to the Bandcamp contact address, and see if anyone gets back to you (they usually do). Email interviews are hit and miss, often too impersonal and lacking conversational flow, and I had recently posted a bit of a dud emailer with Jóhann Jóhannsson, so I was relieved and impressed at how forthcoming and considered Ro’s responses were. Dictionary Crimes was Ro’s third album. It was shortlisted for the Choice prize. It was also, apparently, his final album. Along his day job in a senior position in the Department of Social Protection, Rónán is now a prose writer rather than a song writer, and his debut novel Leonard and Hungry Paul will be published in March 2019.

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Rónán Hession, or MumblinDeaf Ro, has just released his third album, after a break of five years in which real life took over. In the space between 2007’s The Herring and the Brine and 2012‘s Dictionary Crimes, he became the dad of two boys and his mother, Angela, died of cancer. If it seems intrusive to open a feature with this level of detail about an artist’s life, it’s also impossible to write about Dictionary Crimes, autobiographical as it is, without doing so. Indeed, on the blog that accompanies the album, http://dictionarycrimes.tumblr.com/, Ro does the same.

In the opening scene of ‘The Birdcage’, Ro sings about shaving his mum’s head when she comes home from hospital; she chiding him for his roughness, he being as gentle, as tender as he can. “A practical love”, he calls it. The shimmering ‘Cade Calf Call’ uses the titular image, of a calf abandoned by its mother, to express the raw, animal yearning felt for your folks when they’re no longer around. ‘Little Mite’ recounts the loss of a baby and the effect of a miscarriage on a couple (“There are things to unwish for / And plans to unmake“). And in ‘Being Bill Cosby’, in a scene familiar to anyone with a couple of tiny kids, Ro writes of “Stooping to clean beans from a DVD / Trying to explain that we don’t stuff tuna in our trains”. Coincidentally, as I was finishing this piece, I partook in a family dinner that involved scooping a small wooden figurine out of my one-year-old son’s spuds and gravy. It’s good to see this stuff in songs.

These elemental experiences, of being simultaneously a parent, a child, a sibling, adding to your family and losing your family, are the core of MumblinDeaf Ro‘s honest, insightful, empathetic songwriting. On Dictionary Crimes, Ro looks hard at family life, in all its joy, love, tiredness, and tragedy, and doesn’t look away. “I have tried to write about these things as plainly as I can, without ornamentation, but also without any deliberate opaqueness,” Ro told me. “Either you tell people what it’s really like or else don’t bother.”

State: I was pointed in the direction of Dictionary Crimes when I asked a question on Twitter: “Looking for suggestions for songs that deal well with what it is like to be a dad. Anyone?” It had often struck me how under-addressed parenthood is in pop music. Do you think that’s right, and if so were you conscious of it when you began writing & planning the album?

MDR: It’s been a sort of campaign of mine over the past ten years to try and broaden the range of subjects that are dealt with in pop music in my own small way. I have always felt slightly baffled that the range of subjects dealt with in painting, books and movies is not reflected in songwriting, where the limited perspective of the twenty-something male still predominates.

Your question asks about parenthood in particular. Of course people write songs for their kids, or maybe about their kids, but it’s hard to find songs written in a plain and straightforward way about what it’s like to be a new parent: how tiring it is; the sense of inadequacy; the overwhelming volumes of advice you have to absorb. Aliens who came down to earth and tried to understand our culture would never guess from listening to pop records that we ever reproduced. Part of my interest in writing an album like Dictionary Crimes, about being in a family, was that I felt it was a theme with obvious personal and general relevance, but which had largely been neglected.

Many of the songs on Dictionary Crimes are extraordinarily intimate, delicate and detailed, lyrically; and the musical settings are such that the lyrics are out there loud and clear – there’s no hiding place. Did you feel nervous revealing so much of yourself and your family life?

Yes – and I still feel quite nervous about it. I am a naturally private person and don’t want to come across as some sort of blabber-mouth diarist. However, when I went through these things I did look at my music collection and say ‘Why didn’t you tell me about this?’ I felt it would be dishonest to dodge writing about such important events in my life and I don’t really understand why such common experiences as cancer and miscarriage are not written about more often.

You write throughout the album about bereavement, and I wanted to ask about grief. I work in psychiatry, where there are different views on the value or otherwise of grief. Broadly, the opposing arguments are: (A) Grief is part of what it is to be human and is of value; it’s a form of suffering that we should not be denied nor should we seek to avoid; and (B) Pain is just pain. It’s not of value. It just hurts. In your experience in the last five years, did you feel that there was value in your own grieving; did you learn anything, did you gain wisdom, anything positive; or did it just hurt?

I certainly felt that it was a valuable process. On the Dictionary Crimes blog, I described the loss of my parents as like a terminal moraine in my life, where everything that I had carried of my parents throughout my life was suddenly deposited and had to be sorted through. Grieving was a central part of that sorting and, if nothing else, Dictionary Crimes documents my reflections – wisdom is overstating it – on that process.

Grief is also bittersweet in unexpected ways. Though it’s painful, your grief becomes a vivid and living link between you and the person you’re missing. They are closest to your heart at those times when you miss them most. In that way, while you want to get over your grief, part of you feels that it keeps the person alive in your life.

In my experience, grief is not like a bout of food poisoning, where you process it, get it out of your system, and then go back to your normal self. Profound grief changes you as a person. You lose some of the core reference points that you had in your life; you lose utterly that naive sense that your life is all ahead of you; and you catch a glimpse of just how deep life can get.

On a more positive note, I never fully appreciated the amount of kindness that was in the world until all this happened. Most kindness is expressed in private, and invisible to all but those directly involved. It is touching and inspiring to witness the small kindnesses and thoughtfulness that people are capable of.

If it’s not too personal a question, what did you find helped you deal with the grief of your mum’s passing?

I think that my having children has helped me to deal with that sense of loss. In a short time I went from my mother still being alive, to having no living parents and becoming a parent. Aside from the distraction and joy that children bring, there is an obvious message about succession between the generations which makes a sad situation easier to understand.

Though I am not religious, I remember watching Pope John Paul II saying Easter mass when his illness was at an advanced stage. I remarked that it was awful that they couldn’t let him retire and that he had to go through that in such a public way. My wife’s aunt said in response to me that he was showing people how to suffer. That really stuck with me and I refer to it in ‘The Harm’ with the line “I’m to set, I suppose, some kind of final example, of how to suffer with grace and patience”. My mother was utterly at peace with her situation from the moment she was told she was dying. Above all, that helped me to start to accept the situation.

Lastly, I was struck by the craft of the writing on Dictionary Crimes; like ‘Charlie Brown’, where the narrative switches deftly in the last stanza from you as dad (‘the household depending on me‘) to you as son (“But mostly I just sit here / With a picture of my Dad)”. My first thought was that the writing reminded me of the way a William Trevor or Kevin Barry short story can quickly reach a surprising but satisfying conclusion. Are there particular writers who have influenced the way you structure your songs?

That’s kind of you to say. I do admire William Trevor, who is very skilled as mugging his readers – it’s impressive how he can make such seemingly unassuming stories leave such an impression. I have a broad reading taste, but my favourite author is Thomas Hardy – he has a deep emotional insight into characters and weaves his poetry into his prose.

In terms of structure, I think there’s a myth that stories have to have a beginning, middle and end – in my experience they usually have two of those at most. In the past I have compared songs to jokes: the opening line needs to tell the listener straight away what the scenario us (‘a man walks into a bar’); you need some details and digressions to build up tension and distract the listener from the punchline; and they rely on the listener to complete the experience – songs depend as much on the imagination of the listener as they do on the imagination of the songwriter.

Bandcamp: http://mumblindeafro.bandcamp.com

‘Cade Calf Call’: http://mumblindeafro.bandcamp.com/track/cade-calf-call

Do What You Have To Do, And Do It Soon. State Feature on Ergodos from April 2013.

This was a piece pulled together from email interviews with the founders of Ergodos, Benedict Schlepper-Connolly and Garrett Sholdice, and a number of Ergodos collaborators. The occasion was the release of their album inspired by Bach’s ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ’, called I Call to You. Wonderful, wonderful album if you haven’t heard it. It was also the 20th anniversary of the first time I was ever published in Hot Press, hence the opening. I enjoyed this piece – I admired their vision and palpable restless energy.

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I’ve been writing about music for twenty years this month and I don’t remember a time that new Irish music was more independent, energised or interesting than it is now. (Though the mid-90s lo-fi boom, as immortalised in Daragh McCarthy’s The Stars Are Underground, was really something.)

Part of the reason for the current flourishing is the decade-long decline of what used to be the standard music business model. Bands once made a dozen copies of a demo, sent them off, and waited, fingers crossed, for a label to register interest. In the Bandcamp era, that seems quaint; weird. Why would you wait? Your music just gets out there, to stand and fall on its own. By now a generation of musicians has emerged that has no experience of anything other than independence, and self-released Irish albums are some of the best of the last five years.

Accompanying the increased availability of all genres of new music is a liberating indifference to genre itself. You don’t have to go far back in time to find strict battle lines between, say, punk and prog; you were not allowed to not like both. By law. Now, interviewed for this piece, the composer, multi-instrumentalist and Ergodos collaborator Seán Mac Erlaine says: “At a gig, in the moment, there is no such thing as genre. Musicians and listeners know this. Genre is really a marketing tool.” For me, reared in the aftermath of the punk wars, Mac Erlaine’s declaration still sounds a little unnerving – and I am still not listening to Pink Floyd. But I’m getting there.

Ergodos is a music company in existence since 2006 that is dedicated to releasing records and staging performances and dedicated to dismantling illusory barriers between different types of music. Founders Garrett Sholdice and Benedict Schlepper-Connolly are both composers from a contemporary music tradition, but Ergodos’ last two releases are I Call To You, an album-length reconfiguring of a 17th century Bach choral prelude, and Seán Mac Erlaine’s Long After The Music Is Gone, which is spacious, modern, meditative woodwind music rooted in improvisational jazz.

Ergodos, along with the like-minded Journal of Music (edited, as it happens, by Benedict Schlepper-Connolly) exemplifies an attitude that is joyously present in new Irish music: that the spirit of the music, rather than the strictures of style, is what matters.

So, Ergodos release a Bach album and a Séan Mac Erlaine album; Mac Erlaine plays in This Is How We Fly with Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh; Caoimhín works both with Peadar Ó Riada, of Cúil Aodha, and Doveman, who produces the albums of half of hipster New York. And we get from 400-year old German baroque to Séan Ó Riada or David Byrne in about four moves, and seamlessly; without even blinking. This, I would suggest, is the genius of new Irish music.

For this piece, State conducted an email conversation with the following Ergodos allies: Benedict Schlepper-Connolly; Garrett Sholdice; Seán Mac Erlaine; Michael McHale (pianist on I Call To You); and Kate Ellis (prolific cellist, co-artistic director of the Crash Ensemble, and curator of the monthly Kaleidoscope Night of new music). I also got a comment from Donnacha Dennehy, composer among other works of the acclaimed Grá Agus Bás, who is also co-founder of the Crash Ensemble and a mentor of some years’ standing to both Garrett and Benedict.

We discussed the origins of Ergodos, the state of contemporary music in Ireland, the DIY attitude required of musicians today, and the sacred and secular beauty of Bach. 

State: I Call to You is a record of instrumental music and songs inspired by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. More specifically, it’s an album of music inspired by Bach’s piece ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ’ (‘I Call To Thee, Lord Jesus Christ’); the tracks that are not actually interpretations of that piece are named for lines in the German text of the song.

Garrett Sholdice: The text of the song actually pre-dates Bach’s music. Bach often used Lutheran hymns such as ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir’ as basic material for his compositions. So Bach’s organ chorale prelude ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ’ — the piece we based our album around — is an elaboration of a hymn of the same name, the words and music of which were written by a Lutheran minister named Johann Agricola around 200 years prior to Bach’s composition.

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I wondered what it was about that particular piece by Bach that led you to choose it as a starting point for this project.

 GS: It’s an incredibly beautiful piece — it just hits you. For me, it’s like a place you can get inside. The music is constructed such that there are three voices singing — a high voice singing the original hymn tune by Agricola very slowly, a middle voice simultaneously singing these more fleeting quasi-arabesque figures, and a low voice propelling everything along steadily. Each voice is constructed with such elegance, and the way in which the voices combine is so perfect, that you feel like the piece contains endless nourishment.

The album eases the listener in with a relatively straight reading of ‘Ich ruf’ zu dir’ by Michael McHale, although less ornate than you expect from Bach keyboard music; then moves away to somewhere more abstract and unfamiliar over the following pieces, then back to Michael’s beautiful, stark, hollowed out rendition at the end.

 GS: Yes, my transcription of the Bach that opens the album is consciously restrained. I wanted to present the music that I love as vividly as possible — although there are a few subtle personal touches. And my “hollowed out” arrangement at the end was an attempt to present what I hear (feel) as the essential elements of the music nothing more.

 Michael McHale: I was very impressed by [Ergodos’] work for the I Call to You album – the way in which the tracks all link and unite creates an expressive arc that is most impressive, and as a result the album as a whole adds up to much more of the sum of its parts. The Bach chorale prelude is most touching, tinged with melancholy. I simply wanted to perform it as simply and as naturally as possible, allowing the music to breathe and to create a background atmosphere of absolute stillness, which I felt served the music well.

I hadn’t heard it to my knowledge till I heard I Call To You, but ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir’ is actually quite a famous piece — used recently in Michael Haneke’s Amour, and not so recently in Tarkovsky’s Solaris and the 1931 version of Dr Jekyll and Hr Hyde.

Benedict Schlepper-Connolly: Interesting that you mention Jekyll & Hyde. I haven’t seen it and didn’t know ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir’ was used in that. However, the Tarkovsky film is where we first encountered the tune and I think a lot of our association with it is tied up with some of the images used in it (that wonderful floating scene with the close-ups of the Breughel painting, for instance). Amour came out after we recorded the album, but it’s a beautiful film. There’s certainly something timeless in the tune itself that has caught the ear of Bach, ourselves and these various film directors.

I wondered also what it is about Bach himself that you are drawn to. I first properly encountered Bach when over the space of one weekend in 2005 I had two salutary experiences: one, a conversation with a friend who said that Bach had a spiritual depth that almost no other music has; and two, I read Anthony Lane on Bach’s St Matthew Passion in a film review in the New Yorker. Lane wrote of being reminded of the “grave and devastating function” of the St Matthew Passion: “It has become, for too many of us, a concert piece, or something dignified to put on the CD player at the end of a fissile day. Suddenly… I heard it again as a Passion: the drama of Calvary, stern with lamentation.”

GS: That’s a great quote. For me, Bach is, at a basic level, the music of a certain really important part of my childhood. I received my earliest musical training as boy chorister in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. We sang Bach occasionally, but his organ music was a constant element in the atmosphere. So Bach is just in the blood. The vast repertoire of his music has been a consistent touchstone for me. I have certainly felt “devastated” by Bach — in the sense of feeling speechless.

I think I understand what your friend meant by “spiritual depth”. Despite my first encounters with it, in a cathedral, Bach’s music doesn’t operate for me in terms of religion. Of course, religion (specifically the Lutheran religion) was hugely important for Bach and it is an important context within which to view his art. I would not describe myself as religious in the least, although various religious musics have and continue to be important to me. The best way I can put it is that, for me, Bach’s music goes way deeper than religion. It transcends dogma.

This album is very clearly an album of sacred music, explicitly so. The music was written 400 years ago, at a time that the church had a very different place in society. Have you a view on the place or role of sacred music in a secular society in 2013? 

BSC: As it happens, neither Garrett or I is even baptised, and though we’ve both been very influenced by sacred music, neither of us has taken an interest in the literal sacred meaning of the hymn ‘Ich ruf’’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ’. We were also selective about the fragments of text we used, and on occasion left out reference to ‘Herr Jesu Christ’ altogether. I don’t think our secularism should limit our enjoyment of music written for sacred purposes, and I would suggest that there is much of the sublime that is expressed in works such as ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir’ or, on a grander scale, Bach’s passions, that is as arresting to a non-believer as to a Lutheran of the day.

State: Could you talk about what drove you to set up Ergodos in the first place? Your website describes the first Ergodos release, Dubh (2010) as being “about a certain generation of Irish composers, a generation that is finding its place between tradition and the modern world”. That makes Ergodos sound like an effort to allow a generation of artists to find a voice; like the ethic behind the 80s post-punk labels, or Irish indie labels in the 90s. No-one else is putting this work out and it should be heard; so we’ll do it ourselves. Does that ring true?

GS: Yes, I think that does ring true. Myself and Benedict started presenting concerts together when we were both studying music in TCD around 2005. Our composition teacher, Donnacha Dennehy, was a big influence. As director of his own group (the Crash Ensemble), he was a terrific model for us as someone who was taking control and putting his music — his aesthetic — out there. He wasn’t waiting to be discovered. Donnacha would actively encourage those of us studying with him to form our own groups, put on our own gigs, and to support each-other in doing so.

Donnacha introduced myself and Benedict to the music of James Tenney, an American “experimental” composer. A few months before Tenney died in 2006, myself and Benedict helped to bring him to Trinity to lecture and attend a concert of his music that we were organising. Tenney was part of this so-called “American maverick” tradition of really doing it yourself — forming ensembles, putting on concerts, creating a context for the art. We were enthralled not only by Tenney’s immersive, minimal music, but by his attitude. While he was in Dublin, amongst many other things, he imparted the following aphorism to us: “Do what you have to do, and do it soon.”

State: It’s occurred to me as I read around the subject that I don’t have a clear idea just what Ergodos is. My understanding is that it’s a company that produces performances and recordings, and beyond that I’m not sure where everyone else fits in — your collaborators.

BSC: Your confusion is understandable, because Ergodos has had many different manifestations since we started it in 2006. I suppose at the heart of what “Ergodos” is as a company, endeavour or even aesthetic, are the interests of Garrett and myself at any given time. We started as an annual music festival (“The Printing House Festival of New Music”) and that itself was part vehicle to get our own music out there as well as a way to present other music and musicians that interested us — that has basically remained a guiding principle.

Since we started Ergodos, we’ve developed a number of different layers of activity, manifested in a production company, a record label, a performing band. Ergodos Musicians, as a group, is equally amorphous, often changing personnel, size or character based on the particular direction in which Garrett and I want to bring it. The groups started as a kind of in-house band for one of our festivals, but since then we’ve worked to give it a life of its own.

I should also say that our collaborators, from composers to performers, are integral to the whole operation. Much of our music is written with specific performers in mind — I love to write for the lower register of Michelle O’Rourke’s voice for instance — and we feel that the composers we work with again and again are kindred spirits, on a related musical path besides being close friends.

Lastly: Is contemporary music in Ireland right now in a good place?

Sean Mac Erlaine: Well, this throws us into the genre question. ‘Contemporary music’ [is] itself a meaningless phrase – “music made today”; [it] stands for a genre growing out of the classical canon but left deliberately so open so it can include the enormous breadth of what people are creating, in a world where any meaning that might have held genres in isolation is quickly falling away.

BSC: Insofar as I think contemporary music exists anymore — that is some kind of composed music coming out of a European classical tradition — I think you could say it’s a vibrant culture. But I think one of the more interesting things about musical life in Ireland is how open listeners are to various kinds of music and music from all sorts of backgrounds without creating very strict definitions of them. Something like the Kaleidoscope monthly series in Dublin, where a jazz trio will play right after an early music consort, is emblematic of this attitude I think.

Sean Mac Erlaine: I totally agree with Benedict on that. People have absolutely no problem with the idea of cross-genre. That might be because at a gig, in the moment, there is no such thing as genre. Musicians and listeners know this. Genre is really a marketing tool. At a concert, people hear music and they evaluate it on these terms. Nobody hears ‘rhythm and blues’ or ‘contemporary jazz’. In Ireland, the audiences are very sophisticated — everybody has heard everything, so in a way with an open mind, this leaves a level playing field, where, of an evening, people are receptive to really diverse music.

Kate Ellis: Kaleidoscope is like a musical playground showcasing Irish and international musicians, with performances that range from the latest electronica music to the earliest found manuscripts. This month for example we have the cellist Bill Butt playing a solo sonata by Bach followed by the Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu playing some of his own compositions. The commonality between musicians and the music played is actually the quality of musicianship.

BSC: For composers, I think the outlook is generally positive in Ireland, because there are opportunities there to find the time and space to do your work, even if there isn’t much money going around at the moment. There is also a strong and supportive community among composers. The recession, amid its many horrors, seems to have also brought people closer together; musicians sometimes joke about the recession that they didn’t have as much to lose in the first place.

Donnacha Dennehy: I think that what Ergodos, and others like them, are doing is great. It shows a new energy in contemporary music in Ireland. They are not simply waiting around passively. They are acting in a way that contributes positively to the culture. Ben and Garrett were born composers and that was abundantly clear to me when I first met them.  I am so happy that they are following this direction and leaving an important imprint.

Carrie & Lowell Review — March 2015.

State magazine ceased publication in early 2018. State had been my outlet since 2008. The archive is gone now to wherever archives go and I’m using this site to post a few pieces that disappeared. One album I got to review for State was of one of the greatest records I’ve ever heard — Sufjan’s Carrie & Lowell.

Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty).

The inner sleeve of Carrie & Lowell features a photo of Sufjan Stevens at about five years old. He’s in a big-collared blue shirt and having a banana for breakfast. His mother, Carrie, is in shot but looking away. Sufjan looks happy. It’s such a normal shot, except it’s not.

The photo was taken on one of the few occasions Stevens ever spent time with his mother. Carrie, who struggled with schizophrenia and alcohol abuse, left Sufjan and his father and siblings when he was a year old. She moved to Oregon and got married again, for a few years, to Lowell Brams. The album’s not about Lowell; it’s not even about Carrie, particularly, as much as it is about the absence of her. A few 1980s summer holiday visits aside, Sufjan and Carrie never reunited; the closest they grew was when he sat with her in the hospice decades later after she was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. She died in 2012.

Pop music is supposed to reflect what goes on in our lives, but there is next to nothing in pop music that deals with grief. You think of Patti Smith (Gone Again) and Lou Reed (Magic & Loss), or more recently Mumblin’ Deaf Ro (Dictionary Crimes) but you are relying here on artists who’ve made a point of expanding the subject matter under discussion in songs. You would think that bereavement, the most universal of experiences, wouldn’t need specialist treatment.

Still, it’s tough for a song or a set of songs to capture the immensity of grief in the way that prose can. So the touchstones remain the likes of CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed, Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking or Aleksandar Hemon’s The Aquarium, which is such a pure distillation of sorrow that it’s simultaneously impossible to put down and almost unreadable.

John Lennon has probably provided the most precise musical precursor to Carrie & Lowell. John’s mother Julia also left him when he was a baby and died before he was a Beatle. His first post-Beatles album, Plastic Ono Band, was his attempt to make sense of that loss, bookended by ‘Mother’ (“Momma don’t go”) and ‘My Mummy’s Dead’ (“I can’t get it through my head”.)

On Carrie & Lowell, a son also yearns for the mother he never knew. Being Sufjan, though, there’s no primal screaming: he sings in a double-tracked whisper for the most part. There are no drums, and the carefully arranged accompaniment is at all times nuanced and unobtrusive – the likes of Thomas Bartlett and Laura Veirs feature, delicately serving the songs.

But Carrie & Lowell every bit as anguished, perplexed and abandoned as Plastic Ono Band was. “Mother, you had me, but I never had you / I wanted you, but you didn’t want me,” sang John on ‘Mother’; “I wonder did you love me at all?” asks Sufjan on ‘The Only Thing’.

The album is structured around remembrances of their few times together (such as ‘Eugene’ or ‘Should Have Known Better’) and Sufjan’s responses to Carrie’s absence and death (‘All Of Me Wants All of You’, ‘Death With Dignity’, ‘The Only Thing’). ‘Death With Dignity’ opens the album and immediately sets its emotional tone, as an almost sprightly arpeggiated chord progression in E is supported by gentle piano and the song concludes: “I forgive you mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end”.

The chord structures in several songs are relatively simple and dominated by major keys. To a non-musicologist like me this has the effect of couching difficult lyrical content in music that’s almost overdoing its upbeatness; using the chords to be comforting the way you might use a singsong voice to break bad news to a child (“He’s fine now, pet. He’s in doggie Heaven!”)

‘Fourth of July’ is the album’s apotheosis. The song brings together memory, empathy, grief and forgiveness, as it recounts a healing conversation between mother and son that never happened and had to be imagined. A percussive keyboard cycles resolutely through A, D, and E major chords as Sufjan voices Carrie’s half-regrets: “Did you get enough love, my little dove? / Why do you cry? / And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best / Though it never felt right”.

The song concludes with a real life memory of Sufjan and his mum together after her death: “The hospital asked should be body be cast /Before I say goodbye, my star in the sky / Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth / Do you find it all right, my dragonfly?” This is the album’s ‘The Aquarium’ moment: a song so bravely and brilliantly beautifully drawn that you’re glued to it; so helpless, pained and intimate that you nearly have to turn away.

In Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan is singing about emotions that are dug out of him and matters that most of us will recognise. The pain and perplexity of mourning; the validation that parental love alone equips us with as kids, that can’t be found anywhere else; the search for identity. In ‘The Only Thing’ he goes as far as pondering not only how, but whether, to carry on.

Aleksandar Hemon wrote of his daughter’s death “Though I recall that moment with absolute, crushing clarity, it is still unimaginable to me”. Tanya Sweeney wrote in the Irish Times that after she buried her mother she demanded that her family join her in bringing her back from her grave: “We need to go down there and bring her home!” Tanya wrote that at time she had taken “bewildering leave of [her] senses”, but I thought she made perfect sense. Who could second guess her? We have no idea what to do with death so we return to magical thinking – we regress.

In Just Kids, Patti Smith wrote “Why can’t I write something that would awake the dead?” and Sufjan opens ‘Fourth of July’ with the same mystical self-criticism: “What could I have said to raise you from the dead?”

What the writers I’ve cited suggest, and Carrie & Lowell confirms, is that intense grief can be documented, poetry even extracted from it, but we are not built for it and we can’t absorb it. We can’t expect to understand real loss any more than preschool Sufjan peering out from the the inner sleeve. What I see in that photo and hear in these songs is that grief may be too much for us. We think we’re really something, but when it comes down to it, we’re just kids.

I’m Not Supposed to Be Like This, But It’s OK: A Note on R.E.M.’s Green at 30

When R.E.M.’s Green was released, thirty years ago, on 8th November 1988, I was 14. It was my first R.E.M. album and it is the first album that I loved at the time that I still love. This is a thing that happens with R.E.M. albums – which one you hear first is important. You get imprinted.

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I don’t recall when exactly I heard Green first. I knew ‘The One I Love’ from Document before I heard ‘Stand’, but I hadn’t heard of any of the I.R.S. albums and I knew nothing about the band. The first piece on R.E.M. that I ever read was in Time in late ’88 and I misread it, or at least the accompanying photo. I must have assumed that the one with the most charismatic eyebrows was the singer. When they came on stage in the RDS in June 1989 I was surprised to see Bill Berry go behind the drums and the man who turned out to be Michael Stipe take the front of the stage.

This was before I would inhale every interview and internalise every utterance but that came quickly. In a Hot Press interview in 1989 Stipe used the term “fucker” to describe George H.W. Bush. This was so cool a term of abuse that I decided to adopt it. Not everyone was impressed. Stipe harangued Exxon that night in the RDS because of the Exxon Valdez and he set me off on a fifteen-year absolute boycott of Esso garages. I was only driving for the last five of those years and their share price did not suffer, but they must have wondered why they were selling so few Loop the Loops.

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That night in the RDS Stipe sang ‘You Are The Everything‘ wrapped around the mic stand with his back to the audience. I thought this was mysterious behaviour and that there must be something incredibly powerful about the song, still, for Stipe himself, that he couldn’t even look at us. The guy standing just to my right thought it was the greatest thing he’d ever seen. I have never forgotten this stranger’s yell of pure joy (“AMAZING!!”) with arms outstretched as Stipe composed himself and turned back to us at the end. I think my neighbour’s yell stayed with me: Wow, look what music can do.

Green is the most important album of my lifetime and I sometimes wonder how it, not Doolittle, not The Joshua Tree, not Disintegration, acquired that status. It is partly the imprinting and partly that it is such an endlessly beautiful record made by geniuses that even a 44 year old who has heard it hundreds of times, and who tries to make a point not to live in the musical distant past, can always find something fresh there.

Green wasn’t the first album that I went back to again and again. That was The Joshua Tree because I was a 13 year old boy in a class full of 13 year old boys in 1987 and because ‘Running to Stand Still’ touched a nerve I didn’t know I had; the first song I compulsively played, lifting and re-lifting the needle on Born in the USA, was ‘Downbound Train’. But Green was the first album that I connected with properly, personally, in my own way. I met Stipe in 1999 at an Up aftershow. It’s important to tell artists how much they mean to you, even people who hear it all the time, so I shuffled over. “You know Green kind of changed my life,” I said. “Only kind of?” he replied.

Green provided a template for the kind of music I would seek out for years afterwards. I loved melody but prioritised lyrics (so it took some time to cop on to MBV, for instance). I enjoyed the feeling of not understanding “I am not the type of dog that would keep you waiting for no good reason / Run a carbon black test on my jaw” while also understanding. I wanted more of the admiring shock of that moment when I realised he’d replaced “raise” with “raze” in ‘World Leader Pretend’. Raze!

I wanted singers with character. I wanted heart and poetry and preferably some pain. I went down the lo-fi mournful music path, signposted by Green’s side two, exhaustively (American Music Club, Smog, Big Star’s Third and Music for a New Society were the touchstones). I think I went too far down that road. I spent too much time with songs that emphasised loss, rejection, and failure to the point of why even try, because that position seemed true and somehow morally superior. Sigh. Anyway. Great albums, those – just not on the bus in the morning every single day, I would now argue.

After Green I simultaneously wanted risks and freedom and playfulness, for it not to matter so much. I loved that R.E.M. swapped instruments on ‘Untitled’ and that Bill Berry couldn’t play the drum part that Peter Buck came up with because it was too amateurish, so Peter played it. I loved that mistakes could stay in. I loved that the backing vocals added to the narrative, that it was a conversation (“Dreams they complicate my life / (Dreams they complement my life)”. I loved Mike Mills’ voice.

My relationship with Green evolves. I change and what I hear in it changes. I read recently that ‘Untitled’ (“All I really want to say is / Hold her and keep him strong“) was Stipe’s love song to his parents. I didn’t know that and it would not have occurred to me at 14 that you could sing a love song to your parents. Now I know I’ll think of my mum and dad whenever I hear Peter Buck’s rickety intro and “This world is big / And so awake / I stayed up late / To hear your voice“. I’ll feel gratitude, to my folks and to this band.

It took my own turn at parenthood to personalise ‘You Are The Everything’ so concretely. I always heard the song from the child’s perspective and I always placed myself in the back seat laying down, the windows wrapped around to the sound of the travel and the engine. It always took a leap of imagination to inhabit the song. No bad thing, but then I found myself driving near home with the CD on and my daughter, then six-ish, in the back seat humming along. For now that’s how I hear it, from the perspective of my kids and of myself as their happy and incredulous and fearful dad. The two boys stopped me turning off ‘The Wrong Child’ last week. “No! I love that song!” they said as one. That was a complicated moment. ‘The Wrong Child’ is the Green song that embedded most deeply in me, but I wouldn’t necessarily want them to inhabit that one.

‘The Wrong Child’ is sung from the perspective of a child with a disability who is suffering. I always pictured a boy but that’s not clear from the song. “Tell me what it’s like to go outside“, it goes, “I’ve never been / Tell me what it’s like to just go outside… Hey those kids are laughing at me“. I connect the song to Christopher Nolan and Stipe said, I think, that Nolan’s Under the Eye of the Clock was an influence. Because I knew this back story I long thought I was lyrically distanced somehow from the song. If the song is explicitly about someone in a highly specific situation that is not my situation then it’s not about me.

I was right about this and also wrong. ‘The Wrong Child’ was in a real sense not one bit about me, and it was an early lesson in the song as an act of empathy. A mistake I made in ensuing years that I have tried to correct was to demand that songs were directly relatable. Morrissey hung the DJ because the music that they constantly played said nothing to him about his life – why should it? Why not other people’s lives? What is so endlessly fascinating about ourselves?

But I was shaken by ‘The Wrong Child’, mesmerised by it, permeated by it. I had Green on tape and I rewound and rewound that moment when Stipe makes the first vocal leap, that first “I’m not supposed to be like this / But it’s OK“. It’s so sudden, and Stipe deliberately doesn’t quite land on that leaping high note. He just misses, straining too far, wavering around it. Listening to it writing this I found myself contorting, bending my body as he sings, mimicking his bending of that high note, like if I alter the angle of my ears the note will settle back where it’s supposed to be. It’s such a physical moment of uncontained emotional urgency. And I was identifying alright.

I suspect now that I connected with Green over all other albums because your band chooses you as much as you choose them. I was 14 when I heard ‘The Wrong Child’ and losing my old friends and not making new ones and just beginning to regard music as a liferaft. I was 14 and I needed to hear “I’m not supposed to be like this / But it’s OK” sung by Michael Stipe with love and hope and solace. Every so often, I still do.

Life of Surprises: An Interview with Patrick Barrett of The Hedge Schools

Darling it’s a life of surprises
It’s no help growing older or wiser
You don’t have to pretend you’re not crying
When it’s even in the way that you’re walking
– Paddy McAloon, ‘Life of Surprises’

Jesus, please
Make us happy sometimes
No more shout
No more fight
Family life
– Paul Buchanan, ‘Family Life’

Come the day of forgiveness
Come the hour and the time
When you wonder what’s enough
Try holding on to love
– Patrick Barrett, ‘April 10’

The Hedge Schools are Patrick Barrett and Joe Chester, who have been friends and collaborators for twenty years. Once bandmates in Ten Speed Racer, they re-convened as The Hedge Schools for 2008’s Never Leave Anywhere. In 2015, with Kevin Murphy and Donagh Molloy, they released At the End of a Winding Day, which touched a chord.

Hotpress called At the End of A Winding Daya triumph of minimalist beauty“. Myles O’Reilly made them a film. Numerous radio luminaries got behind Hedge Schools, and they played the National Concert Hall, which was, Barrett told me, “the most amazing experience I’ve had on stage, in all my years of making music”.

Magnificent Birds is their warm, graceful, pained and pristine new record. Again it is principally Barrett on voice and guitar and Joe Chester on guitar, piano and production, but Vyvienne Long adds cello recorded in the Wicklow Mountains to ‘Magnificent Birds’, ‘The Flood’, ‘Navigate’ and ‘Golden’. I say to Patrick somewhere here that Hedge Schools songs have about them a “pointed simplicity”, and what I meant was that the words and music do just what they need to do. Here, minimalism is concentrated emotion and you can rest your attention in the space between the notes.

Barrett is wont to quote Bill Withers saying “I write and sing about whatever I am able to understand and feel”, and Magnificent Birds is manifestly drawn from life. It is both a reluctant reckoning with the waning of a long-term relationship (‘April 10’, ‘Oncoming’) and a celebration of new love (‘Golden’, ‘The Morning Bird’). It is written from the perspectives of a son (‘The Flood’) and a father (‘Navigate’, ‘Lighthouse Lights Out’). The song I most immediately connected with was ‘Navigate’, which Barrett wrote for his daughter. They live apart now. A father’s prayer and promise (“Wishing for a safe passage / All your dreams coming true / Know that someone is waiting / Just for you”), it beats in time with my heart. But my wife’s favourite is ‘Golden’, and I take her point. Any of these songs could hook you the way ‘Navigate’ caught me.

Replete with imagery of the sea, Magnificent Birds is also a meditation on impermanence. We are supposed to be OK with impermanence now, but we’re really not, and when Barrett sings “I wish things didn’t change / I wish they stayed the same“, in ‘Oncoming’, it is easy to identify with him. But there is an oceanic equanimity in these songs too. Listening to Magnificent Birds I’ve often thought of The Blue Nile’s ‘Family Life’, with its humble acceptance of everyday turmoil. I have thought too that with all the struggle and sadness that this record recounts, but offset, as it concludes, by hope and resolve, the tone of Magnificent Birds is best captured by another Blue Nile phrase — peace at last.

Patrick Barrett and I met in January and covered art, friendship, family, cormorants, creativity, and the late Willie Meighan: “He was a monument, that man”.

 

NC: Pat, I’m interested in talking about the record itself but I’m interested in the whole process, how you put together the record, how you let it go. The relationship that we have with music in general and what it is to be an artist.

PB: There are occasions over the last couple of years where even I have questioned it, you know, why do I keep doing it? Why do people keep doing it, the industry that it’s become. You aren’t spinning an income from it. You’re just not. So I’ve always been curious: what is the driver for me? Why do I keep going? You know. Constantly questioning the fact that you do it and still having that niggling thing: I need to finish this. And collectively I think that Joe and I, we’ve always started at the same point when it comes to making Hedge Schools records. We’ve always gone: OK, this needs to be the best we can make it. If it’s going to cost me X amount of money to print, to put out, to do the press, we need to be sure that it’s going to be a record that we can sit down and listen to in five year’s time.

What is that niggling thing?

Well I’m an avid music collector. Within everyone’s collection, they have ten, fifteen records that they go: that was an incredible record. And the drive to make a glorious record still excites me. I still want it to matter.

So that’s about the end product. But I was thinking about the beginning: the itch of an idea, when there’s something just annoying you.

Yeah. For me, certainly with this record, it was cathartic process, where I’d gone through a relationship breakup, a nine-year relationship where there’s a house involved and a kid involved. So that wasn’t easy. The process of the record in my head started at that point. But yet, midway through writing the record, I moved to Kilkenny, met an incredible woman and I fell in love and we’re getting married next year.

So that niggling thing with me was: OK I need to sit and write this. I’d been through a really crap time, at the end of a relationship, where it was falling apart, it was just two people drifting. And I’ve had the outlet of being able to sit at a piano or pick up a guitar or a blank page. I find it easy to sit with a piece of paper and a guitar and write. Joe would say the opposite: he would say “I can’t write about stuff like that”.

He said something like that the last time I interviewed you.

Yeah. We would openly talk about it. There’s one or two tracks where Joe looked at me after I’d put down my vocal and said “I’m not going to ask you to do that again”.

As in: that was a particularly raw performance?

Yeah. I mean I think there’s an emotional core to everything I write. There has to be. It’s like, I think if it matters to me, then it’s going to matter to somebody like you, and it’s going to matter to somebody over there who listens to it. But there was at least two or three moments on that record when I was in front of a microphone where Joe just kind of went “I won’t get you to do that again”.

Was one of those moments ‘Navigate’?

Yes! It was. How did you know that?

I don’t know! There is something in the grain of your voice.

That song – it’s about what it was, really. My ex-partner and I have an eleven year-old daughter. So we’re at a point where I’m like OK, I need to go, or one of us needs to go. It’s not healthy any more. And I was very aware of the fact that I’ve a beautiful kid. And she knew what was going on, kids know – she was nine when it all started to drift away. She’ll be twelve this year. That song is just about her always knowing I’ll be there.

I come up once a week from Kilkenny just to pick her up from school and hang out and go home late that night, but she knows that I’ll come up every week. We made the decision that she stays with her mother in the family home and that’s what that song is about. However she navigates through life, I’ll always be there. I’ll always be the anchor. ‘Lighthouse Lights Out’ is exactly the same thing. Where somebody who’s been there all your life, who’s been that beacon, in a certain way when I was moving away I was switching that off. But it’s always going to be there. I think I wrote a lot of that record sitting out the end of Dun Laoghaire pier.

It comes across.

Does it yeah?

It’s all ocean, it’s all seagulls. There’s that pun in ‘April 10’: “the gulls, the buoys”.

Yes. It’s all birds. And freedom. But the record is in two parts. The relationship is a part of it, and then the second part became the second part of it.

I moved to Kilkenny and in the bizarre circumstances that that happened was just one of those things. The back story is, when we put the last record out, Willie Meighan, who owned Rollercoaster Records in Kilkenny, was the only person in the country who I went to with the record. We were selling it on the Bandcamp page only. Dave O’Grady said send it down to Willie in Kilkenny. And I said to Willie, look, let’s do something. We’d made handmade copies of the last record, and I said, let’s do something special with it. So I said to him, if I give you down fifteen copies of it, will you sell them, and give the money to The Good Shepherd, the homeless centre in Kilkenny? And Willie was going yeah, of course I will. So my connection with Willie happened through that.

And that man, he passed away recently, but he sold more copies of that record than any other human in this country. And Willie asked me to go down and do a solo show in Cleere’s, and it just so happened that the week I decided up in Dublin to move out of home was the week that Willie asked me to go down. So I played in Cleere’s to forty or fifty people, gorgeous gig, and I had one of those moments on stage, where the whole weight of everything I’d left in Dublin, and everything that was going on, came across in a performance. He pulled me aside afterwards and he said “What’s going on for you?”

So he said, stay down here for the weekend. So I stayed down for the weekend and he introduced me to my partner now, Ashley. He had given her a copy of the record in the shop, and she had fallen in love with the record, and she met me that weekend. I went down on the Friday, stayed there till the Tuesday, the bank holiday weekend, and three months later just decided to move down. But that man: he was a monument.

Tell me more about him. I’ve only come across him online.

He passed away there recently of bowel cancer. He was 48 years of age. But everything that happened in Kilkenny, in terms of music, Willie Meighan made it happen. From a little shop on Kieran’s Street. When you’ve people like Bonnie Prince Billy, Calexico – everybody knew him! There was a humanity and an empathy about him that’s very rare in the industry these days. And he introduced me to Kilkenny, and the arts community there, and there’s an incredible community there. No bullshit, just everybody doing what they do because they care about it. It’s a great little city. But it all happened because of Willie Meighan and he brought me down there. So I owe the man that little tributary or that little turn in my life. When I was at probably the lowest point in my life.

 

I wanted to ask you about vulnerability. When you sing, your emotions are right there. And when I listen I think about maleness and how unencouraged you can be to be vulnerable as a man, and that one thing it sounds like you are doing is almost to show people on purpose that it is OK to feel these things.

I wouldn’t say I’m doing it on purpose. It is what I am. I suppose that comes from if you’ve grown up in an environment where it was OK to show emotion. I’ve three siblings, two brothers, John and Dermot, and a sister, Bernadette. But we grew up in an environment where it was OK to show emotion, or it was OK to have a cry.

When you say it was OK: who set the tone?

My mam and dad probably did, yeah.

So it was OK with them. How did you know it was OK?

It was very visible; it was OK! It was never a case of, don’t be doing that, or go into the corner and hide it if you’re going to be doing that. I think it was a healthy environment to grow up in. We were never told “No”, we were never told “No, you can’t do that”. And I think as a parent it’s probably the ultimate gift that you can give a child is that little bit of freedom to go, right, OK, we’ll let you make mistakes.

I have three kids and I would say it must be very difficult as a parent to do that.

Yeah, God, yeah! Especially in this era. Maybe when we grew up. We grew up in Kilbarrack, which was a rough enough place to grow up in, you know what I mean, but Dad, anything that happened around Kilbarrack, Dad was responsible for it, whether it’s parks being built or football pitches being put up. So we had a good grounding in an area like that. We were never told no. We were told: if you’re going to do that, go and do it.

When I think about that I think about the fear that you have for your kids, that if you just let them off, it won’t work out for them. All you want is for them to be happy and … I was going to say secure, but that’s me. I was always terrified of insecurity. That’s real Philip Larkin there: “I’m afraid of this so now you’re afraid!”

Mam would have been the one who’d worry, but Dad’d be laid back. And they’re both still alive, thank God. Mam is 87, Dad is 92, both still alive, and still kicking. In the last year, year and a half, Mam has begun to fade a little bit, and I wrote ‘The Flood’ from a point of view of me looking at her, and watching her get that little bit older, and a little bit more frail, but yet, being able to look at a picture of her in the 1940s and 50s when she was beautiful, and you’re still that person. Although you’ve got that little bit more old and a little bit not with it, you’re still that beautiful person.

Has she heard the song?

No, she hasn’t heard it. She might hear it at some stage (laughs). Ah no she will hear it. I don’t know is it important for people to know that songs are about them, is it?

I imagine it’s a big moment when you know that there’s a song about you.

There’s two songs on the record that are about Ashley, who’s my partner at the moment, and they were written around her. Like I’d be noodling away in the evenings on the piano or the guitar and she would’ve been around me when I was writing them, but when you play them, when I brought the final mixes home from Nice a couple of weeks ago and we listened to them together, she was crying her eyes out on the sofa.

Earlier on you were saying it’s easy for you to pick up the guitar and write songs. And when I listen to your songs, there’s a pointed simplicity about them.

Well that really matters to me.

But if I know anything about making art, it’s that to arrive at that simplicity takes a lot of work. No matter how easy you say it is to write, I can’t imagine the songs start life so winnowed down. They’re hardly first drafts.

A lot of them are first drafts. They’re on voice memos on my phone. I write in a songbook that, when I’m starting a record, I buy a nice paper-bound book that just follows me for a year. And this one was the same. I just fill it with – there’s a lot of it you don’t use. But I’ll tend to open up the voice memos and noodle and throw a line down, but when I start to write something, I tend to finish it in one sitting.

Do you.

Yeah. Now that’s – it’s different for every songwriter, Niall. Take Joe. His Easter Vigil record was, I think, his greatest work. And his process was he sat at the typewriter for three or four months, just writing lyrics. Didn’t put music near it. The only instrument was the typewriter. I can’t work like that. I’ll have the guitar, will put a couple of lines together, put the words on the page, and will generally finish – I might go back and change a few words, but I will generally finish a piece in one sitting. Everything that’s on this record was finished in one sitting.

Do you set up your week to give yourself space to create?

No. I generally will just let it happen. Maybe I’ve tuned myself and my body into some sort of structure so that I know I need to do it. I’ve worked in retail for 15, 20 years, and it’s what I do, I work about a 40 hour crappy job, but it’s effectively paying for me to make records. But I do deliberately make that space in the evening.

So you are disciplined about that. Every evening you pick up the guitar?

Yeah, but it’s not a discipline, it’s more a case of “What might happen here?” But Joe was playing up here recently, and he had my guitar, so for maybe a month I had no guitar in the house, and I didn’t miss it. I may not even try to start writing again until we’ve sent this record home. I probably won’t start again until I feel the need!

But I can’t wait for people to hear the record, cos I think we managed to make a quieter record than the last record. We were laughing about it – if we even thought it was possible to make a quieter record; but we did. And we recorded piano for the record in about three or four different places, all in little villages in France, up in the foothills of Nice. Joe went to a church in Avignon and he got a lend of a piano for a day inside the church. The piano in ‘Oncoming’ is recorded in the church.

You said you can’t wait for people to hear the record and I’m interested in how you let it go. Is there also anxiety? How do you know it’s ready?

I suppose the letting go of a record for me means I can start on a new one. Willy Vlautin played Kilkenny the other night. He is an author and singer and he strings the two bows equally beautifully. I loved a quote from him the other night “Writing is just one really long puzzle”. I think the letting go for me means I’ve dealt with what I needed to say, what I wanted to express. It’s gone now: let it to the wind.

You mentioned ‘Oncoming’. There’s a vocal change in the third verse that is subtle but in the context of a quiet song sounds big. There’s something about minimalism and the quality of the attention that you pay to musicians that you trust.

Yeah. And I think the less that’s going on, the more easy it is to pay attention. Whereas if there’s bells and whistles, you’re probably missing the point a little bit. And we both come from that space, Joe and I, where we’re going “OK, this is what should matter with this song”. Like: we’ve an incredible understanding between the two of us. It’s not a Hedge Schools record until he’s in the room. When the two of us are sitting in a room together, that’s when it happens. We have this connection, you know.

Well there’s that respect that comes across. I remember that lovely thing he said about you: “When Pat starts to sing, a state of grace descends”.

Yeah! I loved that as well. And he’d never say that to me, that’s the thing, Niall! I’m looking at him going “What do ya mean?” He’d never say that. And it was funny because the day before he sent me mixes of this record, a couple of weeks ago, the day before, he sent me an email, five words: “Your voice on this record”. That was it.

 

I wanted to go back to what you said about the drive to make art, and the struggle to sustain yourself as an musician. It seems like it’s getting more difficult.

Well yeah. And one think that doesn’t get talked about very much is the mental health of performers or musicians. People who are constantly just struggling from record to record.

I think we’ve probably figured out that me making this record was cathartic, it was a process I needed to do for myself, and we’ve made a beautiful piece of art, which is even more the bonus. But there’s so many like me all across the country who are just doing the same thing. Who are going “OK, how am I going to make another record?” or “How am I going to afford to make another record?” Or: “Will I make another record?”

Like a great friend of mine, Tim Smyth, he was in Hidden Highways, gorgeous band. He moved to Kilkenny about six months ago, him and his wife. And we struck up a musical thing. We had started working on some ambient drum tracks and stuff, and then all of a sudden he decided he doesn’t want to do music any more. He’s an incredible songwriter. But himself and his wife are expecting their first baby and they’re buying a house. And in the balance of that, he doesn’t want to do music any more. And it’s that great question of: where do you put that creative energy?

Do you think that’s a decision that it’s possible to make? Would you be able to make that decision: listen, I’m just going to stop writing.

No. Ha! No. It’d always come back. Or it’ll always be around some corner.

You said “mental health”: Have you had difficulties?

No: I don’t think I’ve ever suffered with what you might call a depression or anything. But I think people struggle from record to record. And there can be that constant battle of what you should be doing – getting a house and getting a car and what everybody else is doing around you – but you still want to make records.

So it’s the insecurity of the life, and poverty, really.

Working from record to record. I spoke to Carol Keogh about a year ago, and Carol was in the same boat, having to crowdfund her record and wishing she didn’t have to that. And there’s that insecurity about that, the fringes of the art where it just gets forgotten about, and yet a lot of what’s beautiful and doesn’t get played on the radio comes from there.

What kind of supports are there here?

I don’t think there are any. I’ve never even tried to go looking for them because any of the kind of bursaries, like the Arts Council bursaries, it’s all about if you’re writing classical pieces, it’s not geared towards people who are making records. The Canadian government model is another example of where the arts is funded. There’s a fund that’s run in all the provinces in Canada. A lot of the funding comes from its National Lottery. But in this country it’s not funded. It’s only talked about when someone wants somebody to play up in Áras an Úachtarán. To be fair, Higgins was a champion of the arts for years. But there needs to be more of it. On the fringes there needs to be more. Imagine the millions spent in this country on the National Lottery. Imagine giving people a choice of where their lottery money goes; charities, arts would all benefit.

There seems to be an expectation now that if you make music you’re not going to get paid for it, and we’re going to insist that you do it out of a sense of vocation.

And should that be the case, is that fair? If I have a vocation is it fair that I’m not – I would rather spend forty hours a week sitting at the piano. It was the exact same discussion that I had with Carol, where she was saying I would love someone to pay me to be a musician for forty hours a week, and imagine the art we could make?

I’m a little preoccupied right now with this point. With the lack of attention and respect that we give to music. It’s something I’ve thought of from a different angle, with the perspective of 25 years as a music writer, with my dismissive moments myself, but also, now, when you’re a consumer who’s flooded in music, you don’t give it respect. You don’t attend to it properly at all. We don’t respect the process, we’re not hearing everything that goes into a record, we’re taking it for granted, and we’re missing out. And I know that’s sad for musicians, but who it’s really sad for is us, as listeners.

Yeah. A total by-the-by and it’s nothing to do with music, but I was coming up here today, and I was walking up by the Old Kilmainham Road and there’s a veterinary hospital? A woman was walking out with a dog under her arm and she was in floods of tears. And her husband was with her, and I overheard her saying to her husband: “I can’t believe that he’s going to be alright”. And I was going: shit like that, we miss it every day. If you’re not looking for it, you’ll just walk by it. I’m very much aware of the beautiful things around me. I try and spend as much of my life as I can appreciating them. But I was walking up and going: Yeah. That’s a slice of that woman’s day, walking out of that veterinary hospital, and that’s a beautiful thing. We don’t sit with things any more.

We don’t think things are worth our attention so we don’t pay attention, so we don’t ever figure out if they were worth our attention. We readily dismiss things.

Like, the whole theme of this record is, like you said, it all revolves around the sea and all around birds and stuff, and like I said I sat – for pretty much a year I would walk every evening, walk the dog, and try to figure out what was I going to do in this situation.

But I’d sit at the end of the pier writing, watching the cormorants diving for fish and, you know, appreciating them. Thinking, OK, this goes on around me all the time no matter what shit I’m going through. This kind of stuff goes on around you every day of the week so you have to be able to just breathe it in and go: this is what actually matters.

Those images are both so powerful in their own way. There’s something archetypal there about the diving bird and freedom and escape, and the ocean, which is your classic permanent yet impermanent thing.

It’s always different, yeah. And the process: it wasn’t a deliberate thing, but it became the recurring theme of this record. Just about the beauty of watching birds, and that they can escape, and that in the middle of it all, I moved out of Dublin and left a ten year relationship. Probably the toughest decision I ever made. But it had to be made.

And we have an incredible eleven year old daughter, who I think, who I know understands what was going on, and who I know understands what goes on now, and who has remained I think remarkably unaffected by it. Because I’ve always been really open about it – it was important for me that communication was open. She knew what was going on every step of the way, that I was moving out of home, that I was going to be living somewhere different only a bus ride away. Making that a physical thing – putting her on the bus, showing her where I’m living, all that sort of stuff. But then ended up living in Kilkenny.

But she knows the geography of Kilkenny now; she knows that I live there, she comes down on the train, she comes down on the bus, so there’s that comfort of like, OK, I know you’re there, and I know where you are now, and I have the geographical surroundings, so that was really important to me. The permanence of me being her parent doesn’t change. The physical surroundings may change, but I’m still there. It’s like that permanence of the sea. It’s always there. It’s always going to be different, but it’s always there.

It’s Like Being Inside an Explosion Sometimes: Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh feature from 2009 in State

This is a pre-Gloaming piece on Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh from 2009 that was and is on state.ie (http://state.ie/features/it’s-like-being-inside-an-explosion-sometimes). State changed their formatting somehow a few years ago and all the fadas and umlauts and such got re-formatted so this piece became pretty difficult to read. I have occasionally looked at the piece contemplating a re-edit but I was never sure what the point of doing that was. I still don’t think there’s any point but I have done it.

I have thought about Caoimhín a bit since Jóhann Jóhannsson’s death as Caoimhín is an equally important figure for me in the last ten years. I bracket them together like my early middle age Beatles and Stones. I even quoted Caoimhín to Jóhann once and got an interesting response.

I’ve always liked this piece, even though I exhibited a gross degree of ignorance about Irish music and musicians in it – more on that here. Interviews can be painful, mostly to be appreciated when they are over, but I enjoyed this conversation while it was happening and I often remember isolated things that he said (the “lovely juicy peach”, his closing paragraph). Caoimhín was a generous and effervescent interviewee and he was then and still remains one of the musicians I most admire. He’s an inspiring guy.

 

It’s Like Being Inside an Explosion Sometimes – April 15, 2009

Caoimhí­n Ó Raghallaigh, a 29-year-old from Rathfarnham with a degree in physics who once helped construct a Namibian cheetah sanctuary, is best thought of as an independent and original musician, specialising in the fiddle and Hardanger violin, whose roots are in traditional Irish music. To call him a traditional musician doesn’t quite do justice to the breadth of his interests and experimentation with the form, as on 2007’s inventive and vastly moving Where The One-Eyed Man Is King.

Ó Raghallaigh (he pronounces it ‘O Rye-Allah’), is an engaging and energising character who uses the word ‘beautiful’ or ‘exciting’ in almost every sentence. He’s possibly best known for teaching Jeremy Irons the violin on a TG4 special last Christmas; something State completely neglected to ask him about. But then State wasn’t so much interested in free fiddle lessons to Oscar winners as in how you go about becoming the most singular traditional Irish musician of your generation.

Now, some State readers may be thinking: this affects me how? And if Ó Raghallaigh had stuck rigorously, as the term ‘traditional musician’ suggests, to the forms handed down like commandments over generations, we might easily have missed him. Had he kept putting out albums like 2003’s sharp, superbly played but relatively conventional Kitty Lie Over (with piper Mick O’Brien) then he might not have attracted our attention at all, or the attention of John Kelly, who considers any show Caoimhín-less a show wasted; which might, of course, have been State’s and JK’s loss.

He’s here, and playing the JK Ensemble Sessions, because he brings to his traditional training a formidable synthetic musical intelligence; as comfortable discussing Steve Reich or Björk and Arvo Pärt as he is eulogising Tommy Potts, and incorporating them all into the way he plays. And because his interest is not in genre but in the strange and visceral magic that a note or a tune or a silence can work on you: ‘the state of being’, he says, ‘that you get from being subjected to music’.

Here, Ó Raghallaigh talks about his enduring love for traditional music, tells how good sean-nós is like ‘a really juicy peach’, and explains that though the physicist in him knows that nothing he does means very much, ‘that urge to just get up and make things and feel the beauty is increasingly there’.

Caoimhín, can you talk a little about how your music has evolved in recent years?
My whole music life, since my teens, had been traditional music, but then I had been hanging out with a lot of friends who do things for theatre festivals, and fringe festivals and things like that. And it struck me that a lot of the traditional music I was making wasn’t really relevant to them, and it’s kind of funny to be making music that has no relevance for your friends. So if I could still bring the elements that I value from traditional music, but somehow present it in a way that would be relevant to people with no background in traditional music, that’d be really fun for me.

The elements of traditional music that you grew up with that you value: to us, those might not be immediately obvious. Can you say what those things are?
It’s really heart; heart in music. Music that has a physical effect on you. That’s really specific, I think, to traditional music. It’s one of the main hallmarks for me. It’s like an expansiveness of spirit. It’s like being inside an explosion sometimes. And it has a real powerful effect on your heart, and nearly affecting your brainwave patterns or something. It’s hard to quantify, but it gives a certain physical feeling and state of being. Maybe that’s it: it’s a state of being that you get from being subjected to music. But you do get it in other forms. I’m interested in Iceland and all the music that comes out of there; I think it is quite folky, a lot of it. Let’s say Sigur Rós: there’s lots of folk feeling, and the feeling that gives me is sometimes quite similar to what I get from traditional music.

You get from Sigur Rós the physical feeling that you associate with traditional Irish music.
Yeah, it just seems to be a system of values, a way of valuing certain things. Like, a lot of contemporary classical music doesn’t value emotion at all. In fact it seeks to be dispassionate and to completely eradicate any shred of emotion whatsoever. A lot of New York contemporary classical stuff, like Bang on a Can, it’s nearly more humans as robots rather than humans as animals, and traditional music for me is very much humans as animals. It’s very earthy. Whereas something that’s more machine-like, take Germanic music, of any description, that’s definitely more humans as robots.

So that physicality is one element that you value in Irish traditional music?
Yeah, and another is – one of my best friends is Iarla Ó Lionáird , and one of the things he describes very well is the idea of information within a certain note and the quality of information that somebody with a traditional music background has at their disposal. To traditional musicians, what’s important is the concentrated meaning within a certain note or a certain phrase. The impact of a certain note.

It’s like, instead of a note being an A, and it can be a loud A or soft A, but that’s about it – that’s not really what we do in traditional music. In traditional music, an A might have seven dimensions. Like the dimension of dynamics, or tonality. So that if you listen to a sean-nós singer, they start maybe with their mouth one shape, and this is within even a single note, and it might last one second or less, and they might go through seven shades of the one vowel within that, and it might be imperceptible, but it just gives this beautiful richness. It’s like a really juicy peach; when you bite into it there’s all these things going on, and tastes, and smells, rather than just being a plastic peach that you look at.

So I love looking at people because they’ve got all this detail within a single note, but there’s also the secret ingredient, which is the difference between the same person when they’re on fire, doing an amazing gig where they’re supercharged with energy, and when they’re singing exactly the same notes in exactly the same places without that magic element. I’m really interested in: what is that?

Is the magic element something that you just have to wait for, or can you prepare for it?
You definitely prepare. I mean, that occurs in every type of music. If it was a solo gig, I’d prepare for it in lots of different ways, trying to get my head into it. What’s required is your head to be in a certain state. It’s nothing to do with technique at that point.

So, in practical terms, what does that entail?
Oh well, I don’t know. It’s pretty simple. Like: I try and not talk to people. Even if I’m hanging out with friends, I just shut down the system. Reboot the computer, you know. Wind down, and quite happy to sit there saying as little as possible, let other people do the talking. Try and not engage with people, basically, just quiet as quiet as quiet can be. Just kind of – chill.

And how do you know when you’ve hit it? When you’re on fire? You just know?
You just know. I guess it’s a level of detail but it’s also a level of unconscious detail. So it’s where, when you haven’t hit it, all that’s coming out is what you intended to come out. And that’s fine, but it’s not particularly special. But when you’ve kind of got that special state of mind, everything surprises you, and things come out that you didn’t intend, and they seem quite beautiful.

One of the things that you do is you play your very personal, more exploratory music, like The One-Eyed Man, and then you still continue with more traditional music at the same time. A lot of artists, when they make a big conceptual break from their traditional early work, they never go back. (I’m thinking, possibly inaccurately, of Big Star and Joan Miró.)
Yes. I think I know how to explain why I do both, is because I think that the traditional music is still relevant. You know the way I was saying I didn’t think it was still relevant to all those friends of mine, let’s say from Dublin or from certain backgrounds. Traditional music – they don’t know what it means. It doesn’t push the buttons that it could. But yet there’s a whole huge number of people that it does mean huge things for and they’ll follow certain musicians to the end of the earth to hear them. They’ll be at every concert. It excites those people so much and it gives them so much. If I go back to that idea of the purpose of music, to create a certain state of mind in people, traditional music is still fulfilling its function there. And yet it also explains why I make the new music, because it’s creating a certain state of mind for people from different backgrounds.

So it’s back to the fundamental purpose of me making this music. Rather than it being the music itself, and the notes, and the sounds, it’s actually the state of mind produced in the listener. Which is kind of – curious, I guess. I find it useful to think of it like that, and sometimes I really wonder at some of the new things I make: is this going to fulfil its function? And you really don’t know. You know the state of mind you were in when you produced it, which was a state of mind that you like, and you know that in the past has given rise to stuff that’s worthwhile.

So that’s what you’re going on at the time..
Yeah. It is. I do find it quite hard to be critical of something, as in: is this of value? And maybe the artists you were talking about, maybe they had conviction, huge conviction in the work they’re doing, whereas I feel like: I always try and zoom out of both time and space, you’re looking at eternity and infinity, and you kind of realise that nothing you do matters a damn, so that’s maybe why I feel that the state of mind is more important than the actual creation. Whatever it is is miniscule and less than a blip, but yet creating perceptions and states of mind, which are beautiful, I think, just of themselves.

You can have too much perspective though! It’s probably good that you don’t always have perspective or take the long view; or would we ever do anything?
Well – I do think about that a lot. Like, is there any point in getting up today – and increasingly, the answer is yes. Definitely. But in the full knowledge that there’s no real point ultimately. It’s kind of funny, but that urge to just get up and make things and feel the beauty is increasingly there. Which is good, I think. But it’s funny. I guess that’s what you get for studying theoretical physics.

Well – I was gonna say….
And I’ve huge respect for people that give their lives to science. And one of the reasons I didn’t stick with theoretical physics is: you could be a theoretical physicist in research, you could spend seventy years of your life researching something that you never actually quite find out. That amazing thing that is illuminating to yourself and to humanity and is so beautiful – you might never get it, or you might get it, but it’s so abstract. Whereas music, you can feel it there and then, the effect, and it’s just so much more exciting, and if you were to die tomorrow, it just feels like: I’d really like to be playing.

Jóhann Jóhannsson 1969-2018: The Sun’s Gone Dim and The Sky’s Turned Black

While Twitter-grieving last Saturday evening after learning of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s shocking and untimely death, one comment I made in praise of his music was “It’s so emotionally powerful without being melodramatic”, because melodrama is bad.

Jóhann’s masterpieces, which to list in full would require you only to print out his discography, dug deeply into raw human feeling but were always infused with an elevating dignity, and that combination meant transcendence.

So it strikes me as ironic that my response to his death is so melodramatic. I’m actually grieving. I feel it in my stomach and in the back of my throat two days later, and when John Kelly opened a heartfelt and cathartic and appropriately communal Mystery Train tribute with ‘The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World’, well, as ever, I was glad that my fellow passengers on the Luas pay attention mostly to themselves.

It occurred to me soon after hearing the news of his death that Jóhann’s music was uniquely qualified to soundtrack the mourning of Jóhann, not just because it is natural to wallow a little in the work when an artist is gone, but because almost no other music has the capacity to hold within it such vast sadness as his death evoked, and then I thought: “Vast sadness?”

My mind keeps describing the experience with words like “grief”, “devastated” and “stunned”, but I didn’t know him, and I’m not that easily devastated. I’m aware that we all die and bad things happen every day.

But you feel what you feel.

One thing upsetting about Jóhann’s death is just how well he was doing. Damn it! Obscure avant-garde boffin one minute, albums depicting industrial decay through the medium of obsolete IBM instruction manuals – I mean really – then five minutes later he’s Oscar-nominated, smuggling elegy and elegance into the mass mainstream like some post-classical Elliott Smith. Except unlike Elliott, Jóhann really seemed to fit in that world. He did well and he remained feted. (I don’t understand the Blade Runner difficulties and I don’t know if they signified that anything was changing for him).

I haven’t given Jóhann’s soundtrack work as much time as I have given the 4AD albums, Miners’ Hymns, Dis, Englaborn and Orphée, but they were pristine pieces of work and along with Clint Mansell he was one of very few composers whose presence on a film would make you sit and watch it. And he was just starting. You imagined him playing the RHK in forty years for one more last show ever like Ennio Morricone.

Or you imagined him moving away, and emerging as the next Gorecki. He learned a lot from Gorecki and the sacred minimalists – see Fordlandia – and he was capable of music every bit as simultaneously exalting and humbling as Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Somehow, and most likely inaccurately and unfairly, I pictured the soundtrack work as an aside. I kind of saw him winning all the awards and leaving it all behind, back to hide out in Berlin to gestate the next sacred minimalist masterpiece. I mean why wouldn’t you? What’s so great about cocktails in Hollywood with Amy Adams?

My friend Alan Reilly, who introduced me to Jóhann in the form of IBM 1401 in 2007, told me tonight that out of all the recent deaths of musicians the death of Jóhann has affected him most “and it is all because of the music”. Not because of anything personal, he said, or nostalgia, or where we were when we heard this or that song: “I only relate to his music”.

John Kelly said that he was glad that Jóhann’s music was around 11 or 12 years ago when he was starting to work his way into the daunting expanse of classical music because it was a way in, and because he secretly liked Jóhann’s stuff more than many of the established oeuvres. He said everything Jóhann recorded was great. John sounded so appreciative and so fond of Jóhann and so bloody sad as he eulogised him.

I quote Alan and John because they took the words out of my mouth.

I owe Jóhann so much. I had listened to a lot of music by 2007 but I knew very little about the language of classical or even purely instrumental music. I needed words! I needed literal-ness. That changed with the wide spaces and wordless ache of IBM 1401. It changed with the immense heart-lifting melancholic splendour of his ‘Passacaglia’.

Mumblin’ Deaf Ro said on Saturday that there was a real sweet spot in Jóhann’s music between melancholy and hopefulness. I thought he was right, and I also thought that in Jóhann’s music the hopefulness often is the melancholy. Sometimes to hope is to set yourself up for sadness, and hopeful music may reflect that; but you still hope.

Johann made music that I could feel really deeply without having to think or understand it and it was only when I heard him – though I have to nod here to Caoimhín – that I learned how to have this kind of mysterious experience. I realised that I could – indeed had to – bring my own life to the music and have a dialogue with it, rather than ask the music to provide its own protagonist. I began to learn at 33 that the music I wanted to hear was music that was not finished until the listener finished it: it was by design a partly painted canvas, and you had to bring your own brush.

Maybe there is nothing surprising about the force of the grief that I am feeling tonight and, Twitter and Mystery Train suggest, plenty of people are feeling. It’s only surprising until you pay a little bit of attention. We are going to feel this way because Jóhann’s music is such a powerful force for good in our lives and we loved him for that. His music taught us and it nurtured us and it will keep doing those things. That means that Jóhann Jóhannsson was a powerful force for good in our lives, and he still is, and we salute him, and we miss him, because it turns out you can miss someone you never knew.

Is Pain a Path to Wisdom? The Writings of Ivor Browne

Ivor Browne: The Writings of Ivor Browne.

By Ivor Browne
Atrium Press

Reviewed July 2013 – Sunday Business Post.

In 2008, Professor Ivor Browne published Music and Madness, a hugely popular book that was both a character-filled memoir and a critique, at the closing of a long career, of the current practice of psychiatry. Now follows The Writings of Ivor Browne, an eclectic collection of Browne’s articles and lectures dating from 1959 to the current decade. It is an intriguing, if sometimes infuriating, read.

The first thing this book does is to reaffirm that Ivor Browne is a crucial figure in the history of Irish psychiatry.

As Clinical Director of St Brendan’s Hospital in the 1960s, Browne, along with Dr Dermot Walsh, began the work of closing the asylums that dotted Ireland. It’s hard to overstate what a transformative change this was in the lives of people with mental illness. In his foreword to this book, Fintan O’Toole describes Browne as a “literal liberator… a key figure in the freeing of thousands of people from institutional incarceration”. Few would quibble with that assessment.

For this reader, the most enjoyable chapters in The Writings of Ivor Browne are those, like ‘Guided Evolution of a Community Mental Health Service: A Personal Odyssey’ that deal with the closure of the asylums, starting with Grangegorman.

Browne wrote ‘A Personal Odyssey’ in 1985, a decade from retirement. He wrote of his optimism in the 1960s as the great liberation began, and of his later dawning realisation that Ireland, particularly Dublin, in the 1970s and 1980s was a tough place to make your way if you had a serious mental illness.

Many who left the asylums thrived, but some struggled to survive in a fracturing society that was not ready to welcome them. What Browne is acknowledging here, I think, is that a liberation can have unintended consequences.

Browne continues to be an influential figure, whose views on mental health are much sought after by national newspapers. He has over many years moved to the margins of his chosen profession, but in publicly opposing much of mainstream psychiatry – which Fintan O’Toole’s foreword mischaracterises as “a model of psychiatry which relies only on the administration of drugs” – he has acquired the status, in the words of the Irish Independent, of a “fearless maverick with ideals”.

In this book, Browne offers a number of sharply worded assaults on physical treatments in psychiatry, such as electro-convulsive therapy (ECT). ECT has come under the spotlight in Ireland again in recent weeks, due to the decision by the government to amend the legislation governing ECT without consent.

Browne’s most pointed comments on ECT come in the article ‘Mental Illness – The Great Illusion’ and in a 2008 letter to the Irish Times. In each piece, Browne lists ECT, emotively but inaccurately, alongside historical “punitive procedures”, including purgings, bleedings, beatings, and frontal lobotomies. He also refers, in the midst of all this, to the mass murder of people with mental illness by the Nazis.

Are we to infer that 21st century psychiatrists use ECT as punishment, or as an instrument of totalitarian oppression? If that’s an accepted view of mainstream psychiatry, we’re really in trouble.

Ivor Browne’s opposition to ECT is consistent with a central theme of his writings here, which is most clearly elucidated in ‘Suffering and the Growth of Love’, a lecture from 1997 that is reproduced here.

Browne argues that mental distress, such as depression, anxiety, or psychosis, is a sign that a person must change. Change can come only from within, through “work and suffering”, via psychotherapy, and any treatment that is externally imposed is either anathema (ECT) or inadequate (medication without psychotherapy).

There is a lot in this, and Browne’s point that mental suffering should not unthinkingly be medicated away is well made. But there are two problematic assumptions here.

The first is that orthodox psychiatry is purely biological, and ignores the social and psychological. In fact, community psychiatry today is defined by a holistic approach. I would be lost without the nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, and psychologists on my team. I would be worse than useless.

The second assumption is that mental suffering always means something. That’s an enticing idea, but it’s wrong.

We are social, psychological, and spiritual beings, but we are also clusters of cells, and sometimes those cells stop working as they should. Thyroid disease, a lesion in the temporal lobe, an autoimmune attack on a glutamate receptor, a dysfunction of the dopamine system: these can all result in distress that is real, and powerful, and even mystical — but it may not mean anything. It may be just chemistry.

Orthodox psychiatry can learn from Ivor Browne: we should push ourselves and our patients in a search for meaning when we can; when those are there to be found.

But Ivor Browne could learn from orthodox psychiatry too. Sometimes suffering is not a path to wisdom. Sometimes pain is pointless. Sometimes pain is just pain, and the job of the psychiatrist is no more complex or simple than this: to make it go away.

Sorcha Richardson’s ‘Lost’: Ordinary Life Is Pretty Complex Stuff

Last Tuesday morning shortly before eight, Cathal Funge played ‘Lost’, Sorcha Richardson’s single released in September, on his morning show on TXFM.

Only a few days earlier he played Big Star’s ‘I’m In Love With a Girl’ in the same peak breakfast time slot. I’ve never before heard ‘I’m In Love With A Girl‘ on the radio, and I would have noticed. I’m going to miss TXFM.

I hadn’t caught Cathal’s introduction and I didn’t know what this song was but ‘Lost’ caught my ear with its opening three bass drum thuds – long, short short; boom… boom boom; and the little rattle of snare. That Phil Spector beat that leads into “The night we met I knew I needed you so“.

A ‘Be My Baby’ beat is to be used with caution. It promises a sweet and deep pop thrill; it gets your heartbeat ready to skip. This sound has a long lineage.

Listening to ‘Lost’, I thought of Camera Obscura alongside the Ronettes, and I thought of Johnny Boy‘s ‘You Are The Generation That Bought More Shoes And You Get What You Deserve’. I thought of the Ramones and of the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson has been saying for fifty years that ‘Be My Baby’ is the best song ever written. You can hear him worshipping that song in ‘Don’t Worry Baby‘, which has its own claim on that title.

So no pressure, then, ‘Lost’.

But ‘Lost’ honours its lineage. ‘Lost’ is a wonder.

I went back to ‘Lost’ on the Luas and played it back to back all the way to work. There’s a point a few listens in on public transport when you are hoping your headphones can’t be heard by the person standing beside you. You don’t want your neighbour knowing as you’re rolling past Bluebell that you’re having a moment; choked up and happy.

But on you listen. You’re hardly going to stop listening.

On Tuesday I tweeted that I found something very moving about the song and didn’t know what it was, yet. This, I suppose, is what I’m trying to figure out here.

‘Lost’ is a song of love and encouragement to a friend whose heart has been broken. (I’m taking it literally because, in her liner notes, Sorcha does.)

She makes the best of it with bravado “(“She is leaving? You just let her / Cause you’re better off”). She understands: she sings “It’s okay to be this way but you don’t have to be forever” with a tender ache in the grain of her voice that makes me wince a little.

She makes plans to divert him with drink: “I know it’s dark inside your head / Replaying everything she said / So come out with me instead… Penny’s working at the bar / We can go dressed just how we are / Forget that girl who broke your heart”.  She feels his pain: “I know it’s bad baby / Come on we can dance it off / Everybody’s feeling lost”.

The chorus is “I don’t wanna see you waste another day / On your heartbreak“. Which is both moving and amusing. I know guys who’ve put YEARS into a good heartbreak.

I should note that the song is brilliantly structured, tightly drafted, colloquial and not overexplaining (who’s Penny?), and, at 2:59 with half a dozen emotional peaks, a tiny bit too short. Another writer would have padded with a minute of an outro, and that would have been OK. But this is better; a tiny bit too short is how long a song should be.

Some of what is moving in ‘Lost’ is the central sentiment – its tender, warm love.

It’s a platonic love, and so the lyric has a selflessness that another song would not have. So many songs purportedly about a lover are about the narrator’s own internal wrangles. Why is this happening to me? I don’t deserve this!

And that’s fine. But this is different; this is generous.

It’s not just that she sings “I don’t wanna see you waste another day“; it is of course how she sings it, with full lungs and fulsome compassion. Which is also how my daughter, who’s six, sang it when we played the song together. She belted it out. She understood it. (Not the bit about getting hammered down the boozer.)

A little of what moves me is my memory of that time in my own life, early to mid twenties, when falling in love and occasionally getting together with someone but mostly worshipping from afar and listening to endless AMC songs and pondering the meaning of love with my fellow doomed romantics was what we did.

They didn’t always feel like it but they were gentle and innocent times. We were trying so hard to figure it out. We were so daft and earnest, and those conversations were the most important, high-stakes event in our weeks.

And I thought of old, old friends I haven’t seen in so many months, who I nearly don’t have time to miss, and I thought – Christ, these people are part of me. Like this, music reminds you to be better at being you. (Then you just have to go and do it.)

What moved me about ‘Lost’ on Tuesday wasn’t the moments I would later have in the kitchen with my kids bonding over the song; but then we did, and so that’s part of it now.

There’s a video for ‘Lost’, and when Sorcha posted this I showed the song to my daughter Olivia. She wants to be a teacher and a singer and I just wanted her to see that you can make a song about something as simple as being a good friend. (There’s a particularly hallowed place in our house for songs that everyone in the family loves. You can’t push your taste on little kids but you can’t deny yourself a little squee when you hear your kids singing Sufjan Stevens, or ‘At My Most Beautiful’, or ‘Confetti’, or humming the harmonies of ‘I Need Direction’.)

The video is a sequence of drawings in a lined A4 pad. Olivia’s a draw-er, and she admired the glitterball that pops up for “I know it’s sad, baby, come on we can dance it off“; my son Michael liked the compass assigned to “Everybody’s feeling lost“, because he just got a pair of binoculars and is beginning to fancy himself as an outdoorsman.

We played the video and they asked to watch it again. The next morning Olivia said she’d had the song in her head all night and “Can you put it on again”? And again, and again.

She is like me in her tendency to get compulsively riveted by a song. We’ve had this with ‘Opportunity’ from Annie, ‘Let It Go’, ‘Halo’, ‘You and I‘, ‘A Real Hero’ by College, and ‘Lost’. She is unlike me in that she doesn’t care who knows she’s having a moment.

As much as I may wax nostalgic for those 1990s nights in the pub failing to understand women, I know that these moments now, singing in the kitchen with my kids, are as meaningful and beautiful as any moment I’m ever going to have, and I’m grateful in a way I can’t describe for these songs and to the musicians who make them.

Songs have been everything to me; God forgive me they have taught me how to live to a great extent. And I’m so glad that songs like ‘Lost’ are embedded in my family life. I hope that my kids learn from songs like this like I still try to do. I hope that they will be the friend that Sorcha Richardson is in this song, and I hope they will only allow themselves to be friends with people who will treat them the way Sorcha treats her ‘Lost’ friend, who may be having a bad week but who knows, I’m sure, how lucky he is.

How Did I Become a Virus? Anohni’s brave, stark, unsettling Hopelessness

This piece was published on State on May 4th. I’ve edited slightly and added links.

In 2005, Anohni, then known as Antony, released the revered I Am A Bird Now. Antony and the Johnsons’ second album was, we thought then, a hard look at a difficult subject. The songs dealt with existential uncertainty and gender disquiet: “My lady story is one of annihilation / My lady story is one of breast amputation”, went a widely quoted couplet.

It felt raw and unflinching.

With the release of Hopelessness, though, the I Am A Bird Now era seems like innocent times. Anohni’s world view has darkened and it’s hard to see a way back.

Hopelessness is a haunted commentary on Anohni’s adoptive homeland, the USA, which she sees as corrupt and failed.

As an American she laments: We elected a president who was our last hope and who has let us down (‘Obama’); we stand by while children are murdered cavalierly from the sky (‘Drone Bomb Me’); we let state invade our privacy and we jail those who speak out (“Watch Me’); we condone torture because we fail to act to stop it (‘Crisis’).

That’s not to say non-Americans are off the hook.

On ‘4 Degrees’, over an urgent Hudson Mohawke arrangement, Anohni takes on climate change with an inchoate anger. She sings of a planet that is literally in terminal decline, at least as a home for animal life; the song is her taking her share of the responsibility for this. The title refers to the global temperature expected this century, which will bring about mass extinction. Up to 75% of animal species may ultimately die out and credible voices such as Elizabeth Kolbert have seriously mooted the possibility that the extinguished species, over the longer term, will include humans.

‘4 Degrees’ is an impressive display of ethical self-scrutiny. Anohni argues that if she acts in a way that causes extinction, then extinction must be what she wants: “I wanna hear the dogs crying for water / I wanna see the fish go belly up in the sea / And all those lemurs and all those tiny creatures / I wanna see them burn”. It’s moral rigour of a kind that is harsh, unforgiving, and head-turning; there’s no get-out on the grounds that she meant well or lacked power. She doesn’t deserve forgiveness. One has to infer the same for the rest of us. “I have grown tired of grieving for humanity,” Anohni has said.

The hopelessness of this album’s title is not figurative. In ‘Hopelessness’, ‘Drone Bomb Me’ ‘Obama’, ‘Execution’, and ‘Crisis’, as far as I can tell, Anohni has no time for hope at all. The prominent emotions are rage, revulsion, horror, and guilt. ‘Obama’ castigates Barack for failing to live up to his promises but arguably sets him an impossible standard – saving the world – while acknowledging the fatuousness of expecting a president to fix things: “Like children we believed”. ‘Hopelessness’, in an unusual move, contrasts the rapacious lives of people such as herself to the apparently ecologically sound, wise lives of pre-civilisation humans: “I, who curled in cave and moss / I, who gathered wood for fire / and tenderly embraced / How did I become a virus?

Hopelessness is unsettling. We still expect artists to comfort us. Even in apocalyptic art we expect some hope, some possibility for redemption, which we then expect will be ours. Anohni refuses this. She says it’s over: as she told Pitchfork “We’ve only got a few years left. The jig is almost up.”

I’m impressed that Anohni’s art raises these key questions with such stark clarity. But I’m not entirely persuaded of her premise.

Humans have been expecting the end for as long as there have been humans, and awful things have always gone on. In The Better Angels Of Our Nature, Steven Pinker wrote about the pre-civilisation peoples romanticised in ‘Hopelessness’: they were slavers and mass killers. The greatest decline in death by murder has come about since the birth of the all-powerful nation state that ‘Watch Me’ decries.

As time has gone on, says Pinker, humans have become more and more humane and, hard to believe though it might be, now is as good a time to live as there has ever been. This does not negate ‘4 Degrees’ and it is not an argument for state surveillance or Guantanamo, but I’ve had Pinker in my head as a counterbalance all the while that I’ve been listening to Anohni.

I’m reminded here of the dialogue in the late 1970s between Richard Hell and Lester Bangs. Hell was a pioneer of punk and a vocal nihilist. It’s hard to argue with a nihilist but Lester Bangs, a fan, confronted him in a passage of writing that comes to mind now, that I’ve intermittently had occasion to cling to:

Just for the record, I would like it known by anybody who cares that I don’t think life is a perpetual dive. And even though it’s genuinely frightening, I don’t think Richard Hell’s fascination with death is anything else but stupid. I suspect almost every day that I’m living for nothing, I get depressed and I feel self-destructive and a lot of the time I don’t like myself. What’s more, the proximity of other humans often fills me with overwhelming anxiety, but I also feel that this precarious sentience is all we’ve got and, simplistic as it may seem, it’s a person’s duty to the potential of his own soul to make the best of it.

We’re all stuck on this often miserable earth where life is essentially tragic, but there are glints of beauty and bedrock joy that come shining through from time to precious time to remind anybody who cares to see that there is something higher and larger than ourselves. And I am not talking about your putrefying gods, I am talking about a sense of wonder about life itself and the feeling that there is some redemptive factor you must at least search for until you drop dead of natural causes. And all the Richard Hells are chickenshits who trash the precious gift too blithely, and they deserve to be given no credence, but shocked awake in some violent manner.

Hopelessness is an exercise in despair that is brave, bare, and often brilliant, and it asks questions of us in a way that art rarely does. It seems to have made up its mind that there’s no redemption, no way back – well, who knows? Wait long enough and every Cassandra gets proved right. I hear Anohni, but for now, I’m holding on to beauty and bedrock joy.