Secret Languages: Hilary Woods Feature, State, 2016

I really liked Hilary Woods’ 2013 debut album The River Cry, which seems to have been lost to history. And her work since then has been reliably interesting and moving – as in emotionally moving and always moving forward. She is restless. For this piece I met her in 2016 as she was releasing Heartbox, an EP that looks to have done the groundwork for her album Colt from this year. I didn’t much like my contribution to this interview – I thought I was waffly as hell. But I liked how she described her process, the challenge of communicating, and the instinct that guides her. And I was glad we spoke about the value of music at a time that undervalues music so much.

In Heartbox, her new EP, Hilary Woods has moved on substantially from 2014’s Night EP and her 2013 album released under the nom de guerre The River Cry. They were acoustic affairs, coloured in by pianos and pastoral guitars; ‘Bathing’ and ‘Heartbox’, from the current EP, are all electronic atmospherics, played on Korgs and Moog Little Phattys and Oberheim Xpanders.

‘Sabbath’ is the third track on the Heartbox EP, and it is a reworking of ‘Secret Sabbath’, a gorgeous song first encountered on Night that recalls a relationship withwith some regret —Treasuring you now you’re gone”. Hearing the fuller, more textured version of the song released as ‘Sabbath’, it struck me that the choice to revisit that song epitomised the sonic move Hilary has made, and that is where we began.


State: Hilary, can you talk about the decision you made to revisit ‘Sabbath’?

Hilary Woods: When I recorded Secret Sabbath for Night, it was a song I played on my own in the bedroom. And then it was a song that almost evolved in the rehearsal room after I had toured it. Playing it with friends in the rehearsal room, I just really wanted to go back and revisit it as a bigger piece. In the rehearsal room, it’d go on and on and on – we’d build it.

Listening to The River Cry, Night, and now Heartbox, you can hear what sounds like an evolution.

I’m interested in more of an electronic sound world and less that idea of I have to go back to the acoustic guitar. I like the idea of throwing everything at the canvas and stripping it back. That’s what happened on this EP more. I think it’s a really good stepping stone into the synth world. I think it’s important for me to explore those sounds before I crack into an album.

Is that what an EP is? A chance to try something?

I don’t know what it is for anyone else. Certainly for Night it wasn’t really that. With this one it was very much – well let’s explore here. And not be afraid of putting out something that’s exploratory.

I tend to give my time now mostly to music that… this is going to sound really obvious, but music that moves me. As an artist, is that your goal? What’s the purpose of making music for you?

Definitely to move. And also the things that move you are the things that you write about. Or energy that you have, or something quite live. So to translate a live feeling is really important.

When you say a “live” feeling – you mean a feeling that’s powerful for you.

Yeah. But there’s different ways of doing that. So a song like ‘Sabbath’ is probably more provocative emotionally than a song like ‘Bathing’. They’re doing different things.

[Bathing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6fEnOR3qPY]

To have some idea of what it is you want to do emotionally, and to be able to use your chords, and arrangement, and whatever you’re using, and to evoke that emotion in another person – increasingly, this seems to me like a fucking miracle.

(Laughs) I couldn’t agree with you more. That’s what I always seek in music, that experience, and that’s what I seek as a music maker. But it is quite amazing because you always know, no matter how much you write, you always know the ones that actually work.

How do you know?

I think you can just feel it. And it’s quite immediate. It’s almost like – to be in a creative space where you can catch something as you’re feeling it. To write as you’re feeling something as opposed to writing retrospectively. And that just can be difficult in an everyday way. As in – you could be busy, collecting your kid from school, or in the shops, or meeting someone, and you feel that you should be at home responding to something. It doesn’t always work logistically (laughs).

Whenever I think about this I think how undervalued this role of the musician is. People walk around all day listening to music, and treat it so disposably, and you’re like – “No no – just think about it for a second! Think about what’s happening here!”

Actually that’s what drew me – the very thing you’re talking about is what drew me to make stuff. As a kid, I used to feel that it was very difficult to express myself. So I’d go and paint, or dance, or something. And I was in fine art college, and I left, I dropped out. I’d been painting and every Friday they’d say “Stand up there now and tell us about your painting”. And I’d feel like a saleswoman and I just couldn’t do it. If I could talk about it, I would, but I’m here to just – say it in another way.

But I think that’s fascinating. I think a lot of people are drawn to the piano, certainly I was, to make up my own little thing, cos I like putting things together. It feels quite physical, creating this way. These sounds, these chords, you know. It’s a way of speaking – secret languages.

If you talk to any six-year-old, it’s totally normal. They can explain their feelings like “I feel like a prickly porcupine”, and you understand. So it’s getting back to some sense of, that everything isn’t logic as we know it. You can enter into feelings or communication in a central way.

Is there any music that you’re experiencing on that kind of level?

It kind of ebbs and flows. I’m crazy about the new Anohni record. It’s pretty full on! It’s amazing but it requires your full attention.

I reviewed it and listened to it a lot for a week, and I haven’t gone back to it, actually.

You’re still recovering [laughs]. She’s really great. Actually she reminded me of why I want to, why I have to, make art. Because she does move me a lot.

But it doesn’t always have to be at that level of intensity.

No, not at all. I was listening to Tame Impala this morning, and so them, or Caribou, or Michael Jackson – it’s a very different energy. Sometimes you write from a place and you wish you were doing a jingle, you know, or a dance track, but somehow, whatever way writing is for you or for me, it doesn’t come from that place, and it can’t be forced to.

Neil Hannon once told me he could never write a totally serious, straight album: “I just don’t think it’s me,” he said. It’s hard to write from a personality that’s not your own.

Or from a place that’s not your own at that time. I think a lot of writing comes from – it can come from that missing piece of the jigsaw. Like Si Schroeder’s album, a coping mechanism, or a secret language somewhere that you can confide in, or an emotional well.

So when you start writing from that place it’s difficult to change where it’s from. Then, when you get into the studio, you can be playful around the sound world and stuff. Although the lyrics might be quite intense and come from a different zone, I think in the playful zone a lot can happen; a lot of productivity. It’s less self-conscious. But I find it difficult to change where it comes from.

Heartbox was different to Night in that way, in that Bathing and Heartbox, the track itself, were definitely tracks that explored, or stretched a few muscles.

How so?

Well ‘Bathing’ I always approached as exporing a sound world. Yeah, it is emotive, but ‘Sabbath’ is more lyric-driven. I used to always write songs that were very lyric-driven, I still do, but …

I find as I get older I’m much less inclined to be interested in the narrative ‘meaning’ of a song. I listen to the words less because I’m bringing my own stuff to it.

Oh, absolutely. I mean – I’m listening to Valerie and her Week of Wonders – do you know that soundtrack? It’s from a film made in the Czech Republic in 1970. It’s a medieval feel. There’s very few lyrics in it. And I love it because it opens up so many landscapes and worlds and I’m reading loads of things into it – or not even reading but I’m feeling my own way along.

I really appreciate that in music now, when you are given that space to participate in the process.

Yeah, any track or song that allows that – that can feel really intimate. Because you’re there, and there is room for the audience. Experimental cinema does a lot of that. It’s a different way of telling you the story. It allows the audience to sort of fill in the blanks and join the dots and there’s something very beautiful about that and something surreal; dreamy. I really like that idea in bringing it to my own songwriting. I still feel like a beginner. Well – maybe not a beginner, but I certainly feel like I have a lot to learn and lots of scope to do different things as I go on.

You mentioned an album. Have you any sense of it yet?

I have a lot of seedlings. Get the watering can out! I’d like to be clear on the texture and tone. I don’t think an album is just a collection of songs. I think of it all together. That’s important to me. When all that becomes clear, it’ll be ready.

John Grant Live in Dublin and Paris, May 2011 in State

John Grant (Button Factory, Dublin; Café de la Danse, Paris).

p1030722A reporter once remarked to Bob Dylan that she had enjoyed Blood on the Tracks, the 1975 album constructed from the wreckage of the end of his marriage. Bob, irritatingly unwilling to accept a compliment, replied “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that, I mean, people enjoying that kind of pain.” It’s a remark that raises an unsettling question: when we play and re-play songs about personal suffering, why do we do it? Is there something wrong with us?

Well – no. What Dylan didn’t get was this: when we put on Blood on the Tracks or Pink Moon, when we mull over a Rothko or go to see John Grant in Paris or the Button Factory, we’re not being masochistic, or sadistic, or voyeuristic. It’s not the pain we are enjoying. What’s to enjoy? Pain is just pain. There’s nothing beautiful or funny or redemptive about it. What we’re enjoying is what was done with the pain: how it was neutralised and reversed and turned into magnificent art.

We love to see suffering transformed into transcendence. Sorry about that, Bob.

John Grant knows about pain, and is not afraid to share. Last year’s utterly autobiographical Queen of Denmark uses Grant’s experience of growing up gay in God-fearing rural Michigan as its source material. The harm such a toxic environment does reveals itself in songs that look back on his upbringing (“I’ve felt uncomfortable since the day that I was born” – ‘JC Hates Faggots’) and in songs about his adult life. ‘Where Dreams Go to Die’ details what happens when a person reared to consider himself of no value tries to be loved (“I’m willing to do anything to get attention from you, dear / Even though I don’t have anything that I could bargain with”.

But when I’ve played, and re-played, Queen of Denmark, and when I’ve seen Grant twice in the last month, I’ve never felt like I was wallowing or rubbernecking. Queen of Denmark is emotionally complicated and challenging, but it’s almost all written from the perspective of a man who has emerged, unbeaten. ‘JC Hates Faggots’ looks back, angrily, witheringly, and from a position of strength, and it has a fine, furious synthesiser solo. Turning fear into art is an act of defiance.

‘Caramel’, then, is the most intimate and languoruous of assertions of love, as Grant sings in a tender falsetto that “My love he reveals himself with tenderness and grace / My love has constructed with his arms for me the safest place”. You would barely bat an eyelid but for the angst about his sexuality on all sides, and what you feel hearing ‘Caramel’ are two things. You feel glad that such a song even exists, describing note-perfectly what love feels like, and you feel glad for Grant that he can now, older and sober, put his name and voice to such unvarnished and unafraid emotions, and that he can do so in large rooms full of people he doesn’t know. Most people would be shy about writing the lyrics of ‘Caramel’ on a Valentine’s card. In Paris and in Temple Bar, rapture greeted the closing bars of this consummate 21st century ode to joy.

There was something unmistakably triumphant about both of these shows. Grant sang brilliantly, with total commitment, closing his eyes, tapping his foot, rocking back and forth, steam (literally) coming off him. He told stories about the songs, but less so in Dublin, because it was later in the tour and I’m guessing he considers it cheating to repeat a story. In Dublin, he waited for a mystery guest to show up to join him for ‘Queen of Denmark’, but the guest didn’t show, which was a relief. If JC himself had been on the other mic He could only have taken away from the song.

So: great stuff. But I’m left wondering is how much of my approval of John Grant live is for the perfect singing, writing and playing – the show itself – and how much is for the reception that Grant received on both nights, the way he visibly felt at home and happy. How much of my approval is really for the transformative, healing power of art?

It’s not not a new notion that music is a way to endure and escape hard times, that it’s a source of strength when you don’t feel so strong yourself and that it can validate you when you’re trying to be yourself and it doesn’t seem good enough. We’ve all felt this, but it’s not often that I’ve seen it just as clearly as at these two shows, when a big bear of a man with a fucked-up past, addiction issues and microscopic self-esteem played amazing shows and was adulated by audiences who are with him all the way in a difficult journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance.

I’m guessing this is what every show of a tour is like for him, and I hope John Grant takes all this goodwill and internalises it and finds some peace. I hope that doesn’t mean we lose his songs in the future, but there are more important things, and he’s done enough. We’ll always have Queen of Denmark, and we’ll always have Paris.

The Magnetic Fields’ 50 Song Memoir review, State, 2018.

This was my final piece for State on a huge project by an artist I’ve loved then admired for well over twenty years. I found this hard to write. There was a bit too much to say.

Image result for 50 song memoir

Not content with one magnum opus, Stephin Merritt now submits a second: 50 songs for his 50 years. He would, wouldn’t he? He has a weakness for the grandiose, and he thrives on a theme.

That said, memoir wasn’t exactly his most obvious next move. Merritt has always declared his lyrics to be fiction, even when they sounded like autobiography. I remember hearing “Time provides the rope / But love will tie the slipknot / And I will be the chair you kick away”, from 1996’s Get Lost, and worrying, though Merritt said not to.

Since 69 Love Songs, the distance between writer and songs has been increasingly clear. Merritt wears his inauthenticity on his sleeve, and is careful even in a terse note in Memoir to include a disavowal of self-disclosure: “It’s mostly love and music, so don’t dig for much of a storyline”.

But dig you must, and you do come away with some understanding of the author.

The songs are arranged chronologically and the first decade and a half stands up as an album in itself. Merritt spent his childhood with his mother, a peripatetic Buddhist who reared him on her own in commune after commune.

Merritt struggled. In ’Eye Contact’ and ‘Weird Diseases’ he alludes to social difficulties and early life autism (“Maybe Asperger’s / If that exists”). ‘Weird Diseases’ recounts childhood seizures provoked by strong emotions that he had to avoid: “From the time I was a young boy / I could feel neither anger nor joy”. It’s a poignant picture; poor kid.

Memoir’s first half is largely the evolution of an artist, and ‘The Blizzard of ‘78’ remembers his first band: “We called ourselves the Black Widows / We weren’t the last or the first / But we were almost certainly by far the worst”.

‘I Think I’ll Make Another World’, the song for 1971, when Merritt was six, recounts his artistic origin story, and is magical. An unmoored and alone young Merritt seized on writing as his route to improving on reality: “I can see another world, and I can make it with my hands / Who cares if no-one understands? I can see it now.”

Coming into Memoir, I was curious about the period when the Magnetic Fields were starting out. Memoir suggests this was, as one infers from Get Lost, not all fun and games.

The Nineties saw friends begin to die, of HIV (‘Dreaming in Tetris’) and by suicide, an option he appears to have considered himself (‘Eurodisco Trio’). Merritt the musician was conflicted: he wanted to create, but he wanted, with the same intensity, to disappear (‘The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo’).

As the decades move on, the intensity lessens. The liner notes don’t apologise: “If things get mellower as 50 looms, that’s life”, writes Merritt, and, you know, you’d hope so. It is a perncious lie that it is better to burn out than to fade away. (Kurt Cobain’s fifty song memoir would also be due right now.)

There are great moments. ‘Be True To Your Bar’ is a serious, sardonic paean to alcohol-fuelled friendship. ‘Danceteria!’ is ebullient (“We don’t always go to school but we always go to DANCETERIA!!”. ‘Ghosts of the Marathon Dancers’ echoes ‘Busby Berkeley Dreams’ and ‘In The Snow White Cottages’ delicately tips the hat to “my poor dear Elliott Smith”).

There are shaggy dog stories (‘How I Failed Ethics’) and engaging trifles (‘No’, ‘Ethan Frome’). There is one song, ‘Surfin’, which I found initially off-putting, but which on further interrogation appears to be an attempt to discourage people in California from hitting the beach, so that Merritt can have the waves to himself. I couldn’t swear to this but there’s a broader point, I think: you can trust some songwriters that they have buried stuff in the songs that will emerge in its own time.

The Magnetic Fields albums from the Nineties are truly magnificent, and they have been anchors for me over the years. When everything is as much of a mystery as it was to me in my early twenties, you latch onto anyone who’s striving to figure it out; in The Wayward Bus, Charm of the Highway Strip, and Get Lost, that’s what Merritt did.

He sang about loneliness, doubt, chaos, and confusion. He took you with him, to where there was always redemption in irrepressible melody. The Magnetic Fields are a feat of solace and salvation, for Merritt no less than anyone else. In the Nineties he sounded like he was fighting for his life, and I think he was.

With 50 Song Memoir, he looks like he’s arrived out the other end. It’s not the end, but it’s a happy ending.

“Funny tragic. It’s my own genre!” Neil Hannon interview, State, March 2011

The Divine Comedy’s Promenade was released when I was 19.9 years old and was a constant companion through my early twenties. It was an early move away from earnest rock and folk-rock, an early realisation that music could be fun and light and daft still have some weight and still mean something. I interviewed Neil Hannon in 1996 at the time of the release of Casanova, and I could barely speak to him because I considered him a God walking among men. I met him again fifteen years later and we had a good chat, mortal to mortal. He was preparing a show at which he and some friends would play all of Vampire Weekend’s first album. He mentioned he had thought about playing Hounds of Love instead. Neil Hannon’s take on ‘And Dream of Sheep’ is one I still one day hope to hear.

Released just three years ago, Vampire Weekend’s eponymous debut album quickly became a modern classic. On April 1st, Ezra Koenig’s precocious magnum opus is due for a distinct and idiosyncratic tribute when Neil Hannon and his specially assembled supergroup, the JD Set, play the album in its entirety in the Button Factory.

The show, featuring Cathy Davey, Jape and Romeo of the Magic Numbers alongside Hannon, is one of four upcoming shows across the UK and Ireland promoting a certain brand of bourbon; the clue is in the initials. State met Neil Hannon during the writing and rehearsal stage of the JD Set project to discuss the brilliance and obtuseness of Vampire Weekend, the worst ever Divine Comedy song and the likelihood of Hannon ever becoming a solemn serious artiste. (Don’t hold your breath.)

State: The JD Set show is a collaboration between yourself, Cathy Davey, Jape and Romeo Stodart. Is it you who is the big Vampire Weekend fan, or one of the others?

NH: I’m the curator, if you want to put it like that. And they have been talking to me since last October, trying to get me to settle on an album. Very hard when you’re given that freedom – you know, your favourite, any album. Everybody has about twenty favourite albums. And some of them are frankly unplayable (laughs).

Like, I thought about Hounds of Love, Kate Bush, which is one of the most awesome albums ever made, and the second half of it is just unplayable. So I plumped for Vampire Weekend, an album that I absolutely adore, and I can just knock it out. It’ll be just fun.

But it is one of your favourite albums?

Sincerely. Yeah. I mean, obviously people loved it in a fan-type way, and a bouncing-around type way, but the writing is brilliant, you know. There are very clever arrangements in there. The lyrics are fascinating in a sort of obtuse way. They put ideas in your head without necessarily telling you what it all means. ‘Coronation rickshaw grab’ – I’ll just sort of say that, and it’s like – what? (laughs) But I like the words! Also a real sense of brevity being the soul of wit, that they don’t outstay their welcome.

I love the sharpness, in general, of it.

It’s not flabby. It was obviously the son of the Strokes and that kind of sharp, snappy thing, but I just think it had an awful lot more soul – in the sense of people having soul rather than people singing soul music – than the Strokes.

That’s funny, because when it came out there was a lot of focus on the fact that they were singing about their relatively privileged lives on campus. It wasn’t what you normally associate with ‘soul’, i.e. suffering. They went to – where, Harvard?

I don’t know. I didn’t want to research terribly deeply. It sounds all sort of lovely and Ivy League and it’s very definitely Cape Cod-oriented. But I like things with a sense of place. And a sense that they were born out of a certain kind of life. You almost never get that these days! Where you can pinpoint a vibe, an area, or even what these guys did for a living, or not. You know? So I found that reassuring. And I think it revels it its own slight naïveté. They’re aware of it and they get away with it.

Have you a favourite track on the album?

I was trying to think about this earlier. And I couldn’t, and can’t, pinpoint one. This has a large bearing on why I chose this album over a lot of other ones, like, you know, Closer by Joy Division. There’s certain tracks on that I hate! Quite a lot of my very favourite albums I listen to and think, well is this dodgy, this track. The Vampire Weekend record is one of the few albums that I felt was really strong all the way through.

The whole way? Even ‘Blake’s Got a New Face’?

There are some lovely things on that track! I admit that the (yelps) ‘BLAKE!’ can be slightly irritating. But it is one of very few irritating moments.

I haven’t been able to get fully past that song, but I like the idea that on an album that’s otherwise obviously stupendous, you sometimes have a dubious track that needs the listener to put in a bit more work – or may not work at all.

I’ve certainly had some of those (laughs). I remember when fans of mine, and I use fans in its loosest possible sense, because they ran a competition: “What’s your least favourite Divine Comedy track”! (laughs). About five years ago.

What won?

Have a guess.

Was it ‘Europe by Train’?

Nope. (Pregnant pause). What’s wrong with that? (laughs). No, it was ‘Here Comes the Flood’ off Fin de Siècle. So I think the defining feature is it’s always the one where I push the idea to its extreme. And maybe it sort of goes over the top or… up my own anus.

You have to go to extremes sometimes though, right?

I think so. And you’re pushing everything, but sometimes you just go a little overboard. So it’s important to be allowed to do that.

In terms of your work, I think of ‘Wreck of the Beautiful’ (from Absent Friends) as the classic example of the song that needs to given a few goes. Is that fair to say?

Yeah, I think so. Yeah; I remember listening to that recently and sort of thinking – did I make this piece of music? (laughs) It’s not whether it’s good, or bad, it’s just… slightly odd. But I was writing about a slightly discomfiting thing, a friend who’s kind of a shell of their former self. You know? And I think it worked in that sense.

I want to ask something related to that, a question about style, or tone – a direction I thought you might have taken a few years ago but you don’t appear to have. Going back to Absent Friends, I was really into that album and particularly side two…

I like the way you talk about sides; I do too. I think of my albums in sides and I never can get out of that – go on!

I do think of them in sides though now that I think of it I’m not sure where side two of Absent Friends starts –

(Definitively)‘Our Mutual Friend’ is the start of side two.

Good. That’s what I thought. Because from ‘Our Mutual Friend’ on, the tone of Absent Friends has always struck me as different to your other albums before or since because it’s unapologetically serious; you know what I mean?

Hmm.

There isn’t any attempt to leaven it, particularly. Of course, ‘Our Mutual Friend’ is in some ways funny but it’s also tragic –

Yeah. Funny tragic. It’s my own genre!

Well that’s sort of my question. I remember seeing you play the Gaiety just after that album came out and going away from the gig on the one hand thinking ‘That was great’ but, on the other, feeling like an opportunity was being missed: What might it be like if Neil Hannon moved on and played it straight and serious with just no taking the piss…

Never gonna happen (laughs).

Right. Good. Well that’s clear.

I know what you mean. I piss myself off with not being able to take anything seriously. But… I just don’t think it’s me. I like serious stuff and I am very serious about what I do, but that includes the funny bit. I’ve always thought that entirely serious works of art seem to somehow be unrealistic because I don’t believe that anybody is entirely serious in life and therefore if you’re trying to give a fully rounded picture of life, which I am always trying to do, even if that sounds absurd, then to not have any humour in it, I mean – just doesn’t happen. Most conversations I have are basically flippant.

Yeah. But then every piece of art can’t represent every aspect of life and there are some great albums like Big Star’s Third or Bowie’s Low that are not a barrel of laughs, really brilliant and kind of balls-out in the sense that they’re saying ‘You know what, this isn’t a lot of fun, but here it is anyway’.

Yeah. I think I’d need to be a different person. And I actually write best when I’m happy. A lot of people feed off their own personal despair but I’m generally quite happy and I think my best albums have been made when I have been at my happiest. But that is open to debate twenty years into the future when I am prepared to say when I was happy (laughs).

It’s funny that you say that. In my very younger days all my favourite bands were American Music Club, Smog and so on, partly because they were great but more specifically because to me their songs were deflated and sad – and I held firmly the idea that to be worthy of your time a songwriter must deal in depression and hopelessness, which now strikes me as bizarre. The idea that a writer could even do anything productive while genuinely depressed just doesn’t make any sense.

I know – you’re completely… you can’t do anything. I agree. I really do. And I love American Music Club. I was obsessed by them when I was about 18. Yeah. But it’s funny, it’s the same thing with a lot of so-called depressing bands, I never got a huge sense of doom off them. I just really enjoyed the imagery and the observation. “With my blue and grey shirt on / Yeah, that’s my favourite one”. You know, I’d never heard anyone say that before and I thought “Why didn’t I think of that?” It’s so throwaway and yet it says an awful lot. Everybody’s got their favourite shirt! And it just really puts you there. And that’s what I always look for.

The Gloaming (Vicar St, Dublin) — Review in State, May 2012.

There won’t be much in the way of arguments over this gig. There won’t be any bad reviews. The Gloaming – Thomas Bartlett, Dennis Cahill, Martin Hayes, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, and Iarla Ó Lionáird – are five stunningly gifted and diverse musicians and together they are more than the sum of their parts. They are currently playing a music that is so vibrant, emotional and elemental that to fail to be electrified by it would be, I think, to be missing something about what music is.

As they blazed to the end of a twenty-minute opening salvo of tunes, building intelligently from a the rich, meditative sean-nós of ‘An Chuil Daigh Ré’ to the swift, savage, dazzling climax of ‘Tom Doherty’s Reel’, it was all we could do not to howl with joy; some did. Michael D was there, and I’m pretty sure I heard him howling too.

The Gloaming are still a new outfit, with barely a recording to their name, but already they are acting as a Rosetta stone for people like me who know little or nothing about Irish traditional music, but feel that ignorance ever more acutely, and want a way in.

Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh is probably the key member of the band for these people; over the last five years he has shown a willingness, even a need, to experiment with form and an ability to speak a language understood by those who have kept themselves at arm’s length from traditional music. He toured with Norman Blake and Euros Childs; he worked with Amiina; that kind of thing. So when he goes back to more classic forms, as he does here and with Martin Hayes in Triúr, we trust him and follow him, because he’s one of us.

In fact, I wrote something in State in 2009, now a bit embarrassing, to the effect that Caoimhín made a refreshing change from regular traditional musicians because his extraordinary 2007 album Where the One-Eyed Man is King did not stick “to the forms handed down like commandments over generations”, as if I even knew what those were. Don’t ask me to tell between a reel and a jig.* I even called Caoimhín “the most singular traditional musician of his generation”, which might imply that I had a list of singular traditional musicians, from which I had carefully chosen him. It wasn’t quite like that.

Still, I was in Vicar St almost solely because of Caoimhín, so he is important if only because he has introduced the odd eejit newbie to The Gloaming’s music, and by extension to the untold wealth of traditional music that’s out there, beckoning.

Martin Hayes, a self-described “adamant traditionalist”, seemed to understand that at least some of the audience was in the newbie camp. He introduced the sparkling reel ‘The Sailor’s Bonnet’ with a brief tutorial on the composition of traditional airs (“not too simple, not too complex”), then began by playing the tune slowly, pointing out its working parts, before the band clicked into gear and, in Hayes’s own words, tore away at it. (More howling.)

Hayes, a legend in traditional music for decades, emerged for me as the de facto leader of the band. He is already established as a brilliant thinker and communicator – his piece in the Journal of Music on 21st century traditional music (http://t.co/0T8x0isq) is vivid and enlightening. Leadership duties here went as far as improvised storytelling to hold the show together during the encore, as Iarla Ó Lionáird went missing backstage in search of lyrics for a song by Peadar Ó Riada from Cúil Aodha (“Has he gone to Cúil Aodha to get them?”)

And it was ultimately striking how little of the pleasure of this show derived from any attempts at experimentation, or reworking, or what one might think of, misguidedly, as some kind of necessary modernisation of this music. The pleasure derived from the sheer beauty of the tunes and the awesome skill with which they were played; from Martin Hayes’s evident bouncing glee, and the stillness that overtook Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh during ‘The Old Bush’ as he appeared to play without touching his violin, producing notes so delicate and fluid they sounded to have come straight out of the air; from Thomas Bartlett and Dennis Cahill’s mostly unshowy, subtle accompaniments; and from Iarla Ó Lionáird’s textured, aching singing of ‘Óró, Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile’, or ‘Samhradh’, or of the phrase “Ochón, trua”, from “No. 44”, a song of longing for love that might be twenty generations old.

It is an intoxicating thing to find that an entire culture from your own backyard that you have essentially ignored all your life is just sitting there waiting to be feasted on. The music Caoimhín and The Gloaming have re-introduced me to is a music I cannot wait to explore; an ancient music that does not age. Martin Hayes spoke about the music growing and evolving and changing, but never fading, as you live with it, and he has been steeped in this stuff for half a century: “After all this time, it’s better it gets.” Now that’s a thought.
*A reel is a dance tune played in double time (2/2 or 4/4) and a jig is played in triple time (3/2, 3/4, or 3/8)

The Beatles Remastered and Reappraised: State Feature September 2009.

EMI re-released the Beatles catalogue in 2009 in remastered form. Did the re-masters improve the audio quality? No idea. I listened to the albums on a low-end car stereo on a four-hour daily commute from Drimnagh to Monaghan and back again. But it was an opportunity to have a bit of a ramble in State. And the manner of listening on mostly empty early morning roads was conducive to close attention. There was one morning in particular I was driving over the bridge at Slane in autumn light when I realised the utter blissful perfection of ‘When I’m 64’. I won’t hear a word against it.

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The Beatles

Please Please Me / With the Beatles / A Hard Day’s Night / Beatles for Sale / Help! / Rubber Soul / Revolver / Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band / Yellow Submarine / The Beatles (White Album) / Abbey Road / Let It Be / Magical Mystery Tour / Past Masters (EMI)


I can guarantee you one thing, we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis Lester Bangs

Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust — The Clash, ‘London Calling’

Anyone who has any love for any tiny fraction of the millions of hours of pop music that has come out since 1970 has to have a tricky relationship with The Beatles. The Clash’s staggeringly incorrect assessment was an early expression of this; another was the Sex Pistols’ sacking of Glen Matlock. His offence? He was quite fond of the Fabs.

It could not have been that Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten saw nothing at all in the Beatles. That’s really, really hard to do. Almost every violent reaction against The Beatles is a reaction to the cultural shadow they cast rather than to the music itself. It can also be a reaction to infuriating fans. In July 2009’s BBC Music magazine, an acclaimed classical pianist called Murray Perahia was asked his opinion of pop music. Perahia smirked: “The last people to do anything interesting were the Beatles”. No Bowie; no Kraftwerk; no Off the Wall; no Murmur; no nothing. No clue. Amazing.

Yes, The Beatles were a “great little band”. Half the time, they were astonishingly brilliant. Just as it’s hard to imagine how the likes of Perahia, passionately devoted to music, could so casually and incuriously dismiss forty years of abundant, febrile creativity, so it’s hard to imagine that any pop lover could actively dislike the Beatles’ songs in and of themselves. Lester Bangs’ great line was misdirected. In 2009, we agree much more readily on John, Paul, George and Ringo.

But there is nothing more tedious than continually to be told by people whose pop musical knowledge begins at Penny Lane and ends at Abbey Road that the greatest music ever made happened during a closely defined period between 1965 and 1969, and that’s all there is to it. You may debate which Beatles album is the greatest album ever made; you might throw in Pet Sounds or What’s Goin’ On as a wild card; but that’s about it. And so millions of people of my generation and the next are within their rights to reject The Beatles. Because if a culture’s high watermark happened before you were born, then you have to reject that culture, or live encased in nostalgia for a time you never knew.

Rejecting the Beatles, of course, is not easy. It’s like rejecting Santa, or God. Six-year-olds know who The Beatles are; they know even before they know that they know. My nephew Conor knows ‘Yellow Submarine’, and knows it’s by The Beatles. He taught it to his sister Emma. They sing it at school. They don’t sing ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ or ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. The argument has been made that ‘Yellow Submarine’ is the most important Beatles song, for this reason. Generations of kids have internalised the Beatles at the same time that they learn their first language; these songs become a lingua franca of their own. They are the template, the songs by which all others are judged. Deciding not to like the Beatles after this indoctrination takes an enormous effort of will. It’s like disowning the warm glow of childhood memory..

It’s questionable, then, whether you can even judge The Beatles away from all the baggage. How much of what you feel, when you hear them, is the song? How much is the multiplicity of associations your mind makes with each one? How much is the story of the band, and our awareness, that they could not have had, of how it all worked out? How would ‘Across The Universe’ now sound (‘Nothing’s gonna change my world’) if the Dakota had not happened?

You never know. For now you can only attempt opinions.

To start with, Lennon/McCartney didn’t really begin to hit their stride until Beatles for Sale. The albums before this work, at this stage, as historical documents. They are of their time. ‘All My Loving’, ‘She Loves You’, and ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ work when you see them on the Ed Sullivan Show on Anthology or the Maysles Brothers’ documentary. These songs are perfectly structured, the model for rock’n’roll writing ever since, but there’s not that much going on underneath, and you’d want to be pretty stuck for something to do to put on With The Beatles for pleasure.

On Beatles for Sale, things moved on and Lennon moved ahead. He was learning to turn emotions other than twee optimism into number one hits, with ‘I’m A Loser’ and ‘No Reply’: “I tried to telephone / You said you were not home / That’s a lie”. Lennon held the lead through Help! and Rubber Soul. Paul’s best work on these albums was ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ and ‘I’m looking Through You’ – fantastic tunes, but a touch generic; John, though, hit a rich seam.

It may have been what Gift Grub’s George Martin calls the jazz cigarettes, or the confidence of emerging from Paul’s shadow, or Dylan’s influence, but his songs here – ‘Help!’, ‘In My Life’, ‘Norwegian Wood’, “Hey, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” – are perfect, enthralling, diverse pieces of work. John was 24 when he recorded ‘In My Life’, and like Lester Bangs said of Astral Weeks, there are lifetimes there.

With Revolver, the drugs really kicked in, and perhaps not coincidentally Paul began to draw level. For the next few albums, what John got from hallucinogenics was a mixed blessing. Along with a willingness to tweak song structure that sometimes worked incredibly well (‘Strawberry Fields’, ‘A Day in the Life’), and sometimes very poorly (‘Revolution 9’) he also developed an unfortunate fondness for drug references as the point of the song (‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’) and for unapologetic doggerel. ‘I Am The Walrus’ is just not that great. John’s peak as a Beatle comes just around the first half of side two of Revolver, with ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ and ‘She Said She Said’; and sticking the latter’s coruscating riff and first couplet (“She said I know what it’s like to be dead”) immediately after ‘Yellow Submarine’, to frighten the kiddies, was a genius move.

What Paul got in the late period that you don’t find before is empathy. Early on, he tries too hard on ‘Eleanor Rigby’. The strings are too knowingly dignified, the line ‘Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door’ is too pleased with itself, and the chorus… well, yes, there are lonely people out there, but getting a pat on the head from Beatle Paul won’t help. By Sgt. Pepper‘s ‘When I’m 64’, his work is getting incredibly affecting, without letting on that it is. This is a love song that could only be written by a stoical northern Englishman – you won’t get melodrama – but it’s every bit the vulnerable declaration of eternal love that ‘God Only Knows’ is. “I could be handy mending a fuse…” The arrangement is pristine. ‘When I’m 64’ is unimprovable; it’s the soul of Sgt. Pepper.

The last couple of albums are the hardest to disentangle from the story of the band. Abbey Road’s ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ isn’t just a song, it’s famously the last song they did in the studio together. Harrison’s ‘I Me Mine’, off Let It Be, is the last song recorded by any Beatle as a Beatle. (I do tend to skip over George, because of an initial aversive experience with ‘Within You Without You’, probably the most skipped over song in my record collection. ‘Here Comes the Sun’ is lovely, not that it needs me to say that, but I’ve somehow never warmed to ‘Something’.)

Let It Be is a shambles. (Let It Be… Naked isn’t included in the current set of releases.) how they ever returned to a studio after the awful muck of ‘Dig A Pony’ and ‘Maggie Mae’ is a mystery, but they did, for Abbey Road; at least, Paul did. John has essentially left. ‘Come Together’ is fine, ‘Because’ is beautiful, but his heart is in the confessional songwriting that started in Rubber Soul, passed through the White album’s ‘Julia’ and ‘Yer Blues’, and would culminate in the Plastic Ono Band’s ‘Mother’. He’s saving up his songs.

Paul, meanwhile, turned in, on Abbey Road, one of the all-time great Side Twos, to complete an album no-one should be without. The band was breaking up, and with the eyes of the world on him, and the weight of history, and fully aware of it, he put together a suite of songs that is stupendously inventive and ambitious, somehow epic and taut at the same time, and wildly moving. Not telling anyone how to feel, but if ‘Golden Slumbers’ does not cause you to wipe away a tear, you’re not paying attention.

And ‘The End’ is the end, and it’s a painful one. Paul went, within five years, from head-nodding along to ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ to something approaching hard-earned wisdom: “And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make”.

As much as ‘Yellow Submarine’ explains why the Beatles are still so loved, so does the unironic, unafraid, emotional connection of moments like these. As the band wound down, John and George embraced Eastern mysticism more than Paul did, but Paul was just as much an advocate of the ineffable. On Abbey Road, and ‘When I’m 64’, and ‘I Will’, and ‘Blackbird’, he infused his spirituality into his songs. The Beatles had humour, and fire, and melody. When Paul got going, they had more. They had amazing grace.

“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