Dustin O’Halloran interview, State, 2015.

I did this interview with Dustin O’Halloran in January 2015 for State magazine. The interview was in the context of an upcoming show by A Winged Victory for the Sullen and a new album, Atomos. I had been a fan of O’Halloran’s solo work for a few years—I even have his sheet music for solo piano at home, and one day I will learn to play some of it—so I took the opportunity to ask about that too. I asked O’Halloran about the seeming boom in high-quality film music at the time and it’s now poignant to note that he said “I think Jóhann Jóhannsson is definitely one of the living greats.” This interview worked better than most emailers do because O’Halloran was generous enough to give thoughtful responses to eleven quite wordy questions. AWVFTS continue to make great music and Invisible Cities from February of this year is worth a spin.

In 2006, Dustin O’Halloran became a household name in hip households when a trio of his sparse, lovely solo piano pieces landed on the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. ‘Opus 17’, ‘Opus 23’ and ‘Opus 36’ had an immediate emotional resonance that made you wonder where you’d already heard them when you hadn’t, and elegant memorable melody has remained O’Halloran’s calling card throughout a prolific decade of solo work, film scores, and A Winged Victory For The Sullen.

A Winged Victory For The Sullen is O’Halloran’s collaboration with Brian Wiltzie, who is one half of drone pioneer duo Stars of the Lid. In 2011, AWVFTS led off their first album with the almost sickeningly gorgeous, elliptically titled ‘Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears’. You could see the lineage here: Stars of the Lid were the band behind ‘Dopamine Clouds Over Craven Cottage’, wherein they perfected the art of hiding a breathlessly beautiful piece of music behind a half-daft name. You don’t always want people to know how much you mean it, particularly when you really mean it.

AWVFTS, who play in the Pavilion in Dun Laoghaire on February 10th, released their second album, Atomos, the score of a contemporary dance piece, late last year. Like AWVFTS’s self-named debut, Atomos is a spacious, enveloping meeting of musical minds, a summit between texture and space and unabashed melody. As the Pavilion show approaches, Dustin O’Halloran took some questions from State, talking about the art of collaboration, the great state of film music, and why sometimes it’s not so bad when the music stops.

State: You and Adam Wiltzie have collaborated on two albums now, coming from apparently quite different musical backgrounds. I’m interested in the process of collaboration and how you decide on a collaborator.

DOH: For myself I think good collaborations find you. I met Adam pretty randomly in Italy when I was living there and we became mutual fans of each other’s music. When we started working on music we didn’t realize what it would become or if it would even work. It’s all been a serendipitous surprise really. I think we both have learned a lot from each other… and also give each other space.

Ultimately, a good collaboration brings you out of your own head and helps you find places you would not have gone otherwise. I think Adam and I have pushed each other to new places, especially with our new record Atomos. We really tried to find the boundaries of our music and it’s nice to feel that; to know you can grow. I think we still have some more music to make together.

You said in an interview in the Quietus “Adam and I have such different ways to work”.

Well, we have both been making records for a long time, so you tend to have your ways of working. It’s hard to be more specific, but I would say Adam really is great at using space, finding parts that you would not otherwise hear and stretching them out; creating a sense of timelessness. I think I’m more into the details of arrangements, crafting out subtle details.

You’ve cited Erik Satie as an influence. In The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross wrote of Satie’s Gymnopedies that it “discard[ed] centuries of knotted-down complexity in favour of a language at once simple and new”. Does that ring true to you and is that something you took from him for your own work?

I think Erik Satie was really a break through in contemporary music and maybe one of the first minimalists. He created strange and simple melodic structures that were deceptively simple. I have always been attached to this kind of musical language and try to seek out what is necessary. I’m not much into over-embellishment, or playing notes just to fill space. I think every note should count.

Is it always obvious in AWVFTS who did what? It would appear obvious – the shifting cloud-like STOL-style chords are Adam, the poetic piano and strings are you. But I remember reading Elvis Costello saying that when he collaborated with Paul McCartney they switched roles: Elvis went as sweetly melodic as he could while Paul shoved way too many words into one note. I’ve always imagined that one of the pleasures of collaboration is not being yourself and I wonder whether your musical personality changes.

Yeah, I think people would be surprised and who did what. We really switch roles a lot and especially with the new record we both rubbed off a bit on each other. Sometimes I would work on guitar sounds and Adam would work on strings. By the time we finished the record it was hard to remember who did what.

Can you say something about the experience of scoring a ballet? This is a first for you, as far as I know. It seems like a very different task to scoring a film.

When Wayne McGregor asked us to score his new dance piece, neither of us had ever worked on a dance score. It was totally new ground and we were intrigued. It’s a contemporary dance piece, not ballet, so all traditions were out.

Wayne really wanted to push the boundaries of dance and what dance music can be, which is why he asked a group who barely has any rhythm in their music, I suppose. We didn’t know how it would all work, but when we saw his choreography I was really blown away at how wonderful it worked together with the music. It created this shell for the dance to live inside and felt really fresh to me. If you ever get a chance to see it, I highly recommend it. Their dancers are just incredible. What they put into it is just staggeringly beautiful and intense. Wayne is definitely one of the great artists of our time and I feel lucky to have been able to work with him.

AWVFTS are on on Erased Tapes, along with Nils Frahm, Peter Broderick, Rival Consoles and numerous other great acts. Like Rough Trade in the 80s, Domino in the 90s, Bella Union in the 2000s, they just seem like the most incredible detectors and nurturers of talent.

Robert and Sofia at Erased Tapes work pretty hard to bring the music they believe in to the people. I appreciate this a lot, especially since it’s so tough to keep a label alive these days. I think it’s a good moment for the label and like all things time will move on and fads will change, but hopefully the people fighting the good fight will be able to continue.

Your pieces on the Marie Antoinette soundtrack and, subsequently, your solo piano albums were important for my musical development as a listener. Along with other works of similar vintage (Jóhann Jóhannsson‘s IBM 1401, Max Richter’s The Blue Notebooks), this work directed me towards contemporary music and from there to a greater appreciation of classical or composed music in general. They were gateway works; let’s say I probably wouldn’t be quoting at you from an Alex Ross book if I hadn’t heard ‘Opus 17’ in 2007.

Thank you, I appreciate that! We all have our gateway music that leads us down our paths. For myself, I have found through the works of others being able to really appreciate more atonal pieces: Xenakis, Bartok, Schoenberg, Scriabin and so on.

How did your involvement in the Marie Antoinette soundtrack come about?

The pieces I did for Marie Antoinette came after I released my first solo piano album. Sofia Coppola’s music supervisor Brian Rietzell heard it and played it for Sofia. She was writing the script at the time and I guess it struck a chord as they asked me to write a few pieces for the film.

Secondly, and in asking this I’m aware you’ve been playing piano since you were four – is composed music something you’ve always been steeped in? A related question (asking as a dad of small kids) – how did your parents get you into the piano as a pre-schooler?

My mother was a ballet teacher and she really encouraged me to play. But trust me, I hated practising. I think what was really encouraging is after I had finished my practising I would sit and write things on the piano, and I think this planted a seed. Even my early teacher was really encouraging and let me play one of my first pieces at a recital. I was probably nine years old.

On film music: It seems you can’t put on a movie anymore without hearing yourself or Max Richter or Jóhann Jóhannsson, and Ólafur Arnalds is right now being heard by more than five million UK TV viewers every week on Broadchurch. It is a great time to be a lover of film music – from the listener’s perspective. Is it a great time to be a film music composer?

Yeah, I think it’s a good time all around for composers. There is more interest among ensembles and orchestras in playing living composers and films are using more interesting artists; a changing of the guard, I suppose. I think Jóhann Jóhannsson is definitely one of the living greats. Our studios our actually right next to each other, and he is good friend.

I do enjoy scoring films. It’s a big challenge and you usually end up with music you would never had written for yourself. It’s such a big collaboration between directors and actors and cinematographers, and so on. But I also feel it’s really important to continue writing for yourself as well. Where there is no compromise and no timeline. It’s where you really find yourself, I think. When it comes time to work on a film you really draw from this well of ideas that you need to nourish.

Any other film composers you rate highly?

Recently I really enjoyed Mica Levi’s score for Under The Skin. I think it was a really unique and special score. I just saw it performed live with the film and it made me appreciate it even more.

A local question: you’ve visited Ireland on a number of occasions now and you are, in fairness, an O’Halloran. Have you had much of an opportunity to explore Irish traditional music or Irish contemporary music?

Sadly, beyond playing shows I have not had a chance to explore Ireland. Obviously I have a lot of heritage there and it’s something I really plan to do at some point. Somehow I always feel a kinship there… and I’m glad we have had such a nice response to our music there!

Finally: in interviews with you, we read about Satie and Debussy and other touchstones for you that are pretty intuitive. Is there any music that you are into that we would be surprised by?

I have been going through a period lately of not listening to much music at all, so maybe that’s a surprise. I find after writing and working on music all day, the sounds around me are really interesting – and I want to give my ears a break.

A Way Of Escaping: Stephen Shannon on Strands’ ‘Inner Spaces’

Stephen Shannon is a musician, composer, and producer who grew up in Wicklow and is based in Dublin, where he built and runs his studio Experimental Audio. He has had a somewhat stellar career in recording and producing music since he started out in the early Nineties, when the organisers of the Dublin indie club Dazed asked him to be their live sound engineer. (Stephen told me, “They asked ‘Can you do this?’, and I said ‘No’, but they had nobody else to do it, so that was where I started”.)

Shannon’s list of production credits includes Chequerboard’s The Unfolding, Barry McCormack’s The Tilt of the Earth, and Slow Moving Clouds’ magisterial Os. In the last five years he has moved more into music for film and TV; I won’t list his credits like IMDB but I will say I’m a fan of the soundtrack to The Lodgers, on which he continued a fruitful collaboration with Slow Moving Clouds’ Kevin Murphy. Shannon might be best known as half of Mount Alaska, along with Cillian McDonnell. Mount Alaska’s Coordinates EP came out this year and ‘The Subterranean Heart’, from 2019’s album Wave Atlas: Season One, featured on the soundtrack of Lenny Abrahamson’s Normal People.

Shannon also records as a solo artist as Strands and it was because of brand new Strands music that I was keen to talk to him now. Strands’ only previous album came out over ten years ago and I had assumed that this musical identity had been shelved until a new album called Inner Spaces popped up on Bandcamp on October 1st. Inner Spaces’ nine songs of rich, textured, emotional electronica, inspired by the memory of long walks in Wicklow and a locked-down longing for open spaces, have since soundtracked my own less ambitious rambles across Dublin 8. I’ve been playing Inner Spaces too on the evening drive to Kildare, sometimes detouring past the West Wicklow mountains, closer to the scenes of the songs, to add some crepuscular poetry to the spin home. I haven’t yet walked up Kippure listening to ‘Kippure’, but it’s on the list.

NC: Stephen, the new record came as a lovely surprise. I wasn’t expecting it, then found it on Twitter and Bandcamp, and soon I was listening to it a lot. Is this maybe your third release as Strands?

SS: About ten years ago, I released an album and two EPs. The EPs were a collaboration with some other musicians I admire: Chequerboard (John Lambert) and Thomas Haugh, who was making music under the name of Húlk at the time. They’re two old friends now. So maybe the second proper release.

Then how this new album came about is that around December, January of this year, I suddenly just hit upon something, I was just incredibly prolific. I just started making so much music. I got a new Mount Alaska album finished as well, at least all the composition. I finished about sixty pieces of music in the space of about six weeks.

So I was making music non-stop and I really wanted to release some of it. But I didn’t want to just throw it onto Bandcamp under a different name or under a pseudonym, so I decided just to dig up that old name again—Strands. Then a little label called Remote Town came on board, and they’re based in Wicklow and all my songs are about walking in Wicklow, so I just thought it was perfect.

Did the lockdown suit you in some way in terms of creativity?

I enjoyed some aspects of the lockdown. My wife and I get along really well so we didn’t mind getting locked up together. She’s creative as well, she’s a writer (Sinéad Gleeson). When I wasn’t making music, we were jamming together, we’d have a couple of drinks and it just happened very organically that we just started creating things.

We’ve done a couple of creative pieces together. We just finished doing a piece for an exhibition in the Rua Red gallery: there’s a giant textile map that Alice Maher and Rachel Fallon created, and they invited us to come up with an accompanying audio piece. So Sinéad wrote the words for it and I did all the music and soundscapes and sound design for it. And that was really enjoyable.

And so this whole lockdown for me was just about creating things, when there’s nothing else to do. The Strands album came from that as well because during the lockdowns, you weren’t allowed more than five kilometres from your house. And I’ve always been a hill-walker. So I’d go up to Massey’s Wood or Cruagh Wood or Hellfire at the very nearest, and go walking there for three or four hours and just put on headphones and listen to music. And I just couldn’t do that. So if you look at the album sleeve, it’s a photograph of the sky. In lockdown, the only clear space I could see was when I looked up at the sky, and whatever was in my imagination. So I just made music and titled the songs after all the places I’d love to walk. It was a way of escaping.

Remember when before it was five kilometres it was two kilometres.

Well, I live in Crumlin—total suburbia. You can walk five kilometres in any direction and you won’t get to an open space. But I was still trying to go for long walks, just so I could have a bit of peace and quiet. Like if you go to Ballymount Industrial Estate there’s loads of fields and commons there. So it feels like you’re in a little bit of an open space, it’s nice. So I do have a real hunger for that kind of thing. 

It’s a bit of a contradiction, because when I was a kid, I used to love going for really long walks over hills and mountains and by the sea. I grew up in a little village in Wicklow. But what I always did was I compiled tapes of music and listened to things really really loud, so I’d be walking in this cute, peaceful, beautiful place and listening to Billy Idol (laughs).

As I got older, I suppose I carry that with me and if I really like a song, I’ll get it even more if I’m sitting by a lake or walking in a forest or something. So I do still listen to a lot of music when I go for walks. It is about peace, but it’s more about solitude, I suppose.

You mentioned to me the other day that you liked Wormhole back in the day.

Yeah—I love Wormhole!

So we must have been getting into bands around the same time, early to mid 90s?

The path I’m on now, my career, I was just starting out then. I ended up doing live sound for Wormhole at least once because I used to be the sound engineer in a club called Dazed. It was an indie club on O’Connell St, a quarter of a century ago now. I used to do live sound there and there were indie bands there every week. The likes of Sunbear, In Motion. I would have done live sound for all those bands. And that was the first time I had the controls, manipulating sound.

I was just given a shot at it by the guys who ran the club. They asked “Can you do this?”, and I said “No“, but they had nobody else to do it, so that was where I started. That’s where my journey of putting sounds together started. So I remember that time and it was a very exciting time, and I was a big Wormhole fan. I thought they were amazing live. Really big energy. Some great bands from that era, amazing bands. I was a big fan of this band called The Idiots. They were a big drone rock band. They did two hour jams on stage. They were amazing.

Funny you mention them. I don’t do a lot of interviews but I did one with Brian Brannigan two years ago and he mentioned Brian Mooney of the Idiots as one of his favourite songwriters of all time. Then of course Brian Mooney started releasing stuff as The Next New Low and he’s releasing new music now every month.

And it’s really good. It’s great. Yeah, I love Brian Mooney’s stuff. He’s a lovely guy as well, I’ve known him from back then more or less. There was another guy in that band called Jimmy Eadie, and he produced and recorded Jape’s album The Monkeys in the Zoo Have More Fun Than Me. He produced ‘Floating’. I really admire Jimmy as well. He’s working full time in Trinity now, teaching sound design. That’s his job. But for a long time he was, I would say, the best engineer / producer in the country.

I’m keen to talk about the new record but could you just talk a bit about the journey and turning points from being an indie sound engineer in Dazed to now?

I think there are a couple of turning points for me, that made me a little bit atypical, I suppose. I was playing in a couple of bands, I ended up in a punk band called Paranoid Visions, who became Striknien DC. And I think I grew tired of the Dublin scene and I emigrated for a few years. I went to Sweden and I ended up playing in a couple of bands in Gothenburg. And those bands had access to recording equipment, analogue equipment. Reel to reel recordings and mixing desk and some decent equipment.

That was where I really learned my craft, because I ended up recording a lot of local bands in Gothenburg. And for free, because I was just so excited and so into it. So I really learned how to record and mix and work with music while I was there. Then I came back here and I just got myself a basic setup, just an eight-track machine and a couple of microphones and ended up recording a couple of indie bands here. I just slowly started breaking into the Irish scene and recording and mixing bands, and ended up eking out a career for myself just from recording and mixing. And from that I built a studio. 

My intention when I built the studio was: I just want to be able to record bands forever. I just love recording and mixing and producing. But in the last five or six years, even after the first Strands album, I just felt the itch that I wanted to not do that as much. I guess it’d become a bit repetitive for me. And I grew into making soundtracks for TV and documentaries and I really enjoyed that because I guess I realised that I’m more of a musician than I am a producer or an engineer or a studio engineer. 

So with that I was using all my skills—I was playing guitar and piano and making sound but I was also mixing what I did and recording it, so it felt like a perfect combination of all the skills I’d gained over the years, and I just really enjoyed it. Just before you called me there, I have a deadline and I was working on a piece of music and it’s so engaging, I just love it, you know?  And I think what I really love to do is just to work with sound, and the Strands album is part of that and working with soundtracks is a part of that. And of course when I worked more with bands, that was a core part. But somehow I managed to eke out a career for myself along the way, and I do make a living from it and I love it. My golden rule, you should always have a job where you don’t feel like you’re working (laughs). And I do have that, luckily, you know.

So the Inner Spaces album was recorded during the pandemic in your studio from where you are talking to me now. Each song is titled for a different place in Wicklowthe mountains and the sea. Can you talk me through the origin of the album?

Well, the core of the record is basically me imagining walking in those places. How I feel on the way, how I feel when I’m there. And just the experience of being there.

For example, there’s a track called ‘Seefin’. In County Wicklow, not too far from Kippure, there’s this place called Seefin. It’s an old tomb—apparently over 5000 years old. And the tomb was empty when they excavated it, nobody knows who made it, what kind of people they were, or anything about it. When I’m there, every time I’ve been there, there’s never anyone there. But it’s totally breathtaking. 

It’s a big mound, but it has a sealed door. And it is an amazing place to be. I think it’s made all the more exciting for me because I’ve only ever been there alone. So in many ways it only exists in my mind, if you know what I mean. So I literally thought about the approach to Seefin tomb and made a piece of music. And then if you listen to the track, there’s a transition point where, in my mind, I’m there, and there’s a shift in the music.

Then there’s a track called ‘Silver Strands’. And that’s a play on the name Silver Strand, which is a beach in Wicklow. But it was also a place I used to go to a lot in the late 90s, because there were loads of parties there, techno parties where everyone danced and took drugs and had a good time. When I go there now, that’s totally burned into my memory. So that music is about the memory of a place. If you were standing at a place and you’re alone but something significant happened there, somehow you might hear echoes of the sound that was going on. That place was bustling and there were hundreds of people there all dancing, and all these people have grown up now and they’ve got families. But it’s that same space, and there’s that question: does that place hold any of that memory?

I suppose it’s taking little journeys in my own imagination and having a fixed theme or a place or a journey to help in the composition and the construction of a song. So you’re working on the arrangement, but it’s always something you return to as a stepping stone on the way, you know: you think of a place you’d love to go and you imagine being there. And then if you reach a lull in the song, in some ways that’s significant as well.

For example there’s a track called ‘Sugarloaf’, which is the most obvious one. That is literally about the walk to the peak of Sugarloaf, and I have this habit, when I get to peaks of hills or mountains, I just do a panoramic shot with my camera. And of course because I shot little videos when I got there, I did accidentally, or maybe not so accidentally, record the sound of the wind up there. And I use that sound in the song.

I was wondering about the other locally collected sounds that ended up in the songs. I’m not sure if I would call them found sounds, that’s probably not the right phrase, but, like—there are bird sounds on the song ‘Tay’, isn’t that right?

Yeah, there are. I did record that but I can’t remember where I recorded it. I have a little recorder I carry with me; I love recording the ocean for example. 

You know Strandhill in Sligo? There’s a beautiful beach along there, but further in towards Sligo town the beach gets very rocky and when the waves go back out the water sizzles through the stones, and it’s the most beautiful sound. And the one day my wife and I were there, I didn’t have my handheld recorder. But I was standing there listening to the sound of the water just sizzling through the stones—just so beautiful.

But you know, there’s been a couple of times, in Leitrim— a relative has a little house and we go and stay there sometimes —where I used to go on really late night walks to record night sounds. And it’s so quiet, where our house is, that there’s no sound of traffic or anything. So I was walking through a field with a torch and a handheld. And I had it turned up loud and I had headphones on and a fox howled. I think that’s where the mythology of Banshees came from, that fox’s howl. It was so loud. And I had the sound turned up so loud in my headphones, that I completely terrified myself. I was shook.

I’m sitting there kind of wondering what it must be like to pay attention to the world the way you do: you must have a slightly different way of experiencing the world in the sense that it sounds like your ears are more attuned to what’s going on than most ears. I’m sure we’re all walking past interesting sounds every day that we miss and you don’t.

Well, I know that I’m far more focused on sound than I am sight. The guy who I make music with in Mount Alaska, Cillian, he’s a really old friend, and I love what we do, but he generally looks after the visual aesthetic of the band, as well as working on the music with me. I don’t think about that, or track titles, till the end of the process. This Strands album is an exception but I generally work with what I hear as my focus.

That’s probably one of the reasons we’re having this conversation, because I’m fascinated with how a non-auditory experience ends up as sound and it’s so strange and magical to me. It makes me think of synesthesia. You have a particular experience in, say, Kippure, and there’s a musical rendering that captures that experience in sound. I’m fascinated how that musical capture comes about.

Well, I think if you asked anybody to do their musical version of Kippure, every single one of them would be different. Somebody else would come back and it would just be a one-note drone. For me, places like that have such significance because, for example, Kippure, I made a commitment to myself when I hit 40 to walk up Kippure every year on my birthday. I just set myself this challenge to walk to the top of Kippure. It’s about a seven kilometre walk to the top and it’s uphill all the way. So it’s not an easy walk. It’s fine.

And so I have this emotional attachment to Kippure as a challenge. And when I listen to the music of ‘Kippure’ now, it has that kind of resonance as a challenge. If you listen to the song, there are stages to the journey. There’s a final approach where it’s a lull, and then the happiness of reaching the top. So for everyone it will be different but for me, it’s a propulsive, tough-sounding thing.

There’s a lot of motion in the songs; I didn’t at all want to do something pastoral, you know, a sunny meadow on a beautiful day. I wanted to do my version of the place.

You’ve said about two songs now, ‘Kippure’ and ‘Silver Strands’, that they’re each a representation of the place, but they’re also representations of associations that you have with the place.

It’s definitely me in that place. It isn’t a song about Kippure, it’s about me and Kippure. It’s my experience of it, it’s my attachment to it. And then of course it was me missing it, because I couldn’t be there. I couldn’t be there on my birthday this year. I couldn’t go there. So it’s about me and those places.

Luggala is another one that has some non-musical recorded sound in it. Is that a train?

No, it’s the sound of a piece of metal, like a bell. It’s a piece of metal and it’s blowing in the wind, and it’s knocking off something. So it’s making a sound. ‘Luggala’ is a really small mountain; it’s a steep hill more than a mountain. And again, it’s a place I go to where I’m nearly always alone when I get there. So I was imagining a place during lockdown where I was nearly always alone when I went there. I was certain in my mind that there was nobody there at all. So I was literally trying to make a piece of music imagining what a place would sound like if there was nobody there at all. I was trying to put music to that, the music of a place that’s been abandoned or been left for whatever reason. Pandemic being the main reason for us, but just imagining a space making a sound with no-one there. But it’s also a place I love. You can see a view of Lough Tay from a much higher place and if you look down It’s totally breathtaking. You rarely see something so beautiful.

I want to ask you about ‘Lobawn’ as well. It’s funny that ‘Silver Strands’ has those techno party associations. When I heard ‘Lobawn’—of all of the places on the album I’d never heard of Lobawn beforewhen I heard the track not knowing the place I thought, well this has got to be somewhere that Stephen was at a rave because it really goes off.

Ha! No. It’s just that it’s a really hard walk. I was trying to get across how tough it is. You’re totally breathless, you have to stop for a few breaks and it’s a big peak. There’s no climbing involved, but it’s a tough walk. So it’s just about the joy of getting there. It’s a celebration. It’s beautiful and it’s just—it’s a total win to get to the top of Lobawn.

What it was, was that about three, four minutes in, there’s that build, and then it kicks in—the way that if you were standing in a field at a party in your twenties, when that came in you’d be giving it loads.

I’ve experienced that of course. I mean, there’s more than a little influence from that time in my life as well, going to those parties. I DJ’d at those parties as well and I was very much part of that scene. It’s part of who I am. And so when I make music completely freely, with no influence of any kind—I literally tried to leave everything at the door and make the record myself. I didn’t play the songs for anybody while I was making them, I just made it. And then I got the label support and put it out. So it was a surprise to almost everyone who knew me. I just wanted it to be very personal. And I suppose that’s the way it came out. So that part of who I am and my past came to the fore a little bit.

I’m always interested in the records and musicians that were important to people early on or important now. Who’s pivotal or influential or who do you really love?

There’s a few. Did you ever hear of a guy called Rival Consoles? 

Yes. I like him a lot.

His second last album was from 2018—Persona—and it’s probably the best album I’ve heard in the last 10 years. He’s totally amazing. What I did with the Strands album, I suppose it’s the more artistic approach to electronica and beat-driven music. A bit more abstract, still propulsive. So that Rival Consoles record was a real touchstone for me. 

And then there’s loads of stuff I listen to when I’m working with Mount Alaska as well. (Opens Spotify). It says here the last two albums I listened to were Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and Sufjan Stevens (laughs). There’s an artist called Lorenzo Senni, he’s Italian, he made an album called Canone Infinito—he’s amazing. Julianna Barwick, Niklas Paschberg, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Ben Lukas Boysen. Of course Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Another guy I love is Max Cooper. He’s from Northern Ireland and he’s made some beautiful, beautiful music. He makes quite propulsive beat-driven music as well as abstract gentle music. The thing I love about him most is if you spend a bit of time listening to him, especially on headphones, his attention to detail, I’ve never heard anything like it. Just tiny little moments and fragments happening bar to bar; totally beautiful. Every time I listen to it, it just brings new things. So that’s an influence as well, his approach to music.

And then some of the classics. I always go back to Steve Reich. I love repetition in music. So I find Steve Reich relaxing to listen to—the longer the better, and the more repetitive the better. And there’s so many things I listen to all the time. I love Boards of Canada, just keep on going back to Music Has the Right to Children. So dark and beautiful.

Have you ever heard of that Nigerian guy William Onyeabor? Like Fela Kuti but poppier. He was brilliant. There’s a song of his called ‘When The Going Is Smooth and Good’, and if you listen to that, and then listen to my track ‘Lobawn’, you’ll hear there’s a big influence. It’s almost a tribute to him. It’s like a William Onyeabor hats off.

I’m just thinking what it must be like to release music like this. You talked about how solitary a process this was: making music by yourself about trips you mostly take on your own. Music from your memory and imagination. So it’s something very personal, completely yours, then suddenly it’s out there in the world, and you don’t have that much control over it or how people respond to it.

Yeah, I’ve experienced that before—that short period just before you release something. It’s a scary time! It’s a strange thing. You’re about to relinquish all control of it; it’s going to be gone and, love it or hate it, it’s gone. It’s out of your control. It is kind of scary. But once it’s out there, it actually feels really good. It’s gone now; it’s available for anybody who wants to listen to it or not listen to it. It is quite panicky leading up to it, but I feel really positive about it once it’s gone.

Inner Spaces is available on Bandcamp at https://remotetown.bandcamp.com/album/strands-inner-spaces. Mount Alaska play the Pepper Canister on November 15th with Slow Moving Clouds https://selectivememory.ie/mount-alaska-st-patricks-festival/. “The Map” / “We Are The Map” by Alice Maher and Rachel Fallon with text and sound by Sinéad Gleeson and Stephen Shannon, is at Rua Red Gallery in Tallaght until 29 January 2022 http://www.ruared.ie/gallery/exhibition/we-are-the-map.

Wormhole & Jubilee live review, Hot Press, 1995

Wormhole or The Wormholes as they later became were an unbelievable live band and I was lucky enough to see them a few times, never more memorably than in the show below. The Wormholes are about to release an anthology You Never See The Stars When It Rains 1994-1999 and to my surprise and delight Eamonn Crudden of Dead Elvis asked me to write sleeve notes. I opened my piece for the anthology by quoting the opening paragraph of the live review posted below. 25 years later, and not a nostalgist, I still remember the thrill of shows like this in venues like the Attic. We were incredibly lucky with the bands we had in Dublin then. I won’t list them for fear of leaving someone out. Note: I’ve always regretted that stupid aside about guitar trashing. I know it pissed the band off, they told me on Facebook years later, and they were right. Grrr.

Pic by Andrew Duffy

WORMHOLE/JUBILEE (The Attic, Dublin)

NOW IS as exciting a time to be a rock’n’roll fan in Dublin as I can remember. No longer do you have to wish that you’d been aware of the existence of the Underground a decade ago; everywhere you look, these days, there’s another crowd of lo-fi misfits getting it together to borrow or steal distortion pedals and to promise as fantastic a few months as that legendary summer of ‘85.

Jubilee are Wormhole’s favourite Irish group. They remind me too of some of my favourite groups; their quietly self-hating and magnificent ‘Better Than I Know Myself’ has both the should-you-be-telling-us-this vibe and the feeling that they’re only just holding it together that I associate with Sebadoh and, not wishing to crush their shoulders with such a hefty comparison at this early stage, the mighty Palace Brothers. They have a long way to go, but they’ll get there.

Wormhole may be there already. They stride on, not a scar between them, which doubtless explains the lack of digging by chicks that I’d imagine fuels their very loud pop music. Theirs is, like many groups, a wall of noise, on top of which they stick and under which they hide many things of beauty.

Dave, with his driven drumming and vocal asides that range from honey-sweet harmonies to piercing, shrill howls, is massively rock’n’roll, while Graham supplies the melancholia with his Corgan-resembling strums and sometimes gravelly, tired vocals (He also recalls Mark E. Smith, but we’ll let that pass.) He knows feedback, too, though, and he even attempts to trash his guitar but then remembers how little he can afford to – the only downer of the evening. Don’t start something you can’t finish, would-be rock’n’roll anarchists: it makes your chaos look calculated, and that’s never good.

Hooks, the stuff of which pop dreams are made, are everywhere in Wormhole’s music. The “Ah-roo do do do doo-doo” of ‘12AM’, the ominous groove of ‘Leave The Blanket In’, every riff, every bassline. Their lust for life and music is inspiring, so that even their closing fifteen-minute wankout leaves you standing on the edge of your seat, if you got there early enough to have one (the Attic was crammed).

They alone are a reason why Puppy Love Bomb’s once-accurate slogan has to be binned. In 1995, Dublin’s still alive.

Diving for a Pearl You’ll Never Find: Susan Anway and The Magnetic Fields

The singer Susan Anway died in early September. She had sung with a number of bands since the 1980s, including The Magnetic Fields, who announced her passing on September 9th.

Anway sang lead vocals on The Magnetic Fields’ first two records, The Wayward Bus & Distant Plastic Trees. “Susan Anway sings Stephin Merritt songs” went the credits on the sleeve; it was just the pair of them in the band back then. “She was a lovely person and will be missed by all of us”, wrote The Magnets last week on social media, alongside a video of the Wayward Bus song ‘Dancing In Your Eyes’: “When we walk hand in hand in the rain / When we’re young and in love once again / We will dance in the autumn with the leaves in our hair / When I look, I’ll be dancing in your eyes“.

I remember, or I think I remember, Merritt saying in the 90s that he asked Susan Anway to be The Magnetic Fields’ singer because her voice did not have too much personality. I understood that he meant that a voice with more personality, even his own lugubrious baritone, might distract from the song. Anway’s clear, composed voice read the melody line and delivered the words: job done, no distractions. And I can not swear that Merritt said this and if he did so he may have been joking. But the thought of that quote has left me thinking about Susan Anway’s contribution to those records.

In those days Merritt’s songs were too much. His arrangements were kitchen-sink synth-pop Spector, ornate and wired and sweepingly melodramatic. His lyrics scaled scarcely credible heights of emotional enormity. ‘100,000 Fireflies’ opens: “I have a mandolin / I play it all night long / It makes me want to kill myself“. (Excuse me?) In ‘Summer Lies’, Anway sings: “All the sweetest things you said and I believed were summer lies / Hanging in the willow trees like the dead were summer lies / I’ll never fall in love again“. It wasn’t enough for the story in an early Magnetic Fields song to be sad, it had to be ‘The Saddest Story Ever Told’: “Once upon a time we fell in love or at least that’s what you said / You say I can find someone else but I just wish I was dead… And then we’ll quietly grow old / The saddest story ever told.”

Susan Anway’s job here was to ground these songs; to steady them in such a way that they hit home. Merritt’s huge arrangements veered close enough to Spector that it could have been emotionally distancing – was this a PhD in pastiche or a heartfelt set of songs? Even Merritt’s depictions of extreme woe could have been alienatingly arch, more than the songs could withstand, but Susan Anway sang his aching words so earnestly, so free from any taint of irony, that every line landed.

As I’ve been thinking about Susan Anway this week I’ve been thinking about a poem by Ada Limon called Instructions On Not Giving Up. The poem (from poets.org) is as follows:

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

And I don’t want to over-explain but I’ve been thinking a lot since Susan Anway died about that final couple of lines. About the fuchsia funnels and candy-colored blossoms of those early Magnetic Fields songs. (The Wayward Bus even has a song called ‘Candy’: “Candy, it’s been really nice, but I’ve got to go / Cos I can’t be the part of your life you don’t wanna know“). Those Wayward Bus songs glistened and shone and oscillated wildly and that was all great; and Susan Anway sang in counterpoint, caring and experienced, ready for anything, like that leaf unfurling.

I think about how Merritt specialised in longing and Anway voiced that longing and made it liveable with. Merritt wrote about “diving for a girl you’ll never find“, which I’ve always heard as “diving for a pearl you’ll never find“, and to be honest I prefer my version. Susan Anway’s voice took the longing and loss in that line and accepted it; relished it. Diving for a pearl you’ll never find: that’s what life is, right? Who ever finds the pearl? What would you even do with it if you found it? I’ll take that, said Susan Anway. This may be the saddest story ever told, she sang, but it’s all we have, and I’ll take it all.

Brendan Tallon: “I Love The Power of A Pop Song”

Brendan Tallon from Ballinteer has been a restless creative force in Irish musical life for more than thirty years now. Good Friday just gone saw the release of ‘Old Man Superman’, his first new song since 2012’s Saturday Captains, made with Barry O’Mahony, once of Luggage, of whom Tallon speaks highly below. After a solid thirty-plus years as a band leader and collaboratorーCrocodile Tears, The Coletranes, Revelino, Saturday Captains, and Beatclub, the cover band that has kept him in business as a full-time musician to this dayー’Old Man Superman’ is Tallon’s first ever solo release.

Tallon gets into ‘Old Man Superman’ in depth in the conversation below so for the purposes of this paragraph it’s just necessary to say a couple of things. Firstly, ‘Old Man Superman’ is Tallon’s response to the story of the Skilled Veterans Corps, a group of older Japanese men who volunteered to enter Fukushima in 2011 so that younger men with more to lose would not have to. Secondly, ‘Old Man Superman’ is an irresistible song ー punchy, soulful, effusive, incandescent. The inkling to write this piece arose when on a drive home on the day of its release I put it on for the first time, then immediately had to put it on again for the second, third, fourth and fifth times. When that instant electric connection is made I’m always curious to figure out what just happened.

Although I’ve known who Brendan Tallon is since The Coletranes went Top Ten with ‘I Wake Up’ in 1991, and although I’m from Ballinteer myself, I’d never met him and I didn’t know what to expect from our Zoom chat. I had suspected, possibly through one too many listens to ‘Don’t Lead Me Down’, that I might be interviewing some brooding melancholy character. He is… not that. He was buzzing with energy and ideas and associations and with a profound, moving, and infectious love of the song. It was a joy to listen to Brendan’s enthusiastic explication of the art and craft of songwriting.

‘Old Man Superman’ is now out on Bandcamp. A further two singles are planned for release over the next couple of months and an album Love In These Times comes out this summer.

NC: Brendan, thanks for doing this. 

BT: This is the first one I’ve done for a long time now, except for Alan Corr’s thing the other day, so I might be a bit rusty.

Was the last time you did one of these for the Saturday Captains album with Barry O’Mahony? 

Yeah. Did you hear that? 

I only discovered that album literally this week. 

It was one of those records. I mean, I don’t know what you make of yourself, but I’d still consider it a real gem. A lot of people missed it. You know, Barry and myself wouldn’t be the greatest as far as publicising ourselves. We were good at doing the music and then the writing but when it comes to anything else we would have been like: we’ll make the music and that’s about all we can manage. So the album definitely slipped under the radar, but I know a lot of people who did actually give it a listen have grown to love it. I’m personally very proud of it.

I didn’t know Barry O’Mahony was still active. I remember him from Luggage, who always had this great lost band status to me. There’s this air of mystique about them, and then suddenly, I’m finding that he’s still writing and recording new songs. I know it’s a few years ago now.

Yeah. Luggage played with Revelino, they supported us a good few times. I knew Barry. We used to go to parties and stuff together but we wouldn’t have been great friends. But since then we’ve become great friends and now I see him all the time.

In fact, I ran all the songs from the new album by Barry first. He’s kind of my lyrical editor and he taught me a lot about writing lyrics. When we were doing the Saturday Captains record he said to me ‘Look, I’m going to look after the lyrics, you look after the music’. And you know, I think he’s one of the most unique writers around that we’ve ever had. He’s a master lyricist. And a completely unique voice and a unique vision and a unique way of using language.

He taught me a lot of things about writing lyrics, because during the Revelino years, I tried to come up with my own kind of voice and my own language. And when Revelino broke up I never stopped writing songs. But Barry taught me to write in a more conversational tone. That’s what he would always say to me: make them more conversational. Remember, my lyrics for Revelino were described once in the Melody Maker as “portentous”ーnot pretentious; portentous. And I thought, yeah, that’s accurate, you know? That’s what I was kind of going for. But after that, I wanted to be more direct with my lyrics. And working with Barry taught me a lot because, talking about the album I’m just about to release, some of these songs were written in the year or two after Revelino broke up.

You’ve talked about being in bands and collaborating, but on the new record is it all you?

Well. I’ve described it a few times like trying to climb Mount Everest on your own, you knowーdoing a solo album and playing absolutely everything. The two things I wasn’t able to do was play the drums and I had Fintan Jones, who plays in my cover band, and is a fantastic multi-instrumentalist, to play sax, clarinet, flute. And he helped me with singing a lot of the harmonies together. The lion’s share of it was just myself here tearing my hair out half the time. But, you know, got there in the end.

You said there are songs on the current record that you wrote just when Revelino broke up. Didn’t Revelino break up the guts of twenty years ago?

Well, I wrote two songs in the few years after Revelino. I wasーI’m always writing songs. That’s what I do. Since the first time I bought a guitar. I did a few guitar lessons years ago withーyou know David Kitt? His father Tom Kitt was my guitar teacher in primary school. 

Mine too.

Right! So there you go. So he gave me a few guitar lessons, but then the guitar went under the bed until I was 16 or so. Then I took it out. And the first two chords I learned were G and C and I wrote a song straight away. Before I actually went to learn anybody else’s song, I wrote a song with the two chords I’d learned. So I’ve pretty much been doing it ever since. But when I wrote a couple of songs after Revelino broke up, I realised, OK, I’m going to have to do a solo album. But I was hoping a band would somehow form and I could bring these songs to them, because I just like the togetherness of a band, or brotherhood, or whatever. Then Saturday Captains came along, and that distracted me, but even during Saturday Captains I was writing tunes. In fact, I presented ‘Old Man Superman’ in its earliest form to the lads in Saturday Captainsーwhat do you think of this idea?ーand they didn’t know what to make of it, really. They were likeーno, that’s one of yours, Brendan.

Can you talk about how ‘Old Man Superman’ came about?

Sure. So normally, when I’m writing a songーdo you play guitar? 

Kind of.

Do you write songs? 

Well, no. I tried, in school, and they were not good enough to encourage me to continue to try. 

Right. Well, funny enough, as I was saying to you, the first song I wrote was just G and C. I remember the tune of it and I remember playing it to friends. And they went “Oh, that’s catchy”, you know. So like, straight away, I knewーnot that I knew I could do it but there was something in the songs that I was writing that caught people’s ears or whatever.

But the way I write songs is I pick up a guitar or I sit at the piano and I start playing around with chord sequences. That’s my thing. And singing on top of them, just making up rubbish on top. Gobbledygook half the time, it’s not even English. And if I get a little chord sequence, or a couple of chords that interest me, you’d be amazed how many times the first two or three lines of the song with the melody and the chord sequence just come out of you at the same time. The theme is there, the first lines of the chorus or the verse is there. And this interesting chord sequence.

What always interests me about writing songs, or listening to music, that I don’t think is discussed enough, are chord sequences. And I think any of the bands that come along that make a difference, quite often they use unusual chord sequences. They combine chords in a newish way.

I mean, a classic example is the Beatles, right? Take ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. They’re doing rock and roll, Chuck Berry shuffle, but it’s a G to D to E minor. That’s a folk change so you would expect it to go to B minor but instead it goes G, D, E minor, B major so straight away that’s a new thing. That’s an unusual thing. Having a G, D, E minor, but a B major instead of B minor, that pricks up your ears straight away. And then in the middle eight, there’s a D minor, which is really a show tune chord change, it’s kind of a Cole Porter-y thing to do. It’s a bit slightly jazzy from that original idea. So they’re doing a Chuck Berry rhythm with Everly Brother harmonies to a rock beat, throwing in a Cole Porter thing in the middle with handclaps on it, and it’s all over two and a half minutes. So your ears, I mean at the time, it must’ve beenーWow!

Then something like ‘I Am The Walrus’ has a deeply unusual chord sequence that just works. And then, Bowie’s a classic. If you look at Bowie’s chord sequences like ‘Quicksand’, it’s outrageous, and ‘Ashes to Ashes’ is such an amazing song and underneath it all is this deeply strange but beautiful chord sequence. Then bands like the Pixies come along, and they’re using chordsーthey’re not using weird chords, like jazzy chords, like Steely Dan, but they’re using ordinary chord sequences in unusual ways.

There’s so many examples. Take ‘Here Comes The Sun’. It’s just D, G, and A, right? The simplest chord sequence in the world. But in the chorus, he goes D, G, and E7, and that’s the moment where it just becomes something. It’s just one chord. And I’m really interested by those changes that are very sophisticated but totally instinctive. None of these writers probably studied theory. It’s just all instinctive. And that’s what I kind of try to do. 

So ‘Old Man Superman’ was one of those songs that I sat down with the guitar, and I started playing the opening riff of it, thought that’s cool, where can I go with this? Next section came along then next section, next section, and it was all done in five minutes.

Five minutes.

Pretty much. Five or ten minutes. I don’t know if you noticed that song is in four sections?

Emーno.

Yeah, it starts off and not to get too technical because it would be boring people who are reading thisー

No, go onーI can worry about the readers.

OK, good. So it starts off in A, D, and G. And then it goes into major seven chordsEmaj7, Amaj7, Dmaj7, B. Then is the riff, which is B, A, G, E, D, and then it jumps into the sax break in C. And it resolves by going to F sharp, back to B, to A. So it’s a really, really weird chord sequence, but I like playing around with those kinds of chord sequences, and making them seem seamless. So you don’t notice that these things are happening. That really interests me. So I had the chord sequence pretty much done, it came amazingly fast, because there is so much to it. But it just seemed so natural.

And so my next step would normally be that I would play around with it, try and sing, but nothing was coming as far as a theme or a melody. So I normally just put it up onto Logic, you know, record it onto Logic with a basic drum beat, stick a rhythm guitar down and a bass guitar. And then every time I go back to the computer to work on a song, I’ll put that on for 10 minutes, I’ll fiddle around with the arrangement of it. I still had no lyrics, so I didn’t know what the song was about, you know. So I had the song and it sat there for about two years. And I tried different melodies and different lyrical ideas and nothing really hit me. And I still had no theme.

And then I took a break. I was just surfing around, reading some articles on the Guardian, various newspapers, you know, and came across an article about Fukushima. And the story wasn’t about the Skilled Veterans Corps, but it was about Fukushima. There was a paragraph that, as an aside, just mentioned these guys. So it just hit me really hard. You know, it was a very Japanese thing to do. But it’s also a very human thing to do. A very logical thing to do. I don’t want to get too heavy into this because it is a pop song at the end of day, you know? But at the same time, I was reading a book called The Closing of the Western Mind? Have you ever come across that one? 

No, no.

It’s by a guy called Charles Freeman. And the idea is, it was about the struggle in early Christianity between the Greek and Arab tradition, which was scientific, and the new Western tradition, which was more mythical. In the Greek and Arabic tradition, the direct translation of the first line of the Bibleーwhat’s the first line? First there was…

In the beginning was the Word?

In the beginning was the Word. But in the Greek translation, the beginning was logic. Logos meaning word, which directly translated is logic. Greek philosophers believed that logic was something that could be found, like gravity, that was an immutable force in nature. That in the beginning was the law of immutable logic. This was God’s mind. The other word that they had was Muthos, which is where a myth comes from. And in Greek and in Arab traditions, these things live side by side. Logic the scientific tradition and myth the ceremonial tradition. And when the battle was engaged, the Roman tradition, which was more into the myth, said that God’s mind was more powerful than the logic, his Word is more powerful than the logic, the myth won over from the logic, and in that way, we were kind of flung into the dark ages. No more learning for two hundred years, and the Greek and Arab tradition was kind of destroyed. 

So I was reading this book and the idea that logic was an immutable power was in my head. Then I read the story about this guy, and what he said in the article was that he didn’t see it as brave, this was just deeply reasonable. It was the only logical thing to do. That’s the way he saw it. In the song that became “Logic was his superpower”. So I just went for a walk with this thing in my head and the first two verses came to me while I was walking around Marlay and I just came home. So I had the song then.

There’s something in the song that made me reflect on grandparents in general, specifically my Dad, and a self-effacing generosity I associate with older people. The notion that Mr Yamada would head into a nuclear reactor to save a younger person seemed familiar.

Well as I said, it is very Japanese, but we’ve discovered through COVID that it is quite a universal thing. People will do things for the younger generation that are so selfless. 

I also wanted to make a song that defended scientists and the sciences, because you had climate change conspiracies, you had vaccination conspiracies, you have all these conspiracies. Suddenly scientists were all in this evil cabal, you know, trying to form a one-world government. Where growing up, we always thought of them as idols and heroes. And so I wanted to write a song and put it all in there that defended science and celebrated that idea that people will do that. And as I said, not in a sentimental way. Mr Yamada said, this is not sentimental. I’m just thinking that I will get radiation poisoning, and I will get cancer, but I’ll be 85 or 90 years of age. I don’t want somebody who’s starting out their married life, who has young kids to get this. And that played in a lot with my worldview. 

So I understood immediately when I read the story, but I was telling Bren Berry, who’s been with me and helping me and my family, my biggest champion, since the early days. He’s been in all the bands with me. And when I had the record ready, I contacted him and said, listen I need help here, you knowーlisten to the songs, tell me what I need to do next. And so he said, ‘What are the songs about?’ So I told him about ‘Old Man Superman’, he thought that was fantastic, you know. And then I sent him the song. And I told him all this, what I’m saying to you here, you know about the book and about my feelings about science. And he goes, ‘Well, you’d never know it from the song, Bren’ (laughs). 

But my feeling is that you can’t put all that stuff in, even though that’s what goes through your head when you’re writing a song. You still want the sound to be fun, you still want the song to be something that people can read into themselves. I don’t want to put every word of my thoughts and feelings into it. You distil it down into imagery and if it’s a great fun pop song, it might even travel further with a message than it would if I had written a thirty-verse heavy protest song. So that’s my thing. I just love the power of a pop song. 

It’s interesting when you say you’re not trying to dictate what people hear in the song. At work I run a group where we read poems together and a constant in this group is the variation in perspectives on the same poem. If I brought ‘Old Man Superman’ into this group, and I’ve five or six people in this group with me, I know that everyone else will hear it differently than I’ve heard it.

Well the thing is I don’t consider songwriting to be a high art form. I consider it to be a craft. And for me songs don’t have meaning, you know. I always compare it to a furniture maker. If you carve a great table out of wood nobody asks what’s the meaning of the table. They just know that’s a beautiful tableーit’s something we can sit at, that we can have our dinner at, and we can chat around. And songs are like that. I like the fact that ‘Old Man Superman’ is out there because the final creative act in music is the listener hearing it and getting their own thing out of it. Whether that means they want to dance to it, or sing along with it, you knowーsongs should be used, they should be used at parties, they should be used to relax, they should be used to entertain yourself when you’re driving in a car. They should just be out there. They are not things to be hung on walls in fine art galleries. 

One thing that struck me about ‘Old Man Superman’ was its confidenceーits willingness to use loads of ideas in one song as if ideas were in endless supply. I was listening to it today quite closely, and even in the first one minute and twenty secondsーa lot happens.

Yeah, a lot happens, and it goes through those four stages I was telling you and it goes through those chord changes, and it goes through different ideas and different themes and different moods. And not every song on the album is like that. But I’ve never been really short of ideas musically. And I listen to lots of different kinds of music. I love classical music and I’d listen to Leonard Cohen and then I’d go and listen to Sex Pistols. I’d be listening to the Pixies or Simon and Garfunkel or Schubert and Eddie Cochran. You’re like a little magpie: I never sit down and try to copy but I just have a broad enough appreciation and influences that I don’t mind picking from here and there. I think that’s the way to do it. I mean, pop music is really like a traditional music now, isn’t it? It’s almost like a folk music: it belongs to all of us and all musicians take ideas from each other and that’s how it develops.

I find my listening has changed quite a lot as I got older: has your listening changed?

To be honest, no, because my job at the weekend is playing music, you know? And then during the week, I’m either with the kids or I’ll be grabbing a few hours to make music. So I don’t have a huge amount of time to sit down and devour albums. If I’m recommended an album, I’ll definitely go and seek it out. But I’m not a record collector so much anymore.

And you know, the place that I listen to new music is in the vanwhen I’m travelling back from gigs back in the day, when we were doing gigs. You could be travelling at three or four o’clock in the morning and I’d be listening to Late Date and I’d be listening to the Tom Dunne show. And I just love hearing that variety of new music, you know, and it’s so fantastic. It’s all really strong stuff. And especially when you’re travelling, and it’s night-time, it’s a great way to listen to music.

It’s funny because I was mixing the album down in Meath in Ballivor. So it’s in the middle of nowhere and I’d be travelling home at 3AM and I’d be putting on Late Date, or Fiachna Ó Braonáin would be on, or Cathal. And I’d be wondering, you know, would my song fit in there? Some day will it be on there? And it has been played on there. So it means a lot to me that those shows have taken it up and played it because I listen to them so much. I just love the stuff that they play, but I find that I can’t get too obsessed with anything because I find that it does get in the way of my own workflow. 

I mean, the last time I got really floored by an album was Joe Chester’s Murder of Crows. That stopped me in my tracks, you know, and it stopped me working for about a year. Not because of the songwriting but don’t get me wrongーI think the songwriting is and the singing is exceptional. But what stopped me in my tracks was the quality of the production and the quality of the recording. And I realised, OK, if I’m going to do an album, that’s where I’m going to have to aim. I don’t know if I’m going to get that high, because I was only learning the ropes as an engineer and learning basic recording techniques. But that’s what I aim for. 

And I really wanted the album to sound good because I’m obsessed with sonics as well. Sam Phillips said the first thing people hear is the timbre of a song. It’s not the tune. It’s not the beat. It’s just the overall sound. I was doing a wedding a couple of years ago and there was a song on the radio and I immediately went Oh my God, the sound, just the sound of it. I had to go and find out what it was. It was ‘Across the Universe’ by The Beatles, which I’ve heard a million times, but because it was on a different side of the room I just couldn’t quite pick out the tune. But the sound! The sound was what hit me first.  So that’s something that I’m kind of obsessed with.

Because to be honest, I know I can write a good song. I’ve learned a lot more about lyrics, I’ve learned a lot more about my own voice and how to use it. As opposed to Revelino: we just went into the room, it was like playing live, you just played your live set and it was fantastic. And it was great to have a band to work with like that. But now you’re on your own it’s a different work technique. And one of the things about writing for myself was that, subconsciously, I think when you’re in a band like Revelino you know there’s three electric guitars, you know that you’re going to play these songs in Whelan’s. So you know the venue: subconsciously you’re writing songs with that in mind. 

In David Byrne’s book How Music Works he talks about that. If you write a song and you know it’s going to be performed in the National Concert Hall it’s going to be different from CBGBs or a little folk club.  Even if you don’t know, you’re conscious of that, and subconsciously I was aware that, you know, we’ve got a practice session on Thursday night and if I’m writing a new idea I’m gonna have to bring into this group of lads who are standing there with the electric guitars plugged in the big amplifiers.  So you know, there are certain boundaries, which is a very positive thing because you’ve got your rules, you write within the rulesーit doesn’t mean you can’t write great songs. I think boundaries are a great thing and limitations, in writing, and this time, the boundaries were different. I was on my own. 

Can you say more about that? What are the limitations now? If you’re free to do whatever you want to do, you’re at home recording by yourself in your own time, then what kind of limitations apply, orーwhat’s the palette? 

That is a good question. I suppose I’m limited with what I can do recording here in the apartment because it’s all recorded here. It was all recorded in the apartment, even the brass, and the only thing that was recorded outside was the drums and a little bit of some cello. 

I suppose It’s great when you have a full band, because you go into a rehearsal studio, everybody plays the sound together, you can almost immediately get a feel for the entire arrangement. Whereas when I was working on my own, I mean some of the songsーI probably recorded ‘Old Man Superman’ fifteen times. You’re constantly having to build a track up from nothing, until you get to a point where you can judge whether it’s the right tempo or if it’s the right key for my voice or whatever. So that’s limiting you in a way because you’d have to do so much work, you’re not instantaneously hearing the sound of the song. I mean, with a band you can go, OK, let’s go in and do it, it’s this tempo in this key and record it. And immediately, you can kind of hear what that feels like or sounds like. It’s a huge amount of work if you’re doing that on your own. But it also gives the songs time to ferment.

I found that what I’m always trying to do with songwriting is: it’s like you’re going around and you’re clearing dirt off the ground, and you’re looking for slabs with stuff written in them. You’re looking for something that’s always been there. And you’ve just found it; you’ve just discovered it; you haven’t created it. But when I sit down to write a song, I always think, wow, this is exciting. Who knows in ten minutes what’s going to exist. I don’t feel like I write it though. I just feel like I’m discovering it. It’s just chords and it’s words. So I’m just scrambling around the dirt clearing a bit here and goingーwell that doesn’t look good, that looks okay, but it’s a bit cracked. And then you’re looking for something that seems like it’s always been there. And, when you get that, then I’m looking for the right tempo, for the right arrangement. I’m looking for everything to seem like it always was, if you know what I mean. 

I know you talked about songwriting as a craft but this feels different: songwriting as uncovering. I love that image of wiping the dirt away and finding what’s already there. There’s somethingーI mean, I don’t want to use the word mystical, but that idea that you can find something that’s always been there but just hasn’t yet been expressed yet, but it’s in the ether; that feels very different from craft.

It is. I often thinkーand I write songs every day. I can pick up a guitar and write a song any time I want. But I’ve never sat down and gone, OK, pen, paper, I’m going to write a song. I doodle, I mess around, I play around here, and if I hear an idea that interests me, I’ll go after it. I stick it down on my phone and I listen to it the next day. And if it still interests me, I’ll pick it up again and try and progress it further. But so many of those ideas don’t go anywhere. I mean, I’ve literally, literally, thousands of unfinished songs that are decent ideas, but the ones that go all the way to being a finished song, something happens that you get the next part, and you get the next part, and it just comes. I do often sit here and think, well, you know, anytime I pick up a guitar, an hour later, that could be a great song, a good song. It could be a song that didn’t exist before I picked up the guitar. And that is definitely a mystical thing. But I do think that there’s a craft to it that you learn. It’s like a sculptor or somebody who builds chairs and tables. You get better at it the more you do it, and the easier it is for you to find things. 

One thing that really comes across is just how enthused and energised by this you still are. It’s thirty years plus since The Coletranes and it sounds like you’re still fascinated by what you can discover musically. Like, there’s only so many chords, but there’s an infinite way of putting them together. 

Yeah. There’s a guy called Rick Beato, he has a YouTube channel, which anybody who’s interested in music should check out. And he talks about different things, but one of the things he talks about is: what is the mathematical equation if we’re just using eight notes? And it’s infinite. The possibilities literally are infinite. And nothing excites me more than coming up with a new idea. I mean, myself and Barry O’Mahony, that’s what we do for fun. Like, before COVID, what I would do for a night out is I would go over to his place with my guitar, and we would write songs. And that’s what we do, that’s what we find most entertaining. And we can, you know, we’re able to do it. He’s as tireless as I am. He’s the only person I’ve ever met that can literally go twelve hours without eating and never flag.

So in the zone that he forgets to be hungry kind of a thing?

Oh, yeah, totally. We do that. Yeah, we’ve done that many times. And he’s literally been here when we were recording Saturday Captains and he would go twelve, fourteen hours without eating. I couldn’t quite do that now. But I still have the same feeling for it, you know? 

OK Brendan, thanks a million. It’s great to talk to you. I love the idea that you and other people who were active when I was getting into bands thirty years ago are still doing it now with as much energy and creativity as ever. It’s inspiring to me, so I’m thankful. 

Well, I think we all got into it for the right reasons because we loved music. It wasn’t to become famous. I mean, I never cared about being famous or being a frontman. I just ended up singing because I wrote songs. I just want to write songs the best way I can, produce them the best way I can. And if people get off on what I’m putting out and enjoy it, that’s all I want. And anybody I know who got into music back in those days did because they were just blown away by music themselves when they were teenagers, and the bug just never leaves you. And now every single day I’ll pick up a guitar and write a song and I always feel like God, this could be good. This could be the one!

“Music is a gift that we all get to share”: Louth CMS feature, State, 2010

This is a piece I wrote for State in 2010 on the Louth Contemporary Music Society. In 2010, I loved their first record called A Place Between but other than the existence of that record I knew nothing about them. So on the release of their second album Path I interviewed Eamonn Quinn, who founded the Louth CMS with his wife Gemma Murray, and I was delighted to be able to get a quote from Terry Riley. The Louth CMS have since amassed an immense catalogue of recordings and their festivals and live performances are being recognised by the likes of the Financial Times and the Guardian. A decade ago I thought the Louth CMS story was an astonishing one and they’ve only gone from strength to strength since then, and at every step it’s all been done for the sake of the music.

In 2006, one of the more remarkable stories in Irish music began when Dundalk residents Eamonn Quinn and his wife Gemma Murray had a baby and found that they couldn’t get up to the city for concerts as often as before. Rather than do what a couple in that situation might reasonably do – stay in and stock up on box sets – they decided that no-one was better qualified than they were to bring the world’s leading contemporary composers to their home town. (“I had no idea what I was doing,” says Eamonn.) Thus, with a DIY ethic fit for a punk movement or an Elvis movie, the Louth Contemporary Music Society, or LCMS, came into being.

You could say it snowballed from there. The last five years have seen a remarkable array of composers and musicians visiting Dundalk, writing new work for the LCMS, and contributing to two extraordinary albums. To say that it snowballed, though, implies that it sort of happened by itself; it vastly underestimates the work, force of will, and guts that it took to establish Dundalk as a world centre for contemporary music. Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt are probably the two most acclaimed living classical composers, and they are just two who have visited Dundalk, and would not have done but for Quinn and Murray’s vision, tenacity and willingness to take significant financial risk without prospect of financial gain.

The LCMS went within a couple of years from promoting to producing brand new music, commissioning work by Arvo Pärt (‘The Deer’s Cry’), John Tavener (‘O My People’), Valentin Silvestrov (‘5 Sacred Songs’), and the legendary Terry Riley (‘Loops for Ancient Giant Nude Hairy Warriors Racing Down the Slopes of Battle’). Terry Riley (maybe best known for In C and his collaboration with John Cale, Church of Anthrax) celebrates his 75th birthday in Dundalk at the end of this week.

In 2009, Eamonn Quinn produced the Louth CMS’s first album, A Place Between. From John Tavener’s aching ‘Ikon of Joy/Sorrow’ to Michael McHale’s gorgeous take on John Cage’s ‘In a Landscape’, A Place Between is a meditative, accessible and stunningly beautiful piece of work. The second album, Path, which comes out on November 1st, is probably more adventurous in its programming. Alongside well known and hardly known pieces by Arvo Pärt (‘Summa’ and ‘Von Angesicht zu Angesicht’, respectively) and a brace by Tavener (‘Epistle of Love’ and ‘Sāmaveda’), there are works by young Eastern artists (Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, Aleksandra Vrebalov, Zurab Nadarejshvili) who hardly anyone in Ireland and beyond will have heard of. Path is diverse, brave, and remarkably moving. Eamonn Quinn is at pains throughout our interview not to make value judgments about music but I will: Path and A Place Between are nourishing and nurturing records to put on when the phoniness and irony that passes for most 21st century art is wearing you down. This is music that is not afraid to be serious and (whisper it) sacred.

This week, I asked Terry Riley for a comment on the LCMS. I asked him whether, in his experience, the LCMS was as singular an organisation as it appeared to be, or if there was a network of similarly productive and driven organisations out there, worldwide, under the radar. He replied: “I would say the Louth CMS is particularly significant because of the dedication, love and devotion that drives Eamonn Quinn to seek out special musicians to bring to his corner of the world. These choices are made on musical worth regardless of their commercial potential. It is these kind of risks that keep music alive.”

State: I wondered if you could start by giving us a bit of background. The LCMS seems to have come out of nowhere but I assume you and Gemma both have a pedigree in contemporary classical music, to instigate an organisation like this. Can you fill me in a little on that pedigree?

Eamonn Quinn: We established LCMS to bring world class musicians and composers to perform and educate in Louth. We have never swayed from that aim. And it has been great. A small revolution in a place never exposed to this music; having Terry Riley here, commissioning Arvo Pärt, recording CDs, Kronos Quartet and Ghost Opera, Philip Glass in Dundalk. Mad when you think about it. In terms of pedigree, I have none and there was never any contemporary music on the scale that we have been doing in Louth before LCMS. I’m still not sure how it all happened though I feel blessed.

I have always been interested in music. I have four brothers and four sisters. I am the youngest so all this music just permeated the house. Most of the boys had their own huge music collections: the Beatles (The White Album and Abbey Road), The Stones, Lou Reed, Dylan, Velvets, Love’s Forever Changes, Pink Floyd, from Syd Barrett to obscure things like Bo Henson’s original Lord of the Rings. I absorbed all that, moving to old soul records, jazz and then contemporary music. Gemma and some friends introduced me to John Adams’s Shaker Loops, Kronos playing Kevin Volans, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, and then on to other things. We moved to Dublin and encountered The Crash Ensemble, who were amazing and still are. So it is an ongoing voyage of discovery. I just found contemporary music fascinating and still do. But nobody needs any pedigree. Music is a gift that we all get to share in either making the gift or receiving it.

Can you talk a little about how you got started? The original seed of an idea – and the nuts and bolts of doing it. The entrepreneurship of the LCMS.

Our first gig was Joanna MacGregor in 2006. I found it difficult to travel to Dublin or Belfast as my wife had our first baby and we wanted the same cultural experiences here in Louth. My wife suggested I organise something – so I did. I had no idea what I was doing: booking artists or selling tickets. But with help from the Drogheda and Dundalk Arts Office, we pulled it off.

Then I decided our next performance would be Terry Riley’s first concert in Ireland. I contacted Terry in San Francisco and he agreed to come to Ireland the following year. Terry also wrote a work for LCMS. I didn’t know this was a “commission” and that normally commissions cost money. But being a kind hearted soul, Terry give it to us for free. I then decided to commission Arvo Pärt. He agreed to write ‘The Deer’s Cry’ for us and come to Ireland in 2008 for the performance. I applied to the Arts Council for funding for the above and the Louth Arts Offices also helped.

Following this, I wanted Philip Glass to perform in Dundalk. This was a lot different from previous projects as we had no Arts Council funds for the performance. We had some funds from the local arts office but the financial risk with Glass was huge. I had just lost my job as well but we still needed to sell something like over 700 tickets to break even. Yet we still kept the ticket price low, 30 euros, to enable people to attend. Also, I programmed the Glass performance to allow Irish performers like Ioana Petcu Colan, Gerard McChrystal and the Dublin Guitar Quartet the opportunity to perform with Philip Glass. That was very important.

By the way, he is a lovely man Philip Glass, very gentle and great company. I collected him from Galway and we took the train to Dublin so we had a great chat.

It must have been some feeling when you realised you’d brought these huge figures to your home town – done something extraordinary.

It felt great. But I also felt great for the area and the people of Louth that we had done it. I was the first person to invite Terry Riley to Ireland. He told me he had waited 70 years to receive this invitation. I commissioned probably one of the most important and popular composers in the world: Arvo Pärt. That performance and commission was very important to me personally and professionally. I know when we were told that he accepted the commission, Gemma and I burst into tears, not just out of joy that he had accepted but also as we wondered how much would this cost and how could we pay for it?

Some of the works on A Place Between and Path are well known and established, some hardly known at all. Two composers on Path (Aleksandra Vrebalov and Polina Medyulyanova) are under forty. Where do you find the works?

It’s a long story. Aleksandra Vrebalov I heard through her recordings on two Kronos CDs. I just got in touch, we chatted and she sent some scores and audio and I knew I wanted to record her (Track 6: ‘The Spell III for Violin and Live Electronics’). Great composer and quite young. Polina Medyulyanova (‘Ewige Ruhe’) I heard by accident on Myspace. Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky: I heard his piece ‘Chang Music III’ on the Xenia Ensemble CD (2008’s Eastern Approaches–Music from Former Soviet Republics). I contacted his publisher in Paris and started to study his scores and listen to audio, realizing that he is one of the most important living composers. Amazing.

It’s striking, as Michael Dervan noted in a glowing review in the Irish Times, the extent to which the music on Path comes out of the East.

I thought about this before when I discovered that I had an affinity with music of the former Soviet countries. I know I am more interested in the music from the east than say the US: Arvo Pärt, Sofia Gubaidulina, Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky and Valya Silvestrov are among my favourite composers. Maybe it is the hardship that comes through in the music, there is a lot of sadness and suffering. For me the music has so much emotional depth it never fails to move me. Shostakovich’s Songs from Jewish Poetry or Silvestrov’s Silent Songs are incredibly powerful works.

Plus, the vastness of the geographical space is so unknowable and the diverse nature of each culture is very appealing. Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky is very much a case in point. His music is equally at ease with eastern forms yet he still uses western techniques, creating a unique sound world.

Some of the composers that you have on your albums – like Arvo Pärt and John Tavener – make work that is explicitly religious. I always think of Henryk Gorecki alongside those two. Sacred does not necessarily mean religious and it is possible to be profoundly moved by this music without belonging to a church, but: do you think that people who listen to this music from a secular perspective get the full meaning or beauty? Are we missing something?

It is a good question. I have some friends who are non-believers who love Arvo Pärt’s music so being religious isn’t a prerequisite. To people who are religious, the music can be a reassurance for their faith and possibly even act as an awakening of something dormant.

Most people’s lives are difficult with ongoing concerns about work, money, relationships, family, illness. So how an individual responds to a particular piece of music at that time has to taken into account a myriad set of factors. For example, a person can simply switch off for that seventy minutes of a concert. That is all OK. It doesn’t have to have transform a person, it can simply let them be.

The composers you mentioned are well known to be religious: Arvo is Orthodox, John Tavener converted to the Orthodox though he now seems to embrace perennialist philosophy. Gorecki is Catholic. However, they all write music that is very accessible. And there is a gentleness to their nature which is very comforting and is reflected in their work.

For me personally, music is a sacred art, it is a blessing and a gift.

The Louth Contemporary Music Society’s online festival We Sing for the Future is on April 14-18 2021 and information is on their site here. Their Bandcamp is here.

Just Breathe: Cassandra Jenkins’ ‘Hard Drive’

I only came across Cassandra Jenkins this February through Pitchfork’s Best New Music, when her second album An Overview on Phenomenal Nature was awarded an incredibly precise 8.3 out of 10. I first listened on the drive home from work during which attention can be patchy so the first song I properly heard was the fifth track, ‘Ambiguous Norway’. I heard Jenkins sing “Farewell, purple mountains”, and then “No matter where I go / You’re gone, you’re everywhere”, and I thought, wait: is that “purple mountains” or is that “Purple Mountains”? It was the latter.

Jenkins, I learned, was due to play with Purple Mountains, David Berman’s band, on a tour in Autumn 2019. Berman died by suicide in August 2019 and the setting of ‘Ambiguous Norway’ is a trip that Jenkins took in the aftermath of his passing. (You know this because elsewhere, in ‘New Bikini’, she sings “After David passed away / My friends put me up for a few days / Off the coast of Norway”).

There is a quiet shock to ‘Ambiguous Norway’, which is so hushed and delicate that it feels like a gentle goodbye kiss, that final kiss on the forehead as the person reposes. Jenkins is devastated (“Can’t seem to grasp what happened / I close my eyes”) yet already as this stunned song ends you can hear, I think, early healing. She concludes ‘Ambiguous Norway’ with “I walk around alone / Laughing in the street / Laughing in the street / Laughing in the street”, and I imagine her in the frozen North warmly remembering Berman’s life, friendship, and humour. She would not have repeated “laughing” three times, would she, had she not intended Berman’s famous wit to be memorialised alongside the excruciating sadness.

And it feels all of Phenomenal Nature exists in the shadow of this great loss, concerned either with the loss itself or with healing. The songs allow for the possibility of healing.

In ‘New Bikini’, Jenkins’ family and friends encourage her to use the sea to restore herself: “If you’re bruised or scraped / Or any kind of broken / The water, it cures everything”. By the end of the song she is passing this advice on in turn to a friend: “My friend Grey is sick again / The doctors shell out medicine / And add there might be something in / The mind-body connection / So I told him / Baby, let’s get you to the ocean”.

This manoeuvre一accepting help, then reflecting that help on to others who might also need it一is something Jenkins does again in ‘Hard Drive’, which is as much of a four-act play as anything.

The voice that opens act one of ‘Hard Drive’ belongs to a security guard at an exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in summer 2019. She says, “When we lose our connection to nature / We lose our spirit, our humanity, our sense of self”. A New Age mystic in act two speaks of “chakras and karma and the purple flame / The birth of the cosmos / The ascended masters and the astral plane”. There is a friend, Darryl, in act three, teaching Jenkins to drive at thirty-five, who is unlike any driving instructor I ever had: “Speeding up the west side / Changing lanes / He reminds me to leave room for grace”.

In the song’s act-four finale, Jenkins meets a healer: “I ran into Perry at Lowell’s place / Her gemstone eyes caught my gaze”. It’s not clear if they know each other but the other woman instantly recognises something in her: she says, “Oh, dear, I can see you’ve had a rough few months / But this year / It’s gonna be a good one”. Intuitively she offers: “I’ll count to three and tap your shoulder / We’re gonna put your heart back together”. The songs’ pace seems to slow like a heartbeat on a long exhale as she continues: “So close your eyes / I’ll count to three / Take a deep breath / Count with me”.

Then a guitar makes a metallic sound like a meditation gong and the song acquires this centred stillness; it acquires the character of a heart meditation. Jenkins sings “One, two, three / One, two, three / Just breathe / One, two, three / Count with me”. As the song’s narrator, Jenkins ventriloquises her character Perry, quoting words Perry spoke to her. As the song’s singer, though, any healing words spoken by a character in her song become healing words spoken by her to us.

In this song as it exists within this album, the heart to be put back together was one broken by grief for David Berman. But ‘Hard Drive’ knows that people out there listening have had their hearts broken too, to a variety of degrees in a multitude of ways. ‘Hard Drive’ uses Jenkins’ own experience of suffering to stretch out a hand to anyone who feels fraught, frightened, pained, uncontained. “One, two, three / Just breathe”, says this song’s warm, wise voice; “One, two, three / Count with me“. If I can put my heart back together, the voice says, then you can do yours too. I’ve got you. Just breathe.

Guiding Lights: The Weather Station’s ‘Parking Lot’

One advantage of being into music when you are a psychiatrist is that every so often there is a song lyric that is useful in the clinic. I mean — not that often. But sometimes. 

When I get the chance, I like to use a line from a song or a poem or a film to encourage in a patient a sense of being recognised and understood and understandable. The same comforting sense of connection that I got from music growing up and still do. Songs and other texts can provide some concrete proof that a troubling thought or feeling, which may strike one person as idiosyncratic or unacceptable, has been thought or felt by another person, who considered it noteworthy and universal enough to write about.

Recently I was seeing a patient called Róisín*. We’ve known each other a few years through some thick and thin. Róisín told me—among other things that day, and nearly as an aside—that she was experiencing a feeling of unsettling sadness whenever she came across a particular tree. She thought there was something peculiar about this sadness. She didn’t understand the feeling and couldn’t explain it—it wasn’t like there was even anything particularly wrong. She was a little annoyed at herself and this was something she would not have said to many people. Why would seeing a tree make you feel sad? That’s daft!

I was glad Róisín trusted me with this because the feeling she described resonated with me and I did not think it daft. I thought that paying proper attention to the natural world is an emotionally complex act. I thought that fully appreciating the beauty of anything in nature—of a sunset, a snowfall, a songbird, an oak tree—means also reckoning with its transience. What she said reminded me of ‘The Wayfarer’ by Pádraig Pearse, because, though I like to think I can summon poetic verse at will, I mostly summon poems from school. “The beauty of the world hath made me sad,” said Pearse, “the beauty that will pass”. It was that or ‘Advent’.

Around the same time as I saw Róisín, I read Leagues O’Toole highly recommend the new album by Tamara Lindeman’s band The Weather Station, who were new to me. I bought the album, Ignorance, because Leagues has never steered me wrong. When I later read that the core theme preoccupying Lindeman on the record was climate grief, I gave it my full attention. The song that unlocked the album was ‘Parking Lot’.

‘Parking Lot’ is a nimble and careful reflection on the intensity of emotions that the natural world can inspire in us. The song’s context is the degradation of the natural world that is so commonplace that we barely notice it any more. That outline makes the song sound hefty, and OK it is, but it has a lightness of touch that is irresistible — think peak Fleetwood Mac, or The Blue Nile doing Blue Monday. ‘Parking Lot’ is a reflection too on ineffability, on the mystery of emotions that we feel intensely and just can’t account for, like, say, when we pay particularly close attention to a particularly well-loved tree.

Rather than a tree, the focus of Lindeman’s attention in ‘Parking Lot’ is a tiny bird in an urban location that is unnamed but I have taken to be the US West Coast – somewhere dry and unforgiving. The singer starts by describing the scene in the past tense: “Waiting outside the club in a parking lot / I watched some bird fly up and land on the rooftop / Then up again into the sky / In and out of sight / Then flying down again to land on the pavement”. She continues “It felt intimate to watch it / Its small chest rising and falling / As it sang the same song / Over and over and over and over again / Over the traffic and the noise”.  Lindeman’s acute attention to the bird’s behaviour inspires compassion. The bird sings to find a mate but the bird cannot be heard and it will not find one. It sings its song “over and over and over and over again”, without hope of success. It’s kind of brutal to witness, which is what the song asks us to do.

Lindeman then changes the direction of her singing and goes from describing the scene to responding to the scene, and the pathos seems to have hit her. She sings in the second person and asks: “Is it OK if I don’t want to sing tonight? I know you are tired of seeing tears in my eyes / But are there not good reasons to cry? / I swear I’m alright / Perhaps you could just let it slide.” It’s not clear who she is asking, but you might consider that the audience for Lindeman’s question is the same as the audience for her singing, and there is something meta about her using her singing voice to ask us to relieve her of her singing duties.

In the following verse, Lindeman interrogates the second-verse emotional response arising from her observations in the first verse. Echoing Róisín’s sentiments, Lindeman acknowledges that the rawness of her response confounds her: “I confess I don’t wanna undress this feeling / I am not poet enough to address this peeling”. The final verse carries on: “And it kills me when I / You know it just kills me when I / You know it just kills me when I see some bird fly / Know it just kills me, and I don’t know why”.

So I like that Tamara Lindeman has made the choice to express this, for a lot of reasons.

In the first place I like that she validates the emotion of solastalgia, which I think is at the core of ‘Parking Lot’—the pain associated with environmental loss, the sorrow we feel when we witness nature changing, suffering, even dying. That climate grief that the Guardian and I mentioned earlier. It needs to be understood and appreciated that if we feel sad and that is the only reason, solastalgia is enough of a reason. Like COVID anxiety is enough, in itself, to be going on with. We don’t need any additional explanations for why we are tired, freaked out, and frazzled, as we sit in rooms wearing masks, as Róisín and I were doing in the clinic that day, so that we don’t virally maim the person across from us.

I like the potential for practical good to be done by this song. Lindeman’s compassion for that little bird, a microcosm of her compassion for all living beings, is going to be communicated to other people, and that transmission of compassion could encourage people hearing the song to act. To be compassionate means to witness suffering, to pay attention to it, and, irreducibly, to work to alleviate the suffering.

And I like that a gifted songwriter and observer of inner worlds like Lindeman has the bravery to say “It kills me and I don’t know why”; that she cannot figure her own heart out sometimes. If she can’t – well there must be times that this just can’t be done. I think it helps people who hear that. I like that she validates a perplexed response to strong emotions and that she models a way of accepting their unknowability.

I particularly like this because I meet a lot of people who are recovering from depression and their emotional experiences have unmoored them and left them constantly questioning how they respond to things. They may have learned, may have genuinely had to learn, that their automatic responses need to be double-checked and unchecked may lead them dangerously astray. This is an important lesson—feelings are not facts, as they say—but constantly second-guessing your own emotions can be destabilising and invalidating and there is a point in recovery when it is important to regain your sense that your instincts are OK.

Songs help us here, I think—they help us navigate emotionally. They set down stable markers. They are guiding lights. Songs that deal in sorrow can help you to relearn that a strong feeling of sadness is not necessarily depressive, not pathological, no longer to be feared. It’s just how a person responds to something sad, and maybe it’s safe to do that again; to feel everything available to you. Pearse concluded, “I have gone upon my way, sorrowful”. Lindeman asks, rhetorically, liberatingly, “Are there not good reasons to cry?”

*Róisín gave her consent for the inclusion of this encounter in this piece.

Songs of Love: The Divine Comedy and Gratitude

Neil Hannon turned fifty last week, the day Joe Biden won. That makes him just older than my older brother, which slightly surprised me. That means that my very early twenties, during which Promenade and Casanova were on consecutive years-long loops on my Discman, were Neil’s mid-twenties. I thought we were closer in age; I identified so strongly with those records and they seemed to connect so exactly and essentially to what was going on in my life at the time.

But then he was always a bit ahead of me, signposting.

This was true musically: he led me to Michael Nyman and chamber music and Scott Walker, even to the point of giving Tilt everything I could muster (which was not enough). It was true in terms of other arts: ‘The Booklovers’ actually was my introduction to a good few of the novelists named therein, and ‘When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe’ inspired forays into French auteur appreciation at a time that all I watched was Annie Hall.  It was true of real life interpersonal stuff: while he was becoming more like Alfie I was not, but I was thinking – that doesn’t sound all bad. And it was true even of an attitude to life.

I was on a bus from Ballinteer to town some time in late Spring 1994, Promenade in my earphones, when the thought struck me: you know, maybe I could be happy.

I had nothing to complain about but from secondary school through turning twenty I was lonely-ish, in an unoriginal lovelorn late-adolescent way. I was preoccupied with that loneliness and listening to a lot of American Music Club, which might not have helped but which I refuse to blame. Neil listened to a lot of AMC too and he turned out fine. And I just didn’t really expect things to change. I relied on music so much for guidance and all the stuff that made sense to me, that seemed authentic, was troubled, worried, pained, aching. Until – not to over-simplify – I listened to Promenade on the top of a double decker 48A. And a light went on. It’s so vivid. The surge of hope, of possibility, that those songs gave me.

Lately I’ve been thinking about gratitude and trying to think of ways to use gratitude as a grounding. A man I know from work told me last week that he prays twice a day. In the morning to ask for help with the particular challenges that he knows he will face, and at night, having navigated the challenges, to give thanks for the help. He prays to his own God. 

As I was listening to him last week I was struck by the beautiful simplicity of these acts. The humility of those prayers, and their awesome power.

And I felt my own resistance to the thought itself of the act of praying; how I can hardly even question that resistance; the associations that prayer has, the religious belief I long since abandoned, the sense of betrayal of one’s younger, fiery, certain self if you were even to consider, now, approaching your sixth decade, kneeling down. How predictable. But you know? Teenagers don’t know everything. 

It makes it easier to consider asking for help and giving thanks when you have the support of artists, mentors, poets. People like the poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama, whose Poetry Unbound podcast is a twice weekly source of spiritual sustenance; or Joan Halifax, the Buddhist monk whose writing on compassionate care I have hanging on the wall of my office to remind me that every encounter here is an opportunity to connect and serve – so take it.

And as I figure out whether I need and whether I can evolve a new way to give thanks, to adapt to changing circumstances, I will continue to use an old and well-tested way. I will keep connecting with the songs that are as close to prayers as I can currently allow. Songs for which I give thanks, by musicians to whom I owe much.

Songs like the pell-mell pantheism of ‘Going Downhill Fast’: “One butterfly spies a glint in his eye / The birds sing as he cycles by / Oh, why should he feel sad / This world ain’t so bad, and besides / Woe betide he who would frown / when natural beauty abounds”. Or the first song of warm, tender, hopeful, reciprocated love that I remember connecting with, a song of love that felt true and doable, a song that sustained me, ‘Geronimo’: “She puts on a record / And sings into her coffee / He puts a blanket round her, sits her down / And dries her beautiful hair”. Or ‘Tonight We Fly’, Promenade’s perennial, panoramic, elegiac, ecstatic closer, whose concluding lines have never lost their their power as unadorned secular prayer to encourage, comfort and console: “And when we die / Oh, will we be that disappointed or sad / If heaven doesn’t exist / What will we have missed / This life is the best we’ve ever had”.

Waking Life: Adrian Crowley Feature, Hot Press, 2004

On October 2nd, Adrian Crowley re-released A Northern Country on Bandcamp. A Northern Country was his third album, following on from When You Are Here You Are Family, which Adrian re-released on Bandcamp last month. I read Adrian say last month something to the effect of how strange it was to listen back to his old records, how young his voice sounded and suchlike. I felt the same reading back over this interview. It’s odd to see how I wrote then. Rambunctious? Foetus? Sorry? The extraneous “crawled from the south” came from an REM biog that I must have recently read, and I’d been to Valletta a few months before. But I liked the interview because I liked Adrian, and loved his work, and he shared generously about his colourful life.

A Northern Country is the name of his album but if the truth be known, Adrian Crowley crawled from the south. He was born in Sliema, a northwestern seaside suburb of Valletta, at the tail end of the ’60s, weeks after his eight-months pregnant mother splashed into the Maltese Mediterranean and hauled out a drowning swimmer.

I like to theorise that it was this rambunctious early life event— it’s the last thing a foetus expects, so close to the finishing line— that imprinted on Crowley the enduring fascination with water which found expression in 2001’s When You Are Here You Are Family. Steve Albini produced, and songs such as ‘Over The Waterway’, ‘Tall Ships’ and ‘Solitary Diving’ had not just the vivid aquatic imagery but also all the grace, innate rhythm and effortless authority of the Palace Brothers’ ‘Ohio River Boat Song’.

Crowley had an eclectic upbringing. “My parents met in Southern Africa,” he says. “The reason I was born in Malta was they had been living in Sierra Leone and there was an uprising there and everyone had to leave. They ran to my grandmother’s house. Then after I was born, we moved back to Cameroon for a few years.”

Up until school age, to be exact.

“So I was too young when I left to have any visual memories— but I’ve discovered that I do have memories, from my sense of smell. It’s really weird. It’s like that theory, is it Marcel Proust? Remembrance of Things Past. He said that he discovered a flow of memories from tasting a little cake he’d last tasted as a kid.”

Subsequently the family settled in Galway and relative normality ensued. Adrian even took up a profession, architecture, for a time but five years ago came the first of his three albums and a move to full-time songwriting, with unexpected perceptual benefits.

“I hear music!” he exclaims. “Since I started doing music full time, I actually hear it in my sleep and sometimes wake up and wonder who left the stereo on—and it’s really in my head. It’s unbelievable. I think it’s a kind of natural aural hallucination. I’ll hear it as I’m waking — it might wake me. I’ll be dreaming music but then it might take me out of my dream. Once I’m wide awake it’s gone.”

Cool: hypnopompic hallucinations. The Aphex Twin uses them as raw material. He should keep a dream book by the bed.

“I often do! But I wouldn’t transcribe them or anything. I’d keep it for ideas, for words that might jump out. Certainly during the last album, it happened to me once or twice, and that expanse of sound that I would have heard while asleep would have been really similar in atmosphere to the first song on the record.”

And, this has happened only since he went full time.

“I think so — I don’t remember it happening to me before. I think it may come from not taking a break, you know? Going straight to sleep and then it continues in your head. It’s quite amazing, whatever happens. It’s really unbelievable! It’s Phil Spector stuff!”

The irony being that with its elegant, elemental, sparingly arranged songs like ‘Morning Frost’, ‘A Hundred Words for Snow’ and ‘Cassiopeia’, A Northern Country recalls Sigur Ros, The Sweet Hereafter or a chamber music Mogwai, anyone but Phil Spector— bar, possibly, A Christmas Gift For You.

“I never really wanted to drown out the bareness of the song,” asserts Crowley. “I never really wanted to cover that. I mean, I love arrangements. I would hate just to say there’s no use for, like, horn sections. Of course I like some records that are like that but I’ve no urge to make one myself. I suppose the way I like to arrange recordings is to use a lot of space, loads of air; give the song oxygen, you know, to breathe.

“Still I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’ll do a concept album about winter’,” he smiles, “but I found all of a sudden that I couldn’t get away from it. Using that imagery seemed the most natural thing to do. I wasn’t consciously doing it, but it was there, not just in the titles of the songs or the words but in the texture of the music. The previous album, I was partly shocked when I discovered that there were loads of water themes. This time, a similar thing happened with frozen imagery.”

So the imagery became a way of acknowledging and immortalising pristine moments.

“I was writing away and there were a lot of fictitious places that I was working on, and it was always set in tundra, or something up north.

“And I think in one sense, my affinity with those kinds of places and images is to do with stretching time, a bit. You know? The great moment that you’re living right now is just stretched a bit more, and it’s becoming widescreen. They’re places where things don’t change. They stay the way they are. Because they’re great.”