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Lisa Canny: The Birth of the Hip-hop Harpist

From seven-time All Ireland champion in harp and banjo as a kid, to working with household names under the watchful eye of a personal champion from The Police, Lisa Canny’s road to the musical bigtime is starting to look like it’s tilted downhill…

Growing up in rural County Mayo, Lisa Canny wasn’t from a particularly musical family, but she fell in love with it fast. Practising intensely on harp and banjo as a child, she rose to the level of All Ireland Champion in both instruments, not once, or twice, but seven times. Now, she’s looking to establish herself in a whole different world.

“The All Ireland’s were very competitive, up to 50 people from each county, and you had to finish first or second in your county to make the All Ireland. I was also very competitive,” Canny jokes. “It’s a huge deal to get out of your county.”

“I remember the first time I won, driving home they had the banners out for miles driving up to the house, like a football final. I had a big homecoming. It kept me going through those years when being a redhead playing harp and banjo wasn’t so cool.”

Later, having decided she wanted to do a PhD in music at UCC, Canny asked legendary music professor Mel Mercier (now at UL) to be her supervisor. “He said he thought I should be on the stage,” she recalls. “He said he’d take me on this day next year, if I showed him for one year that I’d just done performance, because he thought that’s where I should be. I left with my tail between my legs, but thank God he did that. On the next tour everything changed.”

Canny was touring as a with a band called Celtic Crossroads when she was approached by a man in the audience. “Forget this band,” he said, “You need to be a solo artist, baby.” That man was Miles Copeland, of the Sting-fronted band The Police. At the time, Canny had never written a song, and had focused heavily on Irish traditional ballads.

It’s taken several years to reach her current status, which has seen Canny work with the likes of the Kaiser Chiefs and Akon as a songwriter, but also get herself in a place to release her own work. Despite her success – her online following, for example, has gone up by 400% in the last year – the new single ‘Freedom’ and forthcoming EP are Canny’s first formal releases.

The Hot Sprockets: American Blues Does Dublin…

Dublin isn’t known for groups of friends clad out in the latest in blues-inspired charity store chic, focused on producing timeless, harmonised melodies. The Hot Sprockets are out of step with the scene and forging their own path, but evolving into their newly psychedelic phase, they win plaudits simply by being great at what they do…

If you heard a track of two of The Hot Sprockets music, and were then asked to stick a pin in a map identifying where they come from, you’d probably stick the point somewhere on the fringes of a Texan city, a spot with plenty of raucous rock influences, but a distinct country twang known for effortless, whisky-bar showmanship.

The five-piece actually hail from different corners of Dublin, having spent much of their performance-loving career entertaining their own niche with a thunderous live show. They rumble between gigs in an ageing Nissan Micra and very much live for their music. Newly released third-album ‘Dream Mover’ is the latest stage in a slow-paced and precisely crafted evolution.

“It’s a bit more psychedelic, the production is a real step up from [second album] ‘Brother Nature’, and the song writing’s better than the last record. We feel like we’re really evolving as songwriters,” multi-instrumentalist Frankie Kelly tells us of the new release.

“We had a lot more than just the ten songs on the album, but we picked the best ones and spent a lot of time working on them, improving them and developing the sound. Much more went into it than anything we did before.”

“There are three writers in the band, so between us we’re always writing at home. Some of the tracks we might look at once and never see again. Others make demo stage and the best make it all the way. There are hundreds of songs. We’ve done three-hour setlists of original material before.”

“Frank’s sister is on the album and will be touring a bit with us,” vocalist Tim Cullen adds. “This is the first album that we’ve had a backing singer on. For the ‘Brother Nature’ tour we were getting Amy to back us up a lot, as it kind of suited the sound. When it came to recording, we thought why not get her in on three or four tracks.”

Eternal Evolution Behind Le Galaxie’s Dance Dynamism

Dublin’s most popular dance act might have left behind the world of major labels, but with the addition of former Fight Like Apes vocalist Mary-Kate Geraghty to the band, an international-class distance runner on drums and an absolutely pulsating live show, they remain the act to be watching at Midnight (Midnight)

Few acts are quite like Le Galaxie. Locally notorious for their late-night festival shows, glowstick showers, shiny stage outfits and thumping dance-pop beats, they’ve evolved where their peers have stagnated. With the addition of an Irish music legend in Mary-Kate Geraghty, have the potential to push the boundaries a whole lot further, despite saying goodbye to major label Universal after just one album.

Their sound is euphoric: bleepy and charmingly sing-along, lively and driving. They bounce across the stage, blazing through tracks as if impressing at any individual show is the criteria for ever getting to do another. They’ve established a phenomenal depth of local loyalty in Dublin, in part thanks to the constant, lively evolution. It’s personified this time around in Geraghty.

“The decision to bring Maykay [Geraghty] in full time came in the middle of our sessions with the producer on this album,” frontman Michael Pope says of the band’s new addition. “She was doing vocals already, and came in during the latter third in more of a songwriting kind of way. We should have done it a year earlier, really.”

“It was like a movie. I kept it really cool in the office when they asked me, and then got outside and flipped, I was like ‘yippee’” Geraghty jokes. “Before that, I’d been doing at least one song a show with them for a while, but it’s bizarrely frustrating to go out, go crazy for three minutes and then come off.”

“We’d started to bring her on for more songs live, to do Love System and a couple of new songs” Pope continues. “The dynamic of her being on stage is like a bolt of lightning. It doesn’t detract at all from when she’s not on stage. We still have that balance. It isn’t all about myself and Mary, call and response or anything like that. It’s still about the band and what they’re doing, the vibe on stage. If anything, it’s become more dynamic, more intense, more joyous.”

“On every song, my role is different,” Geraghty adds. “There are a couple of songs now I get to do lead on. Then there’s duets, and there’s call and response. There won’t be changes to the old tracks to fit me in, though. As times goes on we might try and fit me into the female parts of more of the songs.”

Rip It Up And Start Again: Æ Mak Reset and Rebalance

Hailing straight from Dublin’s rock school having graduated from BIMM as part of their very first Irish class in 2015, Æ Mak are all about soulful electro-pop soundscapes, arty stage presence and putting on a performance. In 2018, that’s meant all-but starting again…

It’s a bold move, but one that looks set to pay off: Æ Mak have, essentially, re-started a locally successful career in a bid for the big-time. With one of the founding members, Ellie McMahon, now departed, Aoife McCann has formally welcomed her former backing-band and producer into the fray, working to re-invent a style that was already grabbing attention.

“We were workshopping with Ellie during the summer, and it wasn’t really working out creatively. We wanted to bring more of an electronic sound into it,” McCann says of the band’s recent change of direction, which happened to align with the departure of founding member Ellie McMahon (the fusion of the two names led to the branding ‘Æ Mak’ – Aoife Mc and Ellie Mc – which will stay despite McMahon’s departure). “There were so many different styles coming from everywhere, with everyone working on their part. The EP’s a mess, and the single’s a bit of a mess I think. I just wanted to streamline the sound.”

The self-critical approach seems indicative of big goals: it’s unusual for a band that have achieved a notable level of local success to almost swat away everything that’s come before, but McCann doesn’t seem to hesitate.

“I don’t know, in a way I love it, but I’m not that proud of it,” she says of the early work. “I don’t think it represents the best we can do. It’s a bit messy. You can’t bring everyone into the arrangement, it just doesn’t work. It’s just myself and Dan [McIntyre, producer] doing that now. It’s so much easier.”

“We have about twenty tracks, we just don’t know what we’re going to do with them yet. We won’t even be making an album, hopefully, until we’re signed. The songs are too good to just throw out. We’ll be working with Rebalance UK, a new thing this year, so we’re one of the first group to be part of it. It’s funded by Festival Republic, and you have to be invited to apply.”

“It’s aimed at enhancing the careers of females in the industry and giving them a platform. We get a recording session, and to play at Latitude in the UK, so we’re playing that on the Sunday this year.”

Landless: a traditional vocal quartet that soar, organically…

Built on sweeping yet carefully-refined harmonies and the most delicate of recording approaches, Bleaching Bones – the debut album from Dublin and Belfast four-piece Landless – is a million miles from the modern-day zeitgeist. Regardless, the rootsy harmonies shine, made special by a sense of place and unique, textured feel.

The concept of an album without instruments is, transparently, not a new one, but it is a sparse rarity in the context of modern-day music. Landless – a harmony-led, all-female vocal quartet – do very little by the book, having beautifully passed from a trad niche to the stage.

“We don’t write anything down, when it comes to working on songs,” Ruth Clinton tells us of the approach to ‘Bleaching Bones’, released on Humble Serpent Records earlier this month. “We all sang mainly in traditional singing circles before this, unaccompanied, and the band and the album came out of that.”

“We recorded partly in St Luke’s Church in Howth, where I’m in my element, as I grew up around there. It has incredible acoustics. We also went down to a tunnel under Belfast, where Maedh lives, that’s not normally open to the public. That was a great experience, as it echoes back so slowly, and affects how you have to sing. We picked the places we recorded for the acoustics, and there’s a lot of natural reverb and atmosphere on the album.”

Those recordings were made by John Murphy (Gorilla Sounds), who was also involved in the production of Lankum’s widely acclaimed, trad-inspired 2017 album ‘Between The Earth and the Sky’. Before the recent drive, Landless were a casual endeavour for much of their life, and have developed naturally, through things like being invited to perform in churches in France, or on a boat in the middle of the sea at Passage West.

“The locations give a really gentle differentiation between the sounds. When it comes to recording. You need that in an album that’s mostly vocals,” Clinton explains. “It’s great when you have that for gigs, as well. We’d always pick a location with great acoustics, if we have the choice.”

Landless’ songs are largely drawn from the trad tradition, subtly adjusted to incorporate harmonies and incredibly subtle, playfully-interacting arrangements. “We do try to feel trad songs from a woman’s perspective,” Clinton tells us. “Trad hasn’t always been kind to women. We’ll look at anything in English. We work out our melody and harmony by just sitting in a room. We then record it all live.”

Wales And The Hygge Of The Hillsides: A weekend In The Brecon Beacons

The trendy Danish concept of ‘hygge’ – a cosy, memorable, charming feeling of being utterly at ease – might have peaked as the big conceptual winter fashion, but it remains a wonderful concept. Here’s why a trip to the hills of South Wales is full of just the right kind of Hygge-like, cuddly charm…

Somewhere between Anglesea’s expansively named Llanfairpwllgwyngyll… (yes, we cut off two-thirds of the name, it is that long) and the Brecon Beacons National Park, you hit the winding hillside roads of Snowdonia. You cruise gently under tunnels of trees, the climate seemingly changing as you cross through each little hillside pass and rugged, three-house village. The land has that soggy green depth that feels like it hasn’t been dry in months, the texture reminiscent of an ancient realm of Hobbits. It’s the kind of place you almost drift through, giving re-emerging onto a dual carriageway the air of a post-dream slap around the face.

If Snowdonia is the realm of Hobbits, the Brecons feel more like they belong to the giants. The southern park is all expansive sweeping valleys, soaring hillsides and picture box villages that look unchanged in generations. They’re full of open spaces, their every building dwarfed by airy and enticing surrounds.

The main draw of the Brecons, then, is the scenery. In winter the slow rising roads lead you through tiny clusters of ageing houses, the pathways edging above the treelines until they burst out suddenly into great soaring valleys. They’re often spattered in shining snow barely hinted at a mile down the road, and stretching to distant but attainable peaks.

In the summer, this is a hiking hub. In winter you’d need to be more hardy to hit the upper slopes, but the delicate stone of the tiny towns comes into its own, lit up in slanting light and offering cosy corners next to fires to envelope guests.

Hay-On-Wye is one of the area’s more notable stop offs, and the place looks unchanged in decades. Tents pop up at weekends to expand the countless disorganised treasure-trove antique stores into the streets, while dozens of booksellers cram every spare inch with tomes, everything from first editions to scrappy paperbacks collected indoors and out, in more stores than a village could reasonably need.

There’s a regular vintage fair, where dozens of traders take root in every nook of the town, hawking anything from ships anchors and gemstone pendants to 1970s jigsaw puzzles, and doing so in the charmingly melodic local lilt from inside covered market squares and tiny lean-tos.

Reflections On Summer Sun: The Vaccines Champion A Return To Simple Roots.

Born of summer shenanigans, The Vaccines frontman Justin Hayward-Young says the return of the Londoners with fourth album ‘Combat Sports’ is a trek back to their routes, via a half-century of new songs, a touch of nervousness, and occupying the band’s ‘natural space’.

EIGHT YEARS after forming, and swiftly becoming one of Britain’s most exciting and popular rock bands almost by accident, The Vaccines fourth album ‘Combat Sports’ is, perhaps, a product of a band finally taking some time for reflection. It’s been a frantic ride, and not one the million-selling rockers exactly planned.

The early days of The Vaccines have acquired almost mythological status. Taking a break from his more regular role as a folk singer under the guise of Jay Jay Pistolet (a genre Hayward-Young’s confident he’ll return to at some point, though not under the guise of The Vaccines), the Vaccines frontman admits that the myth – though perhaps exaggerated – has elements of truth.

“We were just f*cking around in the summer,” Hayward-Young recalls. “‘Wetsuit’ and ‘Do You Wanna’ were written during a summer holiday, and weren’t supposed to be some kind of mission statement. I was borrowing a friends guitar, and played the songs to a couple of people.”

“I was just enjoying it with nothing else to do, really, and made a quick demo from the song I wrote. It got out there and I got an email to go and have coffee with someone in the industry, and that was it. It went from there.”

The road from summer shenanigans has been somewhat jittery, if also ecstatic. “It was very nerve-wracking,” Hayward-Young recalls. “We didn’t really know how to deal with the way things were taking off, and with the big crowds to start with. It was really weird and hard.”

Some years later, in 2016, drummer and backing vocalist Pete Robinson departed the band, triggering a period of contemplation, and the rootsy return that is ‘Combat Sports’, arguably the closest The Vaccines have come to those heady early days of messing around in rock.

Lockout: Spook of The Thirteenth Lock Return with Guitar-Driven Historical Epic

Newly expanded to an eighteen-piece and back with a beautiful concept album dedicated to a key moment in Irish history (just in time for St Patrick’s Day), Spook Of The Thirteenth Lock look set to cement their place as one of Ireland’s most original acts…

There’s very little conventional about Spook Of The Thirteenth Lock. Their conversation flits happily between their pervasive politics – substantially left-leaning – and the charisma of their music. They work on albums for years before launching them onto the market, playing relatively rarely, with a focus on areas like historical accuracy. They also make sure they enjoy the ride.

The product is rock that’s riddled with Irish influence and hefty chords, but also comfortably distinct from trad, the Irish punk scene or even local folk.

Their growth has been an incremental one, in a sense, though rarely less than fantastically ambitious. “We started out as a four-piece, around 2006,” guitarist Enda Bates tells us. “For the second album we bounced up to a five-piece, then added an extra guitar. After that last album, we started to change our approach, and added all the extra guitars.”

That growth to an eighteen-piece has seen Spook Of The Thirteenth Lock develop into a different kind of band, one that’s able to produce layered power and gorgeous, jarring nuance.“Technically it is a full orchestra,” Bates explains, “in that its lots of different people playing the same part. There’s the core group, and they take care of the more complex, melodic stuff, and then the guitars are divided into four parts, playing together.”

“There are some American groups that put together symphonies for one hundred or two hundred electric guitars, but there’s not much out there like it. It’s an incredible sound, it’s like the comparison between one violin and an orchestra of violins. You get this really thick, slightly jarring feel.”

“It was something we were always interested in,” he explains of the change, and it kind of thematically fit with Lockout, with the big groups of workers all working together.” The Lockout he refers to, of course, is the industrial dispute between 20,000 worker s and their employees that took place over the rights of workers to unionise and preposterous working conditions, led by Jim Larkin and James Connolly in late 1913 and early 1914. The Lockout had impacts across Dublin society.