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Pillow Queens: “I can’t tell people I plan to quit to go on tour or I’ll never get another job”

WE’RE STILL, in all probability the best part of a year short of the debut album from Dublin four-piece Pillow Queens. It’s a sign of their ambition and their early success, then, that their tour schedule for 2019 will take them across Europe, throughout the UK and to several of Ireland’s biggest festivals.

Pillow Queens rise from debutants to Gay Community News cover stars (clad in Downton Abbey style get up) has been an epic one, and the self-described ‘baby band’ are still coming to terms with the highs, slowly. Those highs have included being nominated for song of the year at the Choice Music Prize, for ‘Gay Girls’, and being played on the iconic radio station BBC 6 Music.

“We’ve had no time to stop in the last few months,” Sarah Corcoran said of the ride so far. “We have just over an hour of music now with new songs. We had friends in the UK we could play with right back at the start, so we did a tour. We had no business being over there, really, but we went and did it, and it was the best thing to do. It looked good to people.”

The truth, though, is Pillow Queens have looked like a ready-made success story from the start. Made up of four gay girls, they played their very first show to a sold out audience, raising money for a dog charity in the process.

“We called in a lot of favours for that fundraising gig and got a great line up,” Corcoran says. “That there’s four gay girls in the band isn’t something thought out. It was just the people we were hanging around with. We don’t shy away from it, though. I’d like to have seen people like us on stage when I was young. If we can do that for one person, that’d make me very happy.”

The speed of progress comes in part from a sense of inbuilt ambition. There have been jobs quit to go on tour. “We don’t talk about that at job interviews,” Corcoran laughs. “I can’t tell people I plan to quit to go on tour or I’ll never get another job.”

Lost Lane: “opening a new venue will always give a sense of nervousness”

THESE DAYS, the development of a new live music venue in Dublin seems to be an increasingly rare thing. With the likes of Tivoli Theatre, Hangar, Twisted Pepper, the Wright Venue and Sweeney’s all departing the city’s musical map in recent years, those spots still standing at the heart of the Irish music scene feel too little, and are often full to bursting.

The announcement of the opening of Lost Lane, on the sight of the old Lillie’s Bordello on Adam’s Court, just off Grafton Street is a great boost, then, and one going very much against the grain.

Lost Lane will be part of the Porterhouse pub chain, but a step away from their traditional lively but very much beer-focused offering of their small-chain pubs. “A lot of venues have been closing recently but I think they would tend to fit more in the term of night club,” Elliot Hughes, Porterhouse partner told the Gazette.

“What we are doing with Lost Lane is embracing a growing culture of live music. This scene in Ireland has been booming over recent years with more and more talented artists looking for places to play around the capital, while I don’t think the infrastructure has followed suit. Of course though, everything is at risk. Opening a new venue will always give a sense of nervousness. It is impossible to guarantee success however we have a wonderful location, a top class sound system and a fantastic look to the venue.”

“We’ve moved the main bar as well as a couple of other major changes, while the main difference will be the aesthetic,” Hughes explains. “The stage area in particular is quite minimalist as we want the focus to be on what is important, the artist and the sound.”

With that in mind, Lost Lane will be welcoming a lot of emerging Irish artists, though the booking policy remains a relatively straightforward one. “The act must be quality,” Hughes says. “We’re passionate about supporting and showcasing local talent, but regardless if the act is local or international, the common denominator will be the quality of performers people can expect to experience at Lost Lane.”

My Top Five Books of 2019

Because of the nature of my writing work, this website ends up being a whole lot about music. In fact, I’m every bit as obsessive about reading, too. It’s become an annual tradition to post my favourite books of the year, in part for others, in part because I have a bad memory, and dropping back into the old posts to remember what I really loved it quite a pleasant experience (here’s what I wrote in 2018, 2017, and 2016).

This year was a little bit special, of course, because back in April I also launched my debut book, about a relatively obscure international football tournament for unrecognised nations. It’s called ‘CONIFA: Football For The Forgotten‘. Its launch was definitely my favourite booky moment of the year, obviously, but I’m not the kind of egomaniac to include it below (please do check it out – you’ll have to scroll down on the linked post for order details).

I think in part because I was so book focused through the year, my read count is a little up on most years (I’ll have read 55, my own not included, by the end of the year), so this year’s post is a true ‘elite’. As usual, it’s quite an eclectic selection. Here’s what I really loved…

Beijing Coma by Ma Jian (view)

This is a novel based on the Tiananmen Square student uprising, written (originally) in Chinese by a Chinese emigrant. It’s given a real sense of being close to reality by being written by someone who was actually there. It’s based around two parallel stories about a core character: one set at the time of the uprising, and a second over the following years, as he exists in his mother’s house, poorly cared for, in a coma, but able to hear everything going on around him.

It’s a fairly full-on, heady read, absolutely packed with fascinating cultural references, and I found the ‘locked-in’ aspect of it to be quite affecting. A history lesson in novel form, essentially, with lots of alien (to us) politics and colourful relationships. Fascinating.

Sing Along Social: “In a sense, we just push play and see what happens”

‘A ZERO COMMITMENT CHOIR’ is the tagline that’s fuelled the rise of a quirk of the Irish music scene, the wonderfully boisterous ‘Sing Along Social’. The concept is simple: several lively ‘craic mechanics’ put on a few of your favourite cheesy records, and you crowd together, a mass of euphoria with the most innocent of aims: to belt them out at the top of your lungs.

Aoife McElwain, who started this glorious, carefree cheese-fest, stumbled across the idea almost by accident. “A few years ago, a friend and I discovered we were both obsessed with Alanis Morissette’s ‘Jagged Little Pill’,” she recalls. “We thought it would be a hilarious idea to get together and just sing it from start to finish. Then we thought about who else might like that, so we could invite them along.”

“It turns out we know too many people who liked the idea, so we booked a room on a local pub and then thought why not put it on Facebook, in case anyone else wants to join us. The next thing we knew, over 1000 people wanted to come.”

Things have barely let up since. Sing Along Social have two monthly events, at MVP in Dublin 8, and The Sugar Club, just off St Stephen’s Green, There’s an ever-diversifying list of themed days, corporate events and hen parties, and McElwain – also an Irish Times food writer and the author of a book on time management, ‘Slow At Work’ – has made this boisterous party her full time job, one that’s now close to fully booked for the remainder of 2019.

“I’ve always been a bit of a dork,” she laughs. “I think my job at Sing Along Social is to be the first person to make a fool of myself. When I do that, and nothing bad happens, it helps get things going. I put on this pink boiler suit and I’m just not afraid of anything. I think Sing Along suits introverts and extroverts. It’s not like karaoke as everyone sings together. In a sense, we just push play and see what happens.”

David Gray: “I was never going to just keep remaking White Ladder”

DAVID GRAY’S 1998 album ‘White Ladder’, a whopping seven-million seller that features smash hits ‘Babylon’, ‘Sail Away’ and ‘This Year’s Love’, is Ireland’s best selling record of all time, and given changes in the music industry, is likely to remain so for some time.

Gray is still profoundly grateful for Ireland’s role in his breakthrough, in fact. “Ireland embraced me in such a big way before anyone else did,” he recalls. “It was unbelievable, really. Looking back, I still can’t quite take in what happened. It was an unforgettable time for me and I’ll always love the Irish because of it.”

Naturally, though, the Cheshire-born folk-pop singer has long been ready to move past his major commercial breakthrough on that fourth album. His eleventh studio album, ‘Gold In A Brass Age’, was released earlier this month, and offers something really quite different.

“I was never going to just keep remaking ‘White Ladder’, it’s important to experiment and stay interested,” Gray said of the new record, which is layered with some complex electronic aspects, producing an organic, delicate element. It also sees Gray explore falsetto vocals across several tracks.

In many ways, ‘Gold In A Brass Age’ is a stylistic throwback to Gray’s early, art-school days. “I want to go back to making art at some point,” he said. “I like to go out to the countryside and switch off, it’s essential to me to have that time, and it would be perfect for painting. But to paint again, I’d want to really dedicate myself to it. It’ll happen at some point, just maybe not quite yet.”

Dean Friedman: “I think I was the first solo artist to crowdfund a record”

From signing a record deal whilst still a pre-teen, to getting involved in the video game industry and cinema, Dean Friedman’s musical road has been an unconventional one…

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention, and it has proved for revitalised singer-songwriter Dean Friedman.

Friedman had huge hit records in the late 70s, charting with his debut release ‘Ariel’ and follow ups ‘Lucky Stars’, ‘Woman of Mine’ and ‘Lydia,’, before a critical mistake – releasing a key single referencing the brand McDonald’s – got the track banned from BBC radio stations, and was a huge contributing factor to his label dropping him.

Having been in music since he was first approached by a label at age nine, however, Friedman simply diversified, and looks back at the period with pride in the direction it led. “I’ve never had the chance to rest of my laurels,” he jokes. “My career hasn’t allowed for much rest, I’ve had to keep working.”

Friedman moved into producing early music-themed video games, as well as working on a heap of movies, writing children’s musicals, and producing the music for the British crime drama ‘Boon’.

Today, having reconnected with his old fanbase around the time the internet became a big resource for music, Friedman is back recording, touring heavily, and exploring what he calls “a natural affinity for storytelling.”

“I think I was the first solo artist – Marillion had done it a year earlier – to crowdfund a record,” Friedman explains. “I wrote out to my fans asking them to pre-order the album, via an email mailing list. I was a little worried people would tell me to get a real job. Some did say exactly that, but lots of others backed the idea. I was able to hire musicians and upgrade my studio.”

“This was a few years before the days of Indiegogo and Kickstarter. Since then, I’ve always had a great connection with my fans, and I’ve always done things that way. I never liked the aloof thing that musicians were supposed to do back then. My fans aren’t shy in telling me what they think, but as many of them are connected with what I’m doing now as songs from the 70s,” he says. “Lots will say their favourite album is one of the newer ones. It’s been a great journey.”

DJ Kormac: “I went to this massive jumble sale in France, and that’s where I found my best sound”

DJ Kormac has fingers in a whole lot of pies. He’s a man who takes his work extremely seriously: a perfectionist, playing off the roles of dozens of different contributors, and drawing aspects of music from all over his life, including the sounds he hears around him.

“I went to this massive jumble sale, I guess you’d call it, in France, and that’s where I found my best sound,” said the Dubliner on his developing love of ‘field recordings’. “I go around with my Zoom recorder and take in lots of different things that I’ve started drawing into my music. In France I found one of those really old telephones that makes a noise when you hang it up. That was a really useful one.”

“I think I always sound like me, even if it is quite eclectic,” the varied DJ explains of his mixed efforings. In recent years, he’s branched out expansively, working with the Irish Chamber Orchestra, as well as a host of contemporary Irish singers, as a more conventional DJ, and even with novelist Irvine Welsh.

“It all has this uptempo element, especially for the melodies,” he says. “I grew up on stuff like Sonic Youth, and the more I listen to things, the more it sounds to me like there are influences in there from things like guitar progressions. I don’t know if anyone else can hear it, but it’s had a lasting effect for me.”

“In some ways this is a quiet time of year, as things go crazy in the summer with the tours, but in others it’s been really intense with work. I’ve been heading for the studio at half six in the morning and working through the day. It’ll all play into what I do over the summer.”

“My new show is a mix of a solo AV show and playing a second part with some guests, including Loah, Jack O’Rourke, Claire Young and a few of my big band, as well as couple of secret guests” Kormac told us. “I’ve been working with AV for a long time. I’m developing a multiscreen idea that’s quite exciting, it will allow me to do different things; to do stuff musically that might not work without the screens.”

White Denim: “We’re not the type of band to play the ‘hits’ or even the same songs for many shows in a row”

Drawing on mildly psychedelic influences and living with a growing dislike of anyone meddling with their music, fiercely independent Texans White Denim are treading an unusual path.

Born in vibrant Austin – a rare liberal haven in the state – the four-piece almost collapsed in recent years, when two of the four members walked out to tour with another act. Having considered their future, remaining members James Petralli and Steve Terebecki came out publicly to say that despite a recent UK top twenty album, they weren’t sure they could carry on.

But carry on they did. Recruiting new members and re-routing their music to its original, slightly roughshod home turf, they abandoned the idea of producers, and reconnected with the shabby, garage-led sound of their early records. They also set themselves back up in their music-obsessed city, ploughing their own furrow far from watching eyes in a purpose build studio far from the eyes of record labels looking to spin their sound.

“Austin has so many venues that you could play every day of the week if you wanted to,” Terebecki says of the early days that have begun to inspire again. “I guess that helped us to forge our set up as a live band, which was really healthy. Now, we probably play in London more than we do in Austin. We had two albums out in the UK before we released the first one in the US, so we had a bit of a head start there, and we play a lot of shows in Europe compared the back home.”

White Denim are now seven albums deep, but their most recent effort ‘Stiff’ is unusual, in that it is such a throwback to the band that originally broke out of the Texan scene, and throws aside the more complex take of the last three or four records along the way.

“I don’t think too much has changed, really,” Terebecki says. “We used to listen to a lot of early 70s [Frank] Zappa, and we still do. We’re kind of all over the place, like that stuff. We don’t write for a record, particularly. We have enough tracks to put our another three or four records right now, but we’re writing them as individual tracks.”