Swimmers Jackson: “This is an album written mostly alone, in my 30s, about my 30s”

For almost as long as I can remember, Niall Jackson has been an integral part of the Irish music scene, which is odd, as he’s now been in London for several years, working with the BBC. As you’ll gather from the below interview, Jackson is one of those people who’s wonderfully hyperactive, relentlessly positive every time you meet him, and just seems to contribute a whole lot.

In the build-up to this interview, Niall gave me a sneak preview of his album under the name Swimmers Jackson, ‘Murmuration’ a debut solo effort that will be released shortly. I’m absolutely delighted to report it’s the best thing, in my opinion, he’s ever done, and I say that as a big fan of his band, Bouts.

‘Murmuration’ whimsically flits from very direct descriptions of the canal I live a few hundred metres from in south Dublin, to more abstract ruminations on life’s ups and downs that have this beautifully honest, subtle quality to them. I highly recommend you go and listen to it, when it appears. In the meantime, here’s what Niall had to say for himself…

First of all, congrats on the album. I understand it’s been a long time coming. Can you tell me a bit about the journey that bought you here?

The beginning of this album process was hearing Irish artist Winter Aid’s ‘Murmur of the Lands’ EP in 2017. This was a dude who had reviewed music I was involved with before (he ran the blog The Torture Garden back in the day). Anyway when I heard his EP I was really jealous, not only of the songs but also who produced this shit.

Turns out it was Darragh Nolan, who runs Asta Kalapa studios in Gorey Co. Wexford, so in March of 2017 I sent him an email that I loved the Winter Aid EP, and would love to do something like that myself someday. I didn’t know either of those dudes personally at the time, so when Darragh got back to me and started encouraging me to send him demos, well let’s skip the middle part, 3 years later here we are. The long engagement. Murmuration as an album name is a nod to Shane, AND the first album from the greatest band of all time, R.E.M.

The evolution of Swimmers seems to align a lot with your own personal circumstances, which I guess is very natural. Does that evolution feel like a key part of the record and your solo-feel?

God yes. This is an album written mostly alone, in my 30s, about my 30s. Trying to get it down and out before my 40s was the challenge. It is both personal and reflective, maybe overly so, but the listener can be the judge of that. I’m a little embarrassed about how personal it is as I’ve always been the guy in the back in bands, bass and backing vocals, but at the same time I know it’s genuine, and I think that is lacking in popular music today.

Is the album also a progression time-wise, with your songwriting?

Time always progresses, with or without us, but if you mean has my songwriting gotten better? I don’t know. I think its the best thing I’ve done personally, and I’ve definitely given it my best, but I’m also still getting to grips with being ‘the guy’ as opposed to one of many. I hold my Irish peers in very high regard, much higher than I would hold myself, so I just hope I’m not letting them down.

Cillian Fynch: “Music is all I want to do, and I feel it is all I will ever want to do”

Young musician Cillian Fynch‘s debut EP ‘Growing Older’ is not by any stretch the first time he’s headed into the recording studio, which in his case, is very consciously set at home and entirely under his own control.

Having fused his more recent compositions with some older tracks, Fynch’s EP is designed to showcase his progression and change in style, as he takes his first steps into a career that he finds it hard to look beyond.

I caught up with the Dublin-based singer ahead of the launch…

The EP, ‘Growing Older’, kind of suggests a retrospective of your early years. Is that what the recording is to you?

Yes, I wanted to show the growth I have made as a Musician, so, the songs on the EP are ‘First Dance’, ‘Growing Older’, ‘Crazy’ and ‘In My Head’. The first two were written for the EP and the last two were written at other separate times, so I used them to show what I used to write like, and what I now write like.

It’s hard to grab attention in the music industry these days. If you had a single track to sell yourself with, which one would you play people, and why that one?

I would play ‘In My Head’ because it’s a feel-good upbeat song and I feel people respond more to songs that sound happy or buzzy.

How has your writing technique change over the years?

The way I approach writing has more or less remained the same, however, I would say my writing has improved when it comes to word placement and how I play along with what I have written.

Paddy Dennehy: “It feels like I’m trying to explain myself to myself”

Paddy Dennehy is one of those singer-songwriter types whose key asset becomes obvious almost right from the off. What a voice. Gravelly and distinctive vocally, Dennehy has a poetic and poignant feel to his music, accentuated by smart lyrics and off-beat subject matter.

It’s taken years to get to the launch of his debut album, ‘Little Light’ which is due this June. The writing process has been particularly excruciating, according to the Cork-based artist, which makes the beautiful fluidity of it all feel that much more special: the singles seem almost off-the-cuff at times, but contain brilliant repeat-play depth.

I caught up with Paddy ahead of the launch…

I understand the album is the culmination of quite a long period of songwriting. Can you tell me how it came to be?

Some of the songs on this album are seven or eight years old for me now. I recorded an album about five years ago but thought it was absolute muck and binned it! I kept gigging but just didn’t release much until I felt I had a strong enough collection of songs.

This album really came along bit by bit. There was no great ‘gold rush’ of good songs. It was just a case of sitting at the piano and chipping out little bits of songs until I found a snippet I could stand over. Then going back the next day and eventually finding some line of melody, a lyric or chord progression to add to the little bit I had.

There seems to be quite a bit of self-examination in your lyrics. Do you like to explore yourself in your songwriting?

I’m not sure if I like it, to be honest. I know I like the feeling of finishing what I think is a good song but I don’t enjoy the self-examination really. I have thought about why so many of the songs are like that and it feels like I’m trying to explain myself to myself. Everyone has things they are proud of and things that aren’t so proud of. We all have good traits and bad. I think writing maybe helps me understand why I am the way I am.

Owen Denvir: “I love writing from the perspective of people who ignore reality in order to dwell in a fantasy within their head”

A fiercely conceptual artist with the backing of Coldplay and an output that leans quite heavily on his own dreamscape, Belfast experimentalist Owen Denvir has an imaginative and memorable output.

He’s currently working on a series of three EPs, each representing a different Freudian concept, which will eventually combine to form his debut album. The tracks feature various household implements creating percussion, and challenge Owen to take on different styles as he creates them.

I caught up with him before the release of latest EP ‘Stones’ in late May…

I like the concept behind your EPs – what made you decide to do things with three different, related EPs eventually forming an album?

Thanks! It’s kind of become the trend with music now to keep releasing a catchy radio-friendly single every month or 2, which is a bit frustrating because I’d been hoarding a lot of music I loved that didn’t really fit that formula. Basically I wanted to be able to release collections of music with a definitive theme behind it, rather than just continually releasing short songs with no real depth or connection from one to the next. I grew up with a portable CD player, so music was always delivered within the context of an EP or an album.

Do you going into producing the EPs with a particular theme in mind for each one? I understand it’s a Freud concept?

My plan from the start of the project has actually changed as it’s progressed. The concept still stands of Freud’s theory of personality – where we each have 3 sides to ourselves: the “Id” (chaotic and unreasonable, responding directly to basic desires), the “Ego” (which operates by reason and real-world influences) and the “Superego” (the moral conscience and ideal self). I’ve swapped the order around in my trilogy though, with the “Ego” coming first in the “Sticks, Stones and Bones” EPs.

I’d already paired up which songs were going to go where before I released the first EP – with all of the songs being related to love and relationships – but as time’s gone on I’ve written and recorded new songs that I’ve swapped in instead. It’s nice to have the restrictions of a theme to follow because it invites you to go a different direction each time. The upcoming EP (Stones) has probably been the most fun so far because it’s supposed to be brash and chaotic, so I let rip with my voice on some places.

Tandem Felix: “I liked the idea of referencing Corsodyl because it sounds like a drug, even though it’s just mouthwash”

Tandem Felix are a wonderful contradiction: at times pointedly DIY (they once sold a series of records for which every single one had an individual cover), but also hopeful of making a serious international breakthrough, the quirky indie act stride down the most wonderfully surreal of lyrical roads and famously don’t particularly like the live arena.

Perhaps best styled as a kind of indie country folks band, their debut album Rom-Com came out last year, though there is already a second one on the horizon (or at least the songs are written).

I caught up with frontman David Tapley to talk it all over…

The album’s been out for a few months now. How has it gone for you?

It’s gone well! Albeit, stalled a bit early due to COVID-19. We had a few shows booked but obviously they’ve all been cancelled/ postponed now.

Have you found releasing a record makes much difference to how you’re seen in the industry? It does seem to be dying as an art…

There were definitely moments where I felt like the financial stress it would put on me would be too large but people still have a big appetite for records! It’s great. I’ve sent packages all around the world and it is very heart-warming to know that our music is reaching people on the other side of the globe.

Let’s talk a moment about a track that didn’t make the record – ‘The Assassination of President Music’ sounds like it might have quite a story behind it. Tell me a little…

We played a show in London a few years ago and saw a crime scene in a café-bar. Yellow police tape, hazmat suits and everything. At the time, we were deep in the throes of trying to get recognition from the UK side of the music industry and having little-to-no success. I took my frustrations out on this fictional President, assassinated in a London bistro.

The album itself seems to be written very much from a ‘this is my reality’ type perspective. Was it important to you to pour a lot of yourself and your life into the record?

Yes and no! I wanted to write stories as well as personal tales and sometimes intermingle the two. There’s a fair amount of fiction interspersed with autobiography. I guess there’s a fair amount of fiction in my memory too though, so yeah, that “is my reality”.

Coronavirus Shutdown: day 49

An isolated walk in Wicklow just before shutdown. I miss this.

What happens when this is over?

It’s a question that haunts me right now. Humans, of course, are hugely resilient. As a broader society, at least, we’re capable of overcoming war, famine, economic collapse and, yes, disease. We’ve seen it all before.

That said, the reality now is dark and difficult. I went shopping yesterday, a necessary evil that I hate to the point it makes me feel het-up and uncomfortable for the entire day I have to go. Then I head out, with a mask wrapped across my face as I pace slightly understocked aisles and try to feed a family for as long as I can. We’ve stretched it out to 10 days or so per shop, now, with a vegetable delivery arriving in a cardboard box in between.

But we’re the lucky ones, of course. Our combined potential exposure to the virus is minimal. We’re able to exist in a frustrating but functional cocoon of our own making, restrained by four walls but certainly not threatened by them, or forced to go outside and carry on like millions of others. We might end up another number of the 3 million people who already have, or have had, corona, or the more than 200,000 who have died globally. We know we’re privileged, because that chance is relatively small.

But it’s hard not to mourn what’s gone, too. Not just the people, though that’s devastating, but also the lifestyle. Humans are instinctively social, after all. Things like going to sports games, just one of a crowd, or travelling fairly freely around Europe every so often, or spending a weekend back home with family, or cinema, or gigs, bars, those are normal parts of my life. And it’s spurious to mourn them in this context, but it’s also very, very hard not to.

Stockton’s Wing: “It was good to look back at all those phases we went through.”

FORMED IN 1977 by a group of All-Ireland winning musicians, Stockton’s Wing almost immediately stepped away from their pre-band trad roots by abandoning staples. The Ennis act, named after a Bruce Springsteen lyric, went on to produce more than a dozen well-loved albums that explore the boundaries of guitar-pop and rock.

Mike Hanrahan was there for it all, and now stands at the heart of the band’s revival. The vocalist has spent serious time away from music, becoming a high-end chef and teaching in a cookery school after an extended period learning on a job miles from his prior, musical life. Today, Stockton’s Wing return with a retrospective release, named after their hit single ‘Beautiful Affair’, released on major label Universal.

“It was quite a nostalgic process, listening back to all the albums and thinking of times during recordings,” Hanrahan says. “As we progressed we got more into the writing aspect of it, being more creative. It was good looking back at those phases and sounds that the band went through, and remembering the musicians who came and went. It was very transient. There was always that central Stockton’s Wing sound. Looking back, we did okay, we left a good mark behind us.”

Having started out with a trad-related sound, but playing very much their own music, Stockton’s Wing initial riled the purists. It was a different time, musically, and Hanrahan never let it bother him. “We always figured that for every purist we lost, we gained a lot more young people who just wanted the music,” he laughs. “I never think about the people who gave out to us. It’s more about those we enjoyed and had a good time with.”

“I remember I discovered Doolin when I left school, and back then it was really a hive for new thinking. There was a real air of protest, so it was a good time to start with music. People were open to different things, and bands like Horseslips, my greatest influence, were blazing a trail. It’s the same now with people taking Irish music onto a different level. Who are we to tell them not to?”

There’s not just retrospective material to be examined, though, with Stockton’s Wing back in the studio themselves. “We have a live album recorded with your new band,” Hanrahan tells me. “They’re young, exciting musicians and we’re writing tunes again. I hope the live album will be out later in the year, and the next step after that is to go back into the studio. We’ve been reuniting on and off all our lives, and this year we just decided to return.”

Beoga: “We’d been fans of Lissie and knew she’d bring the right folk tone to it all”

Beoga‘s gentle ride into the mainstream realm has really taken flight in recent years. Despite being an unconventional ‘pop’ act – they sit closer to folk and trad circles – they’ve worked with Ed Sheeran and Lissie, and found themselves with millions of plays on Spotify.

With years in the music industry, though, you get the impression their recent success is essentially just another phase to the band, who remain at their best in the live arena, and have a heap of new material waiting in the wings to be polished off and released.

I caught up with them ahead of the launch of new single ‘In A Rocket’, which features that folk star Lissie.

First of all, guys, congrats on the Lissie collaboration. How did that come about?

Thanks, the song had been brewing for a long time and then someone suggested Lissie could be the kind of artist who would help finish it. We approached her and she agreed so happy days! We’d been fans of hers and knew she’d bring the right folk tone to it all.  

We could all use the kind of escapism that’s explored in the single right now. Does your music offer that to you?

All music does to an extent I suppose, it’s important to be able to take yourself away from the news headlines for a bit here and there and music definitely helps. 

Have your lives changed significantly since the Ed Sheeran work, in terms of people reaching out to you, and recognition for your music?

Not really, a small bit maybe. We’ve always been pretty active so that hasn’t changed, the business side of it has changed in terms of having record labels and publishers and stuff involved. It’s definitely helped us reach a new audience that wouldn’t have found our music otherwise.