Gilbert O’Sullivan: Still Firmly Rooted, Naturally.

IN THE 1970s, flat-capped crooner Gilbert O’Sullivan had quite a reputation. Seen as something of a thinking man’s Elton John, or a modernised lyric-writer aping Randy Newman, O’Sullivan delivered snappy pieces of melancholy pop with poetic twists, cleverly touching off issues like poverty and heartbreak all at the same time.

19 albums later, and O’Sullivan’s back in the limelight: his new self-titled release has been BBC 2 Album of the Week, won broad critical acclaim, and seen the Waterford-born singer – raised in the English industrial town of Swindon – enjoy something of an Indian summer.

Beneath the pop melodies and affecting love songs, O’Sullivan’s always had a bit of a political bent, as it happens. It’s unchanged in years, and like his songwriting, the best of it is quite indirect, obliquely leaning on politicians, or directing eyes to injustice.

“I’ve always done it,” O’Sullivan says, “but I’m not there to preach, so I prefer to be a little subtle. I have songs about 9/11, songs about terrorism, and poverty in Africa, and on this album, Donald Trump. I’m not there to tell people what to think, though. I’d never get up on a podium at a political event or anything like that. I don’t think it actually helps anyone.”

After nearly 50 years in the business, the 71 year old certainly knows the impact of his songs, however. ‘We Will’ is one of the great takes on personal darkness. He also has the subtle cultural attack and gentle poetry of ‘Nothing Rhymed,’ and the brilliantly gentle ode to loss ‘Alone Again, Naturally’. O’Sullivan has affected much, but, in terms of songwriting, he’s little changed.

“I follow the same process I always did,” he tells us. “I write the melody at my piano. In the past, that was a dirty old stand up and it’s a bit better now, but I still do it the same way, recording the music onto a boombox as I go.”

“I don’t add the lyrics until I come to record a song. For this album, I had all the music, but spent two months writing the lyrics before I went into the studio. I had played through the music for the record company, BMG, just singing whole-hearted gibberish over the top, to check they wanted to be involved.”

“The lyrics come last because they’re always changing according to the time. Once they’re recorded, they stay the same, but before that they keep evolving. I often have two or three different versions of a line going into the studio. Otherwise, lyrics can be out of date.” He now has his own personal studio in Jersey, the only high-end one on the island, where the most recent record was recorded.

Corner Boy: Taking Folk’s Unconventional Path

WEXFORD four-piece Corner Boy have given up on music’s well-trodden trails. That’s not a bad thing: with the long-awaited release of their third EP around the corner, the imaginative folk act have settled on slow-dripping their music, and making the most out of the opportunities that it throws up. Instead of recording records or seeking deals, they’ve traveled the world in the back of a transit van.

That’s involved shows in North America, South Korea and the Middle East, a show at half time in the All Ireland final, and a trad sit-ins in Paris. “It’s been about getting out there and getting involved for us,” frontman Mick D’Arcy explains. “We’ve been incredibly fortunate with opportunities.”

“Even in the first year after we formed, we played the Late Late Show and half time at Croke Park to 80,000 people. All these things you’d expect more established bands to do after a few years. People just took to us straight away.”

“If you look back at our early music, though, it’s very obvious where our influences were. We decided we’d take some time off about three years ago, and we went out into the world, took whatever opportunities that came our way. It was about travel, meeting people, new cultures, and using that to inform our music.”

“All of that travel is the experience that has influenced our sound now. We’re incredibly happy. We have, I’d estimate, a 30-40 song backlog. We have a lot of material to release.”

There’s also a cyclical nature to the new EP ‘Goodbye Old Holy’, in that it returns to the scene of one of Corner Boy’s early successes. The band won the Red Bull Bedroom Jam in 2013, just as they started out. The contest that had a prize of recording in the famous Grouse Lodge Studios in Westmeath. They loved the place, and returned again for this record, with Dropkick Murphy’s producer Ted Hutt on the sound decks.

Peter Broderick: “it’s difficult to find a place of solace and quiet, and I appreciate music that facilitates this”

Peter Broderick (by Declan Kelly)

American-born but Galway based composer Peter Broderick is a bit of an international enigma. Despite relocating to Barna, the contemporary composer has found his career has taken on a highly international flavour.

Broderick was key to the way fantastically inventive Danish act Efterklang converted their more orchestral edge into a live setting, and has also worked with the likes of Yann Tiersen, Phillip Glass and Dustin O’Halloran.

His most recent project is the construction of a score around the short film ‘Two Balloons. The collaboration with director Mark Smith has a nice sense of symmetry to it, in particular as the movie is part-inspired by an earlier piece ‘More Of A Composition’.

The soundtrack was released as an EP in November 2018, and is entitled, memorably, ‘Techno for Lemurs’. Two Balloons i showing as part of the Dublin Film Festival’s ‘Fantastic Fix’ this year, on February 23. I asked him about the composition, life and his earlier work…

Congratulations on the score. I understand you worked closely with the producer to break this down almost frame by frame. How complicated does that get, musically?

When it came time to fit the music to the picture, it really was just a matter of watching the film over and over again while playing the piano along with it, getting a feel for the rhythm of the story. The timing of different chapters and certain particular shots in relation to the music felt very important . . . but it was just a matter of repetition and practice until it felt just right.

I believe Mark Smith searched you out to write the music for this movie. What did you think of the film when he did so?

When Mark first reached out to me, he hadn’t even started shooting the film yet. He just had the story in his head and he seemed to know from the beginning that he wanted this particular melody from a song of mine to be used in the film. At that point, I didn’t really know much about the project, but I loved Mark’s enthusiasm and sincerity from the beginning, so I agreed to work with him from the start purely based on those things alone.

Valeras: “If it wasnt for The Rock Academy then we wouldn’t have met”

Reading youngsters Valeras are setting off on their first ever headline tour, having met at a weekend rock school in their distinctly guitar-loving hometown, and supported The Wombats, The Amazons and Demob Happy. 

Their hooky sound and deeply-personal lyrics have the band labelled as one to watch by BBC Introducing and Radio One, as well as being regulars on the lesser stages at Reading Festival. I caught up with them before their double date with Dublin later this month…

I understand this is your first headline tour. How does it compare, psychologically, to the various support slots you’ve been playing before now?

There’s slightly more pressure to getting everything the way we want it to be, but also there’s a lot more excitement because its our first headline tour. 

You quite literally went to rock school. Put aside our movie images for a minute… how well does that work for prespective musicians?

We went to more of a summer camp, it was only for a weekend and it was just like one group per day. It wasn’t quite a rock school but it was a good organisation for young people to meet other likeminded musicians. If it wasnt for The Rock Academy then we wouldn’t have met. 

Are you thinking about an album at this stage? Do you have any idea what it would be like?

We’re always writing and looking to release new music as it comes, so we’ll see where this year takes us!

The Once: High on Harmonies

WITH DUBLIN TRADFEST heading into town in the coming week, the chance to explore folk scenes from outside our own borders is one that looms large. Newfoundland is an unlikely hotbed, and one of their hottest properties, The Once, are one of the acts from outside our own shores that will be dropping into Dublin.

Those Newfoundland origins are at the forefront of the band’s very existence, too. “Most of the people that came before us are immigrants that came from France or Ireland to Newfoundland,” Geraldine Hollett, one of the band’s vocal trio, explains.

“They brought the music with them. In the 90s there was a ‘Celtic Revival’ and that music is definitely influenced by the Irish. We even sound like you in certain communities. When we hit Wexford, we can find people that look like us.”

Their connections, especially on most recent album ‘Time Enough’, come not just from the music, but from a haunting, minimalist approach to lyrics.

“It’s a conscious choice, especially for this album,” Hollett says of the toned-down approach. “We wanted to make an intimate album. We wanted the meaning of the words to get into your head to haunt and then to comfort.”

“Mostly they were written for anyone who has experienced love, loss, anxiety, low self worth and apathy. So, everyone. It was difficult, yes. Stripping things bare leaves us so exposed. We aren’t that comfortable running around naked these days. But we know how important it is to be real. You do really question if it’s good enough. You have to trust that if it comes from a real and honest place, it will reach those it was intended for and not be hurt by the ones it wasn’t.”

Zaska: The Making Of A Village

Guitarist Max Zaska is a hard man to put in a nice, easy-to-grasp box. A brilliant guitarist and adventurous songwriter, he eschews genre convention, preferring to flit between funk and R&B, pop and soul. The result if often bright, bubbly and bouncy.

His approach to performing is similarly atypical. Zaska’s forthcoming debut album hosts something of a who’s who of Ireland’s more interesting musical fringes: BARQ, Come On Live Long, Little Green Cars, Super Silly, Loah and Wyvern Lingo all have members who have chipped in on vocals or instruments, taking roles that Max himself jokingly says he’s utterly unable to fill himself.

It’s hard to peg precisely what Zaska is, then, apart from a project led by a man who’s clearly not short on vision, or on friends (Hozier has also been a regular feature in his career). The inventive musician finds his finest moments is big, bold, diverse collaboration.

“The album title, ‘It Takes A Village’, comes from the way this album was put together, both with all the collaborations and with the FundIt [crowdfunding] campaign that’s supported it,” Zaska told the Gazette of his debut.

“I’ve been working on it since 2015, and the €14.5k people contributed to my FundIt has kept it going right up until now. I’ll just be pushing into my own finances for the first time with some of the promo stuff, so I’m so blessed. It’s been a lot of work. I almost died from exhaustion, but the support has kept me afloat.”

The result is brave and bold. Zaska’s new single is a swipe at Dublin’s increasingly prominent housing crisis. In the imagery around ‘It’s Ridiculous’, you can see the songwriter perched outside the Central Bank in a cardboard box labeled ‘two-bedroom apartment’, grimacing and clutching another piece of cardboard with the song title penned on it in marker.

My Top Five Books of 2018

I remember being told back when I started writing for publication that almost everyone who writes to a high standard reads a lot, too. I’m not sure I quite believed it at the time, but I’ve found myself more and more drawn to well-written tomes over the years, so much so that this particular blog post has just about become an annual tradition (here’s 2017, and 2016). Who knows if any of it’s actually rubbed off!

In keeping with ‘tradition’, this is nothing to do with books that were released in 2018 (they are just ones I read this year), and doesn’t pretend, obviously, to have any learned/ broad perspective (how could it have). I read roughly 50 books in 2018, which has become an oddly consistent number since I started doing this. Of everything I picked up, these are the ones that grabbed me the most…

Marching Powder by Rusty Young (link)

Thomas McFadden was a long-time and seemingly quite effective drug smuggler who ultimately got tracked down and arrested in Bolivia, where he was sent to the notorious San Pedro jail. In this book, a young journalist who was able to buy his way in and out of the jail to talk to McFadden, uncovers the surreal side of his life.

McFadden became a tour guide, showing travelers around the jail. He learned that the prison was the primary source of the drugs he was once famous for buying, with production taking place in areas that the guards couldn’t get near. He bought prison ‘property’, and his own safety, and even found a way to get out of the jail for the night, meet a new girlfriend, and then have her move in with him in San Pedro. Obviously, I have no idea if San Pedro is still like this (the book was published in 2011), but the insight here is breathtaking. The kind of book I had to stop reading to tell people about what was going on: brilliant.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (view)

On finding love in a hopeless place. This is the story of a multilingual Slovak Jew who ended up in the notorious Second World War prison camp, where his language skills and a bit of good luck landed him the job of Tätowierer, the man who tattoos those famous and dehumanizing numbers on new arrivals. There’s an element of mild Nazi-collaboration to Lale Sokolov’s story, but a greater sense that in amongst the sickening world he’s come to occupy, he’s just doing what he has to in order to survive.

For all it’s hard-hitting glances at the prison camp itself, though, it’s the delicate love story that’s what this book is really about. It’s wonderfully delivered, to the point that the grim surroundings almost seem to fade into the background for a while. The ending is powerful, too.

Immigrant Song: Flogging Molly Fly the Flag…

“This is my natural home,” Dave King of Flogging Molly tells us as he sits in his Wexford living room telling us tales of international Irish punk over the phone. “I wish you could see where I’m sitting. It’s beautifully, so quiet, so soulfully Irish.”

King’s tale is a familiar one to our shores. He left his native Dublin as a late teenager, in search of something bigger, and a chance of success. He was drawn to LA, and found himself a regular in a bar called Molly Malones. There, he performed, met his wife Bridget, and eventually encountered the rest of his future bandmates. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, King – at the time a rock vocalist with a band called Fastway – became the frontman of cult Celtic punk band Flogging Molly.

Flogging Molly’s music is a distinct fusion of Irish trad and embittered punk, as well as of the political and personal. One of the band’s biggest hits ‘What’s Left of the Flag’, for example, superficially seems to be about raising the tattered relic of a country high and proud, but is actually a tribute to King’s late father.

Latest album ‘Life Is Good’ – at first glance a deeply sarcastic reference to the bitterness within – is actually a tribute to his mother. After what King describes as “a hard life,” she turned to him on her deathbed and asked him to live his to his full, as she had. He’d always seen her as struggling, but she felt differently.

“I lived in LA for 16 years and it’ll always be the band’s home,” King explains. “Things are different today. I’ve been back in Wexford for 13 or 14 years with Bridget, though we live some of the year in Detroit, too.”

“We spend a lot of our lives on the road. You have to, that’s our bread and butter as a band. We’re just back from South America, and we were in the same airport three times in 30 hours. It gets a bit mad after a while, but we still have loads of ideas. I was on my phone yesterday, looking at notes from last year. When I’m touring, I write them down and then shut them off. I just add sayings to my phone and leave it at that.”