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Sorbet: “it’s a kind of writing that just doesn’t make sense to prescribe to a band”

Best known for his work with genre-bending jazz rockers Robocobra Quartet, Chris Ryan’s solo outlet, SORBET, is an entirely different kind of project.

Described by Chris as a “musical cleansing of the palate” (hence the name), it’s out via Hamburg based Bureau B Records today, and deals with specific feelings and senses, being very much ‘feel’ based.

I spoke to Chris ahead of the release, and he had this to say about ‘Life Variations’…

Congrats on the new EP. Can you talk me through the concepts behind it?

Thanks! Life Variations is a collection of three pieces of music that all share musical/lyrical themes around life, death, birth, rebirth, and all that good stuff. In a way it’s 3 pop songs but in a way it’s 3 parts to one whole composition.

Is there a certain amount of life examination going on for you at the moment, and has it led anywhere in particular musically?

Yeah. I spent some time in Sao Paulo last year as part of the PRSF/ British Council Musician in Residence and it made me think a lot about my life and identity. I’ve also always been interested in having an outlet for the kind of hyper-specific writing I’ve always enjoyed doing— a kind of writing that just doesn’t make sense to prescribe to a band.

If you have that kind of urge I find it’s much more appropriate to use sheet music or ProTools or these kinds of fixed mediums as opposed to the ‘band’ method of getting ideas across orally.

I’m a big fan of vinyl releases – was that an important part of the release for you?

It certainly does make it feel real for some reason, especially with a short format release like an EP. It looks really cool – it’s a one-sided 12 inch so the B-side is unpressed and is just smooth black vinyl.

TV People: “The lockdown put me in a really reflective and introspective headspace and I think that brought out the existential side to the lyrics as well”

The latest in a popular string of Dublin post-punk acts taking the rock scene by storm, TV People have the dingy backdrop that’s common to the genre, their music a poetic airing of greicances delivered through abrupt, snarling tones and intense intros.

Very much embedded in the city, like the predecessors Girl Band and Fontaines DC, they’re another glance at the darker side of city life, something that shines in their videos as well as their tone. I caught up with them following the release of new single ‘Nothing More’.

Hi folks, congrats on the new single – can you tell me a little bit of the story behind it?

Paul – We wrote ‘Nothing More’ at the start of the lockdown in March. We usually write together in our rehearsal room so it was a new experience for us. We didn’t see each other in person for nearly two months but were constantly sending voice recordings and ideas over and back to each other on Whatsapp.

It was a bit of a mad way to bring the song together and it was definitely frustrating at times, but it was extremely rewarding to watch everything fall into place as we got used to writing in that way. The lockdown put me in a really reflective and introspective headspace and I think that brought out the existential side to the lyrics as well. We probably would never have written a song like that if we hadn’t been put into lockdown, so it’s nice to have something to show for that period and to look back on it.

I assume the track predates the whole 2020 shitshow, but it does seem oddly appropriate. There’s a real ‘lostness’ to the music – is an outlet for that side of things for you?

Paul: We definitely try to channel our surroundings into our songwriting. Writing this song was the only real focus the four of us had for the first few weeks of lockdown, and I think the tune was an outlet for the frustration, stress and apathy we were feeling at that time.

Those emotions can be felt in the music and the lyrics of the song. For me, lyric writing is a way to break down and express how I’m feeling so that I can manage it. The lyrics and music of this tune are emotionally woven together. I think it’s an expression of how the four of us were feeling when we wrote it.

Have you managed to function as a band since March, with everything that’s going on?

Paul – The last few months have been fairly chaotic. We had studio time and plenty of gigs canceled overnight. It was obviously frustrating but COVID has impacted everyone and some are much worse off than us. We’ve tried to stay positive and focus on writing to keep ourselves busy over the last few months.

In a way, it’s been nice to have a bit more time to dedicate to working on new tunes. We played a recorded gig in Central Arts Waterford for the Artbeat – Summer in the City festival a few weeks ago which was great craic. It was really nice to get back playing live again and hopefully we’ll be able to get a few more gigs in over the next few months.

Janet Devlin: A statement return.

If you remember Janet Devlin, you probably remember a softly-spoken Northern Irish girl who became a star of X-Factor. Notably shy at the time, Devlin’s performances were slightly outside of the niche of the pop-loving show when she wowed with her voice but was almost reticent in her showmanship as a 17-year-old back in 2011. But wow, what a voice.

The Janet Devlin who’s evolved on the music scene since is a very different character. Notably grown up from that almost reluctant-feeling early brush with stardom, Devlin moved to England, started tracking her progress with deeply emotive and personal YouTube videos, as well as the music, and developed and then got over a substantial problem with alcohol, one that she later unveiled in those videos.

In the course of our 20 minute chat she’s notably jovial – telling us that she’s doing the best she ever has – but equally, that she doesn’t regret X-Factor and its firm thrust into the limelight, or much of what followed. Her new album, ‘Confessional’, is something like an exploration of ‘seven deadly sins’ of her life so far, though mostly committed towards Devlin. She describes the process as being about “getting it all out in the open.”

“It took me five years,” she explains, “but it’s been a good thing. When I decided to do the book as well, obviously I had to write that. That took a wee while. I knew when I finished the last album that I wanted to tell people about the things that I’d been through. I realised that everything felt really self-indulgent, when I was trying to write these really heartfelt songs. So I decided to go down a more metaphorical approach.”

“I realised that I could write this metaphorical album, this piece of work, and write a book to go alongside it, so I’m not isolating the listener. It’s still an album, full of conceptual stuff, but if you want it to have a more personal journey, you’ll find that in the book. It allowed me to get everything I wanted into that space.”

The album runs chronologically to Devlin’s life, starting even before those X-Factor days, but it’s hard hitting, touching on anorexia, self-harm, bullying, depression, assault, fraud and alcohol abuse, though those stories come out more deeply in the text than the music.

Imelda May: “I wouldn’t be a musician or a writer if it wasn’t for The Liberties”

Since writing and launching her debut, but especially since sophomore album ‘Love Tattoo’, the biggest selling record by any Irish female artist ever, Imelda May has been part of the folklore of a certain distinctive part of Dublin city.

The Liberties has its own special character, and Imelda, despite having moved to the south of England with her daughter, still holds the place in the highest of esteem. “My heart and soul is in The Liberties, and I’ll be coming back,” she tells us. “I wouldn’t be a musician or a writer if it wasn’t for being from there.”

“It’s so pervasive and colourful, a place where eccentricities are really encouraged. I used to put my demos in the fruit and veg store on Meath Street, and they’d make everyone who came in keep quiet and listen to them. You never forget that kind of support.”

“Poetry was everywhere, too. People have been asking me recently if I think poetry is elitist. It absolutely is not. My dad used to read me Spike Milligan. I have an uncle who was a taxi driver and a poet. Another guy did beautiful oil paintings and drove the delivery trucks, and my aunt used to dance. The place is so creative, it’s part of its spirit.” Some of May’s own work is used in support of the Penny Dinners in the area, with the poem ‘Liberty Belle’ a particular dedication.

R.S.A.G.: “There was an excitement in the unknown and where this could take me”

R.S.A.G. – the apt descriptor for Jeremy Hickey’s inventive and textured electronic act Rarely Seen Above Ground – is something of an icon in a certain segment of the Irish music scene. Known for his subtle textures, startlingly impressive drumming and clever production.

His latest, ‘Chroma’, is an unusual concept album, based on ‘Colour’ pieces that chart Hickey’s day-to-day life in musical form. He describes it as being about struggle and emotion, frustrations and regression, but also about concept and creativity.

“I think on this album the songwriting has gone to a different sensitivity, a more thoughtful space. I also decided to mix the album myself which was a very interesting and fulfilling exercise.”

“The process really started when I moved out to the country about 10 years ago and set up my new studio. I decided that whatever I was going to do next it had to be an honest reflection on how my life had changed and was continuing to do so.” 

“There was an excitement in the unknown and where this could take me. I was also struck by the wondrous colours and sounds nature had to offer from my studio view. There was an interesting correlation between nature and the recording process. I sat down with my co-writer Jamie Walsh and we talked about the album being a more colourful piece of work and that we could document it through a musical diary. Going back and forth with sketches until the right lyric fitted each musical mood.”

Arthur Valentine: “The most important thing I’ve learned from lockdown is just to make sure you keep moving forward. Do your best not to get bogged down”

Arthur Valentine (a.k.a Luke Aston)’s creation of ‘Hausu’ has been a huge creative outlet, a musical outlet premised on living in a house and forging a studio with those he lives with, essentially making music a lifestyle.

Coincidentally, the set-up is ideal for the current scenario, a kind of hub that naturally not only survives, but thrives in a corona-hit world.

His latest single ‘Fruit Juice’ is the result of just such a setup. I caught up with him to talk all about it…

Can you tell me a little bit about your musical background, and how you got to launching your first singles?

I come from a very musical family, so music has always been a pretty big part of my life. I’ve been writing music and recording with my Hausu mates Jack (actualacid) and Drew (Automatic Blue) for years, but there was always something that kept us from releasing anything.

Looking back, I think we knew that the music we were originally making wasn’t exactly the vibe we were going for. It wasn’t until I recorded Selfish that I think we gained the confidence to start putting the music out into the world. We definitely took our time, only putting out two singles last year, but it was always my intention to ramp it up in terms of releases this year.

What’s the story with Fruit Juice, and what kind of introduction are you hoping it will be for you, alongside your earlier tracks?

Fruit Juice is a track that was born out of quarantine. It happened one night when I couldn’t sleep, I went into the studio and started working on a completely different song. The track I was working on was very heavy and sombre, and working on it felt a bit overwhelming given the climate at the time.

I started thinking that I’d love to make a more upbeat, optimistic track. I started looking through old beats that Jack had made for the Arthur Valentine project and found the outline of the beat that would later become Fruit Juice. I laid down guitar, bass and some vocal melodies and lyric ideas that night at about 4am.

I showed it to the lads the next morning and they were hyped, so we just tore into it from there. The track was finished about a week or two later. In terms of how people react to the Fruit Juice – making the song acted as a form of catharsis for me, an escape from quarantine. I guess I’d like people who hear it to feel something similar.

Robocobra Quartet: “We have a kind of Jekyll and Hyde thing, like a Trojan horse”

Belfast band Robocobra Quartet flit around in the margins of an unusual genre combination, somewhere between hard-edged rock and jazz. It’s an intentional fusion of disparate experimentation, an unusual, blended sound that makes the group difficult to sum up, but fascinating to explore.

Having won acclaim from the likes of the BBC and The Guardian, the (often, but not always) four-piece are busy working away on their new record, which Chris Ryan – a man with the unusual combined role of drummer and vocalist – took the time to talk us through.

“We’re writing a new record, and we’ve always wanted to do something different every time with our work,” he explains. “The last one was kind of Brian Wilson like, a bit manic with lots of different things, like half songs with different bands, nuts studio stuff, that kind of thing. This time, we’re doing a thing a bit more like Black Flag or The Ramones, just playing the entire set for a year live and then going into the studio and putting it down almost as it is when we do it live. It’s very different.”

“We try not to do a straight up reproduction of our recordings live. We try to improvise a lot, I think that resonates more with people. I think live is where people normally ‘get’ us, and the record takes a bit longer. I guess that’s one of the reasons we’ve gone for a more straightforward live recording. I do a lot of work producing bands for a living, so in some ways Robocobra Quartet are a kind of guinea pig for the things I’m trying out.”

There are advantages to being seen as sliding along the edges of two distinct styles of music, and one of the keys to Robocobra’s huge variety of styles of show is the band’s ability to walk those lines to their advantage, and keep a foot in each of the punk and jazz camps.

“We were lucky in a sense that the [Northern Irish] Arts Council, who helped fund our last album, was to an extent immune from the political problems up here,” Ryan explains. “I guess in a way, the good things take a long time to trickle down, but the bad things do, too, so there were still good people in the Arts Council doing their jobs and helping out, even before the power sharing arrangement.”

Alex Tierney: “I was just hanging out at home and within a couple of minutes I was preparing for my biggest gig so far”

Alex Tierney had barely started out when he got the call to play one of Dublin’s most noted venues, the Olympia Theatre, supporting a huge chart name in Lewis Capaldi at just a couple of days’ notice.

The 20-year-old, who’s very much taken with the hip-hop and production, but lays it over more pop-style tunes, launched his debut single ‘Over The Maybes’ last month.

He’s already been the subject of plenty of label interest, but for now the focus is personal developmnet. I spoke to him about the journey so far..

Congrats on the debut single. It seems like our unusual times played into its production. Has the shutdown kind of worked for you?

Definitely, the lockdown really helped me focus on just making music and working at my own pace so I think I’m making some of my best work at the moment.

How did you find the process of writing, recording and producing entirely by yourself?

I started writing it right at the start of lockdown and didn’t know what vibe it was gonna be until I found the right guitar effect then that sort of set the tone. The recording and producing side of things was a really fun experience because at home there’s no studio time limit so myself and my brother just made the most of the equipment we had at our family home during lockdown and everything just fell into place.

Can you tell me a little about the story behind the track?

The song is basically about that feeling so many people can relate to where you know how you feel about someone and the situation feels so right but maybe there’s something holding them back from telling you how they feel.

The Lewis Capaldi support slot is some grab considering you didn’t have any music out at the time. How did it come about?

Lewis got in touch with my manager two days before the show and asked if I’d like to support him. I was just hanging out at home and within a couple of minutes I was preparing for my biggest gig so far which was pretty insane!

How did you find the experience playing on a stage like that?

Playing on that stage was unbelievable! Growing up in Dublin, the Olympia Theatre is definitely one of those milestone venues that every musician wants to play in so to get the opportunity to open up for one of my favourite acts there this early in my career was incredible! On top of that, I think it was one of my best performances yet which just made it that bit more special.