Irish Music


Keywest: “We were all crammed in this house and we had to go out and busk to make the money to get food in.”

A FEW YEARS ago, you’d have been hard-pressed to walk the streets of Dublin without stumbling across four-piece pop-rockers Keywest, often found plying their trade around Grafton Street or Temple Bar. They’re following a well-trodden road: there have been a number of successful Irish acts that first unveiled their skills on the footpaths of Dublin, from The Hothouse Flowers to Ryan Sheridan, The Riptide Movement to Glen Hansard.

Keywest used to draw a substantial crowd to the main shopping streets as they struggled by in a shared house, perfecting their sound and living from meagre takings. These days, they’ve quit the streets, and find themselves propping up the charts instead.

Drummer Harry Sullivan, in fact, was a late arrival in the band. “It never felt that awkward,”, the late draft pick from the UK said. “It was a strange existence, but they were so welcoming. We were all crammed in this house and we had to go out and busk to make the money to get food in. We used to go over to the supermarket at the time they reduced the prices. But it was great fun”

“It always felt like it was going to work out to me, though,” Sullivan explains. Keywest were modestly established by the time he arrived, at least in terms of the local scene, he was leaving behind his native London to join an up and coming band, a move his family were surprisingly positive about. “They knew it was a dream, a good fit,” he explains. “They’ve always been supportive.”

While it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, Keywest’s rise to the top of the Irish charts has been swift. They hit the peak with 2015 release ‘Joyland’, with this year’s follow up ‘True North’ also hitting number three locally.

Hvmmingbyrd: “We felt like writing a love song to the women in our lives, something tender.”

Dublin duo Hvmmingbyrd only started out in 2016, yet their steep learning curve, delicate harmonies and intensely moving sound has quickly established them as a real Irish act to watch.

Deborah Byrne and Suzette Das’s music has featured on TV shows Made In Chelsea and Striking Out, as well as on H&M’s playlist, despite their having released less than half a dozen tracks to date. With the duo working as a self-producing DIY act and proud perfectionists, an average track takes hour upon hour of studio time to construct.

“I’ve learnt not to put anything out until we’re completely happy with it,” Byrne tells us. “That’s been an important lesson. Papillon, which we put out in March, I still love that. We’re new to production, so it takes time, but it’s important we get it right. We find it very hard to let go of a song.”

Their latest, ‘Prisms’, came in the wake of the Belfast rape trials, and explores the darkness faced up o by many women in 2018, and the slow process of being able to speak out. It’s a subtle track, its lyrics loaded with love for women, but dripping with angry undertones come the chorus, and crammed dense with meaning.

“It started in March. The rape trial really upset us, and we went to the protest,” Byrne explains. “We left really moved, there were a lot of people in tears. There was a lot of anger and sorrow for the woman involved, and a sense that things might change. Pretty much every woman has experienced sexual attacks to some extent.”

“We felt like writing a love song to the women in our lives, something tender. It’s all lovely in the bridge, just hinting at the dark side, before going into full-on darkness at the end. It’s about the idea that sometimes the brightest lights can attract the most darkness if that makes any sense. It’s tender, but there’s anger there, too.”

“I feel like there’s been a shift, particularly in the last year or two,” Byrne adds. “The Me Too movement and the way people talk about sexual violence has really changed things. We feel a bit more empowered, but there’s still a lot of pain about stuff that has been left unsaid for so long. As weird as it sounds, it feels strange to be heard.”

BARQ: “There was a jazz quartet, a Motown group and then a hip-hop covers group before we got to BARQ”

Photographed by Dara Munnis. @daramunnis

A PRODUCT of both a top-class education in jazz, and the inventive expansion of the Irish music scene in recent years, BARQ – a soulful, imaginative and lively Dublin act with a boisterous stage presence – are on a fast-rising path.

Having featured on the cover of Hot Press and made the Irish Times’ list of ‘50 People To Watch in 2017’, frontwoman Jess Kavanagh – who’s previously worked with Hozier and Lethal Dialect – sees the band’s music very much as a fusion of its members varied influences.

“The scene today comes from easy access to music all over the world,” she explains. “When I grew up, you had a musical identity, like ‘I’m a rocker’, and you go to whatever section in Tower Records is selling the rock music. It was part of who you were. People don’t consume music like that anymore, it comes from a multitude of places.”

“Now Ireland also has all these music and cultures that didn’t exist here ten years ago,” Stephen McHale adds. “As soon as people had MP3 players, I remember people started talking about different things – my friends listened to Malian bands, classical music, orchestral tracks, stuff like that. Odd tracks here and there. It wasn’t so vertical; not the whole catalogue from one band, but a really wide range of genres. That was a big shift, and it affected everything.”

We spent four years playing jazz, and that feeds into what we do, too. I don’t think we feature anything we don’t have some background in, so it feels authentic and natural to us, even if it does sound a little bit like ‘what is that’ to outsiders. It’s a combination of what we all listen to: jazz, Kendrick Lamar, stuff like that.”

“Tommy (Gray), drummer, was living in what we called ‘the jazz house’, and we spent a lot of time messing around with music,” Kavanagh recalls of the early days. “We were listening to music around the kitchen table and drinking wine. There was a jazz quartet, a Motown group and then a hip-hop covers group before we got to BARQ. We settled into a sound in the hip-hop covers band, and so when we started writing our own songs, the overall sound was already there.”

Glimmermen: “Sometimes it’s hard to get your head around why we do it”

A diverse band who claim to dabble in ‘primitive rock and roll’, Glimmermen have been dabbling around the Dublin music scene for some time now, earning a reputation for a sparkling live show and an ability to flit in and out of genres, yet produce an amazingly coherent whole.

Their latest album ‘Here I Stand’ is a vinyl-only release that serves as an exploration of love and exploration of the world’s flaws. I spoke to guitar and vocalist Gav Cowley about the story behind it…

Congrats on the new album. Can you tell me a little of the story behind the release, and a couple of the key tracks?

Thank you very much. The album was recorded at the beginning of this year, 11 of songs at once in love and aghast at the state of the world. For key tracks, the current video/single ‘It’s Nice’ is out at the moment is a good starting point and of course the title track. What you get with Glimmermen is a lot of different styles – the thread that runs through our output is melody, decent hooks, quirky lyrics, and I think with this album in particular a lot of heart.

How does a typical Glimmermen song come together?

Sometimes we will have ideas in the room all together , sometimes I’ll come in with an idea for a song and we go at it, bend it around, take it somewhere else, we have the benefit of all our individual musical influences and different reference points. We are all big music fans.

The video for ‘It’s Nice’ is quite a concept – would it be fair to say you’re not too bothered by things like the charts?

I think all we want to do is do what we do. We would love the opportunity to play more gigs. We love playing music together and whatever else happens is a bonus.

What does constitute success for the band these days? You’ve been around a while, have you noticed much change in the Irish music scene in that time?

Success? hmm..As an independent band, we are happy with a gig that went well, we are very happy if someone likes what we do and tells someone else. We like when people buy what we put out and also it’s nice to get the feedback on the output which leaves you enthused to continue, to do better.

Three albums in, how do you feel you’ve developed as a band? You do seem a little less bluesy than the old three-piece these days?

I think the heart of what we do is still there, but there’d be something wrong with a band if they didn’t develop, refine things, build on things. We certainly always wanted to expand what we do into the area of brass arrangements and I think with the addition of Trumpet and Saxaphone to what we had has taken things into a new place.

You have a reputation as a really strong live band. Is that something you prioritise – are songs written with the live show in mind, for example?

Sometimes..sometimes songs will grow to fill the space your in. I know with the first album ‘I’m Dead’ we were rehearsing in a very small room. There is a lot going on in the first album but there is a claustrophobic, frenetic quality to the songs…thats just one example but obviously you are hoping to play the songs to an audience even an audience of one so we do both..we play our hearts out a gig, or in the studio when we record.

TOUCAN: “I think it’s becoming a ‘thing’ to have a load of people on stage”

TOUCAN are one of the rising stars of the Irish music scene, a kind of Motown-loving, glorious throwback of a band, big enough to seem like they were formed with a healthy disregard for the practicalities of touring, and lively enough to instantly engage. Their second EP, ‘So Easy To Love You’, is released on November 22, and showcases the ever-expanding talents of frontman Conor Clancy.

Clancy is one of those vibrant showmen who consciously evokes with his every word, a kind of curator at the head of a talented ‘army’ of an act that hang out funky licks and flowing, pop-tinged grooves. Known for a spicy, frantic live show, their rise looks set to continue in the coming months. I spoke to Clancy about the journey so far…

Congratulations on your rapid rise, how have the past months felt for TOUCAN?

Thank you! It’s been an absolute dream. Once the Summer started, it was like someone just turned on a tap and we were getting the craziest gigs. We opened for Nile Rodgers & CHIC in Dublin, played the Southbank Centre and the Royal Albert Hall, a cracker of a gig at Electric Picnic and we’re just back from New York. It’s just been so much fun!

Let’s pretend I’ve never heard your music for a moment. What do TOUCAN sound like, and how do you hope audiences will take your music in?

Well, I’d hope that most people enjoy it in the same way most Motown music tends to go down – most people would say Motown is hard not to love. It’s just feel-good, the hooks have you singing and the grooves have you moving. For me, while the music is so important, I’ve always been huge about lyrics and making sure the imagery is right. I think it’s an element that can sometimes be overlooked, but the imagery used in a song can be a hook too.

Can you tell me a bit about your forthcoming EP, and the story behind it? Does it feel like much of an evolution from the debut for you?

For sure! It definitely is a step forward for us in terms of how the whole things sounds and sits together. I think between the writing and recording of the last EP and this one, I’ve grown hugely as a musical director and as a producer. It was actually really cool being able to communicate exactly what I was looking for, and having the language that I once didn’t have to be able to tell someone what I was trying to achieve, both in the broader sense of how the tracks were supposed to sound and what the ‘voice’ of the EP was supposed to be, and in the more specific sense in each take how I wanted things to be delivered. There were still a bunch of times where I wasn’t sure how to say something, and in those moments you just have to chase it, but we got there in the end. Probably all down to the patience of the performers!

Is there an album on the horizon?

Definitely, but the horizon is probably quite some time away. As an independently funded band, even recording small EPs like this is a huge undertaking financially, so I’m not sure how the numbers would work for an album. If we were able to land a deal, I think it would unlock quite a few doors that would lead to an LP.

I understand you played the Sofar Sounds Liberties show recently (I live down the road but couldn’t wrangle a ticket!). That kind of event is a fantastic way of catching live music. How did it feel to play?

Ah, it was great. I always find those sets are way more nervewracking than the bigger shows. I’d much rather play to 2000 people than to 20 because I’m less nervous! It’s just that microscopic sense that it’s your every move being watched. But, having said that, the crowd were so lovely. I did a singalong for the first tune and they were all so up for it, it was actually really nice.

What about the New York showcase – how does it feel to ‘rep Ireland’ at that kind of show?

It’s always cool when you’re representing where you’re from. It gives the gig a whole different feeling and you have like a bigger responsibility to perform when you’re there. It was great craic, the crowd were all mad into it and the place was hopping at the end. I wasn’t sure what to expect – I had envisioned playing to like 15 people – but the room was packed and the atmosphere was deadly.

Stomptown Brass: “bit of an audacious task looking back, but we wanted to host a funeral for the truth”

Stomptown Brass are an eight-piece, sometimes-conceptual brass band famed for their live performances. The Dubliners, in short, are a bit nuts, a lot of fun, and probably far enough from the conventions of popular music that theirs will be a slow but intensely rewarding journey around the fringes. They always look like they’re having an absolute blast.

If I were to start a band, they’d be a bit like this. I caught up with them to see how it’s all going; here’s what Brian Ryan of Stomptown Brass said of their journey so far…

Hi lads, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. How is life in Stomptown Brass right now?

We’re getting a couple of laughs together for our new tour that’s kicking of this month. Having spent the summer practicing new music and getting some recording sessions down we’re looking forward to sharing with your eardrums.

Can you tell me how all this started out for you, and what you thought might come of the idea back when you started?

During the end of our college days, our pal James O’Leary (aka Mr. Music Man) brought a few of us together for Murphy’s ice-cream on Wicklow Street to tell us he wanted to first learn how to play the trombone and second, start a brass band to play his compositions. One of our first tunes was called Rutland Blues in honour of our first practice studio that suffered a collapsed roof causing us to move out fairly lively.

Obviously you’re very much focused on producing a really strong live show. What are the key elements of that, in your views?

We don’t set out to produce or engineer a strong live show. We just aim to incorporate new elements to our shows that we’re interested in and we put a good bit of welly in to try to get it the best we can. Requiem for the Truth show was our first attempt at this, incorporating theatre or something entirely new for a brass band performance. A Show Curious Eyes & Ears was an attempt to make our music more accessible to children (and parents!), and with this new upcoming tour we’re trying something entirely new for us. So hopefully at least two people out there will like it; then bingo, hello international stardom.

Elaine Mai: Building on Thematic Roots

Elaine Mai – Photography by Ruth Medjber @ruthlessimagery

AN ELECTRONIC artist originally from Galway but now based in Dublin, Elaine Mai has risen through the Irish music scene through her own nuanced output, but also through a series of clever, intricate collaborations.

From serving up the vocals on Le Galaxie’s wonderful ‘Love System’ to remixing Loah’s ‘Nothing’ in order to highlight the rising star’s soulful melodies, Mai has an ear for the clever twist, the arty repetition and the dancefloor-filling beat.

Her own output, she says, often revolves around themes, and the direction of her life at the time. “A couple of years ago I went through a really hard time,” she explains, “and that really informed my last EP.” The Colours Of The Night was a cathartic work centred on Mai’s experience of grief, and intensely moving with it.

With its thematic nature, though, Mai’s work is set, inevitably, to move on as she works towards releasing new music. Built on a clever use of looping that she reproduces live, and has learnt to subtly adapt as she plays, Mai’s new songs, only slowly emerging from production, will be centred on the concept of home.

“I’ll be putting out a couple of things this year, and then something bigger next year,” she said. “I went up to Donegal and borrowed a holiday cottage that I turned into a studio for a week to work on my music. It’s the first time I’ve ever done that, and it really worked well. The new tracks are all around home, but in the emotional sense, rather than the physical. I’m already playing some of it at my shows. It’s coming together.”

The regular remixes that have become a staple of Mai’s output, though, have become almost as important to the artist’s creative brand, as has a long-standing song-development and touring partnership with another well-known Galway dance act. Daithi, a former virtuoso fiddle prodigy who’s slowly adapted into a prolific dancefloor star, often has input on Mai’s work, and vice versa.

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.”