Lucy McWilliams: “I’m overlooking the dark times and pushing forward hoping to find that light in them”

Lucy McWilliams’ impact on the Dublin music scene is rapidly growing. With support slots confirmed for major shows such as Two Door Cinema Club’s sold out Iveagh Gardens appearance this summer, and Inhaler’s UK tour, she might still be very much in the ‘early singles’ stage, but the omens are beyond positive, and big names are taking an interest.

Her two biggest singles to date, recent releases ‘Slow Dancing’ and ‘Bumblebees and Blue Skies’ are both deeply personal pieces of pop that shine a light on McWilliam’s positive take on life. The Dubliner, previously known for her well-regarded work with spoken word artist Malaki, is starting to make her own impressions.

“‘Bumblebees and Blue Skies’ is a little insight into my fantasy world,” McWilliams says, “I’m always overlooking the dark times and pushing forward hoping to find that light in them. In the studio the guys joked how I just think love will always be bumblebees and blue skies when in reality that’s not the case – that’s how it came about.”

“‘Slow Dancing’ is also in that fantasy world, but more the world you create with strangers. It’s about yearning to be loved and understood, but too afraid to ever show anyone close to you the real you.” Both tracks, in short, contain huge elements looking at who McWilliams is.

“I find it really hard to write without putting myself in it.,” she continues. “I wish I could make up worlds and characters, but that never comes naturally, every song is a little piece of me. I don’t like or dislike it really, it’s just all I’ve ever known when writing.”

McWilliams career so far has been heavily impacted by stints in both Berlin and London, though she’s left the two cities with vastly different takes on the places with only Berlin really having a lasting impact on her style.

“Berlin was such a mad place and such a new, free environment,” she says. “Starting completely clean and being able to adapt to any personality definitely helped me come out of my shell, and have more confidence in creating which I didn’t have when I was in Dublin.” London, though, McWilliams says sapped her creativity, though she wasn’t quite sure why.

Back in Ireland, the big summer support slots are pending, and will see McWilliams take to stages larger than those she’s frequented to date. That’s not a small thing, especially psychologically. “I get really nervous performing,” she says, “but my band are the best. I guess [I’ll prepare by] rehearsing, and pints. Lots of pints.”

“I’ve enjoyed meeting people and working with new people. There’s so many amazing people I’ve met that I would have never met if I wasn’t doing music. So I’m grateful for my friends and collaborators, they’re the best. I guess all my friends are artists so I just kinda follow and learn from them, but like anything it’s up and down, and self doubt will always creep in.”

There’s an EP in the works, though without a release date just yet, an important step in terms of establishing McWilliams more firmly. For McWilliams, though, for now it’s all about the experience. “Being able to make music with people I love and look up to, it’s really that simple,” she says of her future plans. “If I’m able to do that, something is working!”

LYRA: “after covid, I just said yes to everything”

Cork superstar LYRA – the stage name of Laura McNamara – has made waves in the world of pop in recent years with huge hits like ‘Falling’ and ‘Edge of Seventeen’, tracks that, effectively, explore her own life. The pandemic break proved a chance to perfect this.

“I definitely developed more as an artist. I suppose I felt like I came back stronger, more of a fight and more clear I know what I want to do,” LYRA says of the period. “I wasn’t going to let it go. So I went hell for leather, threw myself into everything, with TV shows, podcasts, time in the studio, bigger live shows. I just said yes to everything.”

That’s starting to shine through. New track ‘You’ has a “dancier feel,” according to LYRA, as it’s “about a night out. It’s about this big break up I went through, one of those times where you’re just thinking will I ever find anyone like that again. And I went through a lot of soulless dates, with no spark. And then I went out on one night out with my girls, and had a bottomless prosecco brunch.”

“I randomly met this guy, and he looked like Drogo. I like to think that I look like Khaleesi (two characters from Game Of Thrones), so it felt like a match made in heaven. It was about that spark coming back. I was sick of writing ‘woe is me’, and so I wrote about something fun, something that will make people want to get up and dance.”

“When I’m on stage, I like to be able to connect with a story I’m telling,” she explains, “so I like them to be true stories, not reading from a script. I think you can tell when people are telling a story. I like to go back into the emotion at that time and take the audience on a journey with me. During some songs, I look angry, others vulnerable, because I’m going back to who I was at that time. For ‘You’, I dance, because that’s where I was at that time. It’s a way for people to get to know me.”

“That, and let’s be honest, it’s a lot easier to write a song about things you know, too. Sometimes people suggest ideas for songs, and if I’ve never experienced those things, I don’t do it. It’s so much easier that way.”

Alongside the music, Lyra’s gathering a reputation for talking about health and wellbeing, in particular on a series of high-profile podcast appearances. Her curation of ‘Rock Against Homelessness’, which takes place in the Olympia Theatre next month, is another example of her outgoing sense of charity.

“Mental health is not great sometimes in this industry,” she says. “You have to take a lot on yourself. I’m lucky to have an amazing team around me, but at the end of the day, it’s kind of a bit of a mind game. I like to take care of myself, and when I get invited to speak about it, I thought, I would like an artist that I aspire to be to talk about this stuff. So I do it. It’s about giving back.”

“I’m a big control freak when it comes to my music. Lyrics and melodies are near enough 100% me. I love doing my own fashion, styling, and being very hands on with my photoshoots, so I put a lot of pressure on myself. I guess that means if I do mess up, I know I gave it everything. Nothing gets handed to you on a silver platter, you have to work for it. I’m going to give it 110%.”

The Young‘Uns: “there’s great tragedy and despair, but also hope”

The Young‘Uns, comically, are no longer young. The folk act from Stockton in County Durham almost stumbled upon their genre of music and its storytelling traditions when they walked into a pub, found an ongoing session, and became regulars. Soon they were participating, too, the youngest of an ageing crowd, hence the name.

Years later, now edging into middle age as multiple winners of BBC 2’s Folk Awards, the trio’s latest album continues their recent theme of modern storytelling. Tales told on their latest record ‘Tiny Notes’ (out next week), see them explore the story of Lyra McKee and her Derry shooting, and Paige Hunter and the notes designed to prevent suicide she has spent years sticking to Sunderland’s Wearmouth Bridge, as well as many more.

“I think folk in England is very much an unknown sort of quantity really,” frontman Sean Cooney explains. “Traditional songs in pubs and folk clubs are an underground thing, or certainly were 20 years ago when we discovered it. It was a revelation. We had no idea that there were songs from the North East of England, or that people sung in a Teesside accent. To hear songs about where we came from was such a life changing thing. It never occurred to us that it could become a career, but it was something we wanted to do, something local and precious.”

“It was a natural progression. For years we tried to preserve the old local songs, and I felt like they taught us so much about love and life and loss, comedy and tragedy. There came a point about six or seven years ago where we consciously started trying not to write songs about the history of the North East of England.”

The result was their modern incarnation, a band that carries heavy folk traditions, but gathers modern stories and retells them, often tragic tales produced with the permission of those they are depicting.

“Now it’s stuff that’s moving me today,” Cooney says. “Within the stories that we tell, there’s great tragedy and despair, but there’s always some hope in there. The title track ‘Tiny Notes’, inspired by Paige Hunter, who saved thirty lives in Sunderland by leaving little hopeful notes on the bridge, it’s full of hope.”

“It’s easy writing songs about the past, because all the people in it are dead, obviously. It’s a strange and beautiful thing to write modern stories. In this album, we’ve got a couple of songs people requested themselves, like a song about Tim Burman, who died in the Lockerbie bombing, was requested by his sister, which gives a lovely personal connection.”

“Others are stories that we’d seen in the news or the media, and when embarking on these kinds of songs, really personal songs, it’s not something we do lightly. ‘Tiny Notes’ took about three years of thinking about it before I decided to have a go at telling this story.” 

“There’s been lots of times where I’ve thought about writing a song and then not, because it didn’t feel like the right thing to do. We take great courage in most of the stories being shared, and used many times, by the people involved. That feels like what folk music always was.”

“We take steps to approach the people concerned, and thankfully they’ve all given their permission to sing it. On one case, with three dads raising suicide awareness, we went and met them one day while they were walking through Cumbria on a mountainside, and performed for them. There’s a longer piece that we’ll release in the next couple of weeks. Those are really special moments.”

Lenii: “The Edge jumped up to fix a guitar strap”

A cork girl going for the big time in LA, Lenii, a starkly infectious pop singer and producer, feels like she’s on the brink of the big time. Her journey started with lockdown, a time she described as “amazing but very strange,” as she sat at home in Cork while early single ‘The Kids Are All Rebels’ went hugely viral on TikTok.

“It was only a bit of a song,” she says of the initial traction. “I had to sit down and write the rest as I felt I had to capitalise. I banged it out, and I’m really glad I did. It made me deal with the idea of having opinions as a public figure. I almost reverse engineered a hit.”

Lenii has lived her life half in Cork and half in LA, and her latest period on the sunny Pacific coast of the US has taken her still further, as she’s gathered connections in the production world and worked with David Guetta, Kenzie – a regular collaborator – and Pixie Lott. Her solo career is just kicking off – in fact, her debut solo show post lockdown was less than two weeks ago – but it’s kicking off with a bang.

“A lot of time passed between ‘The Kids Are All Rebels’ and things actually opening”, she says. “I took a while to get to that place after things had opened up, but my first show was, I think, the best night of my life. It made it real. I met a girl who had been following me since 2020, and got to hug her. My guitarist’s strap broke in the middle of the show, and this guy jumped up to fix it, and it was the Edge, from U2. The next day I met Hozier, and he’d heard all about it. It was the maddest first show I could have hoped for.”

“It’s changed how I think I’ll write my newer music,” she continues. “It was a lot of fun, and I love dancing around on stage having a good time. My set has been more guitar heavy, more of a rock show than I think you’d expect from listening on Spotify, and it’s made me want to lean into that. It’ll change my production, too.”

“Everyone has been so supportive. Before the pandemic I felt very out of touch with the scene at home. When I was at home for the pandemic, I met so many more people in the Irish industry. It was like the veil lifted, and I saw this really cool, tight-knit community. I’m very grateful for it.”

“I started playing violin when I was four,” she continues, “and as a producer I think that’s super helpful. I love playing for people when they come for sessions, and it’s a kind of unique selling point. I play it a bit on my own music, too. It makes it feel alive and real,  and it makes me feel connected to my baby self a bit.”

“I’ve been in LA almost my whole adult life, so I talk about that, about my own experiences. ‘The Kids Are All Rebels’ was entirely about American politics. I was frustrated, honestly. Living here, and not being from here, I think you see it from more of an outsider’s perspective, and some of the things about how the country works were shocking.” 

“I also have American citizenship so I feel like I can say stuff. I’m blunt in my music, with emotions and opinion. I’m not shy, and it’s definitely got me in trouble with a lot of people on the internet. I wouldn’t live here if I didn’t want to. But I’d rather be polarising than mediocre.”

“I think my poor mother wishes I was a bit shyer. It’s not performative, though, I just say how I feel. Some of it’s about having fun, some of it’s about break ups, some of it’s about friendships. And then some is about politics. My newest single is called ‘Good Life’, and that’s just about how crazy and cool the world is. I’m very grateful for how things are at the moment.”

Anamoe Drive: “I can’t really think of a song I’ve released that isn’t in some way influenced by Daniel Johnston”

Best-known as the frontman of riotous rock band Thumper, Oisin Leahy Furlong has recently emerged in a new guise, Anamoe Drive. As, in its essence, the quiet to Thumper’s (extremely) loud, lo-fi debut ‘Breakfast In Bed’ came out in early March, and explores themes of love, from breakup to new sparks.

Written, almost literally, propped up in a bed after the night before, the record is a beautifully delicate and ragged exploration of the singer’s squeezed heart. I too the chance to catch up with to him about the record.

First off, Oisin, congrats on the new project. What has Anamoe Drive enabled you to do that you can’t do in Thumper?

THUMPER began as a solo project of sorts, and morphed into a 6 man democracy over time. It’s been nice to revert back to the process of doing something in a bubble (albeit in collaboration with Rian Trench who helped produce the album).

How will the two acts coexist going forward?

I think when I began to conceive of the project there was a very hard line drawn between them. That distinction probably looked something like THUMPER = Loud / ANAMOE DRIVE = Quiet. Through making the album those perceived differences have fallen away, and have already begun to inform future work.

Can you tell me a little of the story behind ‘Breakfast in Bed’?

I had initially intended to put together a collection of very lo-fi recordings. Songs had started to accumulate and I wasn’t sure what to do with them. I made a rough demo of the song ‘Goodbye & Goodluck’ in my sitting room and a friend asked if he could remix it. He added electronic drums and synths – lots of bells and whistles.

While I didn’t end up using most of what they added to the tune, it did open my eyes to a new context and potential pallet that the songs could sit in. It was around that time I decided that maybe there was an album in this: housing ‘small’ and intimate tunes in a more lush setting, trying to make them feel big and small at the same time.

I understand there are three distinct sections of the record that all deal in different stages of romance. How autobiographical is it all?

It’s entirely autobiographical. A lot of the songs were an exercise in a more literal lyrical style, rather than the more surreal or obtuse mode that I can find myself gravitating towards. It was only once I’d started making the album that I realised it was a breakup record, with most of the songs fitting into the before, during, or after stages of heartbreak.

Do you like the idea of a record that edges into ‘concept’ territory?

When the music industry was in its infancy an album was just a collection of songs. Over time it’s developed into a significant artistic artifact. On that basis I would argue that most albums are concept albums!

The cover is the recreation of an original photo. Is there a story behind the image and its meaning for you? Are the rabbit ears symbolic?

In the original photo I’m sitting upright in bed, half awake, with a cup of coffee and a set of bunny ears on my head. I thought it was hilarious how dazed I looked, and how many times I’d sat in that exact same position. I can’t remember why I was wearing the ears originally, but the rabbit motif stuck. It reminds me of the film GUMMO which in some ways deals with similar themes of disaster and desolation – with humour, absurdity, and melodrama all baked in.

Your love of Daniel Johnston is well known. It feels like this is closer to his sound. Is he a big influence here?

His whole ethos and song-first mentality has always been a huge influence on me. I can’t really think of a song I’ve released that isn’t in some way influenced by Daniel Johnston.

You’ve done a series of live shows as Anamoe Drive now. How are you finding them – are they a more toned down experience than your usual outlet?

I’ve been touring with a five piece supergroup band, and it’s been very fun to watch the songs grow and morph in the hands of musicians much more capable than myself! In some ways it’s just as weird and expansive as THUMPER, but I’m trying to get more confident with the soft landing, as opposed to the huge crescendo.

What are your hopes for the future?

More records and more touring.

Sophie Doyle Ryder: “I’m pushing myself creatively and exploring new sounds”

The first time I spoke to Sophie Doyle Ryder, I received a very nice personal email about covering what I believe was her first single. This time, the email came from one of Dublin’s most successful PR firms. This is not by any means a criticism: it’s a sign of how far Sophie has come in a few years; from a little-known upstart to a regular across the Irish airwaves.

Still just 21, it feels like Doyle Ryder has spent the last few years learning her trade, and is ready to burst out with the kind of playful, pop-rock inspired songs that simply hook themselves into your brain. Latest single ‘Steal Your Lover’ comes with its own comic twist (go listen to it!), one typical of her offbeat style. Fresh from performing on a boat in the middle of the Liffey, she told me all about how it’s been going…

Hi Sophie. It’s been about three years since I last spoke to you – how have things been going music wise?

Hi! It’s great to catch up again. The past three years have been quite a journey! I released my debut EP ‘Beginner’s Luck,’ played at some amazing festivals and gigs, and collaborated with incredible songwriters and producers. Each milestone brought growth, both musically and personally. I’ve been experimenting with different sounds and genres, which has been really exciting.

‘Steal Your Lover’ has a quirky twist. How did the narrative of the song come together?

‘Steal Your Lover’ came together during a Zoom songwriting session with Lauryn Gaffney. The narrative was quite spontaneous. I wanted to tell a playful yet relatable story that captures the mischievous side of love and attraction. Plus, I loved the idea of a song called ‘Steal Your Lover!’ The lyrics explore desire and the lengths one might go for love, but with a fun twist. Lauryn and I work so well together, it often feels like we’re reading each other’s minds.

Are you generally quite into the early 00s pop punk sound?

Absolutely! The early 00s pop punk scene had a huge influence on me growing up. Artists like Avril Lavigne, No Doubt, and Paramore were on constant rotation during my teenage years and still are. There’s something timeless about the energy and raw emotion of that era. I love blending that pop punk edge with my own style, creating something that feels both nostalgic and fresh. It’s fun to pay homage to those influences while adding my own twist.

Your music is generally upbeat to the point of almost euphoric. Is it a reflection of the fun you’re having writing it?

Yes, for sure. Writing music is one of my greatest joys, and that happiness and excitement naturally infuse my songs. There’s something incredibly freeing about creating music that makes people want to dance and feel good. Even when I’m writing about more serious emotions, I find a way to bring a sense of optimism and energy into the mix. It’s important to me that my music brings joy and a bit of escapism to listeners.

How do your songs typically come together?

My songwriting process is pretty fluid and can vary from song to song. I write almost everything with Lauryn Gaffney. Sometimes we start with a melody stuck in our heads, other times it’s a lyrical phrase that sparks inspiration. Generally, we sit down at a piano and play around until something clicks. Once we have a basic idea, we build out the song structure and layer in different elements. Collaboration with my band and producers often brings new perspectives that help shape the final product.

How difficult have you found it to get attention for your music? Do you feel you fit well into the Irish music scene?

Gaining attention in the music industry is always a challenge, especially with so many talented artists out there. However, I’ve been fortunate to have massive support from the Irish music community, from radio to other media. Social media has also been a huge help in connecting with listeners and building a community around my music. The Irish music scene is vibrant and diverse, and I’m proud to be a part of it. There’s a real sense of camaraderie among Irish artists, and we all support each other.

Are there any other Irish acts that are grabbing you at the moment?

Definitely! There are so many incredible Irish acts making waves right now. I’ve been really into what CMAT is doing; her lyrics and voice are just so powerful. Bands like The Academic and Fontaines D.C. are bringing a fresh sound to the scene. I’m obsessed with Anna Leah; her songwriting skills are second to none. And who isn’t infatuated with Kojaque these days! It’s an amazing time for Irish music, and I feel lucky to be part of such a thriving community of artists.

What are you like as a live act?

Performing live is one of my favourite parts of being a musician. I love the energy and connection that comes with a live show. My performances are all about creating an experience that’s both fun and memorable. I try to bring a lot of energy to the stage, interacting with the audience and making each show feel unique. Whether it’s a small intimate venue or a big festival stage, I want people to leave feeling uplifted and inspired.

You played an unusual show on the Liffey recently. How did that go?

That performance was incredibly unique and memorable! Louise Tighe from FM104 came up with the brilliant idea of having a few Irish artists perform on the Liffey. Performing on the river was surreal—I’ve never done anything like it before! Singing my song ‘Insecure’ acoustically, accompanied by the talented guitarist Tadhg Leahy, added a special touch. The setting was so atmospheric, with the city’s skyline providing a stunning backdrop. It was a one-of-a-kind performance. I’m looking forward to more outside-the-box performances in the future!

What are your plans going forward?

Looking ahead, I’m focused on continuing to evolve and grow as an artist. I’m currently working on new music that I’m really excited about, pushing myself creatively and exploring new sounds. There are plans for many gigs, hopefully some festivals. I also want to collaborate with other artists and writers, both in Ireland and internationally. Beyond that, I’m interested in exploring different aspects of the music industry, perhaps even venturing into production or songwriting for other artists. The main goal is to keep creating and sharing music that resonates with people.

Royal South: “This year we have over 150 shows booked”

Country duo SaraBeth and Glen Mitchell, from Texas and the UK originally, were both drawn to Nashville for the same reason as a host of musicians before them: the country music scene. Having developed impressive solo careers, they recently came together to form Royal South, and now tour the world after the rapid success of their early singles, in particular number one hit ‘Cry Cry’.

Royal South, happily, are inspired by the same era of country music that swept Ireland a couple of decades ago, so sure to connect with Irish audiences.

“Our solo careers were very intertwined before we became Royal South,” they recall. “Glen’s solo career always involved playing for other country artists like Darius Rucker, Billy Currington, and Lonestar. We met through the band Lonestar when SaraBeth needed a guitar player, and we’ve worked together writing and recording music for almost 10 years now.”

“All that being said, Royal South is like an extension of our solo projects and going forward we will be recording music together as a duo instead of focusing on separate solo careers.”

Ireland, they’ve anticipate, will be much like playing anywhere else – and they’ve had plenty of experience with that. “Honestly, the only thing different [when we travel] is the accents,” they laugh. “It’s amazing that music can connect you to people 4,000 miles away. That’s something we don’t take for granted.”

“We both are heavily inspired by 90s and 2000s country music. You can hear that in our recordings. We do listen to other genres here and there, but the biggest influence definitely comes from country and the legends who have come out of Nashville.”

“In our acoustic show, no show is the same. We change and tailor the show to each audience. We tell different stories and the audience is a huge part of our show. We didn’t realise how much our fans seemed to enjoy that part of our live show until some conversations we had with them during our online Covid shows.”

“If we have to pick one song [to check out], I would say ‘Cry, Cry’. That was our debut single as Royal South and achieved so many firsts for us. We had a number one charting iTunes singles in multiple countries when the song came out. It has over 2 million streams. It was the first song we had at Country Radio internationally. ‘Cry, Cry’ opened so many doors for us!”

A heavy focus of the music is harmonies, which feature in pretty much every release.

“Glen is a genius at harmonies,” SaraBeth says. “We spent hours working on parts for our recordings. We didn’t just do that with the vocals but also the instrumentation. The process of choosing which songs we would record first and working on those songs was a process that took months both at home and in meetings with our producer, Paul Worley.”

“We are just taking things one day at a time! We are so grateful for everything happening behind the scenes right now in 2023. This year we have 150 shows booked… and more to come. We feel blessed and honoured to do what we love for work. Awards and accolades are great, but for us we just want to keep recording music and bringing that to people around the world!”

Tallest Man On Earth: “There’s not a genius in this little shell, it’s when I’m with other people I get inspired”

Swedish folk act Tallest Man On Earth was never meant to go places. Formed with the express aim of simply making something he enjoyed, and perhaps playing a little around his local scene, Kristian Matsson has instead found himself spending a chunk of his life living in New York, touring the world, and getting regular comparisons to Bob Dylan.

The Dylan comparison, by the by, he finds quite funny. “Journalists keep bringing it up, and it turns into this kind of cycle,” he says. “They often forget my female influences, like Joni Mitchell. But it’s very flattering, of course.” The point, I suppose, is that Matsson creates vocally distinctive folk music that almost seems to tell a story, and is rooted in tradition and place. There’s a new record on the way, Henry St, which is different, but will still take in all of those angles.

“It’s been done for a while,” he says of Henry St. “It’s a very special album for me. There are a bunch of people on it, which makes it the opposite of the album before it. For my last album, I was living in my apartment in New York in the Winter of 2018/ 19, and I decided to isolate there. I set up these rules, I was going to write and record everything in a month, and not see anyone. It’s quite funny in hindsight, with the pandemic.”

“I moved back to Sweden ten weeks into the pandemic, and I was just me in my solitude, and it wasn’t great for mental health. I was reminded of my own mortality all the time, and the playfulness disappeared. I couldn’t write. I just grew vegetables. When I was finally back, I went to North Carolina, and wrote eleven songs and invited a bunch of people.”

“I realised during the pandemic that the people around me were my life’s inspiration. Interactions, that’s what really inspires. There’s not a genius in this little shell, it’s when I’m with other people I get inspired. I invited super good musicians, and I built on these demos. I let people bring their own personality, and we recorded some of the songs live, as a band in the studio. It was literally a party, with a lot of the things we’d been missing, with dogs running around, high fiving, people visiting. It was lovely.”

“Some of the songs are sad sounding, but it was a beautiful piece of work produced with friends. It’s the first album where I come to the conclusion that you can’t just wallow in your own anxiety. There’s a hopefulness to the album, which is hard amongst war and injustice, but this is what the album is about.”

Touring, though – the act of communing on a stage – has always been Tallest Man On Earth’s main thing, his natural home. “I’m super happy to be coming back, doing proper shows again,” he says. “I did loads of shows and had to make up for all the cancelled ones, which was crazy. We did that into last summer, and loved it.”

“In the last six months, the winter, I had to deal with my personal life, moving, getting settled, stuff like that, and preparing for the album and getting a band together. The tour won’t have the exact people from the album, but two North Carolina musicians and a drummer from Sweden will make up a four piece, and they’re all very talented. We’re going to play new songs and band versions of old songs, and some parts that are just me. I can’t wait.”