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.
What is your lyric-writing process?
Bloody long! I don’t think that means there is more artistic merit in the lyrics for having taken such a long time to come about. It’s probably more of an indication that I might not be particularly good at writing so it takes me longer than some others to pull a thought together.
I have a little notebook app on my phone where I write down snippets. Most of what’s in there comes from books that I’ve been reading. Music has kind of taken some of the joy out of reading for me now actually, as I never just enjoy the bloody book anymore! It could be a wonderfully entertaining book but if the style of prose doesn’t suit my own work I stop and find something else. Reading has become a research project for lyrics these days.
I presume you originally intended to launch the album going into festival season. How has it been preparing in the midst of the corona panic?
I’ve been in Monique Studios in Cork recording this album on and off for about two years now. Some of the songs are almost seven years old. A lot of work went into it. I’m proud of it and I was so, so excited to finally tour the finished album, but you know there are more important things going on than my little songs about my little feelings. I’m okay with that. Those songs will still be there in a few months time. I’ll still be just as excited to play for people, if not more so.
There’s quite a distinctive, almost fuzzy feel to some of the recordings. Did you model the recording style on anyone in particular?
Ah! Christian (the producer) will be delighted to hear that! He set the feel for the album really, not me. I played him some recordings that I loved – The Frames, Big Thief, Nick Cave and Randy Newman – and he did the rest. Home recording is a fantastic tool to have in your arsenal. A lot of great gear is becoming more and more affordable but there’s no plug-in or piece of gear that can replace a really, really good producer. I just wrote the songs and shouted at a microphone for a bit. He made it work.
You’ve played some great support slots over the years. Do you learn much from playing alongside people like Lisa Hannigan and Mick Flannery?
Yeah, actually. Stagecraft is important and I’ve played with some guys enough to see how they handle different rooms. What eventually ends up with the audience turning against you almost always seems to start with an almost imperceptible flicker. It could be someone nudging someone beside them for a quick chat and the person behind them not being too bothered by it because they haven’t been drawn in enough by the performance or whatever the last song was.
The really good performers can spot that and they change up the setlist on the spot or they are able to speak well enough to get that little group onside. Then it doesn’t spread and you have everyone pulling in the same direction. I really enjoy watching great performers steer an audience.
How did you find the Late Late Show experience?
Terrifying. I was so nervous that I didn’t sing the opening line of the song! There was a stage manager off-camera counting us in and when he pointed at me I was a complete and utter ‘deer in the headlights’. It was good experience for me though. Seeing it back later on really drove home for me that I needed to change the way that I sang. It wasn’t healthy and it was too ‘Tom Waits’. If you sing like that you’re always going to be considered as a Tom Waits tribute act.
‘Hard Times’ seems to be the track that really ‘goes big’ on the album, with the choral backing and soaring chorus. Is there a particular story behind that one?
The reason it got so ‘big’ is that I love songs that feel like one long build. You can’t get that on most songs for lots of different reasons but given the plagal cadence on every ‘amen’ it meant we could give it this big, gospel feeling every time we got to a chorus.
Most people would know that sound from church or just from media at this stage so immediately there was something for people to hold onto once we got to a chorus. The last line of the chorus ‘I’l be bringing hard times to your door’ is also quite similar to the melody of the American folk song ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’ so you know the tag line immediately too. This all sort of came together so that we could make the song as grandiose as possible.
A lot of Irish artists seem to say that they need to succeed outside of Ireland to make a career out of music. Are you taking a similar long-term view?
I suppose that’s true. Ireland only has just over half the population of London alone. Despite the fact that we have such a strong culture of attending gigs here, I think it would be very, very hard to make a living only touring in Ireland. That’s fine by me though. It just means I need to work harder and break into more circuits and I couldn’t think of a better springboard than Ireland.
I was surprised to see you got reviewed in Rolling Stone France – not being disparaging, of course, it just seems a strange one. What did you make of that? Where’s the oddest place your music’s popped up yet?
Not at all, I completely see where you’re coming from! Yeah, that was wonderful actually. I have good days and bad days like everyone. Sometimes I think some of my songs are great and then there are days when I listen to them and think I’ve just wasted a lot of people’s time. Having a positive review by such a highly respected magazine and journalist kind of grounded me a bit in the sense that I felt more solid about what I’ve written. Whether it was good or bad didn’t seem like such a mercurial subject matter anymore if someone with so many other artists to review took the time to write about my music.
Regarding the strangest place my music has popped up, that would probably be an online ad for an aquarium in Dingle. I was singing at an open mic years ago and some guy comes up afterwards and asks if I would come in and record something for him. They gave me a glass of water so that I had to gurgle and sing at the same time – because the penguin, on whose behalf I was singing, was underwater of course so it would have seemed unrealistic without the water. I don’t think I ever got paid for that one in the end either!
Can you tell me one of your favourite stories so far on this journey?
There are a lot of bad times that go along with releasing music. Getting the money together to record properly, beating yourself up after a gig doesn’t go down well (which is your own fault to be fair) or just getting the thought stuck in your head that you’re just not very good. It’s all worth it though for the good bits in between.
I think my favourite is still getting a call from Glen Hansard to ask if I wanted to come up and sing a song with him at a charity gig in the Everyman Theatre in Cork. He ended up singing backing vocals on ‘Hard Times’ at the gig which is just one of those times in your life when you think you really need to concentrate on how wonderful this is because you will want to remember it later.
We were down in Dingle where he was playing. He was having a dance with someone in the hotel bar and he asked my buddy to hold his drink for a second. My buddy swiftly gave me his drink and told me to give it back to him so that I could chat to him. He’s a good buddy, he knew I was a fan! Instead of going for small talk I just blurted out ‘can I play you a song on the piano over there?’ Crazy where that ended up!
What are your hopes for the future?
To make the average industrial wage performing my own music to a respectful audience.