For almost as long as I can remember, Niall Jackson has been an integral part of the Irish music scene, which is odd, as he’s now been in London for several years, working with the BBC. As you’ll gather from the below interview, Jackson is one of those people who’s wonderfully hyperactive, relentlessly positive every time you meet him, and just seems to contribute a whole lot.
In the build-up to this interview, Niall gave me a sneak preview of his album under the name Swimmers Jackson, ‘Murmuration’ a debut solo effort that will be released shortly. I’m absolutely delighted to report it’s the best thing, in my opinion, he’s ever done, and I say that as a big fan of his band, Bouts.
‘Murmuration’ whimsically flits from very direct descriptions of the canal I live a few hundred metres from in south Dublin, to more abstract ruminations on life’s ups and downs that have this beautifully honest, subtle quality to them. I highly recommend you go and listen to it, when it appears. In the meantime, here’s what Niall had to say for himself…
First of all, congrats on the album. I understand it’s been a long time coming. Can you tell me a bit about the journey that bought you here?
The beginning of this album process was hearing Irish artist Winter Aid’s ‘Murmur of the Lands’ EP in 2017. This was a dude who had reviewed music I was involved with before (he ran the blog The Torture Garden back in the day). Anyway when I heard his EP I was really jealous, not only of the songs but also who produced this shit.
Turns out it was Darragh Nolan, who runs Asta Kalapa studios in Gorey Co. Wexford, so in March of 2017 I sent him an email that I loved the Winter Aid EP, and would love to do something like that myself someday. I didn’t know either of those dudes personally at the time, so when Darragh got back to me and started encouraging me to send him demos, well let’s skip the middle part, 3 years later here we are. The long engagement. Murmuration as an album name is a nod to Shane, AND the first album from the greatest band of all time, R.E.M.
The evolution of Swimmers seems to align a lot with your own personal circumstances, which I guess is very natural. Does that evolution feel like a key part of the record and your solo-feel?
God yes. This is an album written mostly alone, in my 30s, about my 30s. Trying to get it down and out before my 40s was the challenge. It is both personal and reflective, maybe overly so, but the listener can be the judge of that. I’m a little embarrassed about how personal it is as I’ve always been the guy in the back in bands, bass and backing vocals, but at the same time I know it’s genuine, and I think that is lacking in popular music today.
Is the album also a progression time-wise, with your songwriting?
Time always progresses, with or without us, but if you mean has my songwriting gotten better? I don’t know. I think its the best thing I’ve done personally, and I’ve definitely given it my best, but I’m also still getting to grips with being ‘the guy’ as opposed to one of many. I hold my Irish peers in very high regard, much higher than I would hold myself, so I just hope I’m not letting them down.
The record is generally quite a mellow buzz, very summer sunshine. The cans on the canal jumped out to me. Does the sense of place fluctuate, with your London influences, too?
The sense of place never fluctuates in my mind. When I die Dublin will be written in my heart, some lad said that, I don’t know who, I can’t read 😉
London is the place I work out of, and until recently, the place from which I got to travel around the world from. I love London in a very different way than I love Dublin and Ireland. I’ve an Irish friend in London called Ciaran, and he’s the only friend I have who understands that sentiment 100%. I’m sure we’re not nearly the first to feel that way. But to answer your question this album has everything and nothing to do with London.
What’s your stand out moment on the record?
Gosh, weird question. I suppose ‘Bliss’ because it was the moment I knew it was fucking finished. I boiled the kettle, sang it as one piece in 5 minutes, recorded it on my phone, and thought the same thing as anyone else with even a passing interest in me, “about time”. I knew it was the album finished.
Three years is a long time for an album. Were you a real perfectionist about it?
I would say a mixture of perfectionist and realist. I work 40 or 50 hours a week in a very stressful job where I can’t listen to any music. I was supposed to be getting married to the woman I love this year, which takes organising, I play in more bands than makes sense, I go to a stupid amount of gigs, AND do a radio show that takes up a stupid amount of time (although I wouldn’t swap it for the world). So yeah three years is long, but it’s also a minor miracle seeing as I put myself bottom of the pile at every turn.
Can you tell me a story behind one of the tracks?
Hmmm, well you got a flavour of the ‘Bliss’ process, so how about the fact that ‘Summer’s Here’ was written because I was literally so heartbroken about leaving Dublin that I howled at the moon and that’s what came out? It’s 4 chords, never changes once. My ode to Dublin summer’s, as short as they are.
Did your role at the BBC play into your music at all?
Zero. I don’t mix business and pleasure thus far. Maybe album 2.
How have you found London life as a musician compared to the relatively small Dublin scene?
It’s great in that nobody gives one fuck about you either way, I could turn up as a Mexican bullfighter or in the nip and nobody would care. They still have more venues than all of Ireland combined, and the clientele (or crowd as we say in Ireland) in 99% of the places are still colder than the antarctic. Great place to try out new stuff, terrible place to succeed, unless you’re into all that hype ‘play the game’ stuff. I’m too old for that.
How are you balancing this material with your work in Bouts?
I generally do year on/ year off. Essentially. 2019 was Bouts, 2020 is me and my other London band Sweat Threats, 2021 will be 2 of the 3 I can manage. Given the current climate, I’ll just be glad to be alive and kicking.
I noticed you did your own cover art – great stuff! Did you take a lot of pleasure in the slightly DIY side of all this?
Yeh, I like painting, but I don’t get the time to do it enough. This was a painting I did out at Seapoint in Dublin in 2010, I only realised about a decade later it was linked to a close friend who passed away, so I wanted him to be included on it, in an abstract way. I’ve never told anybody that before. DIY ’til I die is an overused and cheesy expression, but one I firmly believe in. Buy music, put on gigs, share your love and passions, and be kind.
What are your hopes for the future?
At this stage, genuinely to play, or even be in a room full of music lovers, watching or listening to music.